Actions

Work Header

unforeseen circumstances

Chapter Text

A soft whine altered him to a problem just in time for him to turn his head. He barely caught a glimpse of the unidentified weapon (gray, wires, a strange pulsing light, a flicker of gold then black, then white) before it exploded in his face, throwing him back a hundred feet and slamming him against a wall. He felt three impacts: the explosion, the wall, then the ground.

Getting out of weapons may have, in some respects, been a mistake.

He was getting better, much better, at admitting he was wrong, especially to himself. It was actually pretty liberating. His father had belittled and lectured him for the smallest misdeeds until he was convinced that if he was wrong or messed up the world would end in catastrophic fashion. Granted, when he was making weapons, a small mistake could have huge consequences, hundreds of lives. Thousands. Sovereignty of nations, that kind of thing. So he’d learned not to make mistakes, to be terrified of any mistakes, and not to admit when he made mistakes, particularly to his father.

It was kind of a tangled knot, he’d give you that one.

The problem was that if he produced the weapons, he knew what they could do. Knew where they’d be best used, where would be the worst place. What could go right and wrong. He obviously kept up on his competition, so he knew about their technology as well. Now that he’d been out of all that for a while, he could see how it might put him at a certain disadvantage.

Hydra, for instance. They were perfectly willing and capable of keeping up with the Joneses when it came to weapons. And for all his brilliance and the intelligence at his disposal thanks to SHIELD, he just didn’t know what he was looking at. He’d have to do something about that, in the future.

The last thought that went through his mind, before he was knocked senseless, was that he might want to look into weapons design again.

It was normal to not be able to hear much. The suit could protect his hearing from gunfire and explosions, but it had been close, and a greater than expected magnitude. The muffled sounds were normal. In his experience, his hearing would be restored after some of the shock wore off. A high pitched whine sounded in his ears.

The pain was also familiar and expected.

JARVIS had been impacted as well, but had managed to engage repulsors to soften the impact against the wall and the fall to the ground. Otherwise it probably would have been worse, perhaps much much worse. As it was, he thought he might have a serious internal injury, there was a terrible pain radiating through his chest and abdomen. It made it hard to breathe, and though he couldn’t understand what JARVIS was saying he felt a brush of air as the oxygen delivery system engaged.

The colorless after image of the blast shimmered before his eyes, which hurt like crazy, like a flashbulb had gone off in his face. His eyes teared uncontrollably, an irritating thing when you couldn’t reach up to wipe the moisture away. He felt the heat then cold as the tears cooled on his cheeks. He tried again to breathe but his lungs wouldn’t take in the air, he could only inhale slightly, not enough--

“Sir you have a concussion,” JARVIS said, slightly garbled, as he’d taken a hit as well. “And perhaps a collapsed lung.” Tony could fill the low vibration of the arc reactor in his chest, even through everything else he felt, as the arc reactor rerouted power to damaged systems to stabilize the AI. Without JARVIS, Iron Man was a sitting duck.

Tony waited patiently a few moments for the pain in his eyes, the spots, the tearing, waited for them to fade, attempting to take a solid breath. He attempted to force his eyes open as they reflexively were jammed closed, managing to open them only a little and only for a moment. Whatever had exploded had done so with a tremendous output of energy, the likes of which he hadn’t seen since the prototype arc reactor his dad build overloaded. He forced his eyes open as much as he could, waiting for his vision to clear, but as the seconds dragged on Tony’s fogged brain began to realize something was wrong and he allowed the relief of closing them again.

Something was very, very wrong.

He tried again, but the spots hadn’t changed. In fact, they weren’t spots at all, just nothing, literally nothing, an absence of everything. No color, no light, no darkness.

His injured brain tried to process, but failed.

He could hear the sounds of battle continuing, muffled, distorted. He paused to listen, to try and pick out what he was hearing.

“Stark! Stark, do you read?”

Cap had been trying to reach him over the com, he finally realized. He did read, but he couldn’t respond.

He just laid there on the ground, unable to move, unable to open his eyes. He couldn’t breathe well, couldn’t speak; his chest felt tight and pressed, as if there was a heavy weight sitting on it, and the pain under his ribs on his left side was becoming more intense with each passing moment.

“JARVIS? Is Stark--”

“He’s conscious but injured, Captain,” JARVIS responded. “I’m currently assessing the extent of his injuries.”

“Stark! If you can answer me, respond! Natasha, get over there!”

“I’m closer,” Clint’s out-breath-reply came. “Stark don’t move I’m on my way.”

Tony tried to sit up, taking small breaths, his brain buzzing, doing it’s best to understand, but he simply couldn’t and he couldn’t sit up he was too dizzy and his head pounded with pain and it wasn’t until he said the words out loud that it clicked in his brain.

“I can’t see,” he mumbled through the fog in his brain. Only JARVIS could decipher what he said through the noise and continuing chaos.

“Help is coming, sir,” JARVIS said reassuringly after a pause, presumably as he was scanning for a cause of the problem. “Take a deep breath.”

Other pains were making themselves known but despite the other injuries, despite the fact he could feel warm liquid dripping down the sides of his neck toward the back of his skull as he lay there, he couldn’t stop himself from trying again to open his eyes, and trying again, and trying again.

“Tony. Tony! Hey, you okay? Can you hear me?” He couldn’t feel Clint touch him, of course, through the armor. But he felt the movement of it, the jostling.

“Yep.” He could. The whine pierced through his brain still, but he could hear, albeit muffled, stifled.

“JARVIS can you open this thing or what?” He felt Clint knock on the faceplate. JARVIS was still compensating for the damage inflicted by the explosion and was sluggish to respond. Tony screwed his eyes tightly shut against the onslaught of light that he expected to follow and surely would pain his already hurting eyes, but it didn’t come. He felt the brush of air against his face, but his vision didn’t alter. Even through his closed eyelids, nothing changed.

He could hear Clint’s ragged breath suddenly stop as the man held his breath. “Cap we need medical,” Clint said calmly.

“What’s wrong?” Cap demanded.

“What’s wrong?” Tony echoed, or tried to, but the words stuck in his throat, garbled. With his face exposed, he couldn’t help but automatically reach up to rub his eyes, but Clint grabbed his wrist, preventing him.

“Tony, don’t move.” He said nothing, nothing for a few seconds. “There’s blood. Eyes and ears. He’s out of it. JARVIS, uh… is it safe to open this thing? Fly him out of here? What?”

“I will administer a sedative and fly him to the quinjet for medical treatment, but I need authorization.” Tony tried again to sit up, thinking he did not want a sedative, but Clint firmly pushed his shoulder to keep him laying down.

“Authorization Cap2616,” Steve said quickly, after a pause, along with a grunt as he swung his shield and hit someone.

Tony didn’t want a sedative; through the haze of his pain and concussion, he was afraid and he wanted to be awake for whatever would happen next. He’d given himself the ability to override the override, of course, but before he could formulate how to do it, JARVIS used a painless pressurized burst of air to push medication under his skin. The medication worked fast; within moments, Tony felt the world start to fuzz away, calmly, gently folding into the nothingness, and though it crossed his mind, he didn’t fight it.

...

“We simply won’t know.”

“When will we know, doctor?

“I understand your frustration, Captain, but there’s-- He’s waking up.”

He tried to open his eyes, but something was pressing down on his eyelids, he couldn’t. He reached up, his fingers discovering an oxygen nasal cannula, a large bandage on his cheek, and a cloth blindfold over his eyes. He sat up, pain protesting loudly throughout his body, his left shoulder, his ribs, his eyes, his neck. Someone steadied him, helping him sit up a little, the nurse probably, and Tony reached up to explore the blindfold with both hands, reached behind his head to find the tie--

“Tony--” a large, warm, strong hand pulled his wrists down. “You’ve got to leave that.” It was Cap. He held Tony’s wrists until Tony made no move to resist then released them.

“What happened?” He intended to say more, demand an explanation, but his voice sounded squeezed from his chest, breathless, and he unaccountably sounded small, weak, he did not want to sound that way, did not speak anymore but tried to get his bearings. He was on a soft bed, he could hear the small alarms of medical equipment, could smell antiseptic. Medical.

“You were injured during the battle,” Steve said quietly.

“Is everyone… everyone else okay?”

“Widow broke a couple of ribs, but she’s on the mend. We caught most of the arms dealers, including their boss, but law enforcement is still tracking down a few that tried to slip away. We stopped the shipment before it left, though. There was… there were some explosives in there that we haven’t seen before, we figure that’s what you got hit with.”

Tony moved uneasily and his arm brushed up against something on his side. He reached over gingerly, as there was discomfort when he moved, feeling for what it was. “It’s a chest tube,” a man’s voice said. “Tony this is Dr. Streiten.”

“Trauma doctor,” Tony said, still feeling as if each word were being choked out of him. “Why can’t I breathe?”

“Your lung is still reinflating. You’re on oxygen, that’s what you feel in your nose. You have some internal bleeding from a ruptured spleen, that’s why you are probably experiencing abdominal pain. You had a concussion, that is why you have a headache. And your eardrums ruptured, which may affect your hearing, slightly.”

Tony swallowed as he waited for the last shoe to drop but no one spoke. “My eyes.”

“Tony.” It was Cap again but he didn’t say anything else.

“Tony it’s me, Clint. When I found you, your eyes were bleeding. There was a lot of damage. The doctors here have done a lot to repair what they could, but they don’t… We have to see what happens. No one has seen anything like this before, and we just don’t know.”

Tony sat there, his feet dangling off the edge of the bed. He could sense the people around him, but didn’t know who all was there, didn’t know even what he was wearing. He reached down to his chest; the arc reactor, at least, was covered up. He hated when people stared at it. He could safely assume Pepper and maybe Rhodey if he wasn’t out of town were not here but were on their way. JARVIS would have contacted them automatically. “Dr. Streiten, tell me what you know.”

“About… about your eyes?”

Tony’s hands gripped the edge of the bed, his knuckles turning white. “Yes.”

“Yes, well. Clean up crews are bringing the explosive debris for analysis so we can hopefully better understand how your eyes were damaged. Until we better understand that mechanism, I’m afraid I can’t give you much of a prognosis. We’ve contacted the best ophthalmologists in the world, and I assure you we are are collaborating with them and the neurologists as how best to proceed. At first, I assumed it was a simple flash burn, but Mr. Barton assured me that you couldn't see when he arrived and flahburns don't usually disrupt vision for several hours and... Mr. Stark, sir, are you all right?”

“Tony--”

He’d imagined every worse case scenario. Or so he’d thought. He’d never imagined this, never thought about this, not this swallowing nothingness, never seeing Pepper’s smile or Rhodey’s smirk or the color of the sky--

“Easy.” Cap had caught his arm. He had started to fall forward but hadn’t even realized it until he was caught.

“I know this must be disorienting, Mr. Stark,” he heard the doctor say finally. “It really would be best if you allowed yourself to get back in bed. You’re badly injured.”

He didn’t need the reminder. He realized now he was in pain, he hadn’t processed, but he could feel the familiar aches and sharp stabs that came with traumatic injury. His head did hurt, and his abdomen, and his eyes felt like sand had been thrown in them, and his chest felt tight and heavy. He could feel the arc reactor, like always, a persistent and sometimes comforting pressure and pain over his heart. A sensation of vertigo made the room swim wildly, and he laid back down, his heart pounding.

“Who’s here?” He asked quietly.

“Dr. Streiten, Steve, Clint, a nurse Adam, and Madalyn.” Pepper’s assistant, the one assigned to the Avengers to keep Pepper in the loop and assist when possible.

“Ms. Potts is en route from DC sir,” Madalyn piped in at the mention of her name.

“Okay, I just need… I need a minute. Could everyone who doesn’t know my birthday off the top of their head please leave?”

“October 11th,” Clint said confidently.

“It’s May 29th you dolt.”

“I know. I was testing you guys. Tony’s lucky to have me. Some of you people might have pretended to know just so you can stay.” Tony grudgingly gave a small smile in the general direction of the sharp-eyed archer. The man had followed Tony to the Quinjet when JARVIS gave the sedative and though he’d been sedated and out of it and couldn’t see, he had a vague recollection of Hawkeye helping him, gentle and calming for once, as the automated medical system had begun to assess and stabilize him. His calm and reassuring presence had allowed him to fall back to sleep. He and Clint typically bickered nonstop, and the fact that the quarrelsome archer had treated him so delicately was both comforted him and made him afraid somehow.

“We’ll come back in a half hour, Mr. Stark. I’m going to need to examine you more thoroughly now that you’re awake. Director Fury has asked that I call and update him on your progress. Is that okay with you and do you mind if he shares that information with your teammates?”

“Knock yourself out,” he muttered. He heard the good doctor speaking with the nurse, giving him instructions and orders, and the sound of the others leaving the room.

Silence started then grew as none of the men knew what to say. Tony stared at the nothingness, the void; it was neither dark nor light, there was no form, no changes or fluctuations. In the quiet of the room, he began to feel an eerie feeling of dread, of anxiety, an idea forming in his mind that he had died in the explosion and was alone in a cold dark void. He shuddered convulsively.

“Stark.” He felt Clint’s hand on his shoulder and came back to himself, the quiet retreating. “Are you okay?”

“Not sure. Working on it.”

“The whole team is on their way. Pepper, Happy, Rhodey too.”

Okay. “Okay.” That was good that they were coming.

He suddenly, forceably remembered what it felt like the first time he broke. It was when he was going to make the Jericho missile for the Ten Rings. If he hadn’t been only half conscious and nearly drowned, choking with every breath and unable to talk, he would have agreed to their demand. Anything, anything to avoid being tortured again, his chest screaming in agony, death smothering him like a blanket, his life and legacy in shambles, he would have done it. He would have built it.

