There is a flash of light.
Tony Stark opens his eyes and abruptly sits down on the ground, his hands clumsily grabbing at tiles with blanket covered hands to steady himself. He doesn't know if this is a kidnapping or a dream or an adventure, but he isn't in bed anymore with his blankets all tight and warm and comfortable. He doesn't think he has fallen asleep but now the warm bed is gone, and his hard flashlight that makes a lump under his pillow because Daddy said ‘Kid doesn’t need a damn nightlight, look at him! What’s a kid got to fear from sleep? No shadows…” and Tony didn’t understand what he meant but after Daddy stumbled away from bedtime, Tony told Jarvis he didn’t need a damn nightlight because he was a brave soldier. So Jarvis took away the light, but maybe he did need it, just a little bit, so he has the flashlight. It is heavy and solid and could bash bad guys and monsters, but it isn't there now. Not that he needs it because the room is so bright that it makes his eyes hurt and water and squeeze shut tight so all he really knows is that he is sitting on a tiled floor.
He doesn't think he is at home anymore at all, though he isn't certain, because home is a big big place and a lot of rooms are locked big people rooms that he isn't allowed in even when he's going on expeditions like his dad. The whole room feels like it's spinning, just the way he feels when he spins really really fast until he falls over.
Slowly, slowly, the world settles and the bright light doesn't hurt and he sits up to decide if this place is fun or scary. It doesn't look scary. It is bright with whiteness and there is a pretty lady wearing a long green dress who's smiling down at him next to a white pillar with a glowing object set upon it. The floor is tiled and smooth and the ceiling distant and domed, and he isn't wrapped in his blanket at all but in a suit like the sort his dad wears.
The room feels wrong, though. It makes him sick looking at it, because the numbers in his brain say it is wrong, as though one and one were being forced to equal pi. That's scary, and the big giant suit is scary, because it looks like his daddy’s suit and it's all rumpled, and rumpling suits is very bad. He still doesn't know if he's dreaming or not but all the white and the pillars and the dome look like a picture Jarvis showed him once. So he stands up, stumbling out of most of the clothes except for the shirt because Jarvis told him a gentleman always wears clothes even when he’s too hot. He wants to be a proper gentlemen now because the lady looks like a proper lady and he wants her to like him. She looks nice. And pretty. He walks up the steps towards her and she beams at him.
“Am I dead?” he asks her, smiling back, “Are you an angel?”
“No,” she answers, her voice gentle and warm, “I have given you a gift.”
Tony likes gifts, but he isn't certain what she means, unless she means the giant too big suit that he has left rumpled on the ground.
“Are you a fairy?” a voice asks from behind him, and Tony turns his head to see a bigger boy with blond hair. He’s dressed like Tony in just a white shirt that’s way too big on him, though it doesn’t completely swamp him like Tony’s shirt does; Tony keeps almost tripping on his but the other boy’s shirt doesn’t go all the way down to his feet. The pretty lady is smiling at the other boy now, and Tony frowns because he found her first. Then he looks past the boy and sees more piles of rumpled clothes, though they are all farther away than his own rumpled suit, and maybe that means that there are four children, and the lady will smile at them and forget to smile at Tony. He doesn’t see other children though, just pillars, but maybe they are all hiding.
“I am of the Beimeni,” the pretty lady says to the other boy, “You and your companions saved us from a great evil, and so we have bestowed upon you this gift.”
“What gift?” Tony asks, and she turns her head to look at him again, so that is good. “Did you give us new clothes? Are we going to live in heaven now?”
“No,” she answers, “I allowed the Orb to look within your hearts for pain and it has found a path towards healing. You will return to your people now that the gift has been received and I will return to mine.”
“I’m sorry, Ma’am,” says the other boy, “I don’t know what you mean. I don’t think I did anything to help you. Did…did you take away my asthma? I feel…I’m different.”
“What was broken is being healed,” the nice lady says again, “We of Beimeni thank you all. Goodbye.”
There is a flash of light.
The room doesn't go dizzy this time, but when Tony opens his eyes again, everything is different. It's still a large white room with pillars, but the room feels drabber somehow, and the dimensions don't hurt his brain anymore. Everything looks a little more faded and a little less real, like stage props that lost their illusion when you got close enough to touch. The smiling lady is gone. So is the glowing object. The other boy is still there.
“Oh, there’s a door now!” the other boy says, looking past the pillars to the far wall. Tony doesn't think there was a far wall before, or if there had been, it had been too far away to make out details like the large wooden door. The piles of clothes are also still there, looking more rumpled than ever. Suits aren’t fun to wear because they are Good clothes, and you can’t run in them or eat messy food or go on explorations or anything at all except stand up straight and shake hands with people. They are never ever ever to be left rumpled on the floor.
“Come on,” says the other boy, “Maybe we can leave and find someone and then we can go home.”
The boy is offering his hand, but Tony can’t leave yet, so he ignores the boy and hops down the stairs and begins to lay the suit out flat.
“What are you doing?” the boy asks, following him, “Oh…are…should I help?”
“If you want,” Tony answers, because straightening clothes so that all the wrinkles are smoothed away is hard work. Usually Jarvis does it or the laundry people. So the other boy kneels next to him and gently tugs at the jacket while Tony pulls some shoes free and starts on the pants.
“My name’s Steve,” the other boy says while they work, so Tony reaches out and shakes his hand and tells him he’s Tony. Then maybe they are friends, even if the other boy is really big, which is good. Tony goes back to straightening the suit and, after a moment, so does Steve. They both look up when the other boy appears.
He’s small, maybe as small as Tony, and he has brown hair. The boy isn’t look at them, not precisely; he’s approached one of the piles of clothes and is beginning to straighten it just like them, but Tony can see the way his eyes follow them in quick glances.
Maybe he’s shy, like when Tony’s dad wants him to meet someone and they have a mean voice and he wants to stay with Jarvis and not wear his fancy nice suit. So Tony gives the clothes beneath his hands one final pat and decides that it is good enough, and waves at the other little boy and smiles so he’ll know Tony isn’t mean.
“Hello!” he calls, “I’m Tony! I’m four years old and three fifths.” Tony doesn’t actually know if he is three fifths but he thinks it sounds good, and his birthday was ages and ages ago, at least a whole month, maybe two, so surely that’s practically like being almost five. “This is Steve. I don’t know how old he is, but he’s really big so I think he must be almost ten!”
Steve’s face turns a funny pink color, and he says, “I’m six. I think the fairy lady turned me bigger when she made me strong.”
“She didn’t make me bigger,” Tony says with a frown, and then, walking towards the other boy he says, “Are you bigger? What’s your name?”
The boy mumbles something that sounds a bit like ‘bruise’ and then a bit louder says, “I’m four and…and…and four fifths!” Up close, the boy doesn’t look all gigantic and strong like Steve does, but he is all hunched over and his expression isn’t happy but it isn’t sad. Maybe he’s scared because they are all alone with just giant suit shirts to wear and they’re all strangers. Maybe Tony is a little bit scared too.
“We’re friends,” Tony decides assertively, because then they can be alone together and it won’t be scary anymore.
Bruise’s eyes go really really wide, and then he smiles a very small, tiny bit. Then he says, “What about the other kids?”
“Are there more?” Steve asks. He’s crouching down like Bruise, like he’s trying to make himself really small too.
“Of course there’s more,” Tony tells him, even though he didn’t really know until Bruise asked, “There are five clothes.”
“Oh,” says Steve, and then he stands up and shouts out into the room, “Hello? You can come out; we won’t hurt you!”
For a moment Steve looks silly, like he’s shouting to no one, but then the two kids step out from behind their pillars. There’s another boy and a girl, both wrapped in the remains of big person clothes. The boy walks up to them but the girl hangs back, watching. Neither of them are as big as Steve but they are both bigger than Bruise and Tony.
“Do you know what happened?” the boy asks, directing his question towards Steve.
“The lady said she gave us a gift. I think she made me stronger, but I don’t know. Do any of you remember how we got here?”
“I was in bed,” Tony tells them, “But I wasn’t sleepy, and there was a light and the world went dizzy.”
“I was under my bed,” Bruise says.
“Gee…maybe we all are dreaming this,” Steve says, “I was in bed too.”
“I wasn’t,” says the other boy, “Me and Barney were sneaking to the kitchen. He didn’t come here, though.” Then they looked at the girl, but she only glares at them and doesn’t say anything.
“I’m Clint,” the boy says after a moment, “I’m seven.”
“You can’t be seven!” Tony tells him, frowning, “Steve is bigger than you and he’s only six.” Tony is only trying to be helpful, in case Clint forgot his age, but Clint glares back at him and makes Tony feel a bit afraid.
“Well, you don’t look four,” he says, “I’ll bet you’re three.” Tony gasps indignantly, standing up at his full height, which is unfortunately not very tall.
“I am not! I’m four and, and, and four fifths! I’m almost five!” And maybe he doesn’t want to be friends with Clint, because Clint looks mean, and Bruise is hunching up until he’s really tiny, like he’s scared. Maybe he thinks Clint won’t believe he’s four years old either. So Tony hunches up with him and take’s his hand. Bruise looks really surprised, and then he squeezes Tony’s hand really hard, so Tony squeezes back.
“So what are our gifts, then?” Clint asks Steve, not even looking at them anymore, “I’m not bigger.” Then he finally does look at Tony again and says, “Did the lady make your chest glow?” That’s such a stupid and ridiculous question that it doesn’t even make sense.
“My chest doesn’t glow,” Tony tells him, glaring because Clint is obviously being mean again and making up stupid things. But Steve is frowning at Tony and then Bruise tugs on Tony’s sleeve and whispers, “But it is glowing.” So Tony looks down, and there is a faint light coming out of his chest. Tony pokes it cautiously and hits something hard.
There’s something hard and glowing stuck to his chest. Now that he knows it’s there, he can feel it, and it’s wrong, and his heart feels heavy, and is going thumpthumpthumpthump, and when he pulls his shirt down there’s something metal and his fingers pull at it but it’s inside him and it’s wrongwrongwrongwrong…
“There there,” Bruise coos at him, his arms hugging Tony tightly, and Steve has a hand on his shoulder and is saying, “You’re okay,” and he can’t see what Clint is doing because his vision has gone all blurry. Then Steve says, “Maybe…maybe the fairy lady gave you a magic light! Maybe…maybe your heart was sick and she made it better, like she made my asthma better and made me all strong!”
And connections leap in Tony’s mind and his eyes get big and then he understood.
“I think it’s a flashlight,” he tells them, his voice odd and stuttery still even though he had stopped crying, “I always sleep with my light because I’m big and brave and I don’t need a damn nightlight, because Captain America doesn’t need a nightlight, but my flashlight can stop evil kidnappers and it wasn’t here and I wanted it, so the pretty lady gave me a light of my very own!”
Steve and Clint stare at him like he is crazy, but a lot of people look at him like that when he explains things, so Tony doesn’t care because he knows he is right. Then suddenly Bruise’s arms tighten around him as the boy gasps into Tony’s hair.
“Doyouthinkshemademenotamonster?” he says in one single breath.
“What?” Tony asks, twisting around to look at him, because even though Tony’s brain is super super fast, his ears aren’t fast enough to understand what his new friend just said. Bruise takes several deep gulping breathes, his face strangely white.
“Do…do you think,” he says, this time at normal speed, “Do you think she made me not a monster?” Tony frowns, because Bruise still isn’t making any sense.
“You were a monster?” he asks, “Like…like a vampire? That would be so cool!” But Bruise shakes his head with harsh jerking motions.
“No, not…not a good monster. Like...like I’m made all wrong because I’m mutated.”
“I don’t think you’re a monster,” Steve says.
“I wish I was a monster,” says Clint, “I’d kill Mr. Ashton and me and Barney would run away and live in some abandoned place like a graveyard.” Bruise looks absolutely shocked at this.
“What’s your name?” Steve says, and that’s a funny question because Tony said he was Tony, and he knows that Bruise is Bruise and Clint is Clint. But Steve isn’t looking at any of them, and then he remembers the little girl and he turns his head to look at her. She has come closer now, almost all the way up to them, and she is still staring and silent, like maybe she can’t speak. Tony pulls away from Bruise to stand up again and holds out his hand because that’s the polite thing to do when you meet a girl.
“Hello,” he says, “I’m Tony Stark. Can’t you speak? How old are you? I’m four and five fifths, and this is Bruise, and he’s my age, and Steve and Clint.” For a long moment, it seems like she isn’t going to answer him. She doesn’t take his hand, but she does finally speak.
“Natalia. I’m five. I do not know this word ‘fifths’.” Her voice sounds funny, like a foreign diplomat’s.
“Where did you disappear from, Natalia?” Steve asks, stumbling slightly over her name like it didn’t fit right in his mouth. Natalia stares at him, but dutifully answers, “Bed.” Steve nods, and smiles at her.
“So what do we do now?” Clint demands, “Just sit here all day in these stupid grown up clothes? Where are we, anyway?”
“On an adventure,” Tony decides all at once, because he felt too wide awake to be dreaming, and no scary grownups were trying to drag him away to be kidnapped. “We can be the five…the five…the super…”
“Babies?” Clint suggests.
Tony wants to glare at him, because maybe Clint is being mean again, but Bruise giggles behind his hands so Tony decides it’s funny too. At least until Clint continues talking.
“Well, let’s go, short stuff, and see if there’s anything out that door.”
“I’m not short!” Tony tells him, standing up onto his tiptoes to show how tall he is.
“You’re the shortest one here,” Clint tells him.
“No I’m…” Tony starts to say, but maybe that’s a little bit true because Clint is taller, and Steve is huge, and even Natalia is at least as tall as Clint. But Bruise looks really really tiny, all hunched up, so Tony says, “I’m taller than Bruise.”
“Do you mean ‘Bruce’?” Steve asks, taking a moment to stop giving Clint a stern look for being mean. Tony hesitates, then turns to his new friend.
“Is your name Bruce?” he asks. Then Bruise nods, so he’s Bruce instead, and stands up slowly so he isn’t crouching on the floor anymore. Clint starts laughing. “What?” Tony demands, glaring at him, because maybe he’s making Bruce feel bad and Bruce is Tony’s friend.
“He’s taller,” Clint tells him, and that isn’t true, because Bruce looks so tiny, but they stand back to back and Steve is the one who moves his hand across their heads, and he says Clint’s right. Tony doesn’t think Steve would lie, but it isn’t fair. Natalia watches the whole thing like she thinks they’re all stupid and Steve says that he used to always be small and small isn’t bad. Tony can’t imagine Steve being tiny, but Tony didn’t have a flashlight in his chest before either, so maybe it’s true.
“Come on,” Steve says after they finally stop comparing sizes, and his voice is a stern big kid voice that says they should listen, “Let’s go outside.”
So Tony takes Bruce’s hand, and also Steve’s, because they’re friends. Clint and Natalia don’t hold hands, though, and Clint rushes ahead while Natalia hangs back behind them. Outside the door turns out to be still inside a building, but room is less white and pillared and more carpeted with chairs. There are grownups in suits sitting, but they stand up when Clint opens the door and peeks through with Tony and everyone else trying to look past him. Clint stays in the way though, now that he sees there are grownups there. Tony can just see the way the men’s eyes look all wide and surprised. Maybe they didn’t know about the pretty lady and her gift giving orb, so they didn’t know why a bunch of kids were there.
One man walks towards them and Tony is close enough to Clint’s back to feel him tense, like maybe he’s going to close the door so they can all run and hide before they get there. Before he moves, though, the man drops down onto his knees, and maybe he isn’t so scary so no one runs away. He has a strange twitchy look on his face though, something Tony doesn’t understand because it isn’t happy or sad or angry.
“Clint?” the man says, still staring, and his eyes jerk up to where Steve is looking over Clint’s shoulder, then down to Tony and Bruce trying to see through the gaps in his arms. “Steve? Tony? Bruce?” And Tony gasps because the stranger man knows all of their names.
“Hello, sir,” says Steve, “Do you know how we got here? My mom will be worried if I’m not there in the morning.” Then he frowns and says, “It isn’t morning yet, is it?”
The stranger man stops kneeling and sits down.
Natalia doesn’t want to come out into the room where the grownups are waiting.
Tony watches Mr. Phil try to tell her he’s safe and no one will hurt anyone, and look how good the boys are sitting and waiting. Tony doesn’t like sitting still, but he also doesn’t like all the strange men that look like business men but maybe also a little bit how kidnappers might look, so maybe sitting still and watching is safer. Besides, Bruce and Clint are sitting next to him, Clint swinging his legs so they go thud thud thud against the wooden legs. Bruce and Tony are sat back too far in their chairs to swing their legs, not even a little bit. And maybe Bruce is scared of the big men in suits, so Tony holds his hand. Steve is with Mr. Phil, because Mr. Phil thinks Natalia likes Steve, and Steve’s telling her she can come out. Clint is all alone next to Tony and Bruce, and he’s frowning, and maybe he is Tony’s friend after all because he’s a little boy and not a scary man. So Tony takes his hand too, so they can all be together and not scared.
Clint’s hand jerks when Tony touches him, and he turns his head away from the scene of Mr. Phil and Steve trying to call Natalia. He doesn’t pull away, though; he takes Tony’s hand and holds it firmly. Then Clint leans over and whispers extra quietly, “Are we going with them?”
“Maybe they will take us home,” Tony says, but his lungs are breathing really fast, because kidnappers don’t take kids home, and his heart his beating against his flashlight so hard it hurts.
“I don’t have a home,” Clint says, and that’s so surprising that Tony stops thinking about kidnappers and just stares at Clint. How can someone not have a home?
“Where do you sleep, and eat, and build robots?” Tony asks.
“In the orphanage. Well…they give us a bed and food…I don’t know about robots. I don’t want to go back there, except to get my brother.” And Tony can’t really imagine that, having to live in an orphanage and not being able to build robots at all! That sounds all wrong, and he doesn’t want Clint to go back either.
“You can come home with me,” Tony decides, so then Clint will have a home too. And then, because Bruce is squeezing his hand really really hard, Tony says, “You can too, Bruce. And Steve and Natalia, if they want. It’s a really big home and it has lots of empty rooms.”
“Your mom and dad won’t let us, Shorty,” Clint tells him, and Tony frowns because he isn’t short, but Clint is still holding his hand so they’re still friends. And maybe his mom and dad won’t like Tony bringing home all his new friends to live. But surely they’ll let him after Tony explains about his friends needing a home!
“They’re really nice!” Tony assures Clint, “They’re bendy factors and give lots of money away, and my dad builds things to save people, so he can save you too! And we can build robots, and…and play war, and…and Captain America!” Clint doesn’t look like he believes Tony, though, so Tony turns to Bruce instead and says, “Do you want to come?”
“I don’t know,” Bruce answers, and that isn’t fair because Tony doesn’t want Bruce to go home and leave him all alone with maybe just Clint. But then Bruce is tugging at Tony’s hand, and he’s whispering, “Does…does your dad hit?”
“No!” Tony answers, but then he bites his lip, and adds very carefully, “Not on purpose.” And Bruce is staring at him, and Clint is too, and they’re going to think Tony’s a liar because he said his dad is really really nice, and he is nice, and a hero, and sometimes he tells stories about Captain America, and he lets Tony watch him build things. Sometimes. When he’s not too busy. So Tony tries to explain better, so that they won’t stare at him and they’ll know his dad is a hero, and they’ll want to live in Tony’s house. He speaks really fast, so they will understand quicker.
“He likes to drink the stinky grown up drink, and it tastes yucky and makes kids be sick, and it makes him wobbly and dizzy so he knocks into things, and he forgets he’s really big and strong. But he builds weapons so we can kill bad guys, and he was a hero in the war, and…and…and he knew Captain America! He was his friend!”
And maybe Tony isn’t whispering anymore because the grownup men are looking at them, but this part isn’t a secret, and it’s important, so Tony doesn’t care. Clint does though, because he’s going, “Shhh,” and Bruce is going, “Nooo.”
And then when Tony is quiet, and Clint is quiet, Bruce stops saying ‘nooo’, and whispers a little bit louder than before, “Does your dad hit your mom?”
