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Hulk

Hulk is smashing and even puny Bruce inside is happy because he has been angry ever since Tin Man and Birdie were stolen. They are here, the ear thing says in Red’s voice, and she is angry too. But she cannot smash like Hulk can, and now that he knows he will not smash a room on top of them he can smash all the harder. Walls fall, and the roof caves in, showing sky, and there is Goldhair, flying.

“We need Bruce!” Goldhair calls down, swatting the beam Hulk throws at him to one side. “Clint’s injuries are dire!”

*-*

Thor

Never has he wished to be more magician than warrior, not in a thousand years. Like Hulk, he is better at destruction. But Hulk has Bruce-within, and Bruce has mastered the subtle art of healing. Bruce would say that his dual nature is science, not magic, but it is miraculous all the same. As the mighty green giant concedes his place to the fragile man, Thor knows a moment of envy. But only a moment. He sets aside regret and does what he can do, spinning Mjölnir to lift them both back to the quinjet where Clint and Tony await.

*-*

Widow

Occasionally, she hates the Red Room. Actually, she hates it constantly, but there are times when the reasons she’s hating it are... different. Having panic beaten out of her when she wasn’t much older than the small boy huddling on the floor next to the medical cot is new. He is so lost, and frightened, and he clearly knows as well as she does that Clint’s injuries could still be fatal. It’s like looking into a mirror, and finding someone else’s reflection there.

Her hands are steady as she helps Bruce clean Clint’s wounds.

She hates it.

But they are.

*-*

Cap

When they get back, Cap’s going to ask for an instantaneous antidote to cyanide. Because if anyone can come up with one, it’s Tony and Bruce and Jane, and Steve is so fucking tired of watching the people he needs desperately to interrogate take the easy way out. He drops the dead man and looks around. The file drawers are leaking acid onto the floor. The computer is stuck to a big electromagnet on the wall. He flips the switch to off and grabs it anyway.

They’ve got Tony and Clint and the arc reactor. Anything else is just gravy.

****************************************************************************************************************************

Tony

Tony hasn’t believed in magic since he was three. Or grownups, except for Jarvis. (And even Jarvis has to break his promises sometimes.) And he knows that he probably shouldn’t trust Clint, because people don’t grow backwards; the math doesn’t work like that. Besides, Clint says they have a team and Tony knows that Starks don’t play on teams; they stand (or fall) on their own. They might lead, but they don’t follow. And Clint says a friend of his father’s in charge of the team, but Tony’s pretty sure that his father hasn’t got that kind of friends. Clint even talks like he knows superheroes to talk to and who does that? There’s a whole lot of reasons not to trust Clint, but it’s awfully hard to remember not to when Clint is getting hurt because of Tony.

So Tony does his best not to believe that there’s a team, or that anyone will ever come except the bad guys. He doesn’t tell Clint that, because he can see that Clint is going to die pretty soon and Tony isn’t mean enough to tell a guy who’s dying that he’s stupid for believing in people.

And then they come.

*-*

Natasha comes first, and she’s scary. She kills the bad guys without even blinking, splattering brains and blood all over the room, but that’s not as scary as the way she looks when she sees Tony. She’s furious, and it’s all that Tony can do not to run away really fast. But Clint smiles at her, and she makes herself be less mad and Tony begins to understand that she’s angry at the dead guys and not him. Or Clint, who can barely stand up, much less walk, not even with both Natasha and Tony trying to hold him up.

Thor comes next and he looks like a superhero. He even has a cape! And he’s huge! Tony barely comes up to his waist. He picks up Clint like he doesn’t weigh anything and starts for the door, and Tony scurries to keep up. The floor is rough and his feet are bare, and Tony doesn’t think he makes any noise, but Thor stops all the same and crouches, telling Tony to climb up on to his back and hold on tight. And maybe if there was time to think about it Tony wouldn’t, but there isn’t, so he does.