He broke.

It didn’t hurt the same as a bodily injury. He wished it did. At least with a cut or a broken bone you could see something heal, but that. He lived with the wound of it still, and it hurt in odd moments.

Yinsen saved him from worse. Challenged him to fight, to secure his legacy. He decided he would build them a weapon, after all, just not one that they could ever use to harm another soul. He would kill them all with it. He had, and those that escaped were killed by Obie’s men.

It was the first time he broke; it wouldn’t be the last. He thought maybe this was one of those times.

He was prepared to sacrifice a lot, as Iron Man. He’d nearly given his life, would have died in the wormhole if it weren’t for a last moment twist of luck. Yes, his life. His valuable time, his not inconsiderable resources. He’d spent billions, it didn’t bother him. He sacrificed relationships, though that was more Pepper’s sacrifice than his, but they both lost out on each other because of Iron Man. Heaven knew that he was losing out on other projects he wanted to work on because he was busy helping the team, equipping the team, feeding the team, protecting the team.

Before that he’d sacrificed his health, nearly his sanity when the palladium was poisoning him. Granted he didn’t have a lot of choice, except when he did; he could have never worn the suit again and lived a bit longer but he didn’t want to risk the security, he couldn’t risk it, you don’t successfully privatize world peace then just, what, retire? Mayhem. Innocent lives lost.

He’d prepared himself mentally, every mission, that he might not make it back. He was willing. This was something good and pure and was worth dying over. He was prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice.

This. He wasn’t prepared for this.

Chapter Text

He knew he must be hurting her, but he couldn’t ease his grip on Pepper’s hand, he couldn’t. His brain gave the command, but his fingers simply would not obey. It was a slight comfort that he could feel her return the pressure, holding him just as tightly, not letting go.

He could feel his heart pounding dully in his chest, and at times like these he sometimes thought he could feel the shrapnel, close to his heart, threatening. But Yinsen had found a way to save him. Had kept him alive, for a reason, he’d once thought, and told himself it was to right the wrongs that had been done in his name with his weapons. Then, thanks to Nick Fury and Loki Laufeyson, he’d found a greater purpose-- saving the world as part of something bigger, the Avengers. Now all of it seemed at risk and he wondered if he’d been wrong, because the reason he survived couldn’t be this, couldn’t be to spend the rest of his life sightless, in darkness.

“Overall Mr. Stark, we will have to wait and see,” Dr. Streiten concluded. “I can’t make any promises. But I feel cautiously optimistic. There’s good reason to hope.”

“How long exactly, doctor?” Nick Fury’s voice was unmistakable. And Tony could feel his presence, large and warm and the slight scent of leather and aftershave, before he spoke.

“I’m recommending we give it two weeks. By then we should know… we will have an idea how permanent the damage is. Or isn’t,” he amended quickly.

If only he could read their faces. He could tell so much, read so much more by seeing the way someone looked. Their eyes. He couldn’t very well ask what face are you making right now every time someone spoke.

His injuries had forced him to rest for once. Despite his anxieties and worries, as well as the nightmares that had been troubling his sleep, he had slept. No doubt it was in part due to the medications they gave him for his injuries. He hated how groggy and sluggish the narcotics made him feel, dulling his mind and his senses. He really needed to figure out a way to speed healing for traumatic injuries. A team like the Avengers could never be successful if injuries could take out half the team for weeks or more at a time. There had been some promising research by a brilliant doctor that Streiten had mentioned, Dr. Chun or Cho, something like that--

“Dr. Streiten, what exactly is wrong with his eyes?” Pepper asked quietly, and Tony felt Rhodey shift beside him.

“There was almost certainly a burn to his corneas, known as photokeratosis. Also, the concussion that he suffered may have some effect on his vision. Apart from that, Ms. Potts… we simply don’t know. What he’s describing is not exactly…” Again Tony wished he could see the doctor’s face. But in this case, maybe it was best not to know. “It’s not exactly the symptoms we’d expect with those injuries, the nothingness he describes. But as I have said, though he apparently hasn’t regained any, regained any function… ahem, we do see some signs of improvement on the structures themselves and when we repeat the MRI in a few days, we will know if the inflammation to the nerves is responding to the steroids, and he--”

“Perhaps ‘he’ would prefer not to be talked about as if he weren’t in the room,” Tony cut in loudly. He sighed, and reached up automatically to rub his eyes, which itched, which burned, which almost incessantly hurt, giving him a headache on top of everything, before he forced himself to lower his hands. He didn’t have to see the others’ faces; he knew an awkward silence without visual cues. “Sorry. I apologize.”

A pause. Tony was sure they were all looking at each other with significant glances and his neck burned. He was something in that moment that he rarely ever was-- embarrassed. It made him angry. “No need Mr. Stark,” the doctor answered. “It’s me who is sorry. Perhaps after the MRI we will see if you’ve had improvement.”

“What are the odds this is permanent, I want to know.”

There was a pause, where Tony could hear the doctor take in a deep breath and let it out. “I don’t know how big or small of a chance, but there is a chance it’s permanent, or that you will have some loss of function but recover most of your vision. I don’t know. I really don’t.” Tony tried to let the information process, but it kept hitting a wall.

“When can I get back to work? This chest tube? When’s it coming out?” Tony asked abruptly. He was still holding Pepper’s hand as if it were his grip on his temper, his sanity, his composure, his ability to talk and function.

“I believe we can remove it later today. But Mr. Stark, given the severity of your other injuries, it would be incredibly dangerous to leave Medical. You will need at least another week and then you will still have to be very cautious. You should be in an intensive care unit--”

“No.”

“Tony,” Cap gave his Very Reasonable and Fair tone a try. Very impressive how he could do that with just a two-syllable name.

“I need to work.”

“Come on, Tones, you were just exploded into a wall and your spleen is ruptured,” Rhodey said with a bite of asperity, going for the mother hen track.

“It’s not a discussion!” Tony replied angrily as others in the room started to make their own sounds of protest and disagreement. His reply got more heated, more pressurized. “It’s literally not anyone’s business. None of you are in charge here. None of you are in charge here.” Pepper didn’t let go of his hand but touched his arm with her other hand, gentle, and he turned his head toward her, “I don’t want to hear it, I’m not discussing it.”

“Tony I know you’re upset, no one is saying you have to do anything--” Bruce started.

“Don’t be an ass Tony! You’ve got a brain injury--” that’d be Clint.

“Mr. Stark, please! I don’t want to have to sedate you--” Dr. Streiten, sounding distressed, anxious.

“No one is sedating anyone!” Tony stood up quickly. “No one is doing anything! I want this thing out of my chest! I want everyone to leave me alone! And I want to get back to work so that’s what’s going to happen! Stop! Stop!” He pulled his hand away from Pepper to cover his ears. He felt sick, he felt like something was wrong, like he couldn’t breathe, like his heart was racing. His words had come out strange, half strangled, like a man reading off a card with a gun to his head--

“All right people. Clear out.”

Tony sat back down and slumped over, his head in his hands, and he felt Pepper’s hand across his shoulders but even she listened to Nick Fury when he used that tone. He could hear the others murmuring to each other, he could hear Nick talking to the doctor, but he couldn’t decipher any of it, his brain was buzzing, he shuddered violently.

“Stark. You with me?”

“I won’t… grace that with a response.” The pressure and tightness in his chest did seem to be easing somewhat. It was horrible. It had felt like he was in a nightmare, but he was awake. It was horrible.

Tony felt the bed shift as Fury sat beside him, and for a long moment neither of them spoke. “Is there something you need to hear, here?”

“Look, Director, I’m sure you’ve got some lovely speech for your field agents who get injured, all about knowing what they signed up for, and how they’ll be taken care of, you’ll write off their insurance deductible and take care of their families while they can’t work or something, a greater good they’ve made a sacrifice for. Am I getting this right?”

“I’m not sure I would be able to keep Pepper in the lifestyle she’s accustomed to from you.”

“Pepper pays her own bills, she’s CEO. I don’t need any speeches, just get these people off my back and let me work.”

“You’re a smart man, most of the time, Stark. So you tell me. You really think work is what you need right now?”

“Yep.”

“I need you Stark. I’m not about to let you work yourself into a worse condition.”

Let me? Did you just say let me? You don’t need to let me, you’re not my boss,” Tony started angrily.

“Consider it a hostile takeover. Hmm? You’ve heard of that. And until I’m convinced you have your own best interest at heart and will listen to the good doctor who came very highly recommended and well trained and is on loan to us though he has some very important patients he’s tending to, I will make an executive decision.”

“I’d like to see you enforce your decision when I can lock this whole damn tower down--”

“I’m sure you could,” Fury said more gently. “I don’t think it will come to that. And I don’t think Pepper or JARVIS or Rhodey will be on your side in this case, Stark. If we’re being strictly honest, there’s not really anything you could really do to stop me.”

“JARVIS is always on my side,” Tony replied nastily. “He hasn’t had to bow to your whims since I upgraded him after you hacked him the first time.”

“Ah, the first time we met. I remember.”

“Yeah. Me too. I think I told you you could go--”

“As I said, I remember,” Fury cut across with exasperation. “I’d like to think that we’ve improved our relationship since then.” Tony paused, remembering the tone in Fury’s voice when he’d told Tony about the new threat facing earth, one that just as surely would mean annihilation but it wasn’t coming from space aliens or gods. He didn’t instruct him, ask him to do anything, direct him, but simply told him there was a nuke headed for New York, and knew Tony would handle it. It was trust. In his voice. And this kind of somber grief, because he knew Tony might not make it, probably wouldn’t make it. And a gentle pride, like, almost like a father might sound. Maybe they’d made a few strides since “Tony Stark not recommended.”

“You still have… you have secrets from me, Nick,” he said finally. “And you’re trying to control and manipulate me. Right now. I prefer to do things my own way, obeying governing bodies has never been my strong suit.”

“Well, you might change your mind someday,” Nick said easily, setting a hand on Tony’s shoulder. “And I’m not trying to do that, Tony. I’m worried about you. I want you to get better. You deserve a little consideration. You’ve sacrificed enough, and been willing to sacrifice more. Let me get you back on your feet, and then you can tell me where to stick it, huh?”

“What’s that going to entail exactly?” Tony asked warily, his hand bumping against the blindfold as he went to rub his eyes. Nick watched him drop his hands, clenching them into fists. Uneasy, he glanced up at one of the cameras in the room, as if looking to JARVIS for help or guidance.

“Give me three more days here in medical. It will give JARVIS and me time to get your lab ready for you. And I know you invited your teammates to crash here at the tower. Clint is going to take you up on that, and he’s going to keep an eye on you for me.”

“Clint??” Tony spluttered. “You want Clint to babysit me? That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard. Why not Banner? Or Natasha, she could pretend to be Natalie again and lie to my face for old times sake.”

“I have my reasons for selecting Barton,” Nick said. “You might have to be prepared to trust me on this one, Stark.”

“That’s asking for a hell of a lot, Fury,” Tony replied, matching his tone sarcastically.

“I’m not seeing that you have much of a choice here, Tony. You’re going to need a little help.”

“What’s that, some kind of joke, you 'don’t see'? And I have all the help I need, and if I don’t have any choices I make my own, you ought to know that about me at this point. JARVIS, how many ways could we incapacitate the director before he left the tower?”

“If we are to include the Mark 29 Sir, there are at minimum 4,386 ways to incapacitate or kill Mr. Fury before he leaves the Tower,” JARVIS said in a helpful tone.

“Mark 29, huh?” Tony could feel Nick’s stare now, the weight of it, and there came a long, heavy silence between them before Nick spoke again. “Listen, Tony, how have--”

“Nope.” Tony’s hand clenched tightly into a fist.

“Okay.” Tony raised his eyebrows briefly in surprise that Nick Fury actually backed down so quickly, but perhaps he sensed the futility of his line of questioning, not to mention the fragility of Tony’s emotions. A man could only be pushed so far. “I’m prepared to trust you on that. You mind returning the favor?”

“You’re only prepared to trust me since you’ll have Barton reporting my every move to you,” Tony replied bitterly.

“I trust you,” Nick said, his voice quiet and easy. “With things you are trustworthy of. Give an old man some slack, how ‘bout.”

“It’s a bad idea! And, I might add, I doubt you’ve asked our intrepid archer, since he can barely stand me as it is. He likely won’t think much of your plan either.”

“I won’t have to convince Barton,” Nick said, standing up. “Much. He does have some other… responsibilities, but he won’t mind.”

“You’re talking about a man who refused a perfectly awesome room here in the Tower,” Tony reminded him.

“I wouldn’t take that too personally, Tony. Barton has always needed to stay mobile. Grew up in a traveling circus, he’s a rolling stone.”

“That explains… so much. It wasn’t in his file. In fact, his file was just as slim as Natasha’s.”

“Consider this an opportunity to get to know each other then. Are we in agreement? You stay here and behave until the doctor clears you, then Clint can keep an eye on you and you get back to work?”

“On a trial basis.” Tony said finally, but he was going to let Fury win this one. Loki only knew why Fury insisted on Barton, but it would likely get everyone off his back, let the rest of the team get back to work, and he could probably talk Barton into leaving him alone. If that failed, he could always try to annoy him into leaving or quitting.

“Sure, Tony, trial basis.” Fury almost succeeded at keeping the sarcasm out of his voice. But as Tony could only hear and not see, he caught the edge of it. “I’ll let the others know.”

“Fine, fine, just… give me a minute.”

Fury didn’t answer; Tony heard him leave. He was left to wonder what was on Fury’s face when he looked back from the doorway-- pity maybe, or worry, or contemplation, or maybe annoyance. Probably annoyance. It never crossed his mind that Nick was watching him with concern and compassion.

