They didn’t expect to get him back. Jotunheim wasn’t Afghanistan, they couldn’t just grab a chopper and extract him. They would have had to combine earth and Asgardian technology and find a way to open a portal to that space...which maybe Stark could have had a chance at figuring out, but it was Stark who had been captured in the battle. After a month, even Steve seemed to have given up. They hadn’t heard from Thor since he went to try to convince Loki to help. Fury had signed the paperwork listing Stark as presumed dead three days before.
It was on that third day, that he got a call from a field agent in New Mexico, reporting an unconscious, injured, but definitely alive, Tony Stark. Fury himself responded, finding the junior agent restraining a very, very upset Tony Stark, in the back of a SHEILD tent. For all that he was fighting, and clearly disoriented, at least he wasn’t yelling.
Fury pushed in, putting himself between between the agent and Stark’s head, “hey. Stark. You know where you are?”
Stark stared up at him, gasping for breath, but pausing in his struggles, staring at Fury with definite recognition. He pulled his arm, a little, and the Junior agent let go. Fury backed up a bit, but Stark just sat up with some difficulty, and scuffed out a smooth patch in the dirt with the palm of his hand, drawing shaky letters with his index finger, ‘SHIELD.’
“Yeah. Can you talk?”
Stark looked at him, for a long time, a strange expression on his face. He opened his mouth, a little, closed it, and wrote, ‘not easily.’
Fury looked at the agent. He shrugged, “he didn’t stop fighting long enough for me to do a medical check.”
Stark glared, but Fury could have sworn he also looked a tiny bit embarrassed. Fury shook his head, “why can’t you talk?”
Stark shook his head, ‘too long.’
“Too long since you’ve spoken?”
‘To write in dirt.’
“You do realize, I have to ask... why did they give you back? What did they want...and did they get it?”
Stark looked at the dirt, again, smudging his previous message out of existence, without writing another one. Finally, he looked up, pointed at the agent, and jerked his thumb. Fury nodded for the agent to leave, and Stark wrote his answer, ‘they wanted a portal.’
“And did they get one?”
“Then how did you get back here?”
“Why would he help you?”
Stark looked worried, as he scribbled the next reply hastily, sloppily, ‘he let everything go. Me. Criminals. Monsters. War.’
Fury swore, “you need to give a full report, of everything you know about what he released.”
Stark nodded, shakily starting to get to his feet. He fell almost as soon as he was upright, breathing hard, pale and shaking. Fury gripped his arm, and stopped. He was dressed in ratty, shapeless dark green shirt and pants, which masked how emaciated he was.
“I had hoped to avoid this, because I know it’s going to piss you off.”
Stark managed a glare, but he looked like he was having trouble sitting back up, and there was blood in the corner of his mouth, which he hurriedly wiped away. Fury crouched, “I lied. Coulson isn’t dead. He almost died, but he pulled through. He’s waiting outside, to take your statement, and escort you back to headquarters. Though from the looks of it, you need medical attention first.”
Stark punched him. Then fell back. The punch had barely hurt, and besides, it had landed on his shoulder. Stark sat back up, and wiped his mouth again, still glaring. Fury reached, stopped, and sighed, “open your mouth.”
Stark wrote in the dirt, ‘fuck you.’
Fury stood, and walked out. He looked around the corner of the tent, and found Coulson there, staring up at the sky. The younger agent looked at him, as he rounded the corner, “I’m assuming that went terribly.”
“Basically. He can’t talk, and he’s bleeding in his mouth somewhere, but he wouldn’t let me look.”
“Did they cut off his tongue?”
“God knows I’ve been tempted, but I don’t think so.”
Coulson nodded, and followed him back in.
Following Fury in, Coulson almost stopped at the door. Even when he’d just been retrieved from Afghanistan, he hadn’t looked that bad. Fury left, and Coulson stood for a minute, before crouching before the pale man. Stark was staring at him, but seemed to shake himself out of it after a minute, and nod, writing in the dirt, ‘you’re looking better.’
Coulson nodded. The dummy they had created for his funeral had been one of the creepiest things he’d ever seen.
“Fury said your mouth was bleeding.”
Stark sighed, but opened his mouth, and let Coulson gently turn his head, so the light went in. His tongue wasn’t cut off, but it was blotched and criss-crossed by white, pink, and red scars, as well as fresh lacerations. It looked to be entirely caused by Tony’s own teeth, and two of the lacerations were bleeding fairly profusely.
“What did you do?”