Bruce is third, and he’s naked. There’s a cot and medical equipment on the jet where Thor leaves them, but even Tony can see that Natasha isn’t a doctor, and Clint keeps making soft little sounds of pain until Thor brings Bruce and Bruce, for all that he isn’t wearing any clothes and his hair is full of brickdust, knows just what to do to make Clint relax against the webbing. Clint hasn’t reassured Natasha or Thor, but he reassures Bruce, saying he’s okay even if it isn’t exactly true, and asking if Bruce is okay until Bruce lies too.

Cap comes last. Which is probably a good thing, because by then Tony’s not sure any of this is real, and he’s wished for Captain America to come rescue them so often that it almost makes sense that he’s there. Besides, Clint said that a friend of Tony’s father’s led the team, and his dad knows, knew, Captain America once upon a time. So that fits, even if Captain America is probably dead after all these years. But it looks like him, and everyone listens when he gives orders, so maybe he isn’t dead after all. Tony sure hopes so.

Chapter Text

Bruce

Bruce waits until Clint has seen Cap -- until the injured man stops straining against the safety straps to look for each of them in turn, bruised fingers tapping out a count that can’t be completed until he has confirmed that they’re all safely aboard -- and then slips the narcotics into the IV. Even then Clint struggles to stay awake, his head turning towards Tony. His mouth moves as his eyelids flutter down, and Bruce strains to hear, but Thor kicks on the engines, and Clint’s words are lost to everyone but the shivering child who has never left his side.

*-*

Steve

“Natasha,” Steve says, and that is enough to send her towards the cockpit. They’ve all learned to fly the quinjet, in case of emergencies, but Thor practices less often than Steve, and Tony’s always complaining that the pair of them think that VTOL capability means “make the plane jump into the air and hope it stays there.” Natasha can get them on their way without rattling anyone’s bones.

Which leaves Steve the job of preparing the passengers. He drops a blanket on Bruce’s shoulders, and then kneels next to the boy he hopes is Tony. “We need to strap in.”

*-*

Thor

He relinquishes the controls gladly, content to let Natasha and JARVIS concern themselves with the intricacies of Midgardian aviation whilst he turns his attention to the communications board. The small screen brightens at his touch, and he smiles when he sees his Jane standing next to Pepper, and each of them with a hand on Philip’s shoulders where he sits nearest the camera. “We have them,” he says, for of all the things which need to be said, that is the most important. “Alive.”

He lets them breathe that in before going on. “Alive,” he says again. “But badly misused.”

*-*

Pepper

Pepper doesn’t flinch. She’s expected bad news for days, after all, and “alive” has been all she dared hope for. “How badly?” she asks, bracing for months ahead of patching her husband back together body and soul. It doesn’t matter how hard it will be. She has promises to keep.

Thor makes a gesture that she suspects means something on Asgard, his hand splitting the air before bending back to reveal a palm. “Clinton has been foully tormented. Bruce is with him now, assuring his survival.” He turns the hand over with an air of ritual. “Anthony has been bespelled.”

*-*

Phil

“Bespelled?” Phil asks, pressing unwillingly against the scars that still mar his chest. “Did Loki...”

“Nay,” Thor shakes his head. “Had my brother escaped Heimdall would have bent the heavens to let me know. And his is not the only magic which can turn back time.”

“Turn back time?” Phil feels like an idiot, repeating Thor’s words, and he can’t blame his failure to comprehend on the sleep he hasn’t been getting. “What? Tony’s talking backwards, then?”

The demigod shakes his head. “He is a child, Philip,” he explains. “And I lack the skills to free him from the enchantment.”

*-*

Jane

Jane is glad she has a good hold of Pepper, because it isn’t clear who is holding up who. “Asgardian magic is just physics we haven’t gotten around to,” she points out, lifting her chin defiantly. “I may be able to help.”