He sat in the near silence of the med bay, although the more moments passed, the more he began to pick out the small sounds. The lights buzzed. There was a low hum coming from his IV pump. He’d learned to tune it out, but for the moment he could even hear the soft thrum of the arc reactor in his chest. He turned his head experimentally, letting his ears catch the sounds from the different angle but also hoping for some glimmer, some shade of light or darkness to change as he tilted his face toward the ceiling. The slightest suggestion of hope that he could see again.

Nothing.

He felt the dull ache in his eyes, bleeding into his head in an unpleasant headache. He hadn’t really allowed himself to contemplate what it might be like if this were… if this was how it would be now. He’d been too injured, and distracted constantly by the stream of specialists and friends and teammates. This was possibly the first time he’d been left to himself since the accident, now that he thought about it.

Okay then. JARVIS could somewhat be his eyes. Most of the Stark Industries stuff would be doable, although he’d have to completely redesign his lab. Avengers would be a bit more difficult, because as today proved, JARVIS wouldn’t be able to see everything in time, and there was a chance it would be someone else getting hurt next time.

He felt an itch on his back, a niggling of doubt and fear. Right now he couldn’t even go to the bathroom without help. There was really no telling how much he relied on his sight, because he’d never gone without it. Certainly, it was going to… complicate things.

His thoughts went back to Ho Yinsen, as they often did in moments like this. Right before JARVIS had suggested calling Pepper as he was carrying the nuke to the wormhole, he’d thought of him. This might be it, he’d thought. Me not wasting it. Three more years on earth than he had any right too, if Obadiah Stane had succeeded in having him killed. Three more years, giving him a chance to no longer be the man who had everything, and nothing but the man who had everything and everything-- a chance to be part of something bigger, a chance for the lady killer to fall in love, a chance to make his death something that meant something. He’d had all that, only now to lose like this? Who was he trying to fool? What chance did he have of keeping any of the things that mattered most to him? If he lost his sight, a lot of things would change, he couldn’t just keep pretending to be the exact same.

He let his thoughts drift in a sea of uncertainty and fear. Occasionally, his brilliant mind would start to think of ways to solve his problem, if it became permanent, but emotionally he couldn’t. He didn’t want to think about that yet. His back started to ache from sitting oddly because of the chest tube. His pain medicine was wearing off, and other aches were becoming more and more painful. He noticed he was cold. Why were medical places always so cold?

“Stark? It’s me, Steve. Is it okay if I come in?”

“Sure.”

“Fury updated us on the new plan. I think it could be a good thing. I know I haven’t taken you up on your offer to let me stay here, but I’m wondering if the offer still stands.”

“No.”

“I’m sorry?”

“No the offer doesn’t stand, Cap. It was made to help you out, give the team a space to relax and train. I never intended it to be a pity party for Tony Stark and I won’t allow it.”

“That’s not it. I mean, yeah, I’m supposed to be some kind of leader for the team, right? And one of our own was injured in a mission. I’d like to be available if you need anything. But Stark you’ve never needed anyone, and Fury’s got Barton in case you do. I know I can’t fix this. I want to stay because… because I do. And if you don’t want me here, I understand.”

“It’s not that I don’t want you here,” Tony snapped. “It’s that I don’t want you here because of this.” He gestured angrily to his eyes. “In two weeks I’ll either be fine or off the team, and having everyone standing around like they’re waiting for me to die isn’t going to change that outcome.”

There was a few moments of silence, where again, Tony’s frustration spiked at not being able to see Steve’s face. “You’re not… we wouldn’t…” He sounded bewildered. “Tony, we wouldn’t put you off the team!”

“You better think on that, oh fearless leader,” Tony said, unable to keep the dark anger out of his voice. Steve had closed the portal. He’d chosen the greater good. He’d do it again. He wasn’t wrong for doing it, it was just a fact. That earned him a nice long awkward silence before he heard Steve walk toward him then the scudding sound of him pulling up a chair to the bed.

“Is that what you think?” He asked. “That if you don’t get better, we’d abandon you? Kick you off the team? Is that... is that why you want to get back to work so fast?" Tony heard a soft, sad sigh. "Look. We all have something to contribute to the team, that’s why Fury put us together in the first place. But if something happens to one of us, it doesn’t mean we can’t do something else. It’s about who we are, not just our abilities that define our place on the Avengers. For a smart guy, you’re pretty dumb sometimes.”

“Uh thanks I guess,” Tony replied, appreciating Cap’s words but still too angry and insecure to trust them. He caught a whiff of something sweet. “What’s that smell?”

“You can smell that?” Cap asked, surprised. “Oh. It’s uh… it’s ice cream. This is probably the dumbest thing but… yeah. I was sick all the time as a kid. Lots of health problems, and you know. Medical treatment wasn't so great back in the day so I spent some time in the hospital. I hated it. My mom… well, my mom would bring me ice cream, it was kind of a treat for us and it always made me, uh.” Steve cleared his throat. “It always made me feel better. JARVIS said you like Rocky Road so. I brought you some. Sorry.” He awkwardly touched Tony’s wrist and when Tony turned over his hand, placed a cold bowl in it.

“You’re sorry?”

“It’s kind of stupid. I wanted to do something, though.”

“It’s not stupid. It’s… it’s great. Thanks. Ice cream, sure. Everyone likes ice cream when they’re sick, especially for breakfast.”

“You’re welcome. And thanks for accepting it.”

“I’m not a complete jerk, you’re just trying to help,” Tony said irritably. He took a bite of the ice cream though, and it somehow soothed his hot temper.

“No, you’re not. A complete jerk. And we are just trying to help. So Clint’s your assistant for the week, but we’ll all be around a bit more. We’d already discussed it before Fury came out. Will you be all right with that?”

Tony didn’t answer as he helped himself to more ice cream. No, he wasn’t really all right with it. But the Avengers would never be much of a team if they couldn’t pull together when there was a crisis, and this might qualify a little. “It’s fine,” he said finally.

“Great! Okay. Good. That’s… that’s real good. Okay then. I’ll just go tell the team, and uh… I’ll tell the doctor you’re hurting.”

“How’d you know?” Tony asked in confusion.

“Oh. Well, the army. Lots of tough guys who hide it when they hurt but I got okay at seeing the signs.”

“Huh.”

Tony sucked on a marshmallow as he contemplated the next two weeks. Something told him it was going to be interesting, if nothing else.

Chapter Text

"I'm not a babysitter, Nick. Ask my wife," Clint Barton said lazily, taking a drink of hot coffee. Ahhh. Warmth for his cold dead heart. He picked up his bow that he'd unstrung to clean and maintain, oiling each part with careful attention.

"Good thing Stark's not a baby, then." There was an edge of warning on his voice that Clint, perhaps unwisely, chose to ignore.

"I'm really not a spoiled narcissist sitter, either," he said instead, seeing if Director Fury would rise to the bait.

"Good thing Stark isn't a spoiled narcissist," Fury replied, this time a quiet calm, devoid of annoyance or irritation, that bespoke the dangerous ground Clint currently inhabited. Interesting. The Director was definitely being a bit protective of his Avengers teammate. Clint had been part of SHIELD a long time, and had never known Nick Fury to coddle any of his agents. Then again, Tony wasn't technically an agent. "And if that's your honest opinion, you might be right. You're not the man for the job."

Clint spit out his gum, shooting it seven feet across the room and hitting the garbage can with disgusting accuracy. He contemplated.

Since Coulson had died, Fury had developed the annoying tendency of looking to him for his opinions and insights on things. At first, he thought it was just Fury's way of showing him he trusted him after... after Loki happened, but it had remained pretty consistent and Clint was a bit unnerved by it, honestly. Sure, he'd kind of done that before a little bit but they all knew that Coulson was more particularly adept at that kind of thing; he cared, for one thing, and was thoughtful about it, for another. They all knew he would never measure up to his old mentor, and they all knew whose fault it was that Coulson got killed. This was a new level, though, actually asking him to be responsible for one of his pet projects Tony Stark the mercurial genius.

Clint was mostly just being sarcastic; he didn't have anything against Tony Stark. Kind of the opposite, actually. He owed him, if nothing else. If it weren't for him, the fiasco with Loki would have been worse-- much worse, and Clint would have been the cause of more of his friend's and co-worker's deaths than he already was. "Okay I'll give you that Tony Stark is not a narcissist and is possibly even kind of cool on certain levels. But I have no idea what you expect me to do. Even if I agreed, do you really think he'd listen to me if I told him to take a break or whatever? I'm the last person on the planet he'd listen to."

"We've come to an agreement."

"You think he'll keep his word?" Clint asked skeptically.

"I do."

"Why not get one of his lackeys to do it? That guy, uh, Happy Hogan. Why can't his girl take care of him?"

"Don't mistake Happy for a lackey," Fury said, distracted by a message he was getting on his phone. Clint raised an eyebrow but Fury didn't expound. "I need someone who can protect Stark when he's vulnerable. Ms. Potts wouldn't be suitable, and I'm worried for her safety. We're sending her away for now as there is a credible threat against Stark and his people. He's made plenty of enemies, including HYDRA. We'll keep his status under wraps, but if word were to get out, it's unlikely that Hogan could stop a determined enemy."

"Then get his buddy Rhodey to do it. That guy we met at schwarma."

"He's busy," Fury replied cryptically after a pause.

"What about Laura? She's not going to like it." Not strictly true. Laura thought it would be good for him to work a bit more. He was getting a bit underfoot at home, and she thought he would get over some of his... yeah, we're going to go with hangups if he got back in action.

"Look Barton, if you're not up to it, just say so."

"Is this an assignment?"

"No. It's optional. Other members of the team are residing at Avenger's Tower and I can task them for this, but I'd prefer that you run point and make this a priority, Agent Barton."

Clint sighed, restringing his bow. It's not like this place wasn't awesome. It really wouldn't be that big of a deal, and only a couple of weeks. "All righty, boss. If you think Stark will listen to me, I'll hang out with him."

"That's the spirit. You have my number, or let JARVIS know if you need anything. Head back to the Tower, Stark will be expecting you." Clint saluted as Fury waved goodbye and pulled out his phone to update his wife on where he'd be the next couple of weeks.

...

"Agent Barton, welcome." JARVIS' polite voice greeted him as he entered the tower with a backpack and two duffle bags full of his equipment and weapons.

"Hey JARVIS. Uh... yeah. Where should I put this stuff?"

"You're residence is located on floor 93, Mr. Barton."

"Nice! I like a room with a view."

"I believe that is what Mr. Stark intended, sir. Hopefully you will find it adequate."

"Okay, yeah. Floor 93. Where's the elevator?" In response, the window on Clint's left flickered into life with a diagram of the tower and a red path leading to the elevators. Clint smiled with an impressed nod. "That's kinda cool." He studied the map a few minutes, getting the lay of the land, memorizing details he thought might be helpful.

Even the elevator was impressive. Stark was such a rich little show-off; Clint wondered if he even realized he did it. None of the Avengers took residence here; it wasn't likely that they'd even see it much, yet everything was top-notch, presumably just because he could. Clint laughed, a bit self-deprecatingly. One elevator in Tony Stark's Avenger's Tower could pay for all his kid's college education. When they arrived at the 93th floor, JARVIS instructed him to press his thumb to a small square on the wall by the number buttons and he was also asked to face forward for a facial recognition scan. "Who else has access here?" Clint asked curiously.

"At the moment, only you Agent Barton, unless certain security overrides are enacted. You may authorize others at your discretion."

Clint expected the elevator doors to open into a hallway of some sort, so was surprised when they revealed a wide open, well-lit space. Natural light filled the room, which had high ceilings. Instead of a room with a bathroom, it was a huge loft. He could see a ladder that allowed access to a large sleeping area. There was a kitchen, a space to relax and watch TV, a new computer that probably hadn't even been turned on. "JARVIS?"

"Yes Agent Barton."

"So you're here too."

"I am activated at your request, Sir. Otherwise you are given privacy, as I am inactive by default."

"Really. Huh. You got eyes in here?"

"Again sir, Mr. Stark thought you would value your privacy. There are security cameras that can be activated by your authorization but they are not currently in use." A map of the room lit up on one of the windows, detailing security features and a layout of the room and tower itself. Clint studied it intently. He felt a warm sensation, unexpected and annoying-- gratitude. It was clear that Stark or whoever he hired cared about details. This place was actually kind of awesome. There was a list of available training supplies, some in the room and some in the basement where there was some kind of gym or practice area. Twelve of the floors, 82-93, were earmarked for the Avengers team. It was interesting that Stark created so much space, optimistically thinking of the future possibility of more members. Clint remembered Stark's file saying something about not being a team player, but it certainly seemed that he'd changed in the interim.

"Can I see Nat's room?" The display changed to a schematic of her area. It was completely different from his own room but just as tailored to her preferences and tastes. Stark didn't seem to be paying attention to his teammates, but it was clear that he was at least somewhat invested in their happiness. "Hey JARVIS, are any other team members here?"

"Negative sir. Everyone has been called away at the moment, though Dr. Banner was hoping to be back soon."

Clint swiped at the image and it cleared the screen, giving him an unobstructed view of the city below. As he admired the view, he felt a familiar but unexpected pain in his chest, an aching shadow that, at odd times, made itself known without warning.

Coulson had liked Stark. Clint had laughed at him and told him he was getting soft when he had praised the arrogant genius as being more than meets the eye. He had told Clint that Fury thought Stark was a good man and Coulson had agreed with him and Clint had accused him of letting dollar signs obscure his better judgment-- he'd talked to Nat at length about her stint in Stark Industries and while Nat equivocated over the volatile genius, it seemed obvious to Clint the man wasn't worth the hassle it would take to rein him in.