“You can’t hit girls!” Tony says in a surprised barely-whisper. And anyway, Mommy is really big, like Jarvis, and his dad can’t stumble over them, and Mommy shouts really loud and angry if he drinks a whole lot and Daddy just hangs his head, and sometimes he says bad, shouty words, and sometimes he says he’s sorry, and sometimes he tells weird stories that Tony doesn’t understand, but he never ever want to hurt Mommy. He never wants to hurt Tony either, but he forgets Tony is really small, and sometimes he squeezes too hard when he’s moving Tony out of the way so Tony cries, but only a tiny bit because he isn’t a baby.
“Can my mom live with you?” Bruce asks, his voice quiet and solemn.
“Yes,” Tony says quickly, because then Bruce will come too, and Clint, and if Tony’s mom and dad say no, then Tony will just have to sneak them in and ask Jarvis to help hide them in some empty rooms, like they did with Tony’s pet worm, except Wiggly lived in a shoebox, not an empty room. Now he just needs to ask Steve and Natalia to come too, and all his friends will be his forever and not go away. Except Steve and Natalia are with Mr. Phil. Mr. Phil seems nice but he’s a grownup and maybe he’s only pretending and really he’s a kidnapper, so maybe it should be a secret.
Natalia still doesn’t want to come out of the other room, and they have been sitting and waiting for a really really really long time, so Tony is yawning really big, and he can hear Clint’s stomach rumble. Tony doesn’t want to sit anymore.
So he doesn’t.
Bruce lets his hand slip away but then grabs at his shoulder and whispers in a high pitched, worried tone that he’s going to be in trouble. Clint stands up with him and skips ahead to stand next to Steve. Mr. Phil is sitting on the floor, and when Clint and then Tony come over, he puts his hand to his head and makes a huffing noise like Jarvis makes whenever Tony really really doesn’t want to stay where he’s supposed to. Bruce waits a moment, but he comes too, so Tony smiles and takes his hand again.
Now Clint is calling Natalia instead of Steve and telling her to hurry up so they can all go home already, and Tony looks at Mr. Phil and says, “Where are we going?”
And suddenly Clint is quiet, and Steve is quiet, and Bruce is always quiet, and everyone is looking at Mr. Phil sitting on the floor, and his expression is twitching and unhappy, but he tries to smile.
“We’re going to see a doctor to make sure you’re healthy.”
“We aren’t sick,” Tony tells him, because maybe Mr. Phil doesn’t know about the nice lady, “Steve doesn’t have as…azema, now, and Bruce isn’t a monster, and this is just a flashlight!” Mr. Phil smiles but he looks tired. Suddenly, a large suited woman is marching towards them and hisses, “Sir, Fury really wants the situation contained now, perhaps we should start to consider alternate…” but Mr. Phil looks angry and says “no, we’re not going to tra…!” before he looks at how Tony and everyone is staring, and he makes his voice softer and tells the lady, “I will bring them in my own time.”
The lady frowns, but she goes away, and Tony feels better because maybe she wanted to grab him and kidnap him and put him back in the dark scary place. Then he looks and sees that Natalia has come closer again, but not too close. Maybe she’s scared that the big lady will come back to kidnap them and doesn’t know that Mr. Phil just wants to take them to a doctor. Doctors aren’t fun, but Tony’s doctor will explain about bones and germs and needles and interesting things, and sometimes his mom AND his dad will come and be with just Tony instead of working, so that’s good, and then Jarvis will let him have cookies and milk in his bed and read him stories. But Natalia doesn’t know about the doctors.
“Hello, Natalia,” Tony says, walking towards her, “It’s ok. Mr. Phil is going to see if we’re sick and he won’t let the kidnappers put us in the bad room because he’s nice, and I have a flashlight if they turn out the lights, see?” He taps his chest, feeling the hard metal beneath his shirt.
Natalia takes a step away when he’s almost right in front of her, and then she says something but her words are funny and don’t make any sense in Tony’s ear.
“Oh,” Tony says, “I don’t know that. Are you a diplomat? Or a cook? Nous avons une cuisinière qui s’appelle Marie. Where are you from?”
Natalia answers with a word that Tony doesn’t know.
“Stop even trying, Shorty!” Clint calls and then Steve says, “Clint,” in a stern way that makes Clint mumble something that might be ‘sorry’. Tony doesn’t listen to them anyway, because Natalia is supposed to be his new friend and come live with him, and maybe if he knows some of her words, she will understand his. So he tries to say the word she said back.
Natalia jumps, her eyes going big, and she says something else, so Tony copies that too. And Natalia giggles, and says something very slowly so that Tony can copy. Tony says it very slowly too, trying to find the way the language rolls off the tongue, and Natalia laughs out loud. “You say you are a girl?” she says in English and Tony laughs too because that’s a silly thing to say.
“Hey,” Clint says, joining them, “Make him say he’s short.”
“No no,” Tony says, “How do you say…um… ‘Clint is stupid,’?”
Natalia tells them more words, and laughs at them, and Tony laughs too, and Clint sounds really silly trying to talk like Natalia. And then while they’re laughing, and Bruce and Steve are smiling, and Mr. Phil is smiling but looks really tired, the scary lady in men’s clothes comes back. She has a tray with her.
“Hello,” she says, smiling, but her smile isn’t warm like the pretty lady’s was, and they all stop laughing to stare at her. Natalia takes several steps back and Bruce hides behind Mr. Phil’s leg after Mr. Phil gets off the floor. “Are you kids hungry?” the woman asks, “I’ve brought you a snack!” And on the tray are cookies and paper cups.
Tony doesn’t like the lady, and maybe she wants to give them poison, but Tony also really really wants a cookie. His stomach is starting to be rumbly, and the cookies look really good, and surely no one is evil enough to put poison inside chocolate? The woman is still smiling, and no one is moving.
“What are you…” Mr. Phil starts to say, but Steve is already reaching for a cookie and saying, “Thank you, ma’am,” and he takes a bite. And when Steve doesn’t fall over or start to die or spit it out, Tony decides they definitely aren’t bad poison cookies and runs over to take one. The cookies don’t taste bad, and maybe the lady in the men’s clothes isn’t mean or scary because mean people don’t give you cookies. Clint and Bruce come to take a cookie too, but Natalia stays away and stares. Maybe she really wants one too, though, because she is hopping from foot to foot, but she doesn’t want to leave her room.
Tony grabs another cookie and runs back to her and says, “Here, Natalia, what’s ‘cookie’?”
She takes it, slowly, and then says a word, so Tony smiles and says it back, but he has crumbs inside his mouth and it makes his throat tickle so he coughs.
“Alright, Tony?” says Mr. Phil, and the not-so-mean lady is holding out a cup and saying, “Don’t you all want some juice?” And the cough in Tony’s throat makes him really really thirsty, so he runs back. Steve already has his juice too, but Bruce is still nibbling his cookie really slowly, and Clint keeps trying to take more cookies even though that isn’t fair.
Tony gulps his juice and it’s cold and really sweet. Steve finishes his too, and he sits on the floor and yawns, because they have been there a really really long time so maybe its time for a nap. Or maybe it’s bedtime because Tony had been in bed before he came here. But Tony doesn’t want to sleep, and all the lights are on so it’s daytime, and tony hates naps. So Tony doesn’t sit down or yawn like Steve, and Bruce picks up a cup of juice but Clint is still stealing cookies. Then Tony remembers that maybe Natalia wants juice too, like she wanted a cookie, so he grabs another cup.
“No!” shouts the not-so-mean lady, and grabs his hand really really hard, and maybe she is mean because it hurts and shouting is scary.
“Hey!” shouts Clint and Steve together, and the lady takes the cup back, and maybe she’s a kidnapper after all and maybe Mr. Phil is safer so he goes behind Mr. Phil’s leg where the lady can’t reach him.
“I’m sorry,” says the lady, and her smile is really weird, like it isn’t a smile. Who smiles when they say they’re sorry, anyway? Saying sorry is a time to look at the floor or look at someone’s eyes and feel sad or angry or have the bad feeling inside your tummy because you were bad and maybe everyone will hate you and not want to see you ever again. But she smiles, and she says, “We have to share, Tony. Everyone gets one cup.”
“It was for Natalia,” Tony says, and it’s a really long sentence because he has to take a gulp of air after each word because his chest is too tight to talk.
“How sweet,” says the weird smiling lady, “Natalia should have some juice. How about if I leave it here on the floor, and then she can come and pick it up? And here’s some juice for Clint! Aren’t you thirsty?”
“No,” Clint says, glaring at her. Bruce is glaring too, and his shirt is wet with spilled juice and he’s breathing really hard, and Mr. Phil is saying, “I said I’d handle this,” in a really angry voice, and he is shaking so hard that Tony has to hold on tight before he falls over.
“Come on, everyone, don’t you want your snacks?” the lady says, but everyone just glares at her, and no one is drinking the juice or eating the cookies. And the lady sighs and looks sad, and says, “I’m sorry I scared Tony. But he’s okay, look, so let’s just sit down and finish snack time, okay?”
And maybe it’s the ground that’s shaking, because Tony can’t hold onto Mr. Phil anymore and falls over. He feels really funny, and it’s scary, like the floor isn’t going to hold him up anymore, and Mr. Phil’s face is really big right over him and he’s saying, “Tony?” but even though his face is right there, his voice is really really far like he’s shouting into a hole, and maybe Tony’s in a hole, and maybe he’s back in the bad place and they’re going to turn out the lights and if his tummy gets sick and makes him throw up again they’re going to be so so angry. And other people are shouting down into his hole and then he hears someone roar, like a lion or a dragon or a monster.
Before he can open his eyes, to see if the lights are gone or if people are angry or if there really is a monster, the entire world shuts down.
Tony wakes up and the world is strange. He’s lying in bed, but it isn’t his bed because the sheets feel rough and the blanket is thin and not at all right for snuggling. There are funny noises too: a wispy sound as though a machine were breathing, and a hum, and clicking, and whooshing. And there’re fingers in Tony’s hair, stroking gently like he’s a cat, and Tony smiles because it feels good and because it’s funny.
“Tony?” a low voice whispers, too low to be Mommy and too wrong to be Jarvis, and maybe it’s his daddy; maybe his daddy isn’t busy anymore and decided he likes Tony after all! Or maybe Tony is sick, and his daddy came to visit him like last time. He feels a little bit sick, because his body aches and his tummy is squirming, and the only warm part of his entire body is where the fingers are stroking his head.
“Daddy?” he says, and the fingers pause, just for a quick moment, and then start moving again. Tony opens his eyes, and it isn’t Daddy at all, it’s a stranger man with kind eyes. The stranger man smiles at him, and Tony thinks maybe he does know him, but doesn’t know why.
And then all at once, he does.
“Mr. Phil!” Tony exclaims, and it’s a bit scary to be waking up because all he remembers is telling his new friends they’re going to live with him and eating some cookies, and then nothing at all, and he never goes from being awake to waking up without going to bed first. And he remembers that Mr. Phil is nice, but he’s also a stranger, and Tony doesn’t see Bruce or Clint or Steve or Natalia anywhere. Or his mommy or daddy or Jarvis.
“Shh,” says Mr. Phil, and his fingers are gentle and nice, so maybe Mr. Phil isn’t scary.
“Am I sick?” Tony asks, and he’s really sleepy even though he just woke up, so that his eyes don’t want to stay open no matter how big Tony makes them.
“Only a little bit,” Mr. Phil says, and his voice is quiet and calm so it must be true. Tony wishes that he was more than a little bit sick, though, because that would mean that his mom and maybe his dad would come and see him. Jarvis always comes, but Jarvis isn’t here, just Mr. Phil. Then Mr. Phil says, “Go back to sleep, Tony.”
Tony doesn’t think he’s going to sleep, he doesn’t want to, but the next time he opens his eyes Mr. Phil isn’t there anymore. Instead, there’s a stranger.
She’s a very pretty stranger, though, and has red hair and she isn’t looking at him because she’s staring at a thin square black thing in her hands. She has a very intent, concentrating look on her face and her fingers glide over the object’s surface, and there’s something funny in her ear.
“No,” she says out loud in a low, calm but serious voice, the sort Mommy gets when she really really wants Tony to do what she says. Tony freezes and wonders if he’s being bad. Maybe he wasn’t supposed to open his eyes? Or maybe the lady knew that Tony wants to get up and find his new friends and run away home. She isn’t looking at Tony, though, she’s still staring at the black thing in her hands.
“No,” she says again to the black thing, “Jarvis, better order full sets for all five; we can always donate it all later when they change back.”
Tony perks up a bit when he hears Jarvis’s name, and then has to cover his mouth to hold inside giggles because the lady looks funny talking to the air when Jarvis isn’t inside the room. But maybe she can hear him because of the thing in her ear? Maybe it’s a really tiny radio, like the kind Tony plays expedition with. Sometimes Jarvis will play with him and answer radio but he isn’t very good at the game because ne never remembers all the code words and sometimes he says he’s under attack and asks Tony to come back and help him when what he means is that it’s bath time or nap time or dinner time and that isn’t fair. Even if Jarvis is really good at getting shot by bad guys and falling over and almost dying so Tony can rescue him.
“What?” says the lady, and then she turns her head and looks at Tony and smiles. “You’re awake.”
“Hello,” says Tony, and then, “You’re pretty. Is that a radio? Are you a cyborg? Where’s Mr. Jarvis? What’s your name?”
“Very awake,” the lady says, still smiling, “My name’s Pepper Potts. You can call me Pepper. And this…” She pulls the strange thing out of her ear, “Is a phone.” Miss Pepper lets Tony take the ear phone. It doesn’t have any wires at all and it’s very tiny but it doesn’t go inside his ear like it did for Miss Pepper. He holds it there instead but no one speaks and suddenly Tony realizes that he hasn’t seen Jarvis or Mommy or Daddy for a really really really long time.
“Where’s Mr. Jarvis?” Tony asks the lady, because maybe Mommy and Daddy are busy but Jarvis always comes and besides, she was talking to him, he heard her. But Miss Pepper just stares at him with really large eyes and doesn’t say anything and nobody is coming… “Tony? Calm down,” and Tony’s all alone, and he wants to go home and “Tony, breathe, Tony, shhh,” and Miss Pepper isn’t his mommy and Mr. Phil isn’t his daddy, and maybe his friends went home without him, and Miss Pepper’s arms are warm and she smells like flowers, but Jarvis never ever comes.
“Shhhhhh,” says Miss Pepper. And then the door opens.
Tony looks up, his chest tight with hope, but it still isn’t Jarvis or Mommy or Daddy. The person is far too small for that.
“St-steve?” Tony says, and Steve slides into the room, shutting the door behind him.
“Tony,” Steve says, and, “Ma’am.” He’s squirming right by the door, looking down at his feet.
“Hello, Steve,” says Miss Pepper, “Did you come to see Tony?” Tony can hear the smile in her voice and Steve stops staring at the floor and smiles a very small, tiny smile.
“Yes, Ma’am. Mr. Phil was going to take us but…but he’s busy and, and we were worried.”
Tony pulls away from Miss Pepper, pulling himself towards the edge of the bed and Steve walks towards him, his smile widening. Steve isn’t dressed in big person clothes anymore. His clothes are all white, like doctor clothes. Tony looks down and sees that he’s also wearing white now, except Tony doesn’t have pants like Steve does. The flashlight is still in his chest too; he can see its glow through the white.
“Are you alright, Tony?” Steve asks, his voice high pitched and warbly, “Mr. Phil said the medicine made you sick, and it was an accident, and he said you needed to sleep but he sounded really mad when he was talking to the other grownups, and they took Bruce away, and said it wasn’t safe, and Clint thinks they’re going to take us all away and hide us, but Mr. Phil promised you were alright, and Natalia won’t speak English, but we all wanted to see you, so I came.”
“I’m okay, Steve,” Tony tells him, and he reaches out to pet Steve’s hair because Steve looks scared and sad and not happy. Then Tony frowns, because Steve was talking a lot and Tony doesn’t understand everything that’s happened, but he does understand about stealing children. “Where’s Bruce? Did they kidnap Bruce? Is he in the bad place? But he doesn’t have my flashlight, and he’ll be scared, and the kidnappers might come back!”
“I don’t know!” Steve answers, still looking scared and unhappy, “He turned into a green monster and…oh…you were asleep then. But he did! He turned green and roared and threw the mean lady against a wall! And then someone shot him! But it was just a sleeping dart, not a bullet, and he was Bruce again, and they took him away and took you away and took the mean lady away, and Mr. Phil went with you and Bruce, and Natalia bit the man who tried to take her and kicked him in the…in…between the legs, and Clint tripped him, and I was really really sleepy, and they took us all to a room and gave us new clothes and let doctors look at us and asked a lot of questions. And I don’t know where we are, and my mom’s probably scared, and your mom will be too! And Clint said it’s because the fairy gave us gifts and the gov…gover…govermen want them!”
“Hey,” says Miss Pepper, “Hey, Steve, Tony, breathe.” She has the stern Mommy voice again, so Tony tries to breathe in big gasping breaths, and Steve’s a big boy but his face is all red and wet so maybe Tony isn’t a baby when his eyes feel all stinging and wet because he’s afraid and wants his new friends and his old family. Miss Pepper has gotten off the bed and has one hand on Steve’s back and the other on Tony, and she keesp saying, “Hey, hey, hey.”
“Mi-i-ss Pepp-er?” Tony gasps in choked breaths, “Whe-re-‘s Momm-y and Daddy and Jarv-is?”
“A-re we go-ing h-ome?” Steve gasps out, and they both wait for Miss Pepper to answer.
“Tony,” she says, “Steve,” looking them each in the eye and her voice is very serious and calm, “This is going to be very hard for you to understand. We are going to be going home very soon, but it isn’t going to be the home you remember. Your parents aren’t going to be there. Because…”
The door swings open violently and a large man stand in the doorway. Steve yelps and dives under the bed, and the man says, “Found him, in Stark’s room,” while holding a hand over his cyborg ear telephone before he drops to his knees and reaches under the bed to grab Steve’s ankle and then everything is happening really fast and loud. Miss Pepper is shouting, “What do you think you’re doing!” and Steve is screaming, and Tony screams, “Don’t touch my friend!” and Tony jumps on the man’s back and grabs his hair and yanks.
The man shouts a very bad word, and suddenly his back twists so Tony almost falls off and his big hand grabs Tony really really hard so it hurts and Tony screams while the man growls, “Let go, Stark, you little f…” but then Miss Pepper hits him in the head with her black square thing and Steve comes out from under the bed and shouts, “Leave him alone, he’s little!” and kicks the man right between the legs. The man drops Tony but his arm still hurts really bad and Tony can’t stop crying even though he knows he’s too big to cry because he isn’t a baby.
Miss Pepper says to the man, “You, out, now.” in a really extra firm and angry voice, and he’s a lot bigger than her but he’s also whimpering on the ground and she drags him to the door. Another man who has the same clothes as the first comes running up, but Miss Pepper glares at him and shuts the door so no one can come in. Steve puts his arms around Tony and says, “There, there, I won’t let them hurt you.” Tony tries to swallow his tears because he isn’t a baby, but they get trapped in his throat and he starts coughing and he can’t stop, not until he’s sick all over the floor and Steve.
That’s bad, Tony knows they’re going to be angry because Tony is being a baby and making messes and crying, and maybe that’s why his mommy and daddy and Jarvis don’t want to come, because Tony is bad and they don’t want him anymore. Or maybe he’s been kidnapped already, and that’s why he’s alone, and kidnappers don’t like it when you’re sick and smelly and make messes and noise.
Miss Pepper doesn’t shout at him though, and Steve doesn’t let go and doesn’t stop saying, “There, there, Tony,” in a really not happy but not angry voice, and Miss Pepper gets down on her knees and says, “Shhh, Tony, you’re alright, he’s gone, look at me.”
Then the door opens, and Steve lets go of Tony to jump in front of him with clinched fists. Tony has to lean over to see around him, his heart going thud thud thud in case it’s the kidnappers come back, but it’s a woman, and she has her hands lifted in the air and she says, “I surrender. At ease soldier. I’m a doctor; I just want to see if everyone is okay.”