That earns her one of Thor’s brilliant smiles. She’s not sure she deserves it. But wormholes are all about spacetime, and maybe the things she’s learned about the rainbow bridge will somehow transfer over. “How little is he?” she asks, hoping that the answer won’t be that Tony’s a baby. Physics she can understand. Babies, not so much.

*-*

Natasha

Launching the quinjet requires far less attention than Natasha would have required to miss Jane’s question. She flips her comm-unit to Thor’s channel. “Older than five, younger than eight,” she reports. “He hasn’t had a chance to tell us much yet.” And it’s harder to estimate the age of a child who hasn’t been properly fed; all the baby roundness falls away, and their eyes grow older than they are. “He’s going to be at risk for kidnapping if word gets out,” she realizes.

“As if he weren’t already.” Pepper’s voice cracks, just a little. “We’ll need to tell Fury.”

***********

Tony

Every other plane that Tony’s been in has had big cushioned seats, but this one is like a plane from one of his father’s war movies,where everyone sits on a long cloth bench and leans against a net made out of cloth straps. It makes it easy for him to scoot down as close to Clint as possible before Captain America adds another strap for a seat belt. If he wants to, Tony can reach out and touch Clint’s head. He doesn’t. He’s not sure if he’s allowed. So he’s surprised when Captain America sits down right next to him, straps in, and then reaches past Tony to carefully smooth a hand over Clint’s hair. “How’s he doing, Bruce?” the Captain asks, and now Tony knows the naked guy’s name.

Bruce doesn’t look happy. “He’s got an infection. Possibly more than one. I’ve started an antibiotic, and I’ll need you to help me with the betadine wash once we’re at cruising altitude. And I think he may have a broken rib or two.”

“He does,” Tony says, before he can help himself. And having opened his mouth, he might as well keep talking. “They kicked him. Really hard. And burned him too. And drowned him. And... and...” He closes his mouth and bites down on the rest of it, because talking is definitely a mistake if he doesn’t want to start crying.

“They made you watch?” Captain America exclaims, startling Tony into looking the super soldier straight in the eye. He looks exactly like the pictures in Howard’s office, only paler, like he hasn’t aged at all since the war, and Tony wonders if he got turned young too. “Aw, Tony,” Cap says, and puts warm hands on Tony’s shoulders. “I’m sorry. We came as fast as we could.”

Chapter Text

Phil

Years of training and experience, some of it stranger than anything that had ever been in the comics he’d read as a kid, and yet Phil is sure he’s never had this kind of gut ache before. He’d like to put it down to sixteen days worth of bad coffee, though the coffee at the Tower is too good for that. But sixteen days of worrying. Yes.

“Director, this absolutely has to be need to know only,” Phil insists, despite Fury’s frown. “Until we know how Iron Man and Hawkeye were grabbed, we can’t be certain there wasn’t a leak.”

Pepper

She leans over Phil’s shoulder, to make sure Fury listens. “That means Tony can’t be Tony. He has to be a kid who got rescued alongside Clint.”

“My people...” Fury begins, and she cuts him off.

“When the Avengers left this tower sixteen days ago, the only people who knew where they were going were your people. And yet somehow, they walked into an ambush.”

“We can hardly pretend that Iron Man is still out there needing to be rescued.” Fury thinks he’s being reasonable. He isn’t.

“Miss Potts?” JARVIS intervenes. “May I make a suggestion?”

Fury

He’s waiting by the flightline when the quinjet appears out of the cloudbank, paced by Thor and a familiar figure of red and gold. That’s his cue. He moves out so quickly the engines are still whining as he reaches the ramp, loud enough to obscure words even from the guys who are placing the chocks. But the pantomime he holds with the demigod and the hovering Suit is painfully visible. A jerk of his thumb toward New York and an insolent nod from JARVIS will convince anyone watching and Thor’s cheerful farewell will do the rest, with any luck.

 

Thor

He shepherds the empty suit, watching for threats. The weapons it carries are disabled without Anthony inside it, and there is a risk of attack, if not by the men who have bespelled him, then by others. Man or Child, he has enemies, who must not know of his new vulnerability.