But Coulson had always been like that. He always was able to see the best in people, the potential, the greatness.

It was his fault Coulson was dead. It was. It wasn't, but it was.

Oh, sure, he knew what Phil Coulson would have to say about it, how he would castigate him for shouldering any blame. Nat had argued that it was not honoring his memory by taking the blame for his death when it clearly was not his fault, but Nat always was a manipulative little witch that way.

He had been aware of everything while it was happening. He spoke and it was his words, he moved and it was his movements, he thought and it was his thoughts, but it wasn't. It wasn't. It was Loki, it was a blue light that was darkness to him, a shadow, the scepter, a malevolent force, but it was him. He couldn't stop it, he couldn't do anything to stop it, but he didn't want to. All he wanted was whatever Loki wanted him to. If only he'd just killed him like everyone else, killed him like he killed Coulson--

Clint shuddered at the dark turn his thoughts had taken and shook his head. It only took him a few minutes to unpack. He wasn't hungry but he checked the kitchen; it was fully stocked. There was even Lucky Charms and Cocoa Puffs, his favorites, in the cupboard, he wondered where Stark had dug up that tidbit. For some reason the stupid cereal made him feel better and worse, happy and bitterly sad in the same moment.

"Agent Barton, Mr. Stark requests your presence when it is convenient," JARVIS said in the quiet of the bright room. Clint raised an eyebrow briefly and rolled his shoulders. Right. He's on assignment here, whatever Fury said.

"Uh, okay, where is he?"

"He is currently in Medical awaiting your presence as his release is contingent on your arrival."

"Oh boy I bet he's happy about that. You can let him know I'm on my way."

Medical was in a sublevel with multiple security features that were state of the art but a pain in the butt. Clint could recognize SHIELD's fingerprints all over it; they were a bit on the paranoid side, but with good reason. Not that Stark hadn't gained a healthy paranoia of his own after Stane and Afghanistan, but this was next level stuff. Fury trusted precious few people and ultimately didn't trust anyone completely. It had been a surprise to a lot of level seven agents that Fury had hung his hat on this whole Avengers gig, but that was Fury for you. Trust no one, assume the worst in everyone, but he had this faith in humanity thing that sometimes trumped it, for all that. But, yeah. It took him fifteen minutes to get to Medical and that was with top-level security clearance.

Unsurprisingly, Stark was irritable and annoyed with the medical team. "I know it's confusing," he was saying with biting sarcasm. "But you actually work for me. I'm the boss of you all, not the other way around. I've jumped through every hoop you've asked me to and I am leaving--"

"Tony--" Clint recognized the pretty redhead from his debriefing files on Stark, as well as Nat's description. He'd seen her during the medical debriefing but he'd never been introduced to Pepper Potts, though he had a favorable impression of her.

"Ah!! Agent Barton, arrived at last!" Dr. Streiten said with relief. Clint nodded to the doctor, but it didn't escape him that the doctor always looked uncomfortable around him, even slightly guilty. Clint could only attribute his attitude to him disliking working with Clint after he'd "helped" Loki, because he seemed particularly uncomfortable if Coulson was brought up and invariably changed the subject. His stomach clenched with unhappiness and anxiety. He'd tried to quit SHIELD after New York, knowing it would be hard for his fellow agents to work with him even if they understood he'd been mind controlled, but Fury and Laura hadn't allowed him after the Battle of New York. It was moments like this, when he had to see what others thought of him, that was still hard.

"Agent Barton, Pepper Potts." Clint turned to the tall, slender women as she extended at hand to him. She was looking at him intently, almost fiercely. Her grip was firm in his, with a pressure he was surprised by. He smiled politely at her, and could read in her guarded expression that she was anxious, maybe even a bit angry. She was protective of Stark, and maybe struggling with some trust issues of her own. Fury had mentioned sending her away due to some cryptic threat, and she was clearly not pleased.

"Pep," Tony said in a reluctant and conciliatory tone.

Pepper turned toward him, anger stiffening her shoulders, but when her eyes landed on Tony, Clint saw her face soften. His shoulders were slumped, and even with the blindfold obscuring a good portion of his face, Clint had never seen him looking so defeated. "Two weeks," she said softly, going to him and taking his hand. He replied nothing to her, but nodded, squeezing her hand so tightly his knuckles turned white. She kissed his forehead and turned back to Clint, giving him an inscrutable look as she left. Clint raised his eyebrows, feeling as if he'd just dodged an arrow by inches. The woman was terrifying, and she wasn't even trained. Impressive.

"Well, now that the guard hawk, or seeing-eye bird, or whatever you want to call it, do you think I'm allowed to leave my own medical bay? To go to other parts of my own home? Or is there some paper I have to sign, a waiver or something?"

"No, Mr. Stark," the doctor said tiredly, rubbing the bridge of his nose. "I assure you, had it been in my power I would have released you at your first request. However, although this is your home and facility, it was Director Fury who tasked me with your health and wellbeing and at this insistence that Agent Barton be available before you are discharged and we leave. Agent Barton, I wish you the very best of luck. JARVIS is up to date on all the medical requirements Mr. Stark will require as an outpatient. There is a nurse on call, and, of course, I will still be responsible should any complications arise. As I am currently... off grid, it will require the extra step of you contacting Director Fury should that occur. However. I'm anticipating not seeing you until we remove the bandages in two weeks." Dr. Streiten has walked over to Clint, and perhaps for the first time in their acquaintance, was looking him in the eyes.

Clint raised an eyebrow. While Dr. Streiten was older, his beard and hair white against his warm brown skin, he suddenly looked older than his years. He was looking at Clint with his brow furrowed, pity or compassion or guilt in his eyes, leading Clint again to wonder what it was that the doctor thought of when he saw him. No doubt he was thinking of all the injured or killed agents that he had helped to treat because of Loki, because of him. Clint frowned as the doctor opened his mouth to say something, but whatever he'd been about to say, Dr. Streiten changed his mind. "Thanks. Doc." Clint raised his eyebrows pointedly, indicating the doctor and his staff were welcome to leave.

"Yes. Well. Take care, Mr. Stark. While you're not the world's most willing patient, I certainly wish you the best."

Tony relented on his sarcasm and annoyance. "I know you got a job to do. I do appreciate it. Thanks for everything."

"In gratitude for your good behavior I will refrain from rehashing how careful you must be for the next two weeks. It's imperative that you do not re-injure yourself, particularly your brain."

"This is you refraining?"

"Ah well. I suppose not. Good-bye, sir."

"See ya," Tony replied with an edge of sarcasm. "Well, Agent Barton. Welcome. If you'd be so kind as to hand me the damned walking stick, I will make my way to my lab and you can kindly... take a hike. This is me being nice."

"Oh it is? What a nice change of pace," Cling drawled, letting sarcasm drip from his words like lemon juice into a wound.

"Yeah, you're welcome," Stark replied sharply. He had scruff on his face; he couldn't shave without seeing. Didn't he have some robot overlord to help him out? Of course, robots were incredibly stupid. They could only do what they were programmed to do, and only if you told it exactly. It would have taken some very prophetic foresight for that to have happened. So. He didn't shave.

Despite himself, Clint felt sympathy twist his heart in his chest. It had to be hard on Stark to not see, and for a guy who never went anywhere without looking ready to do a magazine shoot, not shaving must have been just one of a hundred reminders of what was at stake if his eyesight were permanently damaged.

Even ignoring the obvious lack of facial hair grooming, Tony Stark looked rough. Coulson and Nat had been training with him occasionally, and he was in good shape, but a week in the hospital had taken its toll. Added to the injuries he'd sustained, it didn't make for a very pretty picture. His face was pale, his hair unkempt, partially because of the blindfold. He was wearing a tank top and sweatpants, hardly normal attire. Clint took all this in at a glance and grabbed the walking cane, twirling it to get an idea of its weight and balance. "Here." Tony reached out awkwardly, his hand bumping against the cane. "Let's get out of here. But Stark, I'm not going anywhere."

"If being nice isn't working, I could try another track," Tony said. "Three more days in this place has given me perspective. I don't need your help. I've had plenty of downtime to get JARVIS tweaked and I'm good now so-- dammit!" He'd been so busy talking that even though his cane had hit against a bag on the floor he hadn't processed in time to keep from completely tripping over it. Clint caught his arm without a word, keeping him from falling, immediately releasing him when he had his balance back. He gave Tony a minute to recover from straining his injuries as he bent down and picked up the bag, noting it was a few personal belongings of Stark's that needed to go back to his room.

Tony didn't say anything, but Clint noticed his breath coming faster than usual. "I know you don't need me but SHIELD pays time and a half for asshole hazard pay, so I'm hoping you'll at least pretend to indulge me," he said flippantly, grateful, at least, he didn't have to hide his expression of concern and that Tony couldn't see him scrutinizing his traumatized teammate.

"Whatever they're paying you I'll double it if you'll leave me alone," Stark replied automatically but the bitterness was gone, the sarcasm. He hadn't moved since Clint caught him and it occurred to the spy/assassin that perhaps Tony was... afraid to move. To fall. To be vulnerable.

"I don't think I'm bought off that easily, Stark. Like I said I'm not going anywhere. I'm right where I want and need to be and that's where I'm staying. So. Lab? Kitchen? Shower? Where are we going?"

"Um... lab. I just want to... to get to my lab." Clint pressed his lips together, feeling even more sorry for Stark now, as his voice was flat and hesitant.

"All right Stark. Start forward and I'll walk you through it." Tony let out a deep breath and moved forward with his cane swinging back and forth in front of him as the doctor had instructed him. "Three more steps then there's a small step. Good, now turn right and you have a clear hallway ahead of you."

They made it back to the main tower without any incident. Clint watched Stark a moment as he tried to not seem winded, but it was obvious a week in the hospital with the injuries he'd sustained had decreased his tolerance. Clint took a moment to study the arc reactor through the thin material of the tank top. That thing had to make it hard to breathe, especially since he'd cracked a couple of ribs and collapsed a lung. There was a thin sheen of sweat on Tony's forehead as he leaned against the wall, trying to ignore his pain, his weakness, his breathlessness. Clint said nothing, just giving Tony a minute. "Okay, lab. It's um... oh, JARVIS is... yeah, okay, lab's going to be straight ahead then left."

"I designed every damn square inch of this place myself and I'm being lead around like a one-year-old," Tony said darkly. "This is so stupid."

"Yeah," Clint said casually. "Sure, it is. You're right. This sucks for you. I uh... yeah, back in the day, I lost most of my hearing. Not the same of course as... But I remember, you know, having a similar feeling about it." Clint walked slowly beside Tony as they moved down the hallway, taking a moment to study the projected map JARVIS had displayed along the wall, giving them a route to the lab on one of the basement levels. "How many floors does this tower go down, Stark?" He asked in surprise.

"Quite a few. Thought it might be safer if the building collapsed if there was a, you know, secure place underground. It had to be pretty big to be of any use, plus the servers needed their own place," Tony replied distractedly. "You lost your hearing?"

"Most of it. Had to learn sign language and all that, Nat knows. It actually helped during a lot of our missions, we still use it sometimes, stealth mode and all that." Clint paused as they arrived at the lab. "I think it was SHEILD's modification of some Stark tech that got me these hearing aids that gave me some function back, until Dr. Streiten's team fixed me up."

"Streiten? The hell? I thought he was the trauma doctor."

"He is. But he's like... in R&D. Here, I'll take your cane. Something Fury said makes me think he's going to quit, though. You might be his last patient."

"Great, a man with nothing to lose who is currently doing experimental medical procedures for a shadowy government agency with unlimited funds and zero oversight." By feel, Tony put in his combo and fingerprint. Clint had never visited the infamous lab and peered curiously through the glass doors. It was a study in organized chaos; clearly a dozen half-finished projects were in process, with pieces of Iron Man armors scattered around, with another half dozen armors in display cases. There were computers and all kinds of high tech junk, tools, equipment, even a car. "Give me your hand, Barton." Tony fumbled for his wrist and pulled him over to the biometric scanner. "Press it here. Okay, now say 'The hungry purple dinosaur ate the kind, zingy fox, the jabbering crab, and the mad whale and started vending and quacking.'"

"Uh. Okay." He repeated the phrase, knowing his skeptical face was lost on Tony but unable to keep from making it just the same.

Tony pulled his mouth into an impressed frown. "Nothing wrong with your hearing now, Legolas."

"Right, I am a trained spy and all that. But what?"

"It's a phonetic pangram. I think JARVIS knows you pretty well from the comms, but this will cover any gaps. If you're staying here, it'll give you access to secured areas easier, just tell him to let you in."

"Why all this for your lab? Can't JARVIS keep out bad guys or whatever? This place is Fort Knox."

"Fort Knox isn't all that secure, to be honest, and I appreciate certain... redundancies. Is that why Streiten got all weird whenever you showed up? What, you weren't a good patient or something?"

"Huh. You noticed that too?"

"Kind of obvious. If you're listening," he amended. He reached out his hand and Clint gave him back his cane. They walked in and Tony moved toward his workstation, bumping into debris and flotsam before sitting on a stool. His face was pale and sweaty, no doubt because he had exerted himself and his injuries were hurting.

"We're going to have to come to some sort of agreement, here, Stark," Clint commented. "Because I sure as hell didn't sign up to watch you hurt yourself. We gotta agree on some kind of plan where you let me, you know. Keep you from killing yourself."

"I'm fine," Tony said brusquely.

"You're not," Clint replied bluntly. "And I'm sure if we can't agree on that simple point, then I should make a few phone calls and get the team gathered up since you're clearly not safe to leave medical."

"Manipulation and threats don't work well on me, Agent Barton."

"How about common sense?"

"Iffy."