“Tony’s sick,” Steve tells her, “And the bad man hurt him and…and…and grownups aren’t supposed to hurt little kids.” And then he starts to cry, and Tony doesn’t understand why because he doesn’t think the bad man hurt Steve, but he does know that he doesn’t want Steve to be sad or to cry.
“It’s okay, Steve,” Tony says, slowly pulling himself to his feet so he can give Steve a hug.
“You’re right, Steve,” Miss Pepper says in her calm stern voice, “He was bad, and he’s going to be punished and he isn’t coming back. You were very brave, both of you, and now Dr. Shaw is going to look at you both and she’s going to take care of Tony and Tony’s going to be just fine.”
Dr. Shaw is nice and gives them new clothes and looks at Tony’s arm with very gentle hands. Steve watches too, and that’s good, because it’s safer when Steve is watching, and Steve doesn’t look sad or scared anymore. Then Tony’s stomach is rumbling because it’s breakfast time, but Steve says it’s lunch time even though Tony thinks it should be morning because he just woke up only a little bit of time ago.
“It looks like it’s just bruised,” Dr. Shaw says to Miss Pepper after looking at Tony’s arm, “But want to make sure it isn’t broken.” Miss Pepper looks really angry and her lips are all thin and maybe she’s angry because Tony was bad and made the bad man grab him.
Then the door opens again and Tony and Steve jump but it’s not a stranger or another bad grownup. It’s Mr. Phil, and he’s pushing a tray with one hand. He has to use one hand because the other arm is full.
“Bruce!” Tony exclaims, “Mr. Phil!”
“Tony!” says Bruce, “Steve!”
“We thought you might be hungry,” says Mr. Phil, “And Bruce was worried.” Mr. Phil is smiling, but his eyes look all over the room at where Tony was sick and no one cleaned it yet, and where Dr. Shaw is holding Tony’s arm, and Steve sitting next to him to hold his hand, and the smile slides away. “What happened?”
Tony doesn’t answer, because maybe Mr. Phil will be mad at him and not like him anymore and take Bruce away. Steve looks down at where his feet are dangling over the side of the bed. But Miss Potts smiles a very strange smile because she doesn’t look happy. The smile is scary but it doesn’t make Tony afraid.
“Steve came looking for Tony and your agent got a little…aggressive in trying to bring him back.” Mr. Phil’s expression was very strange and a bit scary.
“I’m sorry I ran away, Mr. Phil,” Steve says, looking up from his feet at last, “I just wanted to see Tony. I…I shouldn’t have kicked him but…but he was hurting Tony, and Tony’s just little, and…” Steve looks like he’s going to cry again, so Tony doesn’t know whether to frown because he’s not a little baby or to hug him again because Steve’s sad. Mr. Phil strides into the room, pushing aside the tray and sets Bruce down on the bed with the two of them.
“You didn’t do anything wrong, Steve,” Mr. Phil tells him firmly, “You aren’t in trouble.”
Bruce crawls over the bed towards Tony and then stops when he’s at the backs of Tony and Steve. Tony smiles at him, having to twist around to see him properly, and Bruce gives a very tiny smile back. Mr. Phil looks at Tony too, especially at the arm the doctor is looking at.
“I’ll need an x-ray to see if it’s broken or not,” Dr. Shaw tells him like she told Miss Pepper, and Mr. Phil’s mouth gets very thin.
“Can you watch them, Ms. Potts?” he asks Miss Pepper, “I have…business to take care of.”
“Keep your agents out and we’ll be just fine,” Pepper answers, with the same funny scary smile on her face, “You’re taking care of it?”
“I’m taking care of it,” Mr Phil answers in a serious grown up voice that sounds a bit like he’s very angry. Miss Pepper nods her head, still smiling.
“What about Clint and Natasha?” she asks when Mr. Phil starts to walk towards the door, “You might as well send them down, too.”
“Of course, Ms. Potts. I’ll be in to check on all of you later.” And Mr. Phil marches out of the room.
Dr. Shaw takes Tony into another room and explains all about how x-rays take pictures inside his body, and his arm still hurts but Dr. Shaw looks at the pictures and says it isn’t broken. Then he goes back to his room and all his new friends are there and they eat their breakfast lunch in the bed and that’s funny because you aren’t supposed to eat in bed but Miss Pepper and Dr Shaw both say its okay.
Mommy and Daddy still don’t come, and neither does Jarvis. But maybe Tony isn’t completely alone.
Author’s Note: This fic so far is starting to feel like an excuse to beat up Tony…a baby Tony no less which makes it even worse. Apparently when I give my muse free rein with only a nudge in a general direction that I want the fic to go in, this is what it comes up with. A lot more crying involved than I had first planned for (though, my experience with young children is that they do cry often, with very little provocation and that even half an hour with a group of them is a roller coaster of ups and downs in mood swings) On the plus side, I finally managed to complete the chapter and sort of know where I’m going with the next, even if the chapter came out a bit shorter than I was hoping. Well, I could probably extend it, but then chances are you’d all be waiting another week for the update, so…a bit shorter than the first two will have to do. Hopefully the next bit will come soon.
Dr. Shaw tells Tony that it isn’t a flashlight. She shows him pictures of inside his chest that she took when he was sleeping, which are interesting, and says it’s to keep his heart safe and that it isn’t a toy and no one is allowed to touch it. Then she wraps it in a bandage to be sure.
“But you’re hiding the light,” Tony tells her, because it’s his gift from the nice lady and it is a flashlight, and if it’s hidden then there’s no light and someone might turn out the lights and lock the door like in the bad place. Dr. Shaw wraps it up anyway and tuts at the bruises on his arm and puts on a cream. Then she gives him a sucker that’s red, because Tony says he likes red best, and Tony can’t tell her to unwrap the bandage because his mouth is full of sticky sweetness that turns his tongue bright red so it’s fun to stick it out and look at it in the mirror.
“Is it alright? Is it still working?” Miss Pepper asks Dr. Shaw in a grownup sort of tone that means she is talking to the doctor and not to Tony, so Tony sucks on his sucker and examines his tongue in the mirror.
“It seems to be functional,” Dr. Shaw says to Miss Pepper, “I’m no engineer of course, but from a medical standpoint I’ve found no real difference with the shrapnel. Everything’s just smaller. You can compare with his old medical files, see here, and the foreign objects are more prominent, but they’re still there, in the same location, just…smaller. Thank goodness…I hate to imagine what might have happened if their size had remained the same when…well. Still inoperable, I’m afraid.”
“Well, what about its effect on the body itself?” Miss Pepper asks, “It looks so…big.”
Tony wishes they would stop talking. His sucker is mostly gone now because he crunched on it and now it’s all sticking inside his teeth and he just has a soggy stick to play with. He wants to go to the room where Bruce and Clint and Natalia and Steve are all playing. Tony played there yesterday and he talked to Dr. Mackerel who was funny and asked silly questions about what year it was and then some questions Tony didn’t like about his daddy and mommy and Jarvis and kidnappers. They all had to talk to him, Mr. Phil said, and Bruce asked if it was because he was a monster after all and were they going to be locked up forever. Mr. Phil said Bruce isn’t a monster, he’s a hero and that’s different.
Tony is tired of doctors and he’s tired of grownups talking and he wants to go home. He still hasn’t decided if they’ve been kidnapped or not. Kidnappers aren’t nice, and a lot of the grownups here are nice, but no one will let them go home. Miss Pepper and Dr. Shaw talk about boring things like lungs and not running and doctor pictures and Tony’s sucker is gone and his teeth are only a little bit gummed up now and it’s boring.
Tony also doesn’t like the bandage around his flashlight, but he can’t take it off or everyone will be mad at him and maybe not let him see his friends again. So Tony decides he’s a mummy, like in that scary film he wasn’t supposed to watch. Mummies have lots of bandages and they shuffle and walk funny and moan and are a little bit scary, but not as scary as kidnappers because Jarvis says mummies aren’t real. Tony is only half a mummy though, because it’s only his chest that has bandages wrapped around. His arm didn’t even get a band-aid and it has a real hurty bit on it. There are more bandages though, all wrapped up like tape, except it isn’t sticky. Dr. Shaw left a whole roll on the bed. Miss Pepper and Dr. Shaw are still looking at body pictures and talking grownup talk and not paying attention to Tony. Tony takes the bandages.
He isn’t being bad. Dr. Shaw told him to not take off the bandages. No one said anything about putting more on. He starts with his hurty arm, because hurt bits are supposed to get bandages put on them. Wrapping it around his back is harder and he drops it and it rolls and unwinds so he wraps his legs after that. There’s a lot of bandage but there’s also a lot of Tony, and when he gets to his other arm and his head there’s only a little bit left and then there isn’t any at all. He isn’t all the way wrapped like a mummy but he decides it’s good enough.
Now he’s a scary mummy, and he can show Bruce, and Bruce will see it’s fun to be a monster and not bad and won’t be scared or sad anymore. Bruce isn’t there, though. He’s back in the other room with Clint and Natalia and Steve. And maybe Natalia is teaching them new words in her language and Tony won’t know them and Clint will laugh at him and they will all be friends without Tony because Miss Pepper made him go and see the doctor even though Tony isn’t sick.
But no one told Tony he has to stay in the doctor room. Whenever Jarvis wants Tony to stay in one place he always always tells him he has to stay, and mommy tells him if she’s there too. Daddy usually tells him he has to leave instead of stay, but sometimes he will tell Tony to stay someplace and then leave himself. But Dr. Shaw didn’t say ‘stay’, and Miss Pepper didn’t say ‘stay’, and they’re talking about ‘medical histories’ and ‘diminished lung capacity’ and ‘possible allergic reactions to foreign objects’ and they don’t look at Tony or stop talking about boring things that Tony doesn’t understand.
Tony knows that no one told him to stay, but he is still very careful and quiet when he opens the door. He isn’t sneaking, not really, but grownups don’t like kids interrupting their grownup talk with a lot of noise. And if they don’t see him leave and never say ‘don’t leave’ then he isn’t being bad.
His heart still beats hard in his chest as he slowly, gently shuts the door behind him. And maybe it feels a little bit like he’s being bad, but then it’s fun to walk all by himself down the hall and he forgets about feeling bad. A grownup uniform man walks by and he looks at Tony and Tony goes back against a wall and is ready to run really really fast, but the man doesn’t stop walking.
Then Tony remembers that he’s a scary monster and he shouldn’t be afraid of big grownup people because no one hurts scary monsters. So Tony moans in a mummy-like fashion and shuffles his feet with his arms held out straight. Then he sticks out his tongue because he’s the walking dead and dead people always stick out their tongue. It’s a rule. Dead people also close their eyes and flop over, but Tony doesn’t do that because mummies are walking dead people and he needs to see so he can find the right door where his friends are. There are a lot of doors, but Tony’s good at maps inside his head and remembering and he knows the way.
So Tony shuffles and moans and moves down the hallway and sometimes people stare at him but mummies aren’t scared of anything so Tony isn’t scared. Someone whispers, ‘shouldn’t we stop him,’ and someone else says, ‘you heard what happened to Larsson, no way am I touching any of them. Just call it in and let Coulson handle it’, but no one stops Tony and that’s good.
He’s almost all the way to the room where his friends are when a humongous pair of legs block his way.
There’s a man standing in front of him. A very strange man with woman hair and a dressy cape but it isn’t a woman because he’s muscley and big and when he speaks he has a booming voice, so maybe he’s a dam hippy because dam hippies have long hair and dress in happy colors but they are also very angry people who block progress like dams block water. His dad is always talking about them so Tony knows.
“What is this?!” his booming voice says that makes Tony sure he’s a dam hippy rather than an unusually large woman, “Are you injured?!”
And hippies are scary and so are loud giant men, but the look on this man’s face isn’t mean. It reminds Tony of the look Jarvis got once when Tony found a snake in the garden and named him Slither and carried Slither over to meet Jarvis. Jarvis had just that look on his face and called people to take Slither away and Tony was sad until he found Wiggly to be his friend instead. But even if the man’s expression is strange he’s still big and scary, so Tony moans at him to show him he’s a scary monster and hopes that he will go away.
The man doesn’t go away, but he does drop down onto one knee so he isn’t a towering giant, his eyes roaming all up and down over Tony. Perhaps the dam hippy has never seen a mummy before. Tony tries sticking out his tongue in a dead sort of way. The dam hippy looks suitably alarmed, but he doesn’t flee. The door to the room is only a little ways away and the man is kneeling so maybe Tony can run and make it there, but then the man might follow and if he is mean he might hurt Tony’s friends.
“You!” the dam hippy booms, but he’s addressing a passing black clothes woman, not Tony. It’s still a little scary and Tony shrinks away and wonders how fast he can run when his legs are all wrapped in bandages. The woman the man booms at freezes and looks like she wants to run too, but she doesn’t. “Why is this injured child wandering the halls unaided?!”
“I don’t think he’s injured,” the woman answers, her voice all stutter.
“Not injured?!” the dam hippy says, “He is covered in bandages and bleeds at the mouth! Why does no one bring a healer?!”
A healer sounds like a doctor, and suddenly Tony is very certain that he’s being bad after all and that Miss Pepper and Dr. Shaw will be very angry with him. The loud man is scary, but so is being in trouble, and the loud man isn’t grabbing Tony or yelling at him or being mean so maybe Tony can talk to him and he won’t be mean and no one will call Dr. Shaw or Miss Pepper and Tony won’t be in trouble. Tony tugs at the dam hippy’s sleeve.
“I’m not hurt,” he tells him, “I’m a mummy.”
“You…have a child?” the dam hippy asks, his voice a little quieter and he looks very confused. Tony is confused too, but his brain thinks about a joke Jarvis told him when Tony was hiding under the bed after the movie he wasn’t supposed to see, and then Tony giggles. The dam hippy is funny.
“Not a mommy,” Tony tells him, “A mummy. That’s a monster that’s dead and it walks like this and is scary.” Tony shuffles a little to show the dam hippy and moans again. “See?”
“And…why is your mouth red?” the man asks next. Tony smiles again and sticks out his tongue.
“It’s from a red sucker. Dr. Shaw gave it to me when she looked at my flashlight and my heart because red is my favorite and they were boring so I decided to be a mummy. What’s your name? Why don’t you have a happy color shirt? I’m Tony. I’m four and four fifths.”
“I am Thor,” says the dam hippy, “You are…you are Tony?”
“Tony Stark,” Tony tells him, holding out a hand, “Nice to meet you.” Thor takes his hand but doesn’t shake it. He’s still staring at Tony with a funny look on his face, his eyes going all up and down. It makes Tony remember that maybe he’s shy and maybe Thor will be mean after all, but Thor is still kneeling so Tony doesn’t run away. Then Thor frowns, his free hand moving to push aside the bandages where they came a bit unwrapped and loose on his arm. Tony flinches back because maybe he’s going to touch his hurty arm and it will hurt.
“How did this happen…Tony Stark?” Thor asks. He doesn’t touch, though, his fingers stopping short. Tony looks down at his feet, wishing he could run to his friends and be a mummy, but Thor is still holding his hand and he’s big and strong and maybe he won’t like it if Tony is quiet. His dad never likes it when Tony won’t answer questions.
“I was bad and pulled his hair,” Tony finally admits towards his feet before looking up again to look Thor earnestly in the face, “But he was being mean to Steve!”
“Steve?” Thor asks, still staring at Tony’s arm. He looks angry but his voice isn’t shouty, so maybe he isn’t too mad at Tony for being bad.
“Steve’s my friend!” Tony is quick to explain, “He’s six but he’s really really big!”
“I begin to see why I was summoned so urgently,” Thor says, and he doesn’t look angry anymore so that’s good. But then he stands up and he’s really tall again and he reaches down and picks Tony up too. Tony yelps in surprise and he still doesn’t know if he likes Thor or not and what if he’s a kidnapper? Before he can protest or try to squirm and get away, Thor begins long strides down the hall.
“Come, friend Tony,” he says, and being carried away is scary but also a little bit fun because Thor is really big and all the other people they pass move away from him. They aren’t going to the doctor’s room and they aren’t going to his friends’ room, but Thor puts Tony on his giant shoulders and strides with long strides and it’s a bit like flying. Tony wishes he could fly.
Before Tony can remember it’s scary and maybe Thor is really a kidnapper hippy who doesn’t like Starks, they come to a door that Tony doesn’t know and Thor throws it open without knocking. There’s a man in there with dark skin and he has an eye patch like a pirate and there’s also someone Tony knows very well.
“Mr. Phil!” Tony calls from Thor’s shoulder. Mr. Phil looks surprised to see them. The pirate eye patch man does not look happy. Then Tony remembers that maybe it was bad to run away from the doctor and that maybe Mr. Phil will be angry, and Tony wonders if he can hide under Thor’s cape. Or his hair.
“Tony,” Mr. Phil says, reaching up to pull him from Thor’s shoulders. Thor has to duck so that Mr. Phil can reach better. “Why are you covered in bandages?”
“I’m a mummy,” Tony explains to him, looking at his face carefully in case Mr. Phil is going to be angry, “I’m a monster like Bruce and we’re going to be good monsters together and he won’t be sad.”
“So I see,” Mr. Phil says, and then he smiles so he isn’t angry and isn’t going to shout or hate Tony after all. Tony smiles back a real quick smile before he feels too shy to smile anymore.
“Son of Coul,” says Thor, “This is Tony Stark?”
“Why don’t I let Col. Fury debrief you,” Mr. Phil says, “We’d better find Ms. Potts before she tears the place apart looking for our misplaced mummy.”
“Ms. Potts is a formidable woman,” Thor agrees, still staring at Tony, “I will see you again…Tony.”
“Goodbye Mr. Thor,” Tony answers and then remembers the other man in the room and says, “Goodbye…sir,” because he doesn’t know his name. The eye patch man nods his head at him, still frowning and scary, and then Mr. Phil carries Tony back into the hallway.
Miss Pepper is angry but she promises she doesn’t hate Tony and she was scared, and Tony cries and promises not to be bad and she promises to never ever hate him or lock him in the bad place and she cries a little too.
Dr. Shaw scolds Tony and then says he was good because he didn’t touch his heart protector and she gives him more tape so all hid friends can be mummies too. Bruce makes a really good mummy, except he keeps forgetting to moan and giggles instead.
Warnings: This chapter contains biased comments towards Russia which Tony picked up from his dad and which do not reflect the actual opinions of the author (nor do his opinions on hippies for that matter). It also contains a bit of violence, as long as I’m sticking in warnings, but certainly nothing worse than what’s already been done in the story.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
They are in the future, and Natalia is not a Soviet spy. That is what Tony learns, except not in that order because he learns that Natalia is from Russia first. It comes as a complete shock. Tony knows that Russia is a large, cold country filled with cold people who want to destroy America. Somehow Tony never thought about Russia also having little girls. So Tony may have accidentally said something that made Natalia kick his shin and there may have been some accidental hair pulling in retaliation, and then the others and their current babysitter, who wasn’t Mr. Phil or Miss Pepper or Mr. Thor, well, they may have all come over to maybe try and stop a fight.
It wasn’t really Tony’s fault that their babysitter got knocked unconscious. Or that Clint’s nose started bleeding where Steve really accidentally elbowed him or that Steve’s eye was all swollen or that Bruce went all large and green and Natalia disappeared somewhere or that Bruce threw a bed across the room. Even if Tony did say, ‘Wow, that’s awesome! Can you throw the other one?’. It isn’t Tony’s fault that Bruce actually did.
“Stop it!” Steve says, because Steve doesn’t like doing things that might get them in trouble. Only then does Tony really look around the room and see all the destruction. The beds are lying in a broken heap and Clint is shouting not nice words that Natalia had taught them in Russian while his nose is bleeding and Natalia is nowhere to be seen at all. Not to mention how Mr. Booker was lying sprawled across the floor like he’s sleeping, only he’s not moving, and maybe, just maybe he’s dead and they killed him and it’s all Tony’s fault.