It’s been worth the delay to give JARVIS time to fly out and meet the quinjet, to make a showy return pass through the skyscrapers of New York in hopes of silencing the rumors about Anthony’s whereabouts which have been bubbling up. Thor only hopes the trick will work.

Tony

Bruce has this thing that is like a candy bar they forgot to pour chocolate over and he shares some of it with Tony, and it isn’t bad, just kind of like eating dry oatmeal with nuts and stuff, so Tony’s glad when Cap brings out some bottles of water. He’s still hungry, but he can see that Bruce really needs to eat his share because he’s shaking almost as much as Tony is. Once they’re at cruising altitude he unbuckles and goes to get some clothes on, and there’s like, a whole locker full of sweatshirts and sweatpants for him to put on, which is kind of strange. Bruce pulls out a smaller sweatshirt too, and then taps at a thing in his ear and asks “Natasha” if it’s okay for Tony to wear it. The answer must be yes, because then he helps Tony put it on, and it’s too big, but it isn’t so big that any of the guys Tony’s seen could wear it, and it has a little embroidered picture of a black widow spider on the front. So Natasha is the lady, and she’s Black Widow too, the one that Clint said was his favorite superhero. And she called the big blond guy Thor when she was asking for for help carrying Clint. So Bruce is probably a super hero too, and that means Clint is, doesn’t it? And maybe Tony? If they’re all on a team? Except that Clint is just a guy. He has muscles, but they’re like, guy muscles, not super soldier muscles. And he sure doesn’t heal up fast the way Tony’s dad said Cap could. And it’s all too much to think about when Tony’s not sure whether Clint is going to be okay. He unbuckles himself and scoots down so that he can put his hand on top of Clint’s, and even though Clint’s eyes are closed his fingers curl up around Tony’s like he knows Tony’s there. Bruce and Cap don’t object. They even let Tony help a little, painting orange stuff onto the least scary of Clint’s scrapes and cuts and that’s better than thinking.

By the time they land the plane (only it isn’t on land, it’s on an aircraft carrier that’s flying) Tony is sure of only two things. One. That this really is the future. And two. He’s staying with Clint. He can tell that Bruce and Steve want him to let the real doctors take care of Clint without Tony there, but that’s not important. The important thing is that he stays with Clint. Not even the promise of macaroni and cheese is going to get him to let go of Clint’s hand, now that he’s got it, and the big black dude with the eyepatch who comes on board and tells him he can’t use his own name hasn’t got a hope of making him do it either. “You can bring food to me,” Tony points out reasonably. “Plates are portable.”

Chapter Text

Tony

If it weren’t for Natasha, Tony thinks that he might be picked up by one of the men and carried away from Clint ‘for his own good’. Grownups always think they know better than kids what kids need. But before Eyepatch Guy has a chance to tell Cap or Bruce to do it, Natasha appears by Tony’s shoulder and says, “I’ll stay with them,” and the way she says it makes everyone shut up before they start.

She looks down and asks, “Do you want to be Edward?” and he thinks about it, because it’s his middle name and he’d probably remember to answer to it, but if they’re trying to keep him a secret then that’s not a very good way to do it.

“Jonny,” he says, instead, because at least the last sound is right so he might hear it like it’s his own name, and because the plane they just flew on is a VTOL like the ones in the old Jonny Quest cartoons and he’s not brown enough to be Hadji or cool enough to be Race Bannon or grown up enough to be Dr. Quest, but if he pretends this is a cartoon adventure then maybe it won’t be completely awful. “I can be Jonny.”

“And if someone asks who his parents are?” Bruce wonders aloud.

“Then I already told you,” Tony says, sticking out his chin stubbornly. “And you sent Thor to look for them ‘cause I won’t leave Clint.”