"All right 'iffy.' I'll keep out of it. You're an adult, or at least Fury claims you are and I've seen you pull off some pretty impressive stunts, so I haven't argued." Like putting a nuke in a wormhole and saving the entire planet singlehandedly by doing so. Like building a technologic wonder in a cave in Afghanistan, all the while being tortured and medically experimented on. Not for the kids. "But for this to work you've got to give me a modicum of authority. How about... a word? A word I say, which I agree to be judicious with, and you will get some rest or bathe or eat or whatever. Otherwise. You're in charge." Tony couldn't see him raise his arms out in a gesture of both supplication and question. "What do you say?"

"Safeword, huh? Never been my style." He eased himself on his stool, favoring his left side, and felt forward toward his expensive computers. He didn't do anything with them, didn't have JARVIS turn them on. He just ran his hands over them, as if assuring himself of something. Clint said nothing and after a moment Stark sighed. "All right, maybe not a bad idea. So what word?"

"Uhh... pineapple? Not likely to crop up in conversation. So I'll promise not to use it unless there's real cause and you promise to do what I say without question if I invoke it, deal?"

Tony scoffed but agreed. "Yeah okay. Pineapple, sure. I hope you brought a book because I'm hoping on working with JARVIS to create a workable environment in my current state. There's a couch somewhere around here, drinks, snacks, probably."

Forstalling an answer, Clint suddenly drew his gun, pointing it at an unexpected sound and movement coming from the corner of the lab.

Tony startled, unable to see what was happening but sensing Clint's sudden movement and tension, hearing the sound himself. "Someone's here," Clint said, straining to see in the dark corner.

A beep of alarm made Tony suddenly relax and laugh. "It's okay, it's one of my bots." Clint relaxed a little, glancing at Tony, but didn't lower his gun until he could see what made the noise. A mechanical robot thing rolled forward awkwardly, bumping into a few things as it made it's way over to them. Tony reached out as it got near, running his hands over the black contraption, a long arm with a claw for a face. "DUM-E. Hey buddy. Must have been on standby. No one came to see you, poor guy? Rhodey couldn't stay, or I'm sure he would have. Where's your little brother?"

Clint moved over to get a better look at the thing as another one in the kitchen area (at least, there was a fridge and a sink) whistled in greeting and moved toward Tony. "These things, you made them? Impressive. Right? I don't know anything about robotics, but I've never heard of anything like this."

"Yeah, they're impressive. U not so much, he's mostly by camera guy, extra set of hands, but they're good."

Clint grinned. "That sound it's making reminds me of R2D2. Or is it some kind of code, can you understand them?"

"They're much less advanced AIs, JARVIS can talk to them, but no, the beeps aren't code or anything. Like you said, like R2D2." For the first time since the accident, Tony smiled a little bit. "Sure. Should think of some way to hide a holographic message in DUM-E here. You'd like that huh?" He patted the robot like a pet.

Interacting with the bots seemed to put Tony in better spirits. "All right, let's get some work done. JARVIS, how are we looking?"

Clint watched in fascination as the lab came to life under Tony's direction. JARVIS began to update him on projects and Tony began to prioritize tasks, fielding messages from Stark Industries, philanthropic charities, and his own projects. He put the majority of his own projects on hold and had JARVIS create a new one that would help him program the Tower to function with his blindness.

"It's only for two weeks, Stark," Clint protested, watching JARVIS translate the genius' ideas into holographic projections and files. "Isn't this a waste of time?"

"Not to me. And I don't count chickens that haven't hatched yet. It will be better to be prepared for the worst case, rather than sit on my ass for two weeks and hope for the best."

"If you say so," Clint said, scratching his head. It was going to be an interesting fourteen days.

Chapter Text

Calm wasn't really his thing.

The lab was too quiet.

Pepper liked it calm; unlike him, she found it peaceful and so he forced himself to accommodate it at times, but it was as if he had an itch inside. When it was too calm, he got fidgety, started to want to play his music too loud or drive his car too fast. Something he could see, something he could hear, something he could feel, it didn't matter.

No, calm didn't suit.

Too often, the calm was a prelude to something... awful.

...

In his dreams, he remembers clearly: there's a moment-- the last moment-- when he feels Loki's hand clasp his wrist. It was right after he dodged the projectile Loki fired at him and the poor lucky bastard behind him caught it and died a clean, heroic death without hurting anyone he loved. Then the hand gripping his wrist, with unbearable, incomprehensible strength. It's surprisingly cold, and he has a moment to look into the face of the monster before he recedes into the recesses of his own mind, banished, present but helpless and hopeless. He notices the paleness, the sheen of sweat, and thinks (his last thought of himself) he looks ill, an odd thought, but it came unbidden and Loki spoke you have heart, then he thought nothing not even Laura or the kids but felt fear, felt the point of the scepter against his chest.

It was cold. It burned. It was dark and bright at the same time, darkness but blinding like a bright light, and when he could see again... a leash, a collar, a bridle, reigns he could not fight nor did he want to and Loki smiled. There was nothing else; no loyalty, no love, no compassion, no fighting it. There was only helping and protecting Loki, his only and consuming thought, assisting him in his glorious purpose as he put a bullet in Fury's chest.

(It occurred to him, at times, that he knew that Fury wore a vest. He could have shot him in the head, but he hadn't. But he hadn't thought of it; if he was trying to spare Fury, or Hill a few minutes later, it was not on a conscious level. Perhaps subconscious, he sometimes thought.) (It wasn't as comforting as he hoped it would be.)

He remembered and felt again the cold and darkness of the mind control. How violating it felt, how fearful. How it didn't feel like he was being mind controlled. (it bled into his waking life, so at odd times it would strike fear into him that it hadn't ended, that he was still under that deathly influence. The therapist had devised a clear litmus test for moments like that-- did he care? Did he feel love? Compassion and empathy? If he could... he wasn't under the influence of the scepter. Most days, he found that helpful. But during nightmares, he felt everything, love and compassion, and still harmed, still killed, and felt every moment of it).

He dreamed he was pushing his daughter on a swing and when she came back toward him he pushed her and she fell off the swing, dead by his hand. He dreamed he was shooting at targets at the farm, in the barn, and when he'd look up it was Nat or Coulson the whole time, he'd been filling them with holes for hours. He was holding Laura, her head tipped back to look up at him, her neck exposed, and then she was bleeding and he saw her throat was slit and there was blood and more blood and more blood and she was dying in his arms, accusing and confused--

He was falling from a high wire, falling and being broken, falling and his bones were crushed and his brother looked down at him with the crystalline blue eyes the scepter caused and shrugged and Clint tried to call his name--

"Barton! Clint! Clint!" He startled awake, looking up into the unseeing face of Tony Stark. Even partially covered with the blindfold, he looked concerned. Clint rubbed his face with both hands, trying to reorient himself.

"I dozed off," Clint said, glancing at his wrist, then frowned. He wasn't wearing a watch today. "What times is it?"

Tony didn't answer, but turned his head away. "It's 2314," JARVIS supplied.

Clint sat up, sticking slightly to the leather couch. "Sorry, Stark," he said. "I should've had some coffee when you offered it earlier."

"You should just go to bed like I offered earlier. I think I'm doing okay here, I don't need your help. JARVIS is--"

"Yeah, yeah," Clint cut him off. "We've had this discussion I think 1247 times now. If it's okay, let's skip it this time."

Tony jerked his head, clearly irritated. Silence grew between them, but Tony didn't get up from kneeling on the floor. "Who's Bernard? If you don't mind me asking."

"He's no one," Clint said automatically, then hesitated. "He's my brother. He died."

"Oh." He waited a moment and when Clint didn't expound, he raised his shoulders. "I'm sorry."

Clint eyed Tony warily, wondering what kind of mood the mercurial genius would be in this time-- Tony seemed to run hot or cold, up or down, with very little in between. For the past week that Clint had had unrestricted access to one of the most private people on earth, and he learned quickly that Tony Stark was not the playboy partier that he'd portrayed himself to be. He was a spoiled, bossy, sarcastic jerk. He had worried he would be bored, now he was kicking himself. He'd give a good bit of money for a few moment's peace.

The first couple of days had been easiest. James Rhodes had been around for chunks of time, keeping Tony in check with his sarcasm and willingness to bully Tony into submission, and still injured Tony was at his most tractable. Rhodey has his own job and missions to perform though, and was apparently out of the country on some task and wouldn't be back until the next weekend.

With Rhodey gone and Tony starting to feel a bit better, Tony had started to want to be on his own again and had become somewhat of a pain in the neck. He insisted that Clint leave him be in the lab and he'd call if he needed anything. That had lasted almost seven hours, until Tony had sliced his arm open on an exposed piece of metal. Tony had, in his infinite stupidity, tried to clean it up on his own and hadn't let JARVIS call for help, so by the time Clint wandered down of his own accord it looked like a massacre with a chainsaw had taken place, mostly because Tony kept stepping in puddles of his own blood without knowing it and smeared it across half the lab. He'd thought he'd bandaged up the cut, but he'd missed a part of it and was still bleeding all over without realizing it and it was all over his clothes and skin. It had damn near given Clint a heart attack, and he and Tony had had a little bit of a heated exchange before they came to a new understanding-- Clint wasn't going to leave him alone in the lab anymore.

Tony had snidely made him sign actual legal documents full of non-disclosure agreements in retaliation. Clint had been approximately three seconds from quitting, but Fury had approached him in private the day before and told him that SHIELD was investigating the threat against Tony and things weren't looking good. It was beginning to look less like an accident-- Iron Man being in the wrong place at the wrong time-- and more like a deliberate attack on him specifically. They had suspicions from the beginning, which was why they moved Pepper, but the deeper the investigation went, the worse it looked. It wasn't following Hydra's typical MO, either, and they were getting more intel that said it was an outside party. Banner was helping look over the bomb debris and had declined to work in Tony's lab, citing a need to focus, but Clint suspected it was too stressful of an environment to see his friend in. Fury was tapping more of the Avengers to help, as the weapons dealer that had gotten away was proving more dangerous and more difficult to catch than he'd anticipated. Steve and Natasha had been gone for two days.

Tony had... not taken the news well. He'd been angry, and specifically called out Fury for letting him walk into a trap due to faulty intelligence. Fury hadn't responded much, except to say that he and everyone else could just assume that any mission was a trap and he'd do himself a favor by learning to live with that. Tony had chafed at the idea that others were going after the weapon's dealer without him, but Fury had refused to allow him to participate even remotely, even by comms. "You're blind and injured," he said flatly. "You have one job here, Stark, so get with it."

Clint hadn't been exactly thrilled either to be stuck in the lab, but he was well aware of the rare opportunity he was getting. Tony very rarely let anyone in the lab, preferring to come upstairs himself if someone needed something. On the rare occasions that someone was admitted, it was only briefly. None of them had actually seen the genius at work. Tony had allowed a space to be cleared for Clint to entertain himself; a TV, computer, and a workspace to maintain his weapons. Though he was getting a bit stir crazy and didn't have any idea how Stark stayed down here for days on end, he'd learned a lot during their first week together.

And, unfortunately, Tony had learned more about him than he probably wanted to know. Like the fact that if he accidentally fell asleep, he was likely to have nightmares. Clint swallowed, embarrassed sure, and also he felt bad about interrupting Stark when he was supposed to be helping him.

"Did you eat while I was asleep?" Clint asked.

"Um... no."

"Come on, then. Time for a break. You haven't had your recommended daily allowance for protein the doctor wanted you to have while you were recuperating."

"I'll have U make me a smoothie," Tony protested.

"Uh, no, not on my watch. You know last time he made you a smoothie he put leftover lasagne in it?"

Tony winced, pulling a face. "Oh that's what that was. Listen, you've got tomatoes and eggs in lasagne, it was an honest mistake. Why the hell did you let me drink it??"

"I thought you were just weird! Can't you fix him or something?"

"He's not broken!" Tony said nastily. "He's perfectly fine."

"Sure, okay. But I'm still not letting that lunatic robot make you a smoothie, I'm supposed to be helping you. It'd be better if we went upstairs and had some Cocoa Puffs."

"Spare me!" Stark groaned. "That is disgusting. It's like pouring sugar in your mouth."

"Mmm!" Clint said. "Just how I like it. I can make you... kale, or... quinoa or whatever nasty--"

"It's not nasty!"

"It tastes like bug spray!"

"Pepper says--"

"Pepper's not here, so I'm making you a sandwich and we're both going to keep our mouths shut about it," Clint amended, a note of warning in his voice.

Tony paused. "Agreed."

The compound was silent this time of night. For the past several days, it had been what Tony had envisioned when he built it-- a communal hub, a command center, a safe place to train or relax during downtime. He couldn't see his teammates; he could only hope they approved of the time and money and effort he'd put into creating a space for them. He'd valued their expressions of appreciation or approval when they made comments, making mental notes for improvements if they happened to mention anything they'd change. The team was important to him; he'd felt almost like... family, after all they'd experienced together in New York.

New York. Tony felt a tremor in his soul. It hadn't happened at first; for the first long while, he'd actually felt pretty happy, pretty satisfied and proud about saving the world, stopping the aliens. It was just lately. The past few months. He'd felt different about the whole experience. He didn't like thinking about it, much.

Clint was gathering sandwich stuff while Tony sat on a barstool at the counter. He glanced over and noticed Tony's hand shake as he gripped his cane. Huh.

"Something on your mind?" He asked the ruffled looking scientist. Tony didn't answer and so he pressed a little harder. "What are you working on?"

"I've been looking at some of the alien weapons. The Chitrari. Trying to see if there's a way to make ourselves more defensible if they, uh, if, if..." Tony shook his head, trailing off. Clint pulled out his utility knife, sharper than Stark's fancy kitchen knives, and sliced a tomato in expert fashion. He paused and looked up at Tony.