“Mr. Booker?” Tony says then, and tries to see if he’s bleeding or dying or dead, and he isn’t bleeding but he isn’t moving either.
“Stupid agent man,” says Bruce, still all big and green.
“Did Natalia kill him?” Clint tries to ask around his nose bleed.
“We have to get help!” says Steve.
“But Nat will get in trouble!” Clint complains, and that’s bad, that’s really bad and Tony doesn’t want Natalia to get in trouble for killing their babysitter, and he doesn’t want their babysitter to be dead, and he shouldn’t have called her a Soviet spy just because he learned that she was from Russia and they were all speaking Russian so maybe they are all spies now and spies have to stick together.
“He’s hurt!” Steve says, “We can’t just not help him!” But before they can do anything, the door to the room flies open. Or tries to. That happens to be right where Bruce threw the two beds, so it flies open a couple of inches, hits the splintered remains, and bounces shut again with a loud noise.
“Bad men!” Bruce shouts and throws yet another bed into the pile, and maybe it isn’t so awesome anymore, because no one can come in and no one can go out and maybe that means the babysitter will die and maybe that means they’re trapped and being trapped is bad and they’ll turn out the lights and there won’t be any food and…
“Breathe, Tony!” Clint shouts at him, grabbing his arm with a bloody hand.
“Mr. Booker?” says Steve, and then Mr. Booker makes a groaning noise and moves.
“You’re not dead!” Tony exclaims happily, ecstatic. He gives Clint a hug because he’s closest and then Bruce too, and Bruce makes a hmphing noise but doesn’t push him away, which is good, because Bruce is really bigger than Tony now, almost as tall as Steve and much bulkier.
Mr. Booker sits up and stares at them, his eyes going a bit cross-eyed and then he says, “Weren’t there five of you?”
“Where did Natalia go?” Steve asks, and they look around the room and see the mess of the beds and some scattered toys and the other beds that Bruce didn’t throw but no Natalia. Then Tony feels bad because maybe Natalia is angry at him or maybe she’s sad because Tony called her a spy.
“Natalia?” Tony shouts looking around the room, “I’m sorry! Я сожалею!” And then he tries to say, ‘You’re not a Soviet spy!’ in Russian but maybe he doesn’t say it perfectly right because Natalia didn’t teach them to say exactly that in any of their games. So Natalia doesn’t come out of hiding.
“Right, sir,” Mr. Booker says into his ear phone, still sitting on the floor and looking cross eyed, “I can try.” And then he says, “Mini-Hulk! Want to play a game? It’s called ‘Let’s move the beds over there’. It’ll be fun, like stacking blocks. You like stacking blocks, right?”
Bruce does like to stack blocks and he helped Tony to make an awesome castle earlier, but green Bruce looks skeptical about Mr. Booker’s game.
“Bad men,” Bruce says, pointing at the door.
“You like Mr. Phil, right?” Mr. Booker tells him in a calm gentle voice that isn’t worried or shouty at all so maybe it is alright. “It’s just Mr. Phil and his friends, and maybe a doctor. Doctors are good people. And we can play our game and the good men can come inside and make sure no one is hurt.”
“No Shot Men!” Bruce shouts back, not calm at all.
“Olly olly oxen free!” Clint calls, “Come out, Nat!” Natalia doesn’t come out. Tony thinks maybe he should tell Clint the Russian words for ‘come out’ because sometimes Clint forgets the words that Natalia taught them and maybe Natalia decided to forget English. She does that when she’s angry or sad and doesn’t want to talk to anyone. He also wonders if he should tell Bruce that stacking beds would be awesome, but maybe Tony doesn’t want doctors either, and maybe when Mr. Phil comes then Tony will be in trouble. So maybe he shouldn’t.
“Come out, Natalia!” he shouts in Rusian instead.
“Do you think…” Steve says, his voice soft and his face all squinched up in worry, “Do you think Natalia might be under the beds?”
Tony is confused at first because Clint had already looked under all the bed and there wasn’t anyone hiding there. But Steve isn’t looking towards the left standing beds. He was looking towards the mangled pile of metal and mattresses that was lying broken in front of the door. If Natalia was under that, then maybe she was squished flat. Maybe she was dead. And it was all Tony’s fault.
“Natalia!” Tony shrieks, “Don’t be squished!” He runs over to the beds and tried to look and see if he could see her. He tugs at the nearest bed springs, but he isn’t a super hero like Bruce with giant muscles and nothing moves at all. “Bruce!” he shouts instead, “Bruce, come help!” His voice goes all high and a bit wispy because he’s working so hard, and his breath feels like a solid weight in his chest, pressing at his flashlight with each breath. The bed still doesn’t move, and he can’t find Natalia.
“Shorty!” Clint says, “Tony, I don’t think she’s there, calm down, she’s just hiding. Nat, come out!”
Tony doesn’t listen, though, because what if Clint’s wrong and what if she’s lying squished and she needs help? She isn’t anywhere else in all the entire room and being squished under the bed pile is the only place they haven’t looked. He pulls harder. The bed still doesn’t move. Then it does, quite suddenly, and for a moment Tony thinks maybe he is super strong after all. But it’s Bruce. Bruce pulls the bed up easily and tosses it, almost gently, to the side where it won’t squish anyone. Springs and legs and mattresses and pillows all fly and feathers float gently down around them but there still isn’t any Natalia. Mr. Booker has come over to watch, leaning against the wall and looking a bit ill.
“Breathe, Tony,” Steve says, and he pulls Tony backwards, away from the bed tossing, and Tony takes great big wheezing breaths while his heart goes thud thud thud and Natalia still isn’t there. “See,” Steve says, “See, I was wrong. She isn’t under there.”
Then the door flies open and uniformed people swarm in.
“Bad men!” Bruce shouts, and he shoves Tony and Steve backwards so they fall and Steve goes ‘oof’ because Tony is on top of him. Then Bruce stands in front of them and blocks the uniform people from coming closer. Doctors with beds on wheels come next and one of them makes Mr. Booker lie down on their bed.
Tony doesn’t see what happens to him, though, because the uniform men are surrounding the room, and one of them is pointing a gun straight at Bruce.
“No!” Tony shrieks, and tries to push Bruce to make him move so no one will shoot him.
“Move, kid!” the uniform man shouts at him, still holding up his gun, and Bruce growls and doesn’t move no matter how hard Tony pushes. Tony knows he’s going to shoot Bruce and maybe he’s going to shoot all of them because they were bad and made a big mess and Mr. Phil isn’t there to stop them.
Suddenly there’s a high pitched war cry and something drops from the ceiling and lands on the uniform man with the gun.
The gun goes off with a thwip noise but Bruce isn’t hurt and Tony isn’t hurt and the thing that fell from the ceiling turns out to not be a thing but a person.
“Natalia!” Tony exclaims in Russian, “You’re here!” The uniform gun man is lying on the floor and he isn’t sleeping but he is only moving a tiny bit and making groaning noises. Then he turns around to proclaim the good news to Steve and Clint in case they didn’t see her but Clint isn’t there and Steve is lying on the floor and there’s a dart sticking out of his arm.
“Steve!” Tony gasps, and he runs over and pulls the dart out. Natalia shouts something at the groaning uniform man that Tony thinks means, ‘I’m going to boil your intestines’ because Natalia liked using phrases like that when they play knights or soldiers, and then she kicks him in the side.
The other uniform people don’t just stand and watch, though, and one of them grabs her up and tries to hold her so she can’t kick anyone and she screams and Clint finally appears holding a bit of wood that was once a bed leg and swinging it at the back of the uniform woman’s knees.
That is all Tony has time to observe before everything becomes jumbled and confused as people try and pull Clint and Natalia away, and Bruce stands over Tony and Steve and growls at anyone who comes close and Tony tries to make Steve wake up. Bruce makes unhappy noises like he wants to go and help Natalia and Clint but he also wants to protect Steve and he doesn’t know what to do. Tony tells him that he can protect Steve for him, but Bruce still doesn’t leave.
So for a long moment everything is loud and confusing and all happening at once and more uniform people are pulling out guns but not firing them and it’s all very exciting and horrible and oddly fun at the same time, and Tony runs back and forth between watching Steve and going to kick the person that is trying to get Natalia’s teeth out of his hand and the person trying to hold Clint’s arms, and Bruce pulls Tony back with an annoyed sounding growl, and Tony is breathing in heavy gasps until the world turns dizzy and Steve is still sleeping even though Tony threw away the bad dart, and it’s too exciting and horrible and loud and terrifying and thrilling and completely wrong and out of control and…
“WHAT’S GOING ON HERE?!!!!”
And then everything stops.
It isn’t completely quiet because people are still breathing loudly, especially Bruce but maybe also Tony a little bit, but no one is fighting anymore, and the uniform people have dropped Clint and Natalia and they’ve run back to stand next to Bruce, and everyone is looking at the livid person who had just entered.
It’s the large bald man with the eye patch, the person Tony had met the same day he met Thor who probably isn’t a pirate. His single eye is glaring all around the room, at grownups and kids alike. No one answers his question. Finally, his eye settles upon the uniform man who’s holding his bleeding hand and glaring in Natalia’s direction.
“You,” says the not-pirate man, “Report.”
“We’re attempting to contain the Hulk, sir,” the man answers, standing at attention all formal and stiff and not looking in anyone’s direction at all.
“And you thought the best way to do that was to shoot a Hulk sized dose of tranquilizer towards a bunch of toddlers?” Eye-patch man does not sound impressed.
“They were at risk, sir,” the uniform man answers, still staring at the wall across the room, “There were already injuries.”
Eye-patch man considers him and then looks at Tony and his friends before turning to address the room at large.
“Right then. You get in brawls with infants, I’ll treat you like infants. You’re all in time out. Everyone who doesn’t need medical attention nose to a wall!”
Tony watches in surprise as every single uniform person except the one lying on the floor shuffles reluctantly to stand stiffly facing a wall. Then the eye-patch man turns to look at them and Tony ducks down, wondering if they were also meant to be in time out, and if they were in trouble now because they didn’t move. But eye-patch man just stares at the, and it isn’t he who speaks first.
“They’re trying to kill Bruce!” Clint says, and then Tony tries to say, “They shot Steve!” but his breathing is still off and it comes out in heavy gasps. Then the eye patch man continues to stare sternly at them and they fall silent and even Bruce doesn’t growl at him.
“Alright. You” the man says, pointing at Natalia, “Tell me what happened.”
Natalia glares at him and says some words in Russian that make Clint laugh into his sleeve and Tony covers his mouth with his hand. Eye patch man crosses his arms in front of his chest.
“That is not appropriate language for a child,” he tells her sternly, “Now, what happened.” Natalia says nothing this time. “Alright then. Here’s what’s going to happen now. You are all going to quietly, and calmly go with Dr. Shaw to get checked out. Then you are all going to sit in time out, facing the wall, until someone tells me what happened here.”
“No shots!” Bruce exclaims at the mention of seeing a doctor.
“You will get a shot if you need a shot,” eye-patch man answers him, still glaring sternly, and Bruce looks down at the floor, “Now, can you all behave like good little children or does your time out start right now?”
“No shots,” Bruce says again, but mumbling this time, still looking at the floor.
“That’s alright, Bruce,” a new voice says, and Dr. Shaw is there with several nurses and more beds with wheels, “I don’t think we need to do any shots today. Now, who wants a ride on a bed?”
They take Steve first, and Dr. Shaw promises that he’s alright and he’s just sleeping. Clint and Natalia ride in the same bed and Tony gets to ride with Bruce. Bruce seems a lot less reluctant since Dr. Shaw told him there wouldn’t be any shots, and riding on a wheeling bed is fun.
Miss Pepper comes while Nurse Rory is listening to Tony’s lungs and Bruce is sleeping and being small Bruce again. Mr. Phil and Thor come together after they are all checked out and Tony and Natalia and Clint are sitting in time out but it isn’t really time out because they get to sit together whisper to each other and giggle and then eye-patch man whose name is really Fury tells them they better be behaving because he has his eye on them while he listens to Dr. Shaw, sitting between where Steve and Bruce are sleeping.
“WHAT HAS HAPPENED?” Thor asks in his booming voice, and then Tony and Clint and Natalia stop giggling and hang their heads and no one wants to explain that they’re all in trouble because maybe Thor and Mr. Phil will be angry even if Miss Pepper wasn’t.
But they promise they aren’t angry and Mr. Fury says they can be free from time out if they tell their story and they won’t be in trouble anymore because this is America and you can’t be punished twice for the same crime.
So all in a rush Tony explains about fighting with Natalia and how he’s sorry and he didn’t mean to be mean, and how it was all his fault. Except Clint says it wasn’t all Tony’s fault and it was mostly the stupid agents fault with their guns trying to kill Bruce and almost killing Steve. Miss Pepper goes all pale and white when they explain about the man who tried to shoot Bruce. And Natalia says it’s not Tony’s fault that his dad tells him stupid lies and maybe that’ mean because Tony’s dad doesn’t tell him stupid lies, but maybe his dad was just confused and anyway Natalia says she’s sorry for kicking him and Tony’s glad that she’s still his friend.
Then Steve wakes up and he isn’t dead or hurt.
So, after all of this, Tony learns that Natalia isn’t a Soviet spy even though she is from Russia. But it’s after they have this big fight that they all go to see Dr. Mackerel together and have a big discussion that turns out to be really interesting when Tony says it’s 1974 and Steve answers that it’s 1924.
Dr. Mackerel explains. The year is 2012. They’re all time travelers. That’s why Tony’s mom and dad and Jarvis never come, because they’re all living in the past in 1974 and Tony’s living in the way distant future, and it’s an adventure but maybe also a bit scary. How are his mom and dad and Jarvis meant to find Tony if they’re all trapped in a different time?
So they’re all time travelers and Natalia isn’t a Soviet spy. And Dr. Mackerel wants to talk about this but none of them know what to think. Mostly they all say it’s a fun adventure, but in the quiet times it just feels wrong, being so far away from home.
Still not quite done with this story (definitely more exciting happenings planned) but I suspect the next chapter will be a long while in coming. Sorry. On the plus side, as you can see, my stories are not abandoned! Also, I kind of guessed for years and ages and you’ll notice I skipped mentioning anyone else’s ages. This is mostly from simply not knowing…though if the comic book histories are accurate for the characters, my research says Tony might actually literally be the youngest Avenger (well, only if you count the years Steve was sleeping, but even so). Except I have no idea if the movies are really drawing that heavily from the comic books so at the moment I’m going with ‘I have no idea’ for when the others were born. And for a final point, I don’t speak Russian and any translations I might include come from Babel. And if I’m honest, I’m not that big on history, and I only at the last second decided to change Russian to Soviet…which I did with a simple find and replace which resulted in them also speaking Soviet which seemed unlikely to be right so I went through and changed that back to Russian but may have missed one or two. Right. So…if anything is really inaccurate, please let me know.
Oh, and in a final final note, though I hate to give information out that isn't given through the story, I’m not sure if/when this will come up and since it’s already caused some confusion amongst readers... Bruce did not turn into the Hulk when he was a child the first time around. He refers to himself a being a monster with corrupt DNA not because of the Hulk but because of a horribly abusive father who called him a monster even though he was only a child. And on that thoroughly depressing and horrific note, I leave you until the next chapter, when I’ll finally make good on the promise of what is implied to happen in the story summary.
Warnings: This chapter gets a bit darker in tone than the previous chapters, particularly if you find the idea of being trapped in a very small space disturbing. Basically, the kidnapping referred to in the story summary is finally actually happening, as well as a flashback to Tony’s first kidnapping that has been hinted at throughout the story. If you find reading about small children facing trauma-inducing (but not physically damaging) events to be disturbing, I advise you to simply take my word that they are all kidnapped in this chapter and then wait for the next to continue reading. I’m really going to try to get that chapter up quicker.
There is a flash of light and Tony opens his eyes. He’s in his bed with Bruce even though that’s against the rules in case Bruce gets scared in the night and grows big and green. But that makes no sense because it’s less scary when there are two people and Tony doesn’t want Bruce to be lonely even if he does become green Bruce. So they are sleeping in Bruce’s bed together and it’s not lonely or scary even if it is mostly all dark except for the nightlight Mr. Phil had left. Tony had told him how he wasn’t a baby and didn’t need one, and Clint said he wasn’t a baby either, but Mr. Phil explained that it was for in case they needed the toilet and even big grownups need lights for that, so that is alright. The nightlight is still glowing and the room is still all dark but now Tony is awake.
There’s another light. There’s another light moving around the room, over where Natalia and Clint were sleeping then over Steve. Something is holding the light and more somethings are following it and the room is filled with big creatures creeping like monsters out of the dark.
Monsters or kidnappers, Tony doesn’t know but they are large and scary and his breath comes in shuddered gasps as he tries not to move, just in case moving makes them see him and makes them attack. The light swings his way and he closes his eyes tight. He wants Jarvis or his daddy or mommy. He wants Mr. Phil or Miss Pepper or Thor or Mr. Fury to come and chase the scary people away. He senses, rather than sees, the monsters coming closer, and being quiet and not moving isn’t working and he opens his mouth and screams.
He screams as loud as he can, into a large gloved hand, and that turns out to be almost no noise at all because the glove is big and muffely and makes his voice disappear inside it. Arms are picking him up and he kicks and squirms and one of his kicks hit Bruce but Bruce doesn’t wake up or turn green and Tony’s heart goes thudthudthud really loudly.
“Shh,” says the monster holding him, its voice all soft and gentle and strange, “Shh, Tony, shh.” The arms rock him gently, and another monster is picking up Bruce and they put him into a box. They have to fold his legs and his arms to make him fit inside but Bruce still doesn’t wake up and neither does Clint or Steve or Natalia. One of the monsters approach them in their corner while Tony kicks and struggles and tries to scream and to breathe and feels like he might want to be sick but the giant hand over his mouth won’t let him. The monster’s face can just be seen between the nightlight and the flashlights but it isn’t a proper face at all. It’s all green cloth and its eyes are goggled and it looks a bit like a space bug. And it knows his name.
“Tony,” it whispers very, very quietly, its voice strange like a machine’s voice, “You need to be a good boy and not make any noise. Because if you do make any noise, any noise at all, I’m going to kill one of your little friends. Do you understand?”
Tony stares at him and tries to breathe but it’s hard because he can only breathe through his nose and he’s breathing too loudly and he doesn’t want his new friends to die and he doesn’t want it to be all his fault.
“Do you understand? Nod your head.” Tony nods his head. Breathing hurts and not breathing hurts and his heart feels heavy against his flashlight and he can see more boxes all on a trolley and the boxes are like coffins and he knows Bruce is in one and maybe the others are in on too.
“I know it’s hard, Tony,” the soft voice continues. “I don’t want to have to kill your friends. So I’m going to help you. I’m going to put this in your mouth and you’re going to leave it there and then you’re going to go on a little journey.” He’s holding up a bit of cloth, all bundled up. “Will you be good, Tony?” Tony tries to nod and feels a bit dizzy and breathy and he thinks he’s being too loud already because when the hand comes away all his air is coming in deep, loud gasps, and the world is too blurry to see behind his tears and then the cloth is in his mouth and it’s too big and his nose doesn’t want to work for breathing and he wants it out but he doesn’t want his friends to die. Tony has to be good.
“Good boy,” says the monster, but Tony doesn’t feel like a good boy because he’s being kidnapped and his friends are being kidnapped and Mr. Phil and Miss Pepper and everyone are going to be so worried and upset. And now he’s being carried to an open box.
The box is tiny and doesn’t look big enough for a little boy, even a very little one, but the arms set him down into it anyway. It’s all soft and padded inside and when he’s sitting in it most of his head sticks out of the top.
“Lie down, Tony,” says one of the monsters, “And try to go to sleep. You can take the cloth out when the lid is down. Just be a good boy and lie still and sleep. Maybe when you wake up, everything will be better.”
“Can’t we just knock the kid out?” one of the other monsters whispers, “This is cruel.”
“I don’t know what’s safe to give him,” the other answered, “Better to scare him than kill him with the wrong tranq. You heard what happened the last time.” He pushes on Tony’s head and Tony curls up into a tiny ball and the entire world goes completely black and silent. He tries to raise his head again and it hits something soft and padded. He tries to move his arms and his legs and there are soft padded walls all around.