Eyepatch Guy makes a noise that isn’t exactly a laugh. He crouches down to Tony’s eye level. “Think of me with hair and two eyes,” he orders. “Ring a bell?”

Tony looks, really looks, “You had a yellow shirt,” he says, slowly. “And a green coat. And you broke that guy’s camera in Milan.”

Fury

Tony had just turned five on that trip through Europe, dragged along in his parents’ wake for the sake of visiting Maria’s Italian relations. Nick had been the head of the protection detail, usually attached to Howard’s party (in every sense of the word party). But in Milan one of his men had ended up in the hospital with appendicitis and Nick had taken a turn escorting Maria and the boy. Much to the regret of one of the local paparazzi. The incident hadn’t made the papers. Or Nick’s report. “You’re a Stark all right,” Nick concedes. “Smart and stubborn.”

Steve

Steve can feel his eyebrows trying to escape over his hairline. “You knew Tony when he was a kid?” he says, and wants to call back the words the moment they’re out of his mouth.

Fury pushes back upright, the leather of his coat creaking. “Only for a short time. Nothing he remembered when we met again.” The Director gestures at the defiant child. “Not so long ago for him now, it seems. As if you needed any confirmation that you’ve really rescued Stark and not a clone or some kind of plant.”

Tony stamps his foot. “I’m right here!”

Bruce

“We know, Tony,” Bruce says, wishing that he had more to offer the boy than a tired smile. “It’s just that we’re still trying to figure out what to do. When you and Clint disappeared, there were very few people who could have betrayed you, and some of them might be here so it isn’t safe to explain. And because Clint is hurt, we haven’t got time to explain either. So we’re depending on you to be patient, and quiet, and pretend you’re an ordinary kid who’s too scared to be discreet, even if we know you can do it.”

Natasha

She nods a thanks to Bruce, because it’s clear when Tony straightens his shoulders that addressing him as an adult is key to gaining his cooperation. (It was for her, too, when she was small, and the trainers knew it.) She taps his shoulder. “Can you cry? Real tears, not just hiding your face if someone is making you uncomfortable.”

He shakes his head fiercely. “Stark men don’t cry.”

“Which is why it would be a good pretense,” she points out, and Tony scrunches up his face thoughtfully, but he doesn’t have time to answer before the medical crew arrives.

Chapter Text

Steve

It’s a good thing that the medical team brought a wheelchair as well as a stretcher, because Steve doesn’t want to know what trying to cross the hot deck would do to Tony’s bare feet. It’s still awkward, though, because the people pushing the stretcher are clearly trying to outpace Nat pushing the wheelchair enough that the boy will have to let go of Clint’s hand. Steve can guess their reasoning, and even sympathizes, but that’s not what matters. He catches the lead medic’s sleeve and makes her slow down.

“We promised him that they would stay together.”

*-*

Natasha

She wonders for a moment, when they get into medical and she discovers that tears are streaming down Tony’s face, if she has over-estimated the child’s strength. But no, his chin is still high, and his expression determined. They’re in the way, though, and she is about to tell him so, ready to promise that they will stay in the room, when Tony anticipates her, and lets go of Clint’s hand, patting it as if the man will be reassured. “I can stand in the corner,” he offers.

Natasha nods. “Yes. But the view is better from the other bed.”

*-*

Bruce

Normally, not that anything to do with the Hulk could be called normal, Bruce would be trying to decide between eating his own weight in food or finding a blanket and a pillow to sleep off the lingering aches of his transformation. But he can’t leave medical while the doctors are still trying to find excuses to hide Clint from Tony’s view. “There will be catheters, and needles,” one of them protests.

Bruce takes a deep breath in through his nose. “Do you honestly think that anything you’re going to need to do is worse than what he’s already seen?”