"You thinking of making weapons that can fight against them? I thought they were done with?"

"I'm out of weapons, Barton," Tony said, more sharply than was strictly necessary. "But not everyone is. This alien tech, it's dangerous, it's... it's bad news. I had to step in to stop it from getting into the wrong hands, and that's pretty much everybody including SHIELD. But if no one is innovating on this stuff then, yeah, that's dangerous, because Thor said that there are other alien races and because of the tesseract we'll be on their radar. We're on someone's radar. Loki didn't act alone. So I was trying to see... if there's a way to play defense. Make us stronger."

"I don't know, Stark. You seemed to hold your own just fine." Clint said, tossing a piece of salami into his mouth.

Stark didn't answer.

"Hey, Stark? I don't think I... I know you were just doing your job and that kind of thing, but I want to thank you. For fixing the helicarrier that day." Tony started to scoff and Clint turned more serious. "No I really mean it. Thank you."

Tony quirked his mouth to the side. "It was a hell of a shot, man."

"Yeah." Clint rinsed the lettuce in silence a moment. "Yeah, I was definitely on my A-game, huh."

"Your brother teach you?" Tony asked tentatively, trying to bring up the subject delicately.

"No, this guy in the circus." Clint thought for a long moment. It was in his nature and training to not tell anyone anything about himself. But working by Tony's side for almost 24 hours a day the past several days, he wanted... he didn't know what he wanted. But he decided to tell him about something. "Called him Trickshot, he never told anyone his real name. I was just a kid when I joined the circus after my parents died in a car accident."

"Hell of a thing," Tony said. "I'm sorry you went through that. I'm sure you've read my file... I lost my parents in a car accident too."

"That's right. Then... I mean, you get it. Right?"

"It wasn't like it was for you. You joined the circus, I inherited Stark Industries. Which I guess is kind of a circus... I mean... what I'm saying is, it was worse for you, probably."

"I don't buy that. I mean, I don't buy anything, SHIELD pays crap," he joked, "but I don't think that's a thing that goes easier because you have money. Some things just suck."

"You got me there. I wasn't ready, you know? I was too busy playing around to learn much, and then... I was out of time. I had to learn fast, and the hard way. I think I gave Obie three heart attacks that first year."

"Obie?"

"Obadiah Stane," Tony said slowly. "He was my mentor. He uh... he's the one who tried to have me killed in Afghanistan. And then when I got back. He was like an uncle to me. What, that wasn't in my file?"

"Coulson was hella protective of you Stark! You weren't even on my clearance, and he trusted me. What the hell is that about? Him trying to kill you, why?"

Tony shrugged. "I guess... he wanted to sell weapons to people I didn't. Thought I'd find out and get in the way, I suppose. I never got a chance to ask him. I guess I was a disappointment to him. No surprise there."

"Come on," Clint protested. "How you figure that? He just wanted a bigger slice of the pie, right? You're a genius, pumping out the inventions, making everyone look good. I highly doubt he was disappointed."

"He wouldn't be the first. I doubt my dad would approve of me... at least, he never did before he died."

"Well. You were just a kid, messing around, right?"

"Maybe. What about you, your dad your biggest fan?"

"Nah. He was a real piece of work, I'll tell you that. I was sad that my mom died, but... it was almost good for her. You know? He'd smack her around a lot. Me and my brother too. She wouldn't leave him though. That was no life for her. When she died I was glad for her. Saved her 40 more years of being knocked around. It meant I was on my own with my brother, but being hungry was easier than getting beat."

Tony was silent a long few moments and Clint put the top pieces of bread on the sandwiches and cut them. "Did you tell the police? There was no one to help you guys?"

"No," Clint replied. "There wasn't." Both of them were lost in thought a few moments, considering their new perspectives on each other.

"So the circus? I mean, what was that like?"

"Dirty," Clint said with a grin, sparking a smile from Tony for the first time in days. "But I learned a lot. Interacting with the public, you see all the good and the bad. And I learned I had an... aptitude. And my brother, Barney, him too. Thing was... There were some not so savory characters. The guy who taught me how to shoot arrows, he was not a great person. I guess we all made some choices were had to learn to live with. I was heading down a path that maybe wouldn't have a good end, but. Had a little bit of good luck. Nick Fury pulled us out when he got wind of our skills. Sent Coulson to come for us."

"Coulson, no kidding!"

"Yeah. I never met someone like him, you know? He's the one who trained me. He was hard on me, but he was good. He was really good. He expected me to live up to his standards. He trusted me. He let me bring Nat in when I was supposed to take her down."

"You're joking!"

"Nope."

"He really thought you could take her down?"

Clint laughed. "I'm the only one who could take her down. Anyone else, get too close, and it's over."

"Huh. Why didn't you?"

"I felt bad for her. Her heart wasn't in it. It was all her training. I thought she could be more than what they'd made her."

"Hella risky."

"It was." He got them both a glass of lemonade and they started eating, quiet for a few moments.

"Coulson was like that," Clint said finally. "Taking stupid risks for people. Considering how my previous mentor died, he had to know he was taking a risk on me, too."

Tony frowned. "You killed who?"

"That guy, Trickshot. He died. I didn't kill him but..." Clint shrugged, even knowing Stark couldn't see it. "He died cause of me. Just like Coulson. Some kind of bad luck, I guess. Only reason Natasha isn't dead is because she had the good sense to punch me real hard."

Tony ate in silence, contemplating what Clint had told him. For some reason, it was hard to swallow his sandwich. He set it down. "Your SHIELD files tell you much about me? In Afghanistan?"

"No. I told you, Coulson was uber protective of you. It was redacted to hell and back."

"I'm sure it was." Tony breathed out harshly, almost a laugh. "Yeah. I'm sure it was. Well. There was a guy there, Ho Yinsen. He was a prisoner, same as me. He saved my life, put in the first arc reactor. It was just an electromagnet hooked up to a car battery, but it saved my life." He swallowed hard. Clint watched him intently, his brow furrowed. Coulson had told him that Stark had been through a lot, but he never would tell him what had happened in that Afghanistan cave. He recognized that Tony was reciprocating his honesty, something he hadn't anticipated. "He wouldn't let me give up. I don't know why he saved my life, his whole family was killed by people who bought weapons I created. I'm sure a lot of people would have agreed with him if he'd've thought the world would be a better place without Tony Stark. But. Whether he thought that or not, he saved me. He helped me. I was going to pay him back all at once, by getting us out of the cave. I was going to pay him back for all of it. But at the last minute--" he paused to take a drink of lemonade. "He sacrificed himself to give the suit a couple of minutes to charge up. His death is... it's on me."

Clint didn't know what to say for a moment, just rubbed his hand across his face. How had he not known Stark was carrying that around all this time? "I know it wasn't in my control. But Loki wouldn't have been on that carrier if it weren't for me."

Tony paused. "It wasn't your fault."

"You don't know. Stark. You don't know. You don't know what... everything I am. My thoughts, my memories, my skills, used to kill, to destroy. I couldn't even try to stop it, I should have tried, I should have. I should..." There was an unbearable pressure behind his words; he slammed his fist against his leg. "I wasn't strong enough to stop him. I was just a toy, a plaything." Clint clenched his fists, angry now. Here he was, being weak again. Not strong enough, again, he couldn't control his emotions when he was supposed to be helping Tony, not whining to him--

"I think..." Tony said slowly. "I understand." He shifted his weight, grasping his cane with enough intensity that his knuckles were white. He reached out, fumbling until his hand found Clint's shoulder. "You know, Clint... you can be a real butthead, but you're not a murderer. And Coulson's death wasn't on you. With me, there were choices I made that... I could have done better. Not like you. Coulson would have... he was worried about you, he didn't blame you. He'd be proud of you."

Clint was glad, for a moment, that Tony couldn't see; despite the fact that he had a feeling Tony wouldn't judge him for it, he didn't want him to see him wipe away his tears. They were private. At the same time, he was glad someone was there with him, someone who kind of understood.

Tony leaned back, his shoulders slumped. "It did a number on us. Huh? The battle of New York. You think we'll come through the fall out okay?"

"Maybe. But I'm not sure what you're worried about Tony. You were... you did good out there. Better than any of us. You saved more people, stopped more aliens and bad guys than the rest of us together. What? What is it?" There was something in his posture, in the way that Tony was suddenly tense. Clint had stumbled close to something, but he couldn't imagine what.

"You know people used to call me the Merchant of Death?"

"No. It wasn't an alias on your file," Clint responded acerbically.

"I thought that might be behind me. You know? I got out of weapons. I thought it was a good place. Iron Man, you know, as a shield, to protect people, protect the earth."

"Yeah? Which you did."

"I know. It's just... I dropped a nuclear weapon on the aliens. An alien species, Clint, which we knew nothing about, in outer space, where I have no idea the possible effects of a nuclear explosion. They all died, I saw it happen."

"Wait, wait. You're telling me, you feel... bad? About stopping the aliens?"

"Not about stopping them. About the way I stopped them. About killing them. What if they didn't have a choice, huh? There was some kind of hive mind? We know Loki could control minds, right? We'll never know. They're all dead."

Clint thought about it. He never had before. He hated the aliens, despised everything about them. He resisted (barely) the urge to spit when they were mentioned. He would have killed every single one of them himself if he could. But he hadn't. Stark had. He'd saved them all. But Stark wasn't a soldier, he was a civilian, and he Clint could kind of see what he was trying to say. "What do you think you could have done differently?"

"Nothing."

"You had no other choice."

"I know."

Clint refilled Tony's empty glass. "Whatever choices you made. Whatever corner you were pushed into and had to be the one to pull the trigger. I just want to say this. There was nothing else you could have done. You did the right thing. And I'm grateful to you for doing it."

Tony attempted to speak but couldn't quite. He cleared his throat. "Thanks," he said quietly.

The two men finished eating in comfortable silence. For Clint, it was as if a boil had been lanced; a relief from the pain and burden of what he'd been through and Coulson's death. The therapist had said as much as Tony had, but somehow, hearing it from Tony (who had been there, who had done more than maybe anyone else to right the wrongs, who had more right than maybe anyone to blame him) meant more to him than it had from anyone else.

For his part, Tony felt absurdly pleased that Clint had opened up to him. He barely knew the sarcastic SHIELD agent, despite what they'd been through. He hadn't realized they had so much in common, shared so much history. He felt... he felt less alone. He felt... he almost felt happy.

The two of them cleaned up, Tony feeling his way around the kitchen. Clint did nothing to stop him, having learned from sad experience that Tony would punch him if he tried. Sure he couldn't see where he was swinging, but he'd caught him on the arm once by accident and it had given him a charley horse. It wasn't a lesson he wanted to learn twice.

"Back to work?" Clint asked, yawning.

"No, time for bed," Tony said with a small smile. "I think we could use a little rest. I was hoping the team would get home tonight, but..."

"They'll be along. Probably sitting in a car with their feet up eating bonbons."

"Ah, the glamorous life."

"Being a field agent mostly involves surveillance. It's incredibly boring." Tony smirked at that.

"I guess I'll see you in the morning, asshole bro."

"Uuummmm, what the hell?"

"You know! We're both huge jerks. We can be bros. Bruce is my science bro, you're my asshole bro."

"NO." Clint said firmly. "We're not calling it that. You've got to think of a different name."

"There isn't one, that one's perfect."

"I'm NOT being called your asshole bro. Sorry. How about murdery bros?"

"NO."

"Bad fathers bros?"

"Miss me with that."

"It's better than yours!"

"Maybe you'll change your mind," Tony said with a yawn. "See you in the morning."

"Not until late morning. I'm not getting up at seven again."

"My brilliant brain waits for no man," Tony called over his shoulder. Clint grinned at the retreated figure. Somehow, he thought he might just get a good night's sleep tonight.

Chapter Text

Clint woke and rolled out of bed silently, crouching in a dark corner before he was fully cognizant of even being awake. He gave himself a moment for his consciousness to catch up with his instincts; there was definitely something wrong. He waited a few minutes, motionless, but the house was still. "JARVIS," he said quietly. The room remained silent and dark-- the too dark and silent room was probably what woke him. Clint silent as a shadow checked his weapon by feel-- a knife from under his pillow. He picked up his quiver of arrows and his bow, stringing it in the pitch black of the room. This is what it's like for Stark all the time, he thought, shuddering a little. He moved toward the door; hopefully, he could remember it's layout without bumping into anything; he couldn't see his hand in front of his face.

Yeah. Something was definitely wrong. He went over to the window, the only light from the city far below. From what he could see, Avenger's Tower was black. That in itself was definitely alarming; the building was off grid, and powered by a powerful arc reactor that not only kept the lights and servers on but powered 93 floors of mostly highly technical business research and development. Whatever had taken that out had to be powerful, and if it took out the big arc reactor there was more than a chance it could take out any other, say, smaller ones residing in the chest of the local genius billionaire.

He had to get to Stark. With the power out, and JARVIS, and there was no saying how that was even possible but right now Tony was vulnerable to any attack. Clint eased back on his feet, thinking. The stairs were not strategically sound if he was looking to avoid a fight until he got to Tony; he'd be pretty well boxed in. It would also take probably too long.

Tony's room was several floors below his. If he remembered the schematics correctly, it wouldn't be too difficult to get to his room-- if the vents were wide enough to fit him. If the vents were interconnected. If.

It was a big if. In a place this big, it made sense that the air conduction wasn't central but locational. From what JARVIS had shown him, though, it looked like it was at least a possibility that the residential areas had a few shared areas through the ventilation system.

He moved carefully through his room to get his supplies, equipping himself in the dark, grabbing up his bag full of weapons and supplies. He pulled out the emergency coms, but he didn't want to use it in such an unsecured location so he stuffed it back into the bag, at least for the moment, but getting help would have to be a priority.