He can’t breathe and he can’t move and this is a million billion times worse and scarier than the bad place from before and he tries to be sick and then chokes on the cloth and then he pulls the cloth out and he’s choking and coughing and throws up all over himself in the darkness.
The world around him is tight and warm and smells and it rocks gently and his mind leaves the darkness for a different darkness, one that isn’t there because the dark skinned man in the green clothes had come and taken him away and Daddy had hugged him like he was happy but he was crying, even though Daddy is big and doesn’t ever cry. He remembers it all happening like that, but somehow it must not have because he’s still in the dark in the bad place where kidnappers stick little boys who are bad and made a mess and threw up their good food. He can hear the noises in the corner that are maybe rats and the stomping boots on the ceiling where the kidnappers stomp stomp stomp across the room and yell into phones and want to cut off Tony’s fingers or his ears and give them to his dad.
Except…except that his hands aren’t tied and his legs aren’t tied and he isn’t sitting on a chair and his headache is all wrong and when he leans his head there’s something solid. And it’s not so solidly black. There’s light, thin and feeble, coming from his chest. He isn’t in the bad place, he remembers, he’s in the box.
The box is bad and scary but somehow he’s so so glad he isn’t still in the bad place that his heart feels less hard against his chest. Then he’s able to pull at the bandages hiding away his flashlight in his chest and soon it’s not dark in the box at all. He wants to pull off his shirt which smells all vomity and is gross and hides some of his light, but there’s no room.
Now that there aren’t scary monsters all around, and he isn’t in the bad place, and he has a light, nothing feels quite so urgent and scary as it did before. He breathes deeply, letting everything settle into the snug, cozy padding. It’s still sometime in the middle of the night, and in spite of everything, Tony is feeing sleepy. He lets his eyes close.
He jumps back into full wakefulness when the box shudders violently around him. His eyes search the confines of the box frantically, limbs lashing out only to meet resistance on all sides. He gasps desperately, needing out of there. His arms and legs actually hurt from not being able to movie. He knew that sitting tied to a chair could hurt but he didn’t know that just staying curled in a ball for hours or days or however long it had been could feel like all his joints are burning. Also he is thirsty and he needs to pee. He really really needs to pee, and he rocks to try and keep it inside. Kidnappers really really don’t like messes and he already has vomit all over his shirt and their little box.
The box shudders and he rocks and he hums because he needs to hum.
And then, just when he was beginning to think that this was the way the world was now and always was going to be, the lid comes off of the box.
The light goes bright and hurts his eyes and he squeezes them shut. Arms pick him up and his limbs start to unfold and it hurts, really hurts, and soft crying, whimpering noises come out of him without his meaning to.
The person holding him doesn’t shout though or hit or squeeze too tightly or tell him he was bad and now his friends are going to all die. The arms just hold him and a voice he doesn’t know goes, “Shh, baby, it’s alright. You can cry if you need to. The worst bit is over and you’re safe.”
It doesn’t sound all machine-like now and Tony blinks his eyes open and sees the kidnappers are people after all. In proper lighting, they don’t look like Martians, even the ones with their faces all covered in cloth and wearing goggles, because he can see they’re just goggles and he can see where their noses bulge. The person holding him isn’t even wearing his mask or goggles now, and Tony can see the person’s spiky white hair and the smooth face and green eyes.
Someone nearby laughs a low, cruel laugh and says, “You shouldn’t lie to him.” The owner of the voice is large and muscled and wearing yellow instead of the dark green of everyone else around. Now that Tony’s looking around more alertly, his brain is taking in the room and he knows they are on a ship of some kind, maybe a plane, and that the trolley with boxes is still there and his box is open but the other boxes are all closed, and the ship space is a bit cramped with three people wearing green and the one person wearing yellow and the trolley of boxes. There aren’t any ship controls but there is a door and the controls are probably in there. Tony sees all of this and knows all of this very quickly because that is how his brain always works.
“Where are we going?” Tony whispers to the man holding him because he doesn’t look too mean, for a kidnapper. The man looks hesitant to answer.
“To your new home,” the other man says for him, and he smiles in a scary sort of way. Still no one is shouting or squeezing or shoving him back in the box, so Tony risks another question.
“Can my friends come out now?” He doesn’t like to think of the all trapped alone in their boxes without even his flashlight to help them.
“Your friends are all sleeping still,” the man holding him answers, “We gave them medicine so they won’t wake up until after we get there.”
Tony is quiet then, until something he really really needs becomes so urgent that he has to speak.
“I need to pee.” The man holding him looks startled and then he turns to look uncertainly towards the other man.
“Take him through to the toilet,” the man said, “And get him washed up, while you’re at it. It’s beginning to stink in here.”
They go through the door into a tiny hallway with another door and a closet looking place and a door to a tiny toilet. The man sets Tony down awkwardly and Tony stares up at the toilet while dancing from one foot to the other and trying very hard to not have an accident when the toilet is right there.
“It’s too high,” Tony points out.
“Oh…right,” says the man, “What should I do?”
“Help me sit on it,” Tony answers, confused by the man’s confusion over something so simple.
“Oh…right,” the man says again, and then he does pick him up in a strange way where his head tries to look in a different direction. He’s so awkward and weird about it that Tony begins to feel silly and strange too. He goes anyway and slides off again by himself and does himself up because he isn’t a baby and doesn’t need help with things like that. Then the kidnapper man lifts him up to wash his hands and then sits him down on the toilet lid. He has Tony take his dirty shirt off and he stares at Tony’s flashlight. Then he wets the shirt, and wipes at Tony’s front.
“What’s your name” Tony asks while he does this, squirming under the unexpected bath.
“Andrew,” he answers, and then he is finished with the wiping and doesn’t seem to know what to do next. After a moment, he tosses the shirt in the trash bin and picks Tony up again. Tony is getting tired of being carried everywhere, but everything is still too wrong and strange and a bit scary for him to protest. He lets Andrew carry him shirtless back into the big room.
“Do we have any spare shirts?” Andrew asks when they walk back in. Tony sees the box he had been in is now closed. This makes him feel a little less tight. They probably won’t shove him back inside an already closed box. He still hopes his friends aren’t scared all alone in the dark.
The goggled men ignore Andrew completely. The yellow suited man just looks gruff and annoyed and says, “He’ll be fine until we get there.” Then he frowns and an odd look comes into his eyes and he’s looking at Tony again. He smiles but that’s scary too because it doesn’t look like a happy, friendly smile. And he’s not looking at Tony’s eyes. He’s looking at his chest, at his flashlight.
“So,” says the man, “This is the fabled arc reactor.” He comes closer, still staring, and Tony squirms in Andrew’s arms.
“Sir,” says Andrew, “Sir, I think you’re scaring him.”
“So he should be,” answered the yellow suited man.
Tony squeezes his eyes shut. He wants to be at home in bed. Which home, he doesn’t care. He wants his mom and dad and Jarvis and Phil and Pepper and Thor and Shaw and Fury. Anyone. Everyone. All he has is a pile of boxes, like coffins, where his friends sleep, and the flashlight in his chest.
“Stop that humming,” someone tells him, “I thought I told you to be quiet. Is it safe to try the tranq now? Don’t we have some monitoring equipment on board just in case?”
“Sir, I don’t think that’s necessary,” Andrew suggests cautiously.
“If he’s going to be sniveling and humming the whole way, it definitely is.”
And then there’s a sudden sharp prick and then nothing.
Author’s Note: Sorry…both because it took so long to get this up and then because it’s a bit on the short side…and a bit of a cliffhanger. Though I really will be trying harder to get the next bit up quickly. At least I know the basics of where this is going so it shouldn’t take me long to write it…unless I get distracted by real life. Also, thank you for all the reviews that encouraged me to continue this.
For those who did, in fact skip the last chapter after my suggestion, or those who read it so long ago that you've half forgotten what happened (really, I’ll try to get the next bit up faster, but then I say that every time and it still seems to take months…at least this chapter is a longer one than the last), Tony and his friends were kidnapped by an unnamed organization. The other children were given a tranquilizer so they’d sleep through it all but since Tony reacted so badly the last time someone gave him something, they didn't give him anything at all. They just stuck a wide awake Tony into a small box and carried all the children away. Later, one of the nicer kidnappers named Andrew lets him out, but a man in a yellow suit gets tired of Tony crying and has him put under since they have equipment to monitor him. And that brings us to this chapter.
Tony wakes up in a white room and someone is holding him tightly and someone is screaming. Tony’s brain is heavy and wants to fall back into sleep but someone is screaming and maybe they are hurt and maybe there’s danger and maybe Tony needs to be awake. So he keeps his eyes wide wide open and looks at the white room. It’s a small room and he can see a small child’s bed that’s empty and a white chest and a white Tony-sized table with two small chairs. There are windows high on the walls all around the room and one door. He doesn’t see the screaming person. He thinks they must be in a different room.
“Shorty?” whispers a soft voice from behind Tony’s head.
“Not short,” Tony answers, even though his tongue is heavy and fluffy and not like a tongue is supposed to be. The person holding him lets out a puff of air that ruffles his hair. They lie together like that for a moment, and Tony listens to the screaming, and he doesn’t go back to sleep even though his arms are heavy and his legs are heavy and his head is heavy and his eyes want to be closed.
“Who’s screaming?” he asks after a long moment of not sleeping. The arms around him tighten.
“I think it’s Bruce,” the person behind him whispers, “or Natalia.” The person sounds like Clint, and Tony twists himself around to look up at his face but he’s too close to see anything but a grotesque parody of a face with three noses and one eye. The person who is probably Clint keeps talking. “Don’t be scared, Tony, but we’ve been stolen. I woke up here and they told me I had to watch you in case you… in case you didn’t wake up. Because tranqs make you sick. Do you feel sick?”
“I’m floaty,” Tony answers, frowning. “They put us in boxes. You were sleeping. They were going to kill you if I made noise.” Then suddenly he sits up because someone is screaming and screaming and what if they’re being killed? What if Tony was bad and they decided he was too noisy and now they’re killing his friend? They told him to be quiet and he wasn’t quiet and they made him sleep and now someone is dying and it’s all his fault!
Just as quickly as he sits up, his heart going thudthudthud, his brain goes fizzy and he’s throwing up before he knows he’s going to. He doesn’t even lean over the bed; he just gets sick all over his front and the bed and Clint’s hand.
Clint doesn’t push him away though, he just kind of leans him over and rubs his back and says, “It’s ok, Shorty, it’s ok.”
“Not short,” Tony mumbles again when his stomach stops heaving but his voice is all raspy and his eyes all wet and he feels ill. He can feel his limbs trembling and Clint tightens his grip again, not letting go.
Suddenly the screaming stops.
They both freeze at the sudden silence and they listen and listen. Then the screaming starts again. It isn’t really like someone screaming in pain but it goes on and on, high pitched and loud, even as muffled as it is by the walls.
Tony is feeling a little bit better now but he doesn’t like the screaming. He covers his ears.
“Here,” says Clint, “Let’s clean up the bed if you’re done being sick.”
“Kidnappers don’t like messes,” Tony agrees. Clint climbs out from behind him and jumps to the floor. Tony starts to follow but he feels wobbly and suddenly he’s lying sideways instead of upright.
“You can just lie there,” Clint tells him, but Tony doesn’t want to lie still and the bed smells and he smells and he doesn’t like it. So he pushes himself up again and this time the world isn’t too wobbly and he slides until his feet are on the floor. Clint stares at him but he doesn’t make him get back on the bed. He just grabs the bed sheets and pulls until they’re all in a big bundle in his hands. He drops them on the floor and wanders around the room. He goes to the door first and grabs the handle. Tony thinks the door will be locked but it opens easily. It doesn’t go outside though. It goes to a small bathroom with a Tony-sized toilet and a too high sink and a shower.
“Oh good,” Clint says when he sees the toilet and he uses it. The sink is just a bit too tall for Clint too even though he’s a big kid but Clint just jumps so he’s balanced against the rim with his legs swinging in the air. Then he can turn it on and he washes his hands, especially the one Tony was sick on.
“Where’s the door to outside?” Tony asks while Clint makes him take off his dirty shirt. Tony doesn’t know where the shirt came from. It’s all white, or it was before he was sick on it. He also has on white pants, like pajamas. Clint has on white clothes too.
“Didn’t see it,” Clint answers and swings up to wet Tony’s shirt, “They dumped you on me and said to watch you in case you stop breathing. I didn’t see them leave. You were really really still.” He swings back down and wiped at Tony’s face. Tony squirms. He’s tired of getting sick and needing to be cleaned. He also hopes there’s another shirt in the room. It’s a little bit chilly. And all the while there’s the screaming from next door.
“I think it’s Natalia,” Clint says after a moment of silence between them after he’s all clean. “She’s probably angry. Hey, are you thirsty? Want me to boost you up so you can drink?”
“Yes,” Tony answers because he is. So Clint tries to pick him up and Tony tries to balance on the sink like Clint did but Clint isn’t really big enough to pick Tony up that far. Steve probably could have, and green Bruce definitely could have, but Tony did not think it would be a good idea to say so. In the end Clint kneels on the floor and Tony steps on his back and then his shoulders and then his head while Cline makes annoyed noises about Tony being too heavy. He doesn’t say it in a mean way though and he doesn’t drop Tony. Luckily Tony’s arms and legs aren’t feeling so shaky and wobbly anymore and he manages to climb all the way up into the sink. This is the easiest way because he’s not good at catching water in his hands but he’s ok at catching it in his mouth. He drinks a lot of water because his mouth feels yucky and he wants the yuckiness to go away.
“Hey,” Clint says after a moment, “Do you think you could stand on my shoulders and see out the window?”
“I don’t know,” Tony says, because he still feels a tiny bit wobbly and he doesn’t want to fall. But he wants to see who’s screaming and the only way to do that is to be high enough to see through the window. But the numbers in his head say they won’t be tall enough, even if Tony is standing on Clint’s head.
“We’re too short,” he says to Clint. He thinks Clint might say something about Tony being too small, but Clint has a thinking look on his face and his eyes are looking away at the room. There are still two beds, one minus its sheets, and a chest and a table.
“I can stand on the table,” he says. “You can put your hands on the wall so you won’t fall and stand on my shoulders.”
Then the numbers in Tony’s head say that he would be tall enough. He still doesn’t know if he can stand on Clint’s shoulders, because just climbing into the sink was hard work and Clint wasn’t even standing up. The person in the other room is still screaming. Maybe Tony is a little bit afraid to look. He doesn’t want to see his friends dying. But if he never looks, then he won’t know what is happening, and he really needs to know.
“Ok,” says Tony. Clint helps Tony climb out of the sink and they go back into the other room.
Clint drags the table over and Tony looks inside the chest because he wants to know what’s inside. What he finds are toys. There’s a box of crayons and paper and a toy gun and a toy bow with arrows and some plastic dinosaurs and some blocks. There’s also a pile of clothes and he finds another white shirt that’s just his size and he puts it on.
Then Clint helps him up onto the table. They are both taller now and Tony looks up at the window and then he looks at Clint and he wonders how he’s going to get onto Clint’s shoulders.
“Here,” Clint says, “Lean against the wall. Ok, now, step onto my hands.” And he clasps his hands together in front of him. Clint has to bend his legs so that his arms are low enough for Tony to step. When Tony has a foot in his hands and is still leaning against the wall, Clint stands straighter, making grunting noises.
“K,” Clint says in a funny strained sort of voice, “Climb up to my shoulders.” He stands very close to the wall so that Tony can lean against it and not fall, and Tony puts his hands on Clint’s head and pushes and Clint grunts and pushes with his hands and somehow Tony manages to go up and up and then his feet are up but his body is almost sitting against the wall. He has to use his hands to straighten up.
Finally, he’s on Clint’s shoulders and his head is level with the window. Unfortunately, he’s standing the wrong way around.
“Do you see anything?” Clint grunts from below him.
“Not yet,” Tony answers, and then his fingers find the window’s edge and he holds on tight and tries to twist and one foot goes in Clint’s face and Clint goes ‘oof!’ and then the other one hits Clint’s ear, but Clint never yells or drops Tony so he’s probably alright.
Then Tony can see through the window.
He sees another room. It is like their room, all white, except it has only one bed instead of two. It also has a grownup man and a grownup woman wearing lab coats and the man is sitting in a too small chair and the woman is standing and both of them look unhappy.
Standing in the middle of the room and screaming is Natalia.
“It’s Natalia,” Tony tells Clint, “She’s just standing there and screaming. And there’s two grownups.”
“Are they hurting her?” Clint asks. His voice sounds better than when Tony was climbing him and kicking him in the head but it also sounds worried.
“No,” Tony says, “They’re just watching. She’s screaming all on her own. The grownups don’t look happy. One of them is waving crayons and paper at her.”
“Do you see Bruce or Steve?” Clint asks.
“Not in this window,” Tony says, and he turns his head to see if he can look through another window but all he sees through them is the ceiling and the top of a far wall. Everything is white.
Then while Tony is looking around, a wall slides open into a doorway and two lab coat people enters and a green suit person. The green suit person has white spikey hair.
“Andrew!” says Tony because he remembers him. Then Clint tries to turn around but Tony doesn’t and his foot slips and for one terrifying moment he thinks he’s going to fall and it’s going to hurt.
Andrew catches him but it still hurts because he grabs his arm too tight. Andrew puts him on the ground. A lab coat man is frowning at them.
“There is no climbing on the furniture,” he says sternly.
“Who are you?” Clint demands, jumping off the table and pulling Tony closer to him and away from Andrew and the lab coat people.
“We are here to talk to you,” says the woman lab coat person, “And…ahem…Andrew is here to take Tony on a little visit.”
“No!” says Clint, backing away and pulling Tony with him, “You aren’t taking him away.”
“Just for a little bit,” the woman says, “He won’t be hurt. I promise.”
“Come on, kid,” says Andrew, “it’s okay.” He holds out his hand, but Tony doesn’t want to go with him. He wants to stay with Clint and to find Steve and Bruce and get Natalia and he wants them all to go home. He thinks Clint wants the same thing because Clint pulls Tony behind him and backs them towards the bathroom. Maybe if they get inside they can shut the door and no one can take Tony away.
“Come on, Tony,” Andrew tries again and then gives the two lab coat people a helpless look because Tony won’t go. Tony does not think he knows much about kids. Mr. Jarvis would be using the Voice right now if Tony wasn’t listening to him. Even Daddy knows how to do the Voice and so does Mr. Phil and Miss Pepper. Mr. Fury is so good at the Voice that even grownup men listen to him. Andrew doesn’t have a good listen voice.
“For goodness sake, Addams,” says the lab coat man, and then he says to Clint, “Either we take Tony now or we drag him out, and if we drag him out we can’t say he won’t be hurt. Now, do you want us to hurt him, or not?”
“I think bad little boys need a spanking,” says the lab coat woman, folding her arms, and she’s very good at the Voice.
Tony doesn’t want anyone to hurt him and he doesn’t want them to hurt his friends either. Clint is being bad because of Tony and they’re going to get mad at him and maybe they’ll hit him.
“One,” says the lab coat woman, “two…”
“I’m sorry, don’t hit Clint!” Tony yells and he pulls away and runs to Andrew. He looks back and Clint is crying even though Clint is a big boy, but he’s still very little next to the grownups and kidnappers don’t like it when you cry. He looks angry but tears means he’s sad or upset, and the kidnappers will get angry, and Tony wants to tell him to stop and wipe away his tears but he can’t because Andrew picks him up off the floor and walks out the door before he can.
Leaving when Clint is crying makes Tony’s tummy feel funny and unhappy, and now Tony is all alone with Andrew and he doesn’t have any of his friends with him at all. He doesn’t know if the kidnappers are hurting Natalia or hitting Clint or even where Steve and Bruce are.
“Shh, it’s ok,” says Andrew, and Tony clings. He wants to go home.