 

*-*

Tony

The sickbay of the ship is fancier than any emergency room Tony has ever seen on television, with all kinds of machines and monitors and electronics that he is pretty sure he would want to take apart and look at properly if he weren’t so worried about Clint. Because Clint looks awful. All his bruises and cuts and burns show up like Magic Marker on a white sheet under the fluorescent lights, and his face is slack in ways that it never was in the prison, not even when he was asleep. Tony’s pretty sure that’s just the drug Bruce gave him when they were flying, but it didn’t look so much like he was dead when they were still on the plane.

And Tony really ought to be glad that Clint’s unconscious because the doctors and nurses aren’t worried about being gentle. They’re too busy throwing his dirty boxers away and putting tubes in his arms and bringing over an x-ray machine so they can see his broken ribs. (They make Tony hide behind a heavy apron thing while they do the x-ray, because he won’t leave.) And they keep talking about all the things that they are finding that are broken or damaged and it’s so many things that Tony starts to wonder why Clint isn’t dead yet, because he’s bruised on the inside as well as the outside, and that’s bad. But it’s not the worst part, because then they turn Clint over and start to take the infected and dead skin off the the burns on his back, and Tony’s pretty sure that probably hurts as bad as getting the burns did in the first place.

Tony wants to ask why. He wants to ask all sorts of questions, and he wants to understand what’s happening so that he can tell them when they should just stop, and he can’t (...because it’s his fault...)

He can’t because he’s supposed to be a scared kid named Jonny and not Tony Stark. And that means crying, which is easier than he thought it would be for the letting tears fall part of it and harder for making noise by sobbing and stuff because there’s a big knot in his throat. He can’t even ask Natasha if he’s doing it right because of the knot, so he just sits, and watches, and lets the tears drip off his chin.

*-*

Phil

“He won’t sleep?” Phil asks when Bruce calls to report. “It’s after midnight; isn’t he exhausted?”

“He is.” Bruce is too, clearly. “But he says he won’t go to sleep until Clint wakes up.”

“How long will that be?”

“We could remove the sedation and wake him up in about twenty minutes. But we shouldn’t. The longer that he’s not straining some of his injuries, the more likely they are to heal properly.”

“So Clint needs to stay in medical.”

“Not really. At this point there’s nothing that they’re doing here that I couldn’t do at home.”

“So come home.”

Chapter Text

Fury

There are nights when Nick Fury gets to sleep, and nights when he doesn’t even bother to try. He pulls on his shoes as soon as word comes down that Rogers is doing pre-flight checks on the Avengers quinjet and heads down to Medical, arriving just in time to intervene before his very indignant CMO is about to find herself bundled into a storage cabinet.

“Stand down,” he growls, as much for the Black Widow’s sake as his officer’s, and he’s pleased when both women nod acknowledgment.

****

Natasha

“Clint hates medical. He’ll rest better at home.” Natasha’s been on the sidelines while Clint wheedles his way out of sickbay so often she knows the excuses by heart. “We’ve got everything we need there, and you know Bruce can monitor him for any complications.” She waves a hand at Bruce, standing nearby, and Fury nods, although the CMO is scowling. In theory, she can override even the director if she thinks it’s medically necessary for her patient. But Natasha hasn’t got any intention of losing this argument. “He’ll also panic if he wakes up and doesn’t see the kid.”

******

Bruce

Bruce doesn’t wait to find out what excuses Fury gives the doctors. He just pushes the bed with Clint and Tony on it toward the flight deck and hopes Natasha won’t be too far behind. He’s worried about Tony. The boy is shaking harder now than he was when he was rescued, and the sleeves of the sweatshirt he is wearing are soggy with the tears that still roll down his pale cheeks. “It’s okay now,” Bruce says, when they reach the Quinjet. ‘No one can see us in here. You can stop crying.”

“I’m not sure I know how.”

****
Steve

He means to help Bruce get Clint set for the trip, but when he hears Tony’s soft confession, Steve diverts to fetch a wet wipe from the tiny commode. It smells like lemons, and it isn’t cold, like the washcloths his mother used to help him break free of the panic he’d felt whenever he couldn’t breathe, but it’ll do. Steve settles Tony into his lap and begins to wash his face. “Slow, deep breaths,” he tells the boy, demonstrating what he means. “Count four in through your nose, then four out through your mouth. It’s okay. Everyone cries sometime.”