He contemplated the risks versus benefits of following the noises to the bad guys and taking a few of them out, maybe getting more of an idea of what they were up against. But with JARVIS out, he had no way of knowing how protected or unprotected Stark was at the moment, and while it was safe to assume he wasn't completely helpless there was no doubt he was somewhat of a sitting duck if he couldn't even see his enemies coming.

No doubt the baddies were working in teams. Some must be in the basement to cut off the power from the arc reactor powering the building, and the rest would be foolish to not simultaneously go after Stark. He took a moment to stretch before making his way up to the vent in the high vaulted ceiling using a SHEILD issued rope that could easily attach one end to nearly any surface. It was pitch black and silent, and the vent was barely big enough for him to fit in and only if he pushed his equipment ahead of him. It was slow going, and the small flashlight he held in his mouth was the only light in the silent tower.

He started making his way in the general direction of Stark's room. Along the way, he passed a large square that looked somewhat like an airconditioning filter and he frowned at it, finding it an odd place for a contraption, then it dawned on him. As silently as he could, he prised off the filter and behind it was a cavernous opening, going nearly a hundred stories down. Just as he hoped, the elevator shafts were part of a security feature that would allow poisonous gases to be vented out through the elevator shafts, and the filters were meant to minimize the amount of the poison that would reach New York's general population.

Finding Tony's floor was not difficult. He wasn't too worried about the possibility of falling; he trusted his equipment and his own skills. However. It never was a bad idea to pause and contemplate life choices in moments like this. He took out the communicator and powered it on; he kept it turned off to avoid detection and keep the batteries alive. Static buzzed through his ear; there was crappy reception in the elevator shafts, of course there was. He was going to have to tell Stark to get his act together, he should have anticipated the possibility of allies needing access to wifi and radio signals within the ventilation shafts. Some genius!

He programmed in a message-- Avengers Tower under attack send back up and pressed send. It would repeat on a secured channel until someone authorized could access it, and the channels were monitored for activity. It hopefully wouldn't take too long.

He waited a few minutes to see if there would be an immediate response, but none came. He finally left it transmitting, unhappy but he just had to hope for the best. He had already spent more time than he'd wanted to try to get help. He stuffed the rest of his equipment back into his bag and prepared for the descent down the elevator shaft. He kept it slow, controlled; any mistake and he would love his life, but all above and below him was pitch black darkness. Only the light from his flashlight offered any reassurance that he was not in a void. He stopped at the closed elevator doors that belonged to Tony's room and pressed an ear against the door. It was silent; there was a chance that they hadn't gotten to Tony yet, not if they were idiotic and cut the power before they came for him, leaving only the stairs as their way up to him. Or perhaps they weren't after Stark at all, but after something he owned, tech or weapons or energy. That was the best case scenario, but unlikely given the fact there was credible evidence someone was after Tony. He slung a quiver of arrows on and secured his bow.

Turning off his flashlight, he fished a pry bar out of his backpack and carefully pried open the doors, just enough to see through. He was greeted unexpectedly by a dim light, and he ducked back out of sight, listening. He couldn't hear any voices or movement at all, so he looked through the small opening. The elevator opened into a large sitting room with a computer and television, both black at the moment. Pulling the doors open enough to slip through, he slid into the room, crouching low and pulling out a gun. There was no door to the sleeping area; just a wall and past it, the bed and a large bathroom. The light was coming from where Clint figured the sleeping area would be.

Gun at the ready he moved along the wall and turned the corner.

A man was holding a gun to Tony, who was slumped over, tied to a chair with his hands behind his back. He made a pitiful sight with his blindfold on, and now a gag in his mouth, blood dripping from a gash on his head by his hairline. The white t-shirt he wore to bed was soaked through with sweat, clinging to his chest and making the missing arc reactor in his chest plainly visible even in the poor lighting cast by a portable light like a lantern sitting on the floor by Tony's chair. A cell phone was also on the floor, smashed into several pieces. Two men stood over Tony. The man holding the gun on Tony, who had his hair styled in the most idiotic ponytail Clint had ever seen in his life, was looking expectantly at Clint-- not good. They had known he was there.

"Drop your weapon, Agent."

"Uhhhh... Nah." Two quick shots felled the first man, but in such close quarters, the second man had a moment to react, raising his gun at Clint and firing it. Clint dodged, moving to the side and running toward the man to tackle him before he could fire again or turn his attention to the helpless Tony. He elbowed the man in the face, breaking his nose, before firing on him as well. Clutching his side, Clint bolted to Tony and took off the gag.

"You killed them?" Tony gasped as Clint untied his hands then moving to untie his feet from where they were secured to the chair. "Is there blood on the floor?"

"No, they're not dead," Clint said, slightly winded. "I hit them with an icer. Non-lethal but they won't be waking up for at least a day. What in the hell did they do to you? Torturing you for information? How long did they have you before I got here?"

"I can't be sure, but if I had to guess-- at least thirty minutes. My entire floor has a backup power source, so when they cut power to the tower I was alerted but I couldn't..." he paused, breathless. "Long story. They got to me, cut power to the floor. I tried to get word to you but." His words slurred slightly, his face pale and sweaty. "They weren't after intel or money. They are after the arc reactors. For energy. They..." He struggled to stand and nearly collapsed. Clint caught his weight, suddenly thinking of Coulson, how he'd trained him to be calm in moments like this; he'd never seen Coulson anything but calm, actually.

"What's happening to you?" He asked calmly. "Did they do something to you? Or is this because of the arc reactor?"

"Reactor," Tony said, coughing out the word, the coughing a few more times and spitting out blood. "When I wasn't interested in being a human battery, they said they'd just take what they needed. The bastards had no idea how to get it out so they inflicted a bit of damage until they figured it out. A third guy left with it when they heard you coming."

"Tony. Tell me what you need." Tony had yet to gain his feet; he was incredibly helpless and weak, and for a moment Clint wondered what it would be like to have to tell Fury that Tony Freaking Stark, aka Iron Man, died on his watch.

"There's a spare. This isn't the first time... JARVIS--" he lost his breath to another bout of chest wracking coughs. Resigning himself to taking small, gasping breaths, he tried again. "Where... are we... in the room?"

"Your bed is about three feet to our right."

"H-help... me," he paused and breathed. "wooden panel... right side... fireplace." Clint ducked his shoulder under Tony's arm and half dragged the failing Tony toward the fireplace. "I can't see where--" he said faintly.

"Tell me what I'm looking for, Stark. Stark! Tony!" Tony had gone limp and Clint lowered him to the floor, then started scanning the ornate wooden carvings around the fireplace. It all looked just like your average million-dollar custom fireplace, he couldn't see anywhere that looked like it would open. He ran his fingers along the edge, trying to feel for a difference in texture or a spring or a hinge, but nothing. Softly swearing he stepped back and drew an explosive arrow, praying the noise wouldn't bring any unwanted villainous types, or damage whatever was behind the panels (if anything).

Stark-made arrows were apparently a match for Stark-bought secret hiding spots because when the smoke cleared the hidden panel was hanging from its hinge. Clint pulled out the half-damaged drawer with a rough pull, his heart pounding as Tony lay completely still at his feet. He pulled out a lightless arc reactor, worrying for a moment that his shot had damaged the thing but it appeared intact by his quick inspection. He knelt down and turned the unconscious genius over, his free hand pulling the t-shirt up to expose his chest. The chest around the casing was red and angry, looking as if it would bruise later. He didn't even want to touch it.

"Hell," Clint muttered to himself, trying to calm his racing heart. He could hit a shot at 4,000 yards without blinking but he had no idea what to do to save Tony's life. He simply placed the arc reactor in the empty casing and hoped for the best.

His own heart skipped a beat when both the arc reactor and Tony remained lifeless. Carefully he readjusted the reactor, moving slightly to see if it would fit better. The arc reactor clicked into place and bloomed to life, the brilliant brightness momentarily blinding him and when his vision readjusted Tony was stirring feebly. "Tony, hey, hey." He grabbed at Tony's wrist as he was coming to, as Tony reached automatically to remove the blindfold. "It's me, Clint."

"What?" Tony tried to sit up, disoriented, unable to see.

Clint rolled his eyes. "Asshole bro."

"Clint... What happened?"

"You passed out without your chest nightlight and I kind of broke your fireplace but it's cool because you're good now, so yay?"

Tony took a shaky breath. "You have a cell phone, Barton?"

"No. I have an emergency com but the signal is crap, I already called for back up."

"You talked to someone? How long until they get here?"

"No, i could only send the message, when I left no one had received it yet. Can't say how long it will be, or even if they'll come."

"Then we have to assume they won't get here in time. We gotta stop these people they're looking to power weapons of mass destruction with the reactors."

"Okay, yeah, that sounds... pretty bad but you don't look any shape to stop anyone, let alone people who took out your entire security system."

Tony groaned. "It has to be some kind of inside job. I've been complaining for months about SHIELD having so much access to the Tower."

"Have you now?" Clint asked as he helped drag Tony to his feet. Normally he'd rush to defend his mostly-former employer but the truth was there were a few things that Nick was uncomfortable about as well. It was all falling into place as part of a larger conspiracy against Tony if he had been a squeaky wheel against working with SHIELD and SHIELD was one of the few places with the kind of access and resources it would take to take down Stark tech. Clint thought a few moments, knowing their window was narrow to do anything about it. He struggled to prioritize getting Tony somewhere safe and stopping their enemies.

"Barton," Tony said urgently, guessing what his silence meant. "We can't let them get away! Even if we can track them down, I guarantee SHIELD agents will get killed trying to get the reactors back. This is our one shot. We can't wait for back up."

"Okay, so... what's the plan here, genius?" Clint asked waspishly, stung by the idea of more SHIELD agents dying on his watch. "In case you've forgotten, not only do you look like microwaved fish, you're blind. And JARVIS is down. How exactly do you plan on us stopping them?"

Tony angrily tried to push away from the sarcastic archer, angry at the implication that he somehow forgot his limitations. Tony hated to feel helpless; he hated to feel at the mercy of captors; he really hated someone using his inventions to harm innocent people. "Maybe if I had more than a jackass for back up we could figure something out," he snapped. "I guess I'm just supposed to hope for the best and pray you aren't with them right?" Clint drew back, stung and Tony paused.

"Clint." Clint moved away from Tony for a minute, doing his level best not to punch Tony Stark's stupid Pretty Face. "I wasn't thinking. I meant... SHIELD in generally, not you."

"Let me just tie these idiots up in case they wake up," Clint said through clenched teeth, seeing red.

No. Seeing blue. The black blue darkness of the mind control from Loki's scepter. Seeing with crystal clear, perfect and precise vision, the perfect shot that would take down the helicarrier and leave it open to Loki's attack, Hulk's attack.

Tasha, how many agents?

Don't. Don't do that to yourself.

He secured the iced henchmen with zip-ties from his bag, noting Tony's blood on one of their sleeves and giving him a particularly vicious though not entirely necessary kick. It wasn't as satisfying as he hoped it would be. Noting a dresser he went over and got Tony a clean undershirt and t-shirt so he could change out of his soaking wet tank top. He walked back over to Tony, who was leaning over, pale and sweating.

"Can you walk?"

"Yeah, in a sec."

"Don't BS me Stark."

Tony hesitated. "I can do it," he said finally. "I have to get JARVIS online. If we can get to my lab I can reboot and override and sent the Iron Legion after them. Especially if I were able to modify their repulsors to follow the path of proton radicals it could be that they could make the reactors basically useless for power even if they managed to escape." He took the clothes from Clint with a thankful nod, pulling them on as if he ached, which he probably did.

"I'm sure that makes some kind of sense, probably," Clint responded after a moment. "But you were in the equivalent of the ICU not that long ago and I am epic but I'm not sure I can keep you safe and stop them, Tony."

"Stopping them is the priority," Tony insisted. "If you don't stop them, innocent people will pay the price. It's worth the price of a life to keep my tech out of their hands, but it won't come to that. I just need to get to an Iron Man armor."

"Just because you're willing to die by the sword here Stark doesn't mean it's a good idea. We can get the tech back if it comes to that. You telling me you don't have a way to shut down your own tech if it gets out of control?" Clint argued, annoyed. "For a genius, you don't learn very fast."

"Shut up, Barton," Tony snapped. "You don't know what the hell you're talking about!"

"You're right, what was I thinking? You're not a genius, you're a self-absorbed idiot."

Tony didn't answer, lowering himself to the floor, breathing hard. He shivered as the sweat chilled his body, his hands shaking.

"If that's what you think of me, that's fine. I'm sure you can find your way out, Clint," he said, and all Clint wanted to do is punch something.

"Oh so now it's 'don't let the door hit you on the way out.' Huh? So what's your plan Stark, you gonna make your way down there without any power and what? Huh?"

"Oh, I'll muddle through somehow," Tony said sarcastically. "I always do. Maybe you'll find some reinforcements and save the day, huh? Just point me toward the door."

"I can't believe you're serious right now. I'm not gonna point you toward anything. We are taking you to the hospital and get you in protective custody since these guys obviously have it out for you and SHIELD will find your lost arc reactors."

"'These guys' were after one damn thing and that was the arc reactor in my chest!" Tony said, struggling to his feet, his temper flaring. "Now as far as I'm concerned you can fu--"

"Temper, temper Stark. Pineapple. Okay? Pineapple, you gotta listen to me. You're injured. You're blind. You gotta--"

"'I gotta' nothing! Screw all that! You don't know, okay? You don't know what it's like to have your weapons, your heart and soul, be used against the people you meant to protect! You--"

"Don't I? Don't I know that, Tony, you bastard?" He was right in Tony's space, pushing a finger against Tony's chest. "Loki scrambled up by brains and served them like breakfast, okay? I do know. I know damn well. And I know you care about that, I know you do, but I don't care about that okay? Listen!" He shoved Tony's arm down when Tony tried to push him away, but Stark didn't have the strength to hurt a fly at the moment. "Listen! I know you care about that and that's great but I care about you you stupid idiot! You think I want you dead?"