Andrew walks down white hallways and takes him into another white room. This room doesn’t have any beds but it does have a big table with paper and crayons and a box in the corner and a man sitting in a chair. It’s a big person chair so he doesn’t look silly. It’s the yellow suit man, and he’s still wearing a yellow suit.
“Hello, Tony,” he says and he smiles. The smile is all wrong on his face, and his eyes look Tony up and down and Tony holds onto Andrew tighter. It doesn’t help though, because as tight as Tony holds on, Andrew is letting go and putting him on the floor.
Andrew leaves and shuts the door and Tony is all alone with the yellow suit man.
“Come here, Tony,” says the man, pointing at a chair next to him, but Tony’s feet don’t want to move him any closer and his eyes don’t want to look at the man so they look at the ground. The ground is white, like all the room, and tiled with squares. Tony’s hands pull at his new white shirt and he can feel his flashlight in his chest and he remembers the angel lady who wasn’t an angel and he tries to feel brave.
“Come HERE,” says the man forcefully and Tony shuffles a little bit closer. The man leans over and grabs him by his shirt and drags him so hard that Tony’s feet have a hard time following and standing under him. He looks up but the man isn’t glaring or angry. He looks calm. That’s scary because he’s acting angry but he doesn’t look it. Then the man lifts Tony up and sets him in the big grownup chair next to him.
“Do you know where you are, Tony?” the man asks him.
“Is it a lab?” Tony asks, because a lot of the grownups wear lab coats, and lab coats mean labs, and scientists who hold beakers of fizzing liquids and have bushy hair and do mean things to mice. The yellow suit man smiles at Tony.
“Close,” he says. “This is a school, Tony, a school for very special boys and girls. You have to be very smart to go to this school.”
Tony frowns because that makes no sense at all, and if they were supposed to go to school then Mr. Phil would have told them. But he doesn’t want to say that because maybe the kidnapper man will be angry if Tony tells him he’s lying. So Tony doesn’t say anything and he just stares at the crayons. The crayons are familiar and safe and don’t make his tummy feel fluttery or make his chest go so tight that his breathing hurts.
“In fact,” says the man, “We’re going to have a test right now. You want to show me how smart you are, don’t you Tony?”
The man opens the crayons and pulls out a piece of paper to push in front of Tony. The table is too high so only the top of his head peers over, but the man doesn’t offer him a booster seat or a phonebook to sit on.
“Let’s start easy,” says yellow suit man, “Can you count to ten?”
Of course Tony can count to ten. That’s easy. He can count to a trillion even except it would take forever and ever to count that far. But he doesn’t want to count for the yellow suit man. If this really is a school for smart kids and that wasn’t all a lie, then maybe if Tony pretends to be really stupid they won’t want him and he can go home.
“Go on,” says the man, “Count Tony.”
“I don’t know how,” says Tony and he tries to look at the man in the eyes and say it in his most factual voice so that the man will believe him.
“No?” the man answers with wide eyes, “Well then, how about the alphabet? Can you say your ABCs?”
“I’m sorry,” Tony tells him, “I don’t know how to do anything. I’m only four and, and, and a day. Just barely four. Only a tiny bit four. I don’t know how to do anything. I’m stupid really. I don’t think I’m smart enough for your school.”
“Oh?” says the man, “Well that’s too bad.” He sounds sad and disappointed. Tony doesn’t like disappointing people. It makes him feel a bad feeling like he is too small and he’s going to fall into a hole and disappear and no one will look for him and he’ll be gone forever. But disappointing kidnappers is a good thing so Tony doesn’t feel small except that the table is too big and the chair is too big and the man is too big so maybe he is a bit too small.
“What about your friends?” asks the man, “Surely they are smart?”
“No,” says Tony, “We’re all stupid.”
“Well, do you know what happens to stupid children at this school?” asks the man.
“Do they get sent back home?” Tony asks.
“No,” says the man, “Stupid little boys and girls who don’t know how to count or read or build get taken into the labs. If you can’t take a test, you can be a test. Maybe we’ll cut you open to look at your little arc reactor. Or maybe we’ll see how long your green friend can run before he passes out from exhaustion. Or we’ll see how long it takes all of you to heal if we hit you with a stick. It’s really too bad you’re too stupid to be in our school.”
“We’re not stupid!” Tony tells him, “I was…I was just kidding! We’re really smart!”
The yellow suit man gives Tony a severe look. “Were you lying, Tony?”
“No...I was…I was just kidding,” Tony answers quickly because lying is bad and grownups always get angry when you do it.
“Do you know what happens to little boys who tell lies?” demands the man, and Tony’s heart is beating hard against his flashlight and what if he’s going to hit him or say that all his friends are going to be experiments after all or he says he’s going to kill them like he said he would when he first told Tony to be quiet and be a good boy. He doesn’t want to answer but the man is staring hard at him so Tony shakes his head.
“Bad little boys who tell lies get punished,” says the man, and he grabs Tony roughly under the arms and pulls him out of the chair. Tony squeezes his eyes shut and breathes hard and waits for things to hurt.
He opens them again when he’s being set down on the ground. He is facing the hard white edge of one of the room’s corners.
“Now,” says the yellow suit man, “You stand there facing the corner until I say you can come away and you just think about what I’ve said. Then we’ll have our school tests and after that will be dinner time and games.”
The yellow suit man makes Tony stand in the corner without fidgeting or turning or moving about for a full ten minutes. Mr. Phil never makes him sit in time out for longer than four.
Tony thinks being hit might have been easier. The yellow suit man keeps starting the counter over again too if Tony moves, and Tony has to stand so forever long that his legs feel tired and achy and his tummy says its hungry.
At least his heart stops beating so hard, and he stops feeling all shaky and none of his friends are being hurt or experimented on. In the end the yellow suit man says the punishment is over and that Tony is a good boy. He still wants to go home.
When Tony was about three years old, he learned about school. School, he learned, was a place where lots of little boys and little girls play with each other and learn new things. It was, to Tony’s three year old mind, the most brilliant of places imaginable and he had begged to get to go. His daddy said he was too little and too smart and too whiny and too much everything for school. So Tony made his own school and taught Mr. Jarvis how to play games and take apart a radio and eat cookies that Tony had helped to make.
This school is nothing like that. After corner time, the yellow suit man wants Tony to answer math problems.
“Be a good boy and show me how smart you are,” he says, “And if you get any wrong I’ll know you’re being bad and pretending to be stupid. Then you’ll have to be punished again.”
Math is supposed to be fun because it’s playing a game with numbers. Tony doesn’t like this game though. He doesn’t like the big yellow suit man watching him and he doesn’t want to be punished. The first problems are easy, even with the really big numbers. Then the yellow suit man writes down 26 x 32 = __. Tony is confused. Mr. Jarvis never wrote any math problems like that. What is the x for? Maybe it’s supposed to be a + and the man just has bad writing. Sometimes Tony’s daddy scribbles funny and Tony can’t read his words at all. Sometimes his daddy writes math but with funny symbols. Is it a funny symbol or is it a plus sign? Tony doesn’t know. Hesitantly, he tries writing ‘58’. He writes it really tiny in case it’s wrong and he can pretend he didn’t write it.
The yellow suit man slams his fist down on the table next to Tony. Tony jumps, his heart beating hard in his chest. The fist breaks the red crayon in half.
“That’s a stupid answer!” the yellow suit man shouts, “I told you not to be stupid, didn’t I!” Tony wants to answer. He wants to explain that the x makes no sense and he doesn’t understand. The words are trapped inside his mouth somehow and his hand goes to his flashlight, because maybe its light could somehow make things less scary. Tony waits for more corner time or something scarier to happen.
Instead, the man stops shouting and he picks up the broken crayon. He crosses out Tony’s number and writes 832.
“Listen very carefully,” he says in a calm, quiet voice as though he wasn’t angry at all, “26 times 32 equals 832. Do you understand now?” And then he writes another problem. 62 x 22 = __.
Tony can still feel his heart beating and he stares at the numbers. This isn’t proper math. Math is fun. Math is easy. Tony knows how to add and to subtract really big numbers in his head. Jarvis says Tony is really smart and most little boys can only add or subtract tiny numbers. But now math isn’t fun and it isn’t easy and Tony doesn’t know what he’s supposed to do and soon the man will call him stupid again and maybe he will have to stand in a corner forever and maybe the scary man will decide to experiment on all his friends and maybe the scary man will hit him. Tony is breathing hard and just staring at the numbers and the problem.
“Come on, Tony, I already did one for you!” The yellow suit man sounds angry again. “I thought you were smart!”
Tony looks at the first problem again. It isn’t like adding, because 832 is a really big number, much bigger than 26 or 32. The numbers are starting to blur and his eyes want to cry but he can’t cry because kidnappers don’t like cry babies who make noise and messes. He tries to be smart but he never had to think about numbers before. Numbers just make sense. Why don’t these make sense? Maybe 32 is important; it’s in the answer and the question. The yellow suit man is growing angry and Tony doesn’t want to be stupid and finally he picks up the broken crayon and he guesses 62 x 22 = 822.
“Wrong!” the man shouts, grabbing the crayon out of Tony’s hand so quickly that Tony’s fingers are smashed, just a bit, and Tony pulls his hand against his chest. The yellow suite man scribbles hard all over Tony’s answer, and then writes 1364.
“One more chance,” he growls, “Here’s an easy one. Even stupid kids can answer this.” And he writes 3 x 2 = __. Tony still doesn’t know what to do. If it was adding he’d put 5. If it was minus, he’d put 1. That’s easy. But Tony doesn’t understand how the x works, except that it makes numbers a lot bigger. Tony holds his fingers and he doesn’t want to play this game, not at all. Then the yellow suit man frowns at him and writes down 6. Tony stares. 6 is not a big number. It’s a tiny number.
And then all at once, the numbers slide into place again. 6 has two threes inside it. What if the x is a way of saying to add numbers over and over again? Didn’t the yellow suit man say ‘times’? Maybe this meant he adds 3 twice. Or he adds 2 three times. Both ways equal six. He looks at the really big questions and the numbers add and add in his head and come out right.
“That’s three problems you got wrong,” said the yellow suit man, “Even the easy question.”
“No, I can do the x’s now,” Tony says, “I can do more problems! I can do…I can do 108 times 57! It’s…it’s…it’s…6156!”
“So now you want to play smart!” says the yellow suit man, and he sounds angry and that makes Tony want to shrink all tiny and small and maybe no one can see him and be angry anymore. There’s a strange look in the man’s eyes, almost like he’s happy but his voice is still angry and scary and Tony doesn’t like it. Math is easier to understand than faces.
“I didn’t ever do times, I didn’t, not in my whole life!” Tony tries to explain.
“Tell me, Tony, what’s three times ten?”
“Thirty!” Tony answers quickly.
“And thirty is how many minutes I want you to stand in the corner,” says the yellow suit man, and he grabs Tony arm and hauls him back to the same corner as before.
Tony tries to stand still, he really tries, but his legs are tired of standing and sore and his tummy is rumbly and empty and his brain is thinking about numbers, and his friends, and Mr. Phil, and Ms. Pepper, and Mommy and Daddy, and Jarvis, and ear phones, and broken crayons, and screaming Natalia, and crying Clint, and green Bruce, and Steve, and kidnappers, and darkness, and rats, and Captain America, and rockets, and hamburgers, and ice cream, and dinosaurs, and mad scientists with fizzy beakers, and flashlights and not-angels, and shrink rays that make you so tiny no one can find you because you’ve run off to live with mice who can fly and feed you cheese.
Thinking all these things makes his brain race like his heart in his chest and crowds out all the small things like that he isn’t allowed to move or Mr. Yellow Suit Man might hurt him or his friends. So he scratches his nose or bends his knee or twists his head. And then Mr. Yellow Suit Man frowns or shouts and says time is starting all over again.
It goes on and on, standing in a corner, and not moving, and Tony thinks maybe it’s been breakfast time, lunch time, and dinner time already because his tummy is so empty, and his heart is still beating hard, and now his head is turning dizzy and making his racing thoughts run in circles until it feels like all he’s done in his whole life is stand still and stare at a corner with a frowning giant man shouting at him. Then somehow he’s leaning against the wall without meaning to.
“Stand up!” shouts the angry voice.
Time starts over again, and again, and blurs until thirty minutes is the same thing as thirty days, until Tony is leaning again, but the wall has turned into white tiles because somehow the wall is the floor, and the white takes over the entire world.
When Tony wakes up, he isn’t on the floor and he isn’t in time out. He’s in bed again, and Clint is curled up next to him. The room is silent this time. No one is screaming and Clint is asleep.
“Clint?” Tony whispers, but he’s still asleep. Tony’s tummy growls because it is empty and maybe he missed a hundred mealtimes because he was bad and was in time out, but there isn’t any food in the room.
Tony is hungry and sore and scared and small and useless, and alone. Alone…except for Clint. And Natalia is one room over, he saw her. And somewhere in this building, this evil kidnapper school, there is Steve and Bruce. Somewhere looking for them all is Mr. Phil, and Miss Pepper, and Mr. Thor and Mr. Fury. And in Tony’s chest, there is still the glow of his flashlight, his gift from the angel woman who isn’t an angel.
So Tony doesn’t cry, and he doesn’t hide in a tiny ball. He squirms closer to Clint and listens to his soft breaths, and he thinks. His limbs still feel shaky and his mind still feels blurred and sleepy, but his hunger anchors him and he doesn’t fall asleep and his brain thinks in spirals, which is better than circles because each time he comes around to the same thoughts, he’s uncovered just a little bit more.
He doesn’t want the kidnappers to hurt his friends because Tony is bad. Tony doesn’t want to feel shaky and sore because he was punished. He doesn’t want his friends to be punished either. He’s supposed to be good and do what grownups say. His kidnappers are grownups and they might hurt his friends if Tony is bad. Tony doesn’t want to be bad.
Tony is very very good at math. Sometimes math is more than just numbers. Sometimes math works as a sort of story. The story in Tony’s head goes like this:
Tony being good = no one being hurt. But, Tony always being good = impossible. Therefore, eventually this will happen: Tony being bad = friends or Tony being hurt. The math in his head says this will happen. Sooner or later, bad things will happen and it will be Tony’s fault.
The final conclusion; if Tony trying to be good = Tony and his friends being hurt, then being good is not enough. Tony has to do more than try to be good.
It’s bad to kidnap children. Kidnappers are monsters, the real kind not the pretend kind, not like mummies. It’s not bad to fight monsters. Mr. Phil told Steve he was good when he attacked the agent man who hurt Tony. Therefore, Mr. Phil will say Tony is good if he attacks the kidnappers.
He can’t just attack them. The kidnappers are bigger than him and scarier, and Tony is small and weak. But he isn’t alone. He isn’t locked away in the dark. He doesn’t have to wait to be rescued. He also doesn’t have to attack by jumping out and hitting people. Maybe, just maybe, there’s a way to attack people by being small, and weak, and very very smart.
“Tone?” Clint mumbles, still half asleep.
“I’m here,” Tony whispers back. Clint hums. For a moment it sounds like he’s going to fall asleep again, but then he speaks.
“Where were you?”
“A man said we’re in a school,” Tony whispered. “He wanted me to do math. Then I was bad and I had to stand in time out forever and ever. I think I fell asleep in time out.”
“The science lady wanted me to play games with the toys,” Clint whispered, “It was stupid.” Tony thinks about this. He wants to ask if she hit Clint because Tony was bad, but somehow the words change around when he says them.
“Was she bad? Did she hurt you?”
“Just…just a couple hits,” Clint answered. “Was the man bad? Did he hit you?”
Tony starts to answer no, but the answer doesn’t quite fit the question.
“He said I was bad,” Tony answered. “He shouted. I told him we were stupid because I wanted us to go home. Then he wanted me to do times, and I didn’t know times. And he said I was bad and I had to stand in time out.”
“You aren’t bad,” Clint insisted, his eyes open now and he didn’t sound half asleep anymore. His voice was almost too loud for a whisper but it wasn’t quite a normal talking voice. “You aren’t bad. He’s bad. Did…did you get spanked? Or did he hit your hand?”
“No,” Tony answered, feeling odd. “No…he is a bad man…a…a monster, and a liar…but he didn’t hit me. He shouted. And I had to stand forever. And I never got dinner or lunch or anything. Then I fell over. I think I fell over a couple times, maybe? It was a really, really long time out. He started it over if I moved.”
“I got dinner. I should have hidden some of it for you.” Tony doesn’t know what to say to this. He feels a bit unreal and washed out.
“We have to be bad,” Tony says at last. “We have to…we have to be monster fighters. We have to escape.”
“We’ll escape together,” Clint whispers. “All of us.” Then they’re both silent, thinking thoughts so heavy, deep thoughts that run in spirals. Tony listens to Clint breathing and stares outwards in the dim glow of his flashlight. He doesn’t feel alone anymore, but he still feels something lonely, something unpleasant that almost makes he want to cry, but he doesn’t. The night feels very long. In the end, his heavy thoughts and weak limbs drag him down. He sleeps.
So…you may have noticed a slight delay between this chapter and the last. One that lasted a couple of years. Oops? I had half of this written for basically all that time, and then couldn’t figure out where to go from there, and then I was distracted by being more into Sherlock for a bit, and…well…sorry? Well, I do now at least know what I’m aiming for to finally get this story finished, so hopefully it won’t be another year or so before the next update. I hope. No promises. But at least I do have an end in sight, so hopefully I’ll continue to be inspired to write until I reach it.
Also, for those who wonder why a mathematical genius like Tony doesn’t already know how to multiply, the simple answer is that no one got around to teaching it to him, his main teacher at the moment being Jarvis who didn’t think advanced mathematics were important for a four year old to know. The real answer is that I wanted some math simple enough I wouldn’t have to strain to find the answer but hard enough that a math genius might still struggle. Of course, once Tony has the concept down, multiplication is easy.
Tony and Clint are very good boys for breakfast, even if Tony feels so hungry and empty that his tummy says it doesn’t want food. It’s funny because Tony didn’t know that tummies did that. He thought being really hungry meant he would want to eat everything. Instead he felt sick and small and shaky.
He holds in the horrible sick feeling and eats his porridge. He sits up tall, and he holds his spoon just like Mr. Jarvis always tells him to instead of in a fist like he thinks is better. Neither of the boys wrinkle their noses or ask for sugar or make a mess. They smile and say ‘thank you very much’ and ‘Mmm, yummy. You must tell us the recipe for this porridge’, and ‘I love how grainy it tastes.’
After breakfast, when the scientist teacher people come and tell them to play with the toys, Tony obediently plays with the toy bow and arrow while Clint plays with the blocks.
“Don’t you want to play with the arrows, Clint?” the scientist woman asks. “I heard they were your favorite. Why don’t you let Clint have a go, Tony, and you can try building something with this. Look! We have robotics for you to play with! Why don’t you try building a dog?”
Tony and Clint look at each other.
“No thank you,” says Clint. “I don’t like shooting things. It’s very violent, isn’t it? I prefer creating things.”
“No thank you,” says Tony. “I don’t care for building things. I enjoy destroying them.” And he shoots at Clint’s block tower with an arrow. The arrow misses and both boys smile politely and Clint continues to stack his blocks.
Next door, a very hoarse voice starts to scream.
“Clint. Tony.” The scientist woman is not happy and she has to talk loudly to be heard over Natalia. “Good little boys play with the toys they are given.”
“I’m sorry,” says Tony, “I didn’t know we had to play with those toys. I’ll build a dog.”
“I’m sorry,” Clint says, “I can shoot things if you want me to.”
Tony gives Clint the bow and arrow and goes to where electronics and other parts are laid out. Clint shoots at his block tower. He misses. The scientists attempt to smile. They aren’t very good at it.
Natalia stops screaming. Everyone pauses in the sudden silence. Then the thumping starts. It’s quite loud. The science teacher man strides over to look through the window. He’s tall enough to look into the next room quite easily.
“Ah,” he says. “It seems your young friend has taken to beating her table with her chair.”
“And aren’t Roberts and Troy going to put a stop to it?” the woman asks. Her smile is very odd, like it’s trying to be a frown.
“I believe they’re hoping she will wear herself out,” the man answers.