******
Tony

Tony can’t believe that Captain America is saying it’s okay to cry. And showing him how to stop, too, which is even stranger, because how does Cap know if he hasn’t ever had to stop crying? The stories Tony’s Dad tells sometimes make it sound like Cap is too perfect for crying like a little baby, no matter how scary things are. But the breathing thing works, and after a minute or so Tony remembers that before the Serum Cap wasn’t very big and got beat up a lot. And he wants to ask, but he doesn’t dare. Not yet.

*
It’s a relief when Natasha comes aboard. Her face is hard to read, but at least she’s not dressed like a superhero from one of Tony’s comic books, even if Clint is right about her being one. “Are you flying or am I?” she asks Cap.

“Did you sleep?” Cap asks her, and then answers before she can. “I didn’t think so. But I got my head down for an hour, so I’m flying.” He stands up and sets Tony back down onto the webbing seat. “Strap in,” he says. “I don’t want you bouncing around if we hit turbulence.”

*
Tony fumbles with the buckles with hands that don’t want to stop shaking and after a couple of seconds Natasha takes pity on him and helps. Bruce is still checking the latches that lock Clint’s hospital bed against the deck, and Tony’s not sure he wants to know why someone thought it was a good idea to design the bed to fit the plane or the plane to fit the bed. Clint is still unconscious. Tony wishes he’d wake up, because he knows he can ask Clint stuff. The others have been nice, but he doesn’t want to bother them.

*

It isn’t a very long flight, but Tony’s glad of the safety straps, because Cap takes a shortcut through a thunderstorm. Bruce isn’t really happy about that, but they’re going so fast that by the time he’s switched on the intercom to say something about it, they’re already into clear air. His eyes go green, though, which is weird and scary, and even Natasha isn’t happy about it, because she shifts her weight so that’s she more between Bruce and Tony than she was before. But then Clint starts to shout in his sleep and everyone forgets about the storm.

*
Clint’s yelling for Tony, and he sounds scared, the way he only ever sounded when the kidnappers were hitting him with a switch, which was only because he was half dead by that point. He’s fighting the straps that are keeping him on the bed, and he doesn’t seem to even hear Bruce talking to him, so Tony undoes his buckles and goes over to catch hold of his hand. “I’m right here,” Tony says, a bunch of times, until Bruce finally gets some more medicine into the IV and Clint goes all limp again. But Tony doesn’t let go.

*

Natasha doesn’t make Tony sit down as they come in to land. Instead she braces herself alongside him as the plane twists in the air and suddenly comes to a stop. The engines’ roar turns into a whine that hurts Tony’s ears before it fades sharply into a grumble. The click and rattle of the bay door opening makes Tony want to hide, but he doesn’t, even if it’s going to take all the courage he’s got to look up to see what is waiting outside the jet. And who. He’s pretty sure it won’t be his Mom and Dad.

 

****

Chapter Text

Pepper

She doesn’t want to be here and yet she stays, because not wanting to see that Tony is safe isn’t an actual choice in any life she can imagine. Clint too. She’s come to depend on the archer for providing the precise observation which will defuse the tension when Fury’s asking for the impossible, or Steve and Tony are being particularly bullheaded. But it’s as hard as anything she’s ever done to stand here, waiting for the protective doors between the quinjet hangar and the rest of the tower to slide open.

“They’re alive,” she reminds herself. “Isn’t that enough?”

 

*
Thor

Were it not for the safety doors which separate the quinjet hangar from their home, Thor knows his impatience would have had him striding out to meet his comrades before Steven secures the engines and opens the door. He’s only managed to stay at the Tower because the ruse they enacted at the helicarrier requires it. And because Jane is comforted by his presence, which is no small consideration.