Tony looked away, closing his mouth, clenching his jaw. Coulson could see fresh and fading bruises, and odd pink, blotchy stripes on his arms.
“We’re...going to need to get a full medical evaluation, first thing.”
Tony finally did look back at him, nodding in resigned understanding. Coulson stood, leaned down, and offered his hands. Tony took them, and Coulson hauled him up. He was lighter than he ever should have been, and stumbled, when he tried to walk. Coulson pulled his arm over his own shoulders, and went to put an arm around Tony’s back, but the other man gasped, and fell forward onto his hands and knees.
Kneeling, Coulson put a hand on his arm, between the pink areas, “what?”
Tony pushed pebbles and gravel clear of a small area, and wrote, ‘back.’
Coulson reached, waited for Tony’s nod of permission, and lifted his shirt, gently, rolling it back so the extra material didn’t contact the revealed pink and black blisters, pink new skin, and angry red welts, covering much of Tony’s back. Two of the blisters were newly burst and oozing, probably from Coulson trying to help.
Tony sat mostly obediently through the medical check, which worried Coulson, up until the point where he started writing angry notes to the doctors on the paper they’d given him, and flat out refused to let anyone mess with the lacerations in his mouth.
When they were finally done, Stark was basically sleeping sitting up. He glared when Coulson entered with a wheelchair, but the angry look was cut short by a massive yawn. He climbed shakily into the chair, and his attempt to make it seem that he was doing most of the pushing was half-hearted at best.
Coulson checked his watch. Stark had been in the shower for twenty five minutes. Not that long, but Coulson had warned he would check after twenty. He put down his book, and got up, knocking on the bathroom door. There was no answer. He pushed it open. The room was filled with steam, though not enough to really obscure Tony standing in the shower, his chest an angry red where the water was hitting it, staring straight forward, clearly nobody home.
Coulson hurriedly shoved him out of the spray, and turned it off. Tony stood, still staring blankly forward, having caught himself against the corner of the shower. Coulson sighed, and gently pushed his arms out of the way. There were no blisters, though some might form later, but his skin was definitely burned, from his right shoulder, down to navel and left hip.
Coulson pulled on his hand, squeezing it, rubbing his left shoulder. He reacted a little, but only to take a slightly larger breath. Coulson stepped into the shower, putting a hand on either side of Stark’s face, “Anthony Stark. Do you know where you are?”
A jerk, and Tony opened his mouth. His gaze slowly tracked over to Coulson, and after a moment, he seemed to recognize that someone else was there. He stumbled out of the shower, and sat down on one of the bathmats. Coulson grabbed a towel, rubbed it over his head, then much more carefully patted his back and chest dry. Leaving that towel in Tony’s lap, he got another, and carefully wrapped it around his shoulders. Tony looked up at him, finally seeming to come back to himself, and reached out. Coulson offered his hand, Tony wrote on the palm with one finger, shaky but sure, ‘that was just perfect.’
“I take it you were cold.’
Tony nodded, ‘something like that.’
Coulson stood back, in the corner of the room, watching a very bundled up Tony Stark type out what he knew about the creatures and villains that had been released. He had already given a short report of the events of the month, which Coulson had read before sending it on to Fury. Coulson had to imagine that the shirt and two sweatshirts would have been painful against the blisters and burns, but Tony apparently preferred that to being even the least bit chilled, in the air conditioned offices.
Tony sighed, looked at Coulson, pointed at the computer, and opened a new document.
‘Do the others know I’m back yet?’
“We need to evaluate you, first.”
‘You can’t keep me here.’
“I’m not going to try. That would be idiotic, and unnecessary. You’re free to go.”
‘You think I won’t?’
“I think you won’t want to.”
“I read the after action report on the first Loki incident. You had the chance to keep being the same lonely jerk you’ve always been, and try to take on an army by yourself...or do something much, much scarier. Believe that you could become heroes, work as a team, and save the world. And you chose the harder, scarier, and frankly heroic path. Which is why you are going to want to stay with us, and come to the Helicarrier to help track what Loki set free, before it can pose a danger to your friends, and the world.”
‘Were you born that sappy, or is it an acquired condition?’
“Tell me I’m wrong.”
Tony glared at him for a minute, then turned back to the laptop, and went back to the report.
Coulson allowed himself a small smile, “I’m going to take a nap. We have a long drive tonight. I’ll be on the couch in the hall, find me when you’re done, and we’ll leave for the Helicarrier.”