“She could do with a good spanking…don’t you think, boys?” the woman asks, her smile hardly a smile at all now. Tony and Clint look at her.
The thumping goes on and on. Natalia does not seem to be getting tired. Clint shoots all of his arrows at his tower. He misses. Tony puts together his dog’s legs. When he presses the button to make them walk, they all walk in different directions and the whole thing falls over.
“Tony,” says the woman, keeling down to look at his dog, “Are you sure you are really trying hard? A smart little boy should be better at making robot dogs.”
“I’m playing a game,” answers Tony. “I’m making a backwards dog.”
The woman frowns. She is probably going to tell Tony he is being bad. It makes him feel funny, because it feels scary and happy inside his tummy at the same time. He really doesn’t want her to hit him and he really, really doesn’t want to be in time out. His legs still feel achy and hurty and he doesn’t even want to stand up. He tries to smile at her and show her he’s a very good boy.
Clint shoots her with an arrow.
“Oops,” says Clint. “I don’t think I’m very good at arrows. I’m sorry Mrs. Teacher.”
“Call me Mistress,” the woman answers sharply. She isn’t smiling at all now. Her eyes are shifting between Tony and Clint.
“And call me Master,” the man says, making both boys jump a little bit. He doesn’t loom like Mistress does so they almost forgot he was there.
The secret door slides open and the nice kidnapper is there.
“I’m to take Tony to the lab?” he says.
Clint and Tony look at each other. Clint doesn’t cry this time or try to hide Tony behind him. Tony stands up very slowly and takes small, painful steps.
“Why are you walking funny?” Mistress demands. Now her voice sounds angry, but her face looks smiley. Tony does not like her at all. She is confusing.
“My legs are all hurty,” Tony answers. “I think it’s because I stood forever and ever yesterday.”
“Well,” she says, still smiling, “If you are a good little boy, that won’t happen.”
“I am a good little boy,” Tony tells her, and he tries to smile really big so she will think he means it. “And so is Clint.”
Tony walks very slowly and carefully into the hall and then Andrew picks him up and carries him. They go by windowed rooms, turning twice, and then through some doors into a big room with people in yellow doctor robes with doctor masks. There’s a hard bed covered in paper and Andrew puts Tony down on that.
There are more hard beds and white curtains and lots of cabinets and bright lights and things that belong in doctor’s offices. On a nearby bed, there is a small boy who is sleeping and he has wires taped to him. On another bed, there is an older boy who is sitting up and he has a red tube coming out of his arm.
“Steve!” Tony says, “Bruce!”
Bruce is still sleeping but Steve looks at him. Steve looks really pale and tired and his eyes go very big when he sees Tony sitting on the hard paper bed.
“Tony? Are you alright? Have you seen…”
“Shush!” a yellow robe doctor shouts and Steve stops talking. Tony doesn’t talk either because he is still being a perfect angel, but he nods his head at Steve and tries to smile so Steve won’t be upset. Tony doesn’t know if he’s very good at smiling, though, because Steve doesn’t smile back.
The yellow robe doctor who said ‘shush’ walks up to Tony and looks at him, but he has a grownup look that means he isn’t really looking at Tony. He doesn’t look at Tony’s face anyway. He looks mostly at his chest, where the flashlight is glowing through his shirt. Then he looks at a yellow robe doctor woman.
“I want full vitals first,” he says, “Then let’s see what we can get when it’s still in the subject’s chest. It’s a pity they want it alive; I’m sure I could get a much better look if the subject’s body weren’t in the way.”
Tony is glad they want the flashlight to be alive too, because he doesn’t want to lose it. It’s his gift from the not-angel lady. He thinks he’d have a very hard time fighting monsters if they took it away. Also, Dr. Shaw said it was his heart protector, and that sounds important. Tony doesn’t want to have a sick heart.
The yellow robe doctor woman puts Tony on a scale and does doctor things like looking in his ears and inside his mouth. She isn’t a very good doctor. She doesn’t talk to him at all like Dr. Shaw does, or explain anything, not even when she puts the squeezy thing on his arm that goes really really tight on top of his arm, the arm that’s still a little bit hurty and yellow, and he wants it to stop.
He doesn’t say a word, though, because he’s being a good boy. He just tries to smile really really hard and maybe makes an ouch sort of noise. Steve doesn’t know about how they are acting good, though, and he does talk.
“Stop it!” he says, “You’re hurting him!”
“Shush!” says the doctor man again. Then the squeezy thing stops squeezing his arm and the doctor woman takes it away. She writes things down and she doesn’t give him a sucker and Tony has to smile really hard so he doesn’t miss Dr. Shaw and home.
He has to sit on the hard paper bed for a long time while the doctor people look at their machines and look at sleeping Bruce and ignore him and Steve. Steve and Tony look at each other but they don’t talk. Maybe Steve realized they are being good.
Then the doctor man comes over and says, “Get his shirt off,” and no one waits for Tony to pull off his shirt, hands just grab him and yank roughly at his shirt until they force it over his head and off his arms. Then both doctors are staring at Tony’s chest. Tony doesn’t like it and he wants to put his hands over his flashlight but he doesn’t think that would be being good. Instead, he digs his fingers into the paper and it makes a wrinkle noise but no one says hush this time. They just stare at his flashlight and the doctor man reaches out and touches it, gently.
The door opens and the yellow suit man walks in. He looks at Tony and at the doctor people and he smiles.
“Are you being a good boy, Tony?” he asks.
“Yes,” Tony answers quickly. “We’re all good.”
“Glad to hear it. Dr. Travis? What’s this I hear about you requesting our young genius’s presence?”
“You promised I’d have a go at the reactor,” the man answers. “If Iago gets to play with the super soldier serum, why can’t I study the reactor technology? Everyone knows robotics is the future, not biology.”
“You’ll get your turn when I say you do,” yellow suit man answers, and he doesn’t sound angry, but the doctor man looks away anyway. Tony wonders if the yellow suit man is going to make the doctor man stand in time out.
Instead he looks at Tony again, then at Bruce and Steve.
“You can keep the little monster here, at least until you know how to stop his little green problem from happening. I want these two in the playroom. It’s time we have some lunch, and then lessons.”
The doctor man looks so angry that Tony thinks he’s going to shout or say they can’t go, but he doesn’t say anything.
“Well, come on!” the yellow suit man shouts. Steve slides off his bed then, except the red tube is still stuck to his arm, and Tony realizes the yellow suit man is shouting at them. Tony has to slide off his bed too, and it’s really high up and when he drops onto his feet it feels like he landed on something really hard. He thinks it’s the wire he hid in his shoe from his robot parts.
The doctor woman takes away the red tube from Steve while Tony pulls his shirt back on. She isn’t very good at it because his arm is bleeding. She sticks a Band-Aid on. It’s the boring kind without any cartoons.
“Come on!” the yellow suit man tells them, and he wants them to walk really fast because his legs are really long and he doesn’t like going slow. Tony tries to walk fast too, but his legs are stiff and achy like someone hit them, except no one did. The foot with the wire is not nice to walk on, either.
“Stop with the sniveling!” the yellow suit man says, “Do I need to put you in time out again?”
“His legs are little,” Steve says, “I can carry him and go really fast.”
“You will not!” says yellow suit man, “He needs to learn to move faster. If his legs hurt, it’s his own fault.”
Tony clinches his teeth very tightly to try and not make any noise. He makes jogging steps and tries to keep up. Steve looks like he’s clinching his teeth too. Tony hopes his legs aren’t sore.
They go into a nearby room. It is the same sort as the bedroom, except instead of beds there’s just a long table and shelves of toys and art supplies and boxes. Clint is sitting at the table. Natalia is there too. She isn’t screaming or hitting her chair. She’s sitting up and smiling like a good little girl.
Mistress from their bedroom is glaring at Natalia. The other man is a new scientist man and he looks very tired.
“Well,” says the yellow suit man, “I’ve found our wayward students. Let them have lunch and we’ll start our afternoon lessons.”
“Are you sure they should be allowed together?” Mistress asks, her voice low and angry and hissy.
“Nonsense,” says the yellow suit man, “I want them to learn to work together. They are a team aren’t they? And besides, you’ve observed them. They’re proper children. Ready and willing to be molded to our cause.”
Tony, Steve, Clint and Natalia are perfect angels all through lunch. They smile and they sit up and they say ‘thank you’ and ‘please’.
After all, this may be their last meal for a long while. So they clean their plates and they look at each other and they smile. Yellow suit man doesn’t watch them eat. He comes back after they are done.
“And are you ready to learn and be good little children?” he says.
Tony looks at him, and suddenly all his lunch feels really heavy in his stomach. He swallows. Kidnappers don’t like it when kids cry or throw up or make messes or when they don’t listen and do as they are told. And so Tony knows that yellow suit man is about to become very angry. That’s scary. But somehow, it’s also very, very hard not to laugh.
“I’m sorry,” Tony says out loud in Russian, “I’ve forgotten English.”
If being good is never good enough, then it’s time to try being very very bad.
Kidnappers do not like it when kids make messes or scream or cry. They do not like it when kids do not obey. These kidnappers are very very angry.
“The ground is lava!” Clint screams and so Tony and Steve climb onto the table and Natalia and Clint run away to someplace that isn’t the ground. The grown-ups do not try to jump off the ground though. They just look angry. Yellow Suit Man is turning red.
“Stop that!” he shouts, but no one stops, and soon the whole room is loud and busy and they are making a big mess while the scientists turn in circles and shout at them. Yellow Suit Man does not turn in circles or shout. He marches up to the table where Tony and Steve are standing, and there’s not a lot of places to run on top of a table. Steve picks up a tray but Yellow Suit Man doesn’t reach for him. He reaches for Tony.
“Time out!” he shouts. He picks Tony up and squeezes him a little bit too hard and puts him in the corner of the room.
“I do not understand,” says Tony in Russian. Then he says “You are a giant toad.” He has to say that, because it is very hard to remember that he isn’t going to listen to anything Yellow Suit Man says when the man is shouting and angry. Shouting grown-ups mean that Tony is in Trouble and he is supposed to Listen. He has to remind his feet that this man isn’t a grown-up; he’s a monster. Tony is not going to listen to monsters. So Tony does not stay in time out; he runs back to the table.
Clint and Steve and Natalia are not perfect angels anymore. Steve is on top of the table, using his lunch tray like a very wide bat. Clint is throwing things at him from the top of one of the shelves and Steve is hitting them. Natalia is throwing things too from another shelf, but she’s throwing them at the scientist people, not at Steve. She’s also collecting things that look sharp.
Mistress is very angry too. She is shouting at Clint and holding up a fist.
“I don’t speak English!” Clint shouts back in Russian. Clint sometimes doesn’t remember Russian very well, but he can still say somethings. Like: “I will pull out your intestines through your nose, you ugly pig!” They all know words like that because they are Natalia’s favorite things to say when they play games. Clint is saying things like this, and other words that are much worse. The other scientist man makes faces at Clint’s words. Or maybe he’s making faces because Natalia just threw a wooden block at him.
“What did he say?” Mistress asks the scientist man, her fist clinched really tight. “I want to know how many swats he’s going to get before I begin.”
“Er…” says the scientist man. “I’d rather not repeat that kind of…” And then Natalia stabs him in the leg with a spork and he screams. Everyone is really surprised; Tony hadn’t even seen Natalia climb off her shelf to get close to him. Even Steve and Clint pause in their game. Tony is halfway on top of the table when he stops too.
Then Yellow Suit Man grabs Tony by his shirt and screams, “Enough!” and Tony is pulled up in the air and his shirt is pulled really tight around his arms and neck and Tony doesn’t like it at all. He swings his feet to try and kick himself free, but his legs are too short to reach and his breathing is coming hard and loud because it keeps getting caught in his throat by his shirt and his face is going very hot.
“If you brats don’t stop this nonsense right now, this one is dead.” His voice is not shouting now, it is almost quiet and the room is quiet too. Tony’s heart sounds very loud in his ears and his breathing is loud and maybe Yellow Suit Man is going to kill Tony because he’s too loud.
“You don’t want to kill us,” says Natalia, and everyone jumps because somehow she is coming up from under the table and also because she is speaking English. Her voice is hoarse from screaming earlier and she is glaring and holding a spork in one hand and a ruler in the other. “You need us for something. You want to use us.”
“I already have one genius,” says Yellow Suit Man. “This one’s surplus.”
No one says anything. No one moves. The scientist man whimpers a bit in a corner. At some point, Natalia had tied his hands and feet together with his shoelaces and stuffed a small teddy bear in his mouth. The other kidnappers don’t bother with him. Yellow Suit Man just holds Tony up in the air and Mistress glares at everyone.
“Much better,” says Yellow Suit Man. “Now…you were all very bad children. I think bad children should be punished. What do you think?”
“I told you they don’t need coddling, sir,” says Mistress. “What they all need is a good hiding. Maybe starting with their little ring leader here.” She’s looking at Tony and smiling and it’s scary because she wants to hurt him and his chest feels really tight and maybe it’s because his shirt is too tight and maybe it’s because he was bad and is in the hands of monsters. Then she goes and picks up a ruler and she comes back towards them and Yellow Suit Man is still holding Tony’s shirt and the world feels a bit swimmy and weird.
“Don’t you hurt him!” Steve screams. Then he throws his tray at Yellow Suit Man. He throws it like it’s a disc, and the math in Tony’s head says that shouldn’t work because it isn’t round, but it tumbles through the air anyway and then Yellow Suit Man is dropping Tony and falling backwards. At the same time Mistress screams very loudly and maybe she’s angry and maybe she’s hurt. Tony didn’t see what happened but when he looks he sees a pencil sticking straight through her raised hand that was raised to hit him and she isn’t holding the ruler anymore.
Tony sits on the ground and coughs because his throat still feels tight even though his shirt isn’t pulling on it and he stares at Mistress’s hand and then turns to see Yellow Suit Man has a bleeding head but he is sitting up and he still looks very angry.
Yellow Suit Man looks at Tony and his eyes look so angry that Tony decides to stand up and run away even though his legs feel heavy and getting up is hard. He runs to where Clint is up on a shelf. Clint has the toy bow but he doesn’t have toy arrows. He is crouched next to the art supplies. He puts his bow down though when Tony runs up to him and he leans down with his hands because maybe climbing up shelves is hard and Tony needs Clint’s help.
“You!” Mistress shrieks and she yanks the pencil right out of her hand and charges towards them, holding the pencil in the hand that isn’t covered in blood.
Clint looks pale but he doesn’t drop Tony even though Tony is moving really slowly up the shelves and Clint is pulling as hard as he can but Tony is heavy and his legs don’t reach very well to help push himself up.
“You know what we think?” Steve shouts. “We think you are very bad grown-ups and you should be punished!”
It turns out, Steve had more trays on the table than the one he threw at the Yellow Suit Man.
It also turns out that there was a trip wire tied between the table and a chair. Tony thinks maybe Natalia did that but he doesn’t know where she found the wire. Yellow Suit Man is hit with a tray right in-between his legs while Mistress trips on the wire and then has the chair fall on top of her. She shrieks again with rage while Yellow Suit Man crumbles to the ground.
Tony finishes climbing up onto the shelf and Clint picks up his bow and another pencil.
“Aim for the eye,” Natalia shouts up at him and Steve says, “What? No, that would kill them!”
“We have to tie them up,” says Tony, “And then we lock them in the dark and we go and get Bruce.” He doesn’t shout because his voice comes out all hoarse like maybe he had been screaming like Natalia except he wasn’t screaming.
Steve hits Yellow Suit Man on the head again with another tray and he stops moving. Mistress tries to untangle herself and then Clint jumps all the way from the top of the shelf to the ground, and that’s a really big jump, and he marches right up to her and aims his pencil arrow right at her eye.
“Don’t move,” he says, “Or we punish you.”
Natalia ties her up with more trip wire. It turns out to be wire from the robotic toy section. Maybe Tony didn’t need to hide robot parts in his shoe after all. There are lots in this room.
“Now what?” says Clint, after Steve drags all the kidnappers together and Natalia makes sure none of them can move even a tiny bit or shout for help. Tony wants to hide them in a closet but there isn’t a closet in the room and they are too big to hide inside a shelf.
“Now we get Bruce and escape,” Steve says firmly. “Does anyone know how to open the door?”
They all know where the secret door is to the room even though it looks like a wall, not a door, because they all came through it. They don’t know how to make it open.
“We don’t need door,” says Natalia. “We have window. Windows break.”
“If we break a window, they’ll know we’re escaping,” Steve protests. “We should try to make the door open.” He pushes on the wall. It doesn’t move. Then, suddenly, there’s a really loud noise, like a siren.
“It’s an alarm!” Clint shouts, “They know we’re escaping! We have to go now!” Steve doesn’t answer because he is covering his ears and squinching up his face. Natalia throws a block up at the window above them. It bounces off with a loud bang that makes them all jump even with the sirens being really loud.
Suddenly, the door slides open. Everyone jumps. Clint grabs up his bow and pencil arrows. Steve grabs up his tray. Natalia shoves Tony backwards, which isn’t nice because he trips and sits down, and then she steps in front of him so he can’t even see properly.
It isn’t a scary person, even though it is one of the kidnappers. It’s Andrew. He stares at them for a second, then raises his hands in the air.
“It’s okay!” he shouts over the siren noise, “I’m not going to hurt you! Please don’t hurt me!”
Natalia makes a growling noise and starts to swing her hand. Tony thinks maybe she’s going to stab Andrew with another spork.
“Wait!” Steve tells her, and then he says, “He can open doors. Let’s kidnap him and make him our prisoner and we can go get Bruce.” So Natalia doesn’t stab Andrew. Tony thinks he’s glad about that even if Andrew is a kidnapper because at least he isn’t a mean one.
“Right,” Steve says after a moment, “Natalia, you watch him. If he tries anything, stab him. Clint, you watch behind us and shoot anyone who approaches.”
“What do I do?” Tony asks. He doesn’t have anything to shoot or stab with, and there isn’t time to build a fighting robot. Steve looks down at him for a moment. Tony has to look up a long way to see his face because Tony is still sitting on the ground. Escaping is exciting and fun but also scary and his legs are still sore from standing so he was still sitting from when Natalia tripped him.
“You can help keep watch,” Steve says. “I’ll carry you on my shoulders so you’re up high and you can see if anyone is coming and tell us.”
Tony is not a stupid baby, and he doesn’t need to be carried, but keeping lookout sounds important and he will see a lot more if he is up high on Steve’s shoulders. Steve is tall.
“Okay,” Tony says, and Steve smiles and Clint helps Tony climb up and doesn’t even call Tony short. They are both short compared to Steve anyway.
The sirens are still going all the time they race down the hall. Andrew runs in front and he doesn’t run the wrong way so soon they are to the door to the doctor room. Andrew doesn’t do anything but the door opens anyway.
Bruce is still lying on his bed with all the wires and doctors are around him with their doctor things saying things like “prep for transport”, but they all stop and turn around when the door opens.
“Andrew?!” the doctor shouts, “What are you…” And then Andrew pulls a gun out of his pocket and shoots him. It doesn’t go bang. It goes zap and the doctor man falls down even though there isn’t any blood.
“Sorry,” says Andrew, “You can tell my uncle I resign.” A doctor lady has grabbed a scalpel but Clint shoots her arm with a pencil and she shrieks and drops it and Natalia takes her out at the knees and she crashes onto the ground and doesn’t move.
“You have a gun?!” Steve demands, and Andrew sort of shrugs and says, “Sorry. I really won’t hurt you. I want out.” And he puts his gun down on a bed before Natalia can decide to attack him too.
Then they all go to Bruce and Andrew and Steve pull away all the wires until it’s just Bruce but Bruce is still sleeping. Tony climbs off Steve’s shoulders and sits with him. He feels really sleepy and wishes he could sleep too, but they are still kidnapped and it isn’t a good time to sleep. He wishes Bruce would wake up instead. He pokes him. Bruce doesn’t move.