Never has he missed his brother so! Magic was never a weapon he had needed when Loki was at his side. But he knows a little. Perhaps it will be enough.

*
Jane

She’s tried to nap since Thor came home, knowing that when she actually sees what’s been done to Tony she’ll be up the rest of the night working on the problem. Bruce will help, but Bruce is a physicist -- all his training resists the idea of a science so outré it can bend back time. She’s an astronomer, accustomed to peering at the past, and even she is uncertain whether this is a problem that can be solved. Thor thinks it can, though, and since they can’t take the problem to Asgard that’s going to have to be enough.

*

Phil

In many ways, Phil knows, he is probably the calmest, the best-rested, and the most objective person in the tower. And that includes Steve, now that the quinjet has landed. He has the training, the experience, and the discipline. Ever since Tony and Clint were taken he has eaten the prescribed amount of food required to sustain a man of his age and condition, exercised sufficiently often to sooth away any urge to pace or fret, and conscientiously sought out his bed on a regular basis.

And yet he knows, when he finally sees them both, it hasn’t been enough.

*

Tony

It’s awkward hanging on to Clint’s hand as Bruce and Natasha push the gurney out of the plane, and Tony can’t stop himself from looking up to make sure he won’t bump into anything. And that’s when he sees the city. It’s all lit up, building after building, and some of them he knows, because he’s been to New York, but some of them are new, which he probably should have expected. It’s another piece of confirmation that Clint’s been telling the truth all along, which shouldn’t be reassuring (because if Tony trusts anyone here it’s Clint) but it is.

The entire landing pad is enclosed in glass, two thirds of it looking out into the rainswept night in a deep curve that is only just sealing itself up against the wind. Most of the rest looks into darkened workshops, tools and workbenches limned only by red emergency lights. But at the end of the ellipse there’s one well-lit room that holds elevators and couches for waiting. Those glass doors open, spilling out Thor and three people Tony doesn’t know. He freezes, losing his grasp on Clint as the adults surge into a reunion he can’t be a part of.

The new people don’t look like superheroes. One is a man, two are ladies, and only the tall lady with red hair is dressed like she’s the sort of person Tony is supposed to be polite to. The man has thinning hair, a rumpled suit, and an ordinary tie; and the shorter lady is wearing jeans and boots and the kind of shirt you can only wear when you aren’t going to go outside in it. He hears their names, Phil, and Pepper, and Jane, but all of a sudden it’s gotten harder to sort things out in his head.

“Tony?” They’re all looking at him and frowning, and he doesn’t know why, because he hasn’t done anything wrong, at least he doesn’t think he has, and he really wants to run away, even though he knows there isn’t anyplace to run to, and besides that would mean he had to leave Clint by himself, well not by himself because there’s all these people, except sort of because he wouldn’t have Tony, and that’s a stupid thing to think because Clint knows these people, he was really happy to see them. But that doesn’t mean Tony knows them. Not yet.

“Tony?” Cap says again, and Tony must have blinked because he didn’t see Cap come to kneel in front of him. He nods, and makes himself look Cap in the eye, even if he can’t make a word come out. Cap smiles anyway, and offers Tony a hand. “We’re going to get Clint down to his own bed, so he can rest, but Bruce is going to keep him asleep for a while longer so he doesn’t move around and hurt himself. I know you’re pretty tired; can you trust us to take care of him for a little while?”

“You promised I could stay with him!” Tony protests, and he can hear his voice wobbling but he swallows back the urge to cry and straightens his shoulders instead. “You promised.”

“And you will,” Cap says, not even glancing at the way Tony’s hands have shaped into fists. “But we want to take care of you too. And you need some food, some sleep, and a bath. We can bring you food, and you can sleep in Clint’s room once you’re clean. But we can’t fit his bed into the bathroom.”

A bath? Tony considers the temptation. “A shower’s enough.”