“It’ll take a while for the sedatives to work their way out of his system,” Andrew explains. Then they go to leave the room. Steve pushes the bed with Tony and Bruce on it because he doesn’t trust Andrew to carry him. He tells Tony to stay up there too so that Tony can protect sleeping Bruce.
Except at that moment the sirens suddenly cut off and the door shuts and it won’t open, not even when Andrew pulls out a card and waves it in front of it.
“I think they’ve put the building in lockdown,” he says. “They must know you’ve escaped.” His voice sounds really loud in the sudden silence. Natalia says something not very nice in Russian.
“Now what?” Clint asks. “This room doesn’t even have windows to break!” They look around the room. It has a lot of doctor things, and Natalia is busy picking up sharp things like the scalpel but they are still trapped.
“Is there a phone?” Tony asks, because if there is a phone then they can try to call for help. Tony knows a lot about phones because Miss Pepper let him look at her ear phone and she let him see her tablet, which is a future computer that’s really tiny. There isn’t a phone and Steve can’t pry the door open with a scalpel but there is a thing high up on the wall that has a covering and air comes through it.
“That’s the vent,” Andrew explains. Clint thinks maybe they can escape that way but he tries and he’s just a little bit too big and Steve is completely too big and their prisoner Andrew would never ever fit. Natalia can almost fit. She tries to suck her tummy in all the way and wriggle into it but it doesn’t work and she gets stuck and Steve has to pull her out again.
“It isn’t designed for people to crawl around in it,” says Andrew. “In fact, I think they made sure it was too small for people. They may be stupid in some ways, but they do learn from past mistakes.”
So Steve is too big and Clint is too big and Natalia is too big. Bruce might not be too big but he’s also sleeping. Tony stares into the tiny vent. There are no lights inside. It’s dark and tight and even thinking of crawling away from his friends into the dark makes Tony’s heart thud hard against his flashlight.
“The lady gave me a gift,” he says out loud, his hand coming up to his chest.
“Tony?” says Steve, but his eyes are still looking at the door and around the room like he is thinking about how to open the door and not about what Tony is saying.
“I’m small,” Tony says, and then, “I’m the smallest person here. I’m even smaller than Bruce.”
“It doesn’t matter,” Steve answers, “Even if you did fit, none of us do. We can’t get out that way.”
“But I can find a phone!” Tony answers, “I can find the control room place and maybe I can make the door open!”
“I don’t think you need to,” Andrew said, “I think your friends are already…” but he doesn’t get to keep talking because Natalia shoots him with the zap gun and he falls over and goes to sleep. Everyone looks at Natalia.
“I don’t trust him,” she says simply.
So they tie sleeping Andrew up and they look around the room and Steve says, “Maybe I can break the wall?”
“I can get out,” Tony insists. “I can get out and I can help. I’m smart! I know about things like phones and…and…machines and…”
“Can you make these machines help us?” Steve asks, looking at the doctor machines. Tony looks at them and he thinks maybe he can do something but he doesn’t know what he can do that is helpful. The machines aren’t door opening machines.
Then the door opens all on its own.
There are three big kidnappers in the doorway, all wearing their alien bug outfits and holding guns.
“Got you!” one of them shouts triumphantly. At least he is triumphant until a voice shouts, “Bad men!” and one of the big machines that Tony had been looking at is thrown across the room. Bruce isn’t sleeping anymore, and he isn’t little Bruce.
The three men shriek and one of them tries to shoot at them. Big Bruce keeps throwing things at the doorway. Soon it isn’t so much a doorway as a pile of medical machines. They are safe. They are also trapped.
“Bruce!” Tony says, and he feels happy because Bruce is awake even if he feels scared because they are trapped. “You’re awake!”
But now they can’t go out the door because there are kidnappers outside and Tony definitely can’t make something with the machines because they are all broken.
“I have to go now,” Tony says, his heart beating heavy and his breath feeling heavy. “I’m not a baby. I can get help.”
Steve is frowning like maybe he wants to say no, and that isn’t fair because Steve is a kid too, even if he’s a big kid.
“He can go,” Natalia says carefully in English. Clint and Steve look at each other and then at Tony.
“I always said you were short,” says Clint. “I always said we are the super babies!”
“We aren’t babies,” Tony says, “We’re…we’re monster fighters!”
In the end, Steve helps Tony climb up because the vent is really high. The opening is tiny and Tony suck in his tummy and pulls himself forward into the dark. The vent is tight and he can’t even be up on his knees and he has to wriggle like a little snake or a worm but he wriggles and wriggles until he’s all the way in and he doesn’t get stuck like Natalia and soon he’s alone inside the vent in the dark.
Crawling into the vent feels like being swallowed. Mr. Jarvis had read Tony a story once that had a boa constrictor in it and Tony had learned all about snakes. This is what he imagined being eaten by a snake would feel like, if the snake were a robot snake made out of metal. The vent even breathed like a snake might breathe, blowing hot air into Tony’s face and making him want to cough.
It is hot and tight and Tony never knew that wriggling on his belly could make him so tired. It is also black, except for the pale blue light from his flashlight. It isn’t a lot of light, mostly because it’s aimed mostly under Tony and there isn’t move to sit up like a seal so the light can go in front. That’s okay, though, because it’s only a little space it has to light up, just enough to make the black not black anymore.
Sometimes the vent splits into two ways or even three, and he has to decide which way to go, or sometimes the floor disappears for a little bit. The first time that happens, he only stops before he falls into the hole because of his flashlight that lets him see it. Then he has to stop for a long bit because he doesn’t know how to go on and because he is tired. He tries to see if it is deep, and it deeper than his arm because he can’t feel a bottom, but he can feel the other side and he thinks he can sort of slide over the hole and not fall in. He tries it very carefully, by lying across it. It works, until he’s almost completely across, and then suddenly his toe slides off the edge into the hole and he isn’t expecting it. Luckily, all his body is heavier than his foot, so he just makes some noises and bangs loudly a bit on the sides of the vent, and then he wiggles on.
Tony wiggles and wiggles and he doesn’t get stuck and he doesn’t cry and he doesn’t find himself in the bad place inside his head. Tony is a brave monster fighter, and he can see a tiny bit and he’s going to save his friends.
Every so often, the vent has more window sort of openings, like the one he had crawled in through, and these let in even more light, and Tony can look out. What he sees is a hallway, and then an empty room that isn’t a control room, and then another hallway. This hallway isn’t empty. It has yellow suit people running and shouting and shooting their guns, and it has a robot. The robot is big and black and scary and the most awesome thing Tony has ever seen. The robot isn’t at all scared of the yellow suit people or their guns. It fires back and the yellow suit people fall over and some of them cry and some of them run away and some of them lie very still and don’t move at all.
Tony keeps crawling. Maybe the robot is awesome but maybe it’s scary and Tony doesn’t want it to shoot him and he doesn’t want to lie still and never ever move again. He can hear sounds still. They echo around his ears from all over; shouting and gunfire and zaps and anger. Everyone seems to be fighting. He doesn’t like it and he listens very hard to his own heart, and tries to pretend its beating so hard that he can’t hear anyone screaming or crying or angry at all.
He has to rest for a little bit near the next window vent because he is very tired and the vent isn’t breathing hot air on him at that moment but now the air is very still and he’s too hot and too tired and he’s sliding even more like a snake because he’s all sweaty. Climbing through vents is not fun. This vent window looks into a laboratory, the kind with fizzing beakers, except none of the beakers are fizzing and there are no scientists to do the fizzing either. Some vials are knocked over and broken, and a puddle near a table is hissing and eating at the ground, and another puddle is just being a puddle and looking shiny.
He wonders if he should come out here, and maybe he can find chemicals to make a bomb. His dad taught him a little bit about making bombs once. He didn’t tell Tony to go away and he didn’t leave, and he told Tony interesting things about bottles of cleaner that Tony had never known about before. That was a happy day. His mom and Mr. Jarvis were not happy at all though and shouted a lot, and his dad hasn’t told him any more about it.
But he doesn’t really want to make an explosion, he wants to find a phone and call Mr. Phil or Miss Pepper or even the police. Then maybe his friends won’t be hurt and they can stop all the monsters, and if the robot is a monster then maybe they can fight it, and if it’s a friend then Tony can look at it again.
The next time the vents split up, Tony takes the wrong way. He knows it’s the wrong way because it ends in another drop, but this time it also has a wall on the other side instead of more vent. He doesn’t want to go down the drop because maybe it’s very far and maybe there’s no way out again. Also, he hears angry voices coming from the hole.
“Bucking brats,” someone is growling, or maybe it’s not that; it’s hard to hear because the voice is bouncing out of the hole all muffled and low. It might have been ‘buck ring rats’ or ‘fun king bats’. It doesn’t make any sense anyway. All Tony knows is that the voice is very angry. “Should’ve all tops seed them all when we had the chance,” the muffled voice says, or something like that.
“Did we at least get the blood?” a second voice asked.
“No,” says the first, still really angry, “Psycho brats are sitting on a trucking goldmine in there. No blood, no art reactor, and what’s left is set to blow in ten. Least they won’t be walking free either. There is rat.”
Tony really doesn’t want to go down the hole and meet the voices. They don’t make any sense and they sound angry and mean and scary, and maybe Tony is a brave monster fighter, but also maybe he’s only four and small and all alone. So he decides to be brave somewhere else.
He has to crawl backwards for ages and ages until he’s back at the fork. This time he goes the right way, and he knows it’s the right way because this time it doesn’t lead to a drop with mean voices. It leads to a vent window, and on the other side is a room with computers. Computers means Tony can talk to people. Computers means Tony can find a way to stop the bad men. Tony is good at computers, even future computers that he only knows a little bit about. Tony is a fast learner.
Unfortunately, the room is not empty. There are two yellow suit men sitting in there, doing something on the computer.
Luckily, they don’t stay. Tony only has to stare at them for maybe one whole minute before they push in a code for their computer, and then hit a big red button, and then run out the door. They left the computer set to a clock and Tony thinks it says it’s ten o’clock, and that’s really late, but then the clock changes its mind and says it’s 9:59, and then 9:58, and it’s a funny clock because the numbers are going backwards. Not that Tony cares much about the backwards clock, because he has more important things to think about. Now the room is empty and it is full of computers, and probably a phone, too.
Getting out of the vent is much harder than getting in. This vent has a cover on it, and it doesn’t come off when Tony pushes it. He pushes really hard, but it doesn’t move. Tony bangs on it, and his eyes want to cry and make the room all blurry because the computers are right there, and Tony crawled forever and ever, and he can’t get out.
Then he closes his eyes, and his mind goes back and remembers how he crawled in, and remembers how the cover had a little latch, and how they needed to undo the latch with the scalpel. Tony doesn’t have the scalpel, but he does have some bits of wire in his shoe.
Bits of wire turn out to be better than a scalpel, because they fit through the holes in the window and they bend. It’s really hard because he can’t see the latch, but he holds his memory of the other opening inside his head and he can see that latch perfectly. And when he moves the wire the way his memory says it has to go he can feel the wire catch. A wire isn’t a scalpel, but the sharp bit of metal he wrapped it around goes under the latch, and then he yanks really hard.
What happens is that the metal bit goes flying away into the room and the wire is just a wire and he thinks maybe his tool is broken and his metal bit is lost and he is trapped, but when he pushes against the opening it moves. He pushes forward and his head is out, but he’s still way up high and he can’t even turn around so his feet jump out first because there isn’t any room.
The clock on the computer thinks it’s 6:18 now, and he doesn’t know what happens when the clock says 0, but maybe it’s not good, and maybe he needs to hurry. He doesn’t know why, but seeing time running away makes him feel unhappy, like maybe when it says 0 it will be too late and the bad people will come back or the computers will stop working or something horrible will happen to all his friends. The last time he saw a countdown like that, it was for a rocket ship, and he doesn’t want to be on a ship and blast off either, because maybe he will never see anyone again because he won’t even be on earth.
He has to go down and he has to make the countdown stop counting down so that the worried feeling in his tummy will go away, and then he can use the computers or the phone and find help.
But he can’t do any of that because he is still trapped super high up. First, he has to get his feet out without falling on his head. He remembers the vent opening again from when he first saw it, and he reaches up his hands and he finds a very tiny edge for his fingers to hold. If he were a big person then his fingers would be too big to hold on, but he is small and his fingers are small, and he holds on tight and his chest and arms and head are all out of the vent and he’s sitting on the vent with his legs inside it.
His fingers hurt from holding on and his arms feel weak and his legs feel sore and he really, really doesn’t want to drop and fall because that will hurt. His legs don’t want to come out though, because his knees can’t bend without hitting the vent’s ceiling and if he pulls out any further his fingers are going to drop him.
This way isn’t working at all. He sits and he holds himself up and he thinks. The clock says 3:23. There is almost no time left, and he needs enough time to find out how to make it stop. Maybe he can just push the red button again?
It’s funny how time works, because it feels like he is taking hours and hours, and his thoughts are zipping inside his head so fast and all at once, so that his head is crowded with thoughts about his friends being hurt, and black robots, and yellow suit men, and having to stand in time out forever, and being hit with rulers, and counting down clocks, and living on the moon, and how computers work, and phone numbers, and angels, and how he might come down. He can come down feet first, but only if he climbs all the way back down the vent until he reaches the fork and can turn himself around. That will take up minutes and minutes though, and that is too long. Or he can go down head first. That might hurt.
“I am a monster fighter,” Tony says out loud, “I am brave.”
He drops down head first. He doesn’t fall. He hangs down out of the vent by his knees, just like he sometimes does in the garden with a tree branch. He hangs upside down and then he reaches back up, and it’s really hard, but his fingers grab the vent’s edge again. Then he wiggles and pulls at his legs until they fall, and now he dangles over the air by his fingertips.
It’s still a really far drop. It’s a much bigger drop than when he hopped off the bed.
The clock says it’s 1:15.
It’s a really far drop, and his legs fold beneath him when they hit the ground with a hard jolt, and his bottom hits the ground and he rolls backwards and his head bangs against the wall, and for a moment he just feels jolted and a bit like he left his breath all back up in the vent. Then his head remembers that it went bang against the wall and it hurts, and his bottom hurts and his legs hurt, and he wants to cry and scream and he wants Mr. Jarvis to come or Dr. Shaw to make him better and give him a red sucker.
He can’t cry though, because the clock says :44, and that’s not even a whole minute before blast off, or whatever happens when it says zero.
He stands up, and his legs don’t want to, and it feels funny to walk on jolted legs, like maybe they don’t remember how to walk. He climbs onto the chair by the computer and he pushes the red button, because maybe the red button made the clock so maybe it will make it go away.
The clock doesn’t go away. It keeps counting numbers, :26, :25, :24, but the numbers move up to a corner and in the center it says: password.
Tony isn’t very good at reading, but he recognizes that word because computers always like to use that word before it lets you do anything. Sometimes what it means is that it wants to read his fingerprint or look at his face to see if its him, but sometimes it means he has to push in a secret code. This computer looks like it wants a secret code.
Tony doesn’t know the secret code, but he does know what buttons the man pushed before he pushed the red button. So Tony holds the memory in front of him so he can see it again, and he pushes the same buttons.
The timer says :15, :14, :13, and Tony presses the last key, and the words change.
Abort self-destruct? Yes/no.
Tony is very good at numbers. He’s good at codes too. He isn’t very good at words.
:9, :8, :7 says the clock. Tony doesn’t know what the computer wants. Should he try pressing yes or no? He knows those words. There isn’t a yes or no key on the keyboard though. And he doesn’t know if the answer is yes or no.
:4, says the clock.
A finger that isn’t Tony’s presses ‘Y’.
:2 says the clock, :2, :2. It’s flashing. The words changed again.
Tony turns around. The finger that had pushed the button is attached to a hand. The hand is attached to a body. It’s a woman with dark hair and a dark outfit on and a really serious expression. Tony doesn’t know her and maybe she’s scary, but she isn’t wearing a yellow suit and she made the clock stop counting so maybe she is a good guy.
“The self-destruct is aborted,” she says, but Tony thinks she is talking to someone else because she isn’t looking at Tony’s eyes, and she has a tiny ear phone in her ear. She pauses for a moment and then says, “Thanks, but it wasn’t really me. I’ve found Stark.” Then she pauses for a bit more and then says, “Still the same Stark. No obvious injuries. I don’t see the others.”
Tony watches her, and then he slides off his knees where he was kneeling to reach the computer, and he sits properly in the chair, because his legs feel really sore and don’t want to hold him up anymore. Stopping the clock countdown seems to have made all the strength go out of his legs and his head go all fizzy. He wants it to be time to sleep, but he still needs to call Mr. Phil and he still needs to save his friends and maybe the woman is a good guy but maybe she is a kidnapper and he should run away.
“Tony,” the woman says, and this time she is looking at his eyes, so she is talking to him. “Where are the other children?”
“I have to call Mr. Phil,” Tony tells her, because if she is a kidnapper then he doesn’t want to say where his friends are. But if she helps him call Mr. Phil then she is a good guy and Mr. Phil will come and everything will be alright.
The woman looks at him, this time like she is thinking.
Then she grabs his chair and pushes really hard and Tony and the chair spin across the room and crash into the wall. Tony is really surprised so it takes him a moment after the chair stopped moving to notice the two yellow suit men. The men are crumbled on the floor and not moving at all and the woman is standing but her arm is bleeding.
Tony stares at her.
Then she falls over on top of the yellow suit men. Tony’s brain must be really tired, because it takes him a really long time to figure out she fell over because Natalia was standing in the doorway and she had shot her with the gun that makes people sleep.
Then Steve is there too, and Clint and green Bruce, all crowded in the doorway. There’s also Andrew, with his hands tied.
“Tony!” Steve says, except trying to whisper, “We found you! Andrew said this is where the computers were, and I thought you’d go where computers are. Bruce helped us get out of the room. We’ve decided we’re leaving, all of us, and then we’ll call Mr. Phil for help.”
“But we can call from here!” Tony says, and he tries to slide off the chair to go to them, but his legs seem to have stopped working and he sits on the floor instead.
“Tony?” Clint says, and Steve runs into the room and climbs over the jumble of sleeping people and picks him up.
“Come on, Tony,” Steve says. “You can keep watch again.”
Tony doesn’t think he’s very good at keeping watch because he’s really sleepy, and it’s too hard to explain about the countdown clock or the lady who helped him before Natalia shot her.
“We need to call Mr. Phil,” he says instead, because that’s the one thing he is sure of. That’s what he climbed in the vents for. He’s glad his friends are safe, though.
There’s a wall phone on the wall, and Steve carries Tony on his shoulders over to it and Tony pushes Phil’s number. It doesn’t work, though, and keeps giving error sounds.
“Er,” says Andrew. “You have to press 9 to dial out.”
Tony’s brain doesn’t want to make sense of this but Andrew finally explains it properly. “Press 9 and then…er…Mr. Phil’s number. And tell him I’m a good guy, while you’re at it.”
So finally Tony gets to call Mr. Phil. But it doesn’t ring like it’s supposed to. It goes to a voice that says Tony can leave a message for Mr. Phil. Tony doesn’t want to leave a message; he wants to talk to Mr. Phil. But maybe if he gives a message, Mr. Phil will be able to find them anyway.
“Hello Mr. Phil,” Tony says, and “It’s Tony. Some yellow suit men kidnapped us…”
“They’re called AIM,” Andrew put in helpfully.
“And we ran away from them, I crawled in a vent and there was a clock and Bruce helped the others…”
“And a nice guy named Andrew helped too…” Andrew shouted into the phone.
“…and now we’re escaping. So please come and get us. Thank you. Goodbye.” Then Tony turns to the others and says, “It wasn’t Mr. Phil, it was a message. I guess we can leave now.”
“I’d say we could just stick around and wait for your friends, but I hear they started they started the self-destruct sequence, so…perhaps we should hurry?” Andrew says.
Self-destruct sequence didn’t sound like a nice thing at all. Almost as bad as a countdown clock. So Tony sits on Steve’s shoulders and kept lookout and tried not to fall over because he is sleepy, and Andrew leads them down the hall and up some stairs and up some more stairs and up some more stairs and then outside.
Then they look around for where to wait for Mr. Phil to hear his message and come.