"Don't worry, SHIELD is funded just fine without me and my entire R&D will be at their disposal," Tony said bitingly, bitterly sarcastic, trying to push past him again.

"That's not it! Damn you're dense Stark! I don't give a flying elephant about your money or your funding. You're my friend, Tony, you're my friend!" Clint barely had to push his shoulders to keep him from going anywhere. Tony pushed Clint's hands away until the words suddenly sunk in."You're my friend," he said again. "I won't let something happen to you, Tony. I'm not doing that. I'm not watching someone on the team get killed on my watch. You understand?"

Tony said nothing a moment, breathing hard. He relaxed his hands against Clint, instead of pushing him away, steadying himself."If this is some kind of guilt complex because of Loki--"

"No." Clint cut him off.

"If it's because you're afraid Fury will--"

"No."

It took a few more moments for Tony to catch his breath and control his emotions. "I've got to," he said, breathless from emotional turmoil and physical pain and exertion. "I've got to stop them, Clint. I don't have a choice. I need your help." He'd never heard Tony sound so... scared. He couldn't... he couldn't not help him.

Clint sighed, rubbing his forehead and clutching his side, thinking. If they were badly outnumbered, they were screwed. The guy that ran off gave them plenty of warning, too, but it didn't necessarily mean they'd lost the element of surprise. But they were in Tony's tower. They did have Clint's abilities and Tony's intellect on their side. Sure there were... disadvantages, but...

"Alright, Stark," he said finally. "Alright let's do this. Let's get out of here before that third guy comes back with backup. We need weapons and a plan. Huh? Where can we do that? Can we get there without you dying from it?"

Relieved, Tony clenched his fist against Clint's shirt. "Okay," he murmured. "Okay. Yes. Let me... let me think."

...

Tony hadn't relied on anyone, except Pepper, in the way he was forced to rely on Clint Barton. He felt a sickening squirm of anxiety twist through his guts, but he ignored it, focusing as best he could on the task at hand. He listened intently, taking a deep breath.

They had managed to take out six of the ten thieves without much of a fight. Clint had gotten Tony to the lab, but with the power cut from the arc reactor power source, he was completely limited to self-powered weapons. One happened to be an EMP that Tony told him how to use to disable the bad guy's communications and some of their more high tech weapons. They still had guns, but the EMP had made it difficult for them to use them because they were just as helpless in the dark tower with no power as Tony and Clint had been.

Without the protective casing of the Iron Man armors, it also disabled the arc reactors they had taken. Unfortunately, the remains of the gang were still fighting, and still had possession of the arc reactors. Tony and Clint were close to stopping them but still had plenty to worry about.

Tony could hear Clint breathing beside him. He thought it might sound strange, a bit off. The sharp smell of something metallic, copper--

"What are we looking at, Clint?"

"One little rat left, Stark. I'm going to have to leave you to go after him."

"What's wrong?"

"Tony. Tony, Tony, Tony. You're asking me what's wrong? Literally everything is wrong, are you kidding me right now? I have a helpless blind genius who might faint, probably, we're short on bullets and back up, and this guy is the worst, really the worst, he probably eats crackers in bed and I'm supposed to take him down in the dark. 'What's wrong' I swear--"

"Alright!" Tony cut him off, feeling around for his arm. "Listen he'll be desperate, his thugs are on ice, right? He'll probably head for somewhere he can get a vantage point. He's looking for a way out now, but he's a rat stuck in his own trap. Get me to the lower levels; we'll reconnect the power and this guy will be a sitting duck."

"Let's hope you're right, Stark," Clint said sharply, his voice hard.

"Why, you getting tired of our playdate?"

"Yes! But also... my guess is this guy's not willing to cut his losses. He probably knows he going to get caught or killed, and that makes him dangerous. All along this has stunk to high heaven, Stark, of a personal vendetta. Fury sent Pepper away, right? You think this isn't personal? This is personal. He went after the arc reactors because he knew you'd care, huh? Look at you. Blind and basically helpless. You sure we're making the right call to go after this guy like this?"

"Let's get one thing straight, Clint," Tony said quietly. "I'm never helpless. Let's go."

Chapter Text

Clint made a mental note to never get on Tony Stark's bad side. Shielded for the most part from the blast, he crawled out from under the rubble, scanning what was left of the room. He spotted the two bodies and his heart rate sped up.

He cautiously made his way through the rubble and ruin, doing his best to avoid the flames and smoke, and kneeled over the two fallen bodies. He checked Tony first; unconscious. Alive. He breathed.

He went over to the other person and pulled own the cloth mask covering the lower half of her face. She looked vaguely familiar, but he'd been at SHIELD a long time; that could mean anything or nothing. Even though her eyes were open and vacant, he checked her pulse-- thoroughly dead.

Stark was coming around and Clint moved over to him, helping him sit up. "Hey, take it easy. It's okay. It's all over."

"The reactors--"

"I'm looking right at them. Safe and sound." Tony slumped back to reclining, relief so palpable it made him weak. Weaker. After a few moments, he reached for Clint's hand to help sit up.

"What happened?"

"Just like you said. I've seen some pretty creative Molotov cocktails, but nothing like that."

"I really can't believe you made that shot. Wish I could have seen it."

"You will. JARVIS had it all on camera."

Tony paused, suddenly tense. Tightening his grip on Clint's hand so he couldn't withdraw, he felt along Clint's arm. "Clint, why are you wet?" He asked, alarmed.

"I... got shot," Clint answered calmly, though he contemplated lying. The truth be told, however, he was feeling a bit light-headed, and the pain, which he'd been compartmentalizing and ignoring, was quickly growing in intensity now that the danger was over and he possibly could use a bit of assistance. He'd applied pressure when he could, mostly succeeding in getting blood all over. It was probably actually a good thing Tony couldn't see how bad it looked. It wasn't all that bad, probably.

Even with a blindfold covering most of his face, Clint could see the anguish, the fear, then the calm, matter-of-fact coolness that passed over Tony's face. "Where? How bad?"

"Left side, through and through, moderate amount of blood loss."

"When--? Ah. In my room, I could smell it. You should have told me."

"We were busy."

Tony grimaced angrily, looking as if he'd like to punch someone (perhaps Clint himself), and impressive feat for someone barely conscious. He took off his shirt, and Clint congratulated himself for his thoughtfulness earlier; at least this one was marginally less sweat and bloodstained, at least for the moment. Tony folded it into a small square and fumbled to find the wound.

"Damn it Stark, that hurts!" Clint hissed. "I'll do it myself!"

"Like hell, it's too hard to put enough pressure on your own bullet wound."

"I'll restrain myself from asking just how you'd know that." He knew that, but how did Stark? Even after spending every minute with him for weeks, there was still plenty he didn't know. Clint allowed himself to lay down, the day's events catching up with him all at once as his adrenaline crashed, his every muscle aching and his wound burning with pain.

"Glad to hear it," Tony responded tightly. "JARVIS, ETA on the calvary?"

"Less than five minutes, sir. They were already alerted to a possible problem with the explosion blew out the windows."

"Fine, fine. So, Clint. First collaboration. I'd say we did all right."

"Everything is literally on fire, I've been shot, and you're a walking disaster." His voice was quiet through the noise of the small fires, the faint alarms from other areas of the tower, the distant sound of sirens.

"Yeah, I said all right! To be honest, the bar was not that high at the get-go." His grip on t-shirt tightened compulsively as Clint failed to answer, Tony's body going rigid.

"It's okay, Stark, I'm still here," Clint reassured him. "Not going anywhere."

"Okay. Good. That's... that's good. Listen. Thank you. For... for saving my life, and helping me. Thanks."

"Yeah, well, same to you I guess. If you hadn't stopped her when you did, that woman would definitely have killed me."

"You wouldn't have been in harm's way if it weren't for me," Tony felt compelled to point out.

"I was right where I wanted to be. Where I needed to be. Let's face it, Stark, we make a pretty good team."

"Yeah. Yeah we do."

A few minutes later, first responders poured through the door, followed by Fury and Steve Rogers.

"Stark!" Barked Fury. "I lend you my best man for one week and you damage him? How bad is it?" He was already kneeling down, inspecting his agent for himself.

"In my defense--"

"Whatever it is, it's not good enough, because Natasha is going to kill you both and I have neither the means nor inclination to stop her at the moment!"

"Director," Clint interrupted with a cough. "Stark needs medical attention. The bastards took out his arc reactor, he was pretty bad--"

"Rogers, help me get these two idiots to the med bay," Fury said, beckoning him over. He sighed, gripping Clint's shoulder in an unspoken communication. He glanced at the dead woman. "Who's that?"

"Don't you know? What the hell have you been doing this whole time?"

"Plenty! And I do, I was wondering if you do."

"No."

Fury pulled him to his feet and put Clint's arm over his own shoulders to support his weight and help him walk. "It's not that bad," Clint tried to reassure him. "I've had worse."

Fury didn't respond, just surveying the blood-soaked clothing and puddle on the floor. "Right," he said with a frown.

Steve kneeled down beside Tony. "Sorry I wasn't here. I would have been. I thought I was heading off danger for you," he put a hand on Tony's shoulder. "I should have been here."

"No worries, Cap. One of those things." Tony slid away from Steve's words; although he was beginning to appreciate his Avengers teammates, he didn't really expect them to be there for him if he personally needed something. He just wasn't worth all that. Uneasily his stomach squirmed against the memory of Clint saying he cared about Tony because he was his friend. Maybe Clint felt that way on some level, but probably not the rest of the team. "Any idea who these people were?"

"We may not have heard the last of them. Remember the Maggia?" Steve replied as he hefted Tony to his feet without any effort.

Tony shook his head incredulously, his sweaty hair curling on his forehead. "You've got to be kidding me. I thought I'd seen the last of them years ago. That makes sense, though, they hated me and Pepper after I announced the end of weapons production. I thought I got rid of them with the Ten Rings."

"They've tangled with SHIELD a few times, including a few missions Clint headed up. They were after you and Pepper; they had plans for the arc reactors."

Tony let Steve support him as they headed to the med bay. Steve noted the way Tony was limping, not as if from injury but from weakness; the way he held an arm across his chest. Whatever the two men had been through, Tony had clearly come out worse for the wear. He had confidence that Tony would be okay, physically; but a part of his chest squeezed against a growing worry that there was not only physical problems to contend with. It was fair to say the temperamental genius had been through a lot, lately. Fury had briefly mentioned his worry that Stark seemed to be having difficulty coping with New York and seemed desperate to protect the world and his loved ones from possible threats. This was not going to help.

"Gonna need more ice cream, huh?"

...

"Oh, I'm not going to kill you," Natasha said sweetly, just the right amount of perkiness to put the fear of god into Clint's heart. "I'm pretty sure Pepper Potts has planned your death and funeral and already has several reputable law enforcement agencies that owe her a favor to make 'murder' read 'natural causes' on the ME report."

"It is only 'natural' that I am murdered by that woman for saving her boyfriend's life," Clint grumbled sarcastically. Natasha had arrived to medical an hour behind Steve and Fury, and she was not in a pleasant mood. There were a few suspicious bruises on her face and a laceration on her leg that he had politely inquired into before quickly deciding that begging for his life was the better part of valor. The look she'd given him could freeze lava.

"I'm wondering why it feels like there are more people wanting to do me bodily harm now as opposed to when the place was filled with murderous bad guys," he complained, loudly.

"And I'm still trying to figure out at what point allowing a blind man with a critical bodily injury to try and overpower an enemy stronger in number, firepower, and tactical advantage seemed like a good idea to you."

"At the point where he was going to go at it alone if I didn't help him," Clint said, closing his eyes as the nurse came in to get him for surgery. "Ah the sweet relief of anesthesia." He sensed movement and opened his eyes, stifling a scream when Natasha was two inches from his face.

"Oh. I'll be right here waiting when you wake up," she promised with a feline grin. She watched with narrowed eyes then whipped around, her red hair flashing as she moved into the other room where Tony Stark was resting. He was getting IV fluids and being monitored. He looked to be sleeping, but not peacefully; he twisted in the sheets, restless, uncomfortable. Unfortunately, JARVIS and Tony were the only two beings that could help Tony when it came to the reactor. At the moment, there was not much to do except let Tony rest and heal. Natasha walked to the bedside, silently, not making a sound to wake him. He needed the rest.

She'd warned Fury when she'd realized she got it wrong. Tony Stark was no narcissist. The only thing bigger than his ego was his penchant for self-sacrifice, and she hadn't seen it, not precisely enough. Hadn't seen it for what it was, the self-absorption.

Fury had, she thought. He'd called Tony, after all, when then nuke was launched. Not Thor, not Steve, not his two most trusted agents. Because they couldn't do anything about it, only Iron Man could, only Tony Stark.

Her finely tunes senses picked up on Pepper's presence before her silent approach startled her. Pepper wasn't looking at Tony, she was watching Natasha, hard. "Hey Pepper," she greeted her in a low voice.

"Hi, Nat, how's it?"

"Good. Stable."

The two redheads, as different as could be in almost every possible way, stood shoulder to shoulder and looked down on the troubled sleep of Tony Stark. They did not speak, though Natasha longed to ask Pepper how Tony was really doing, but there was a part of her that didn't want to know. She didn't examine that too closely, but it came with a forceful self-reminder that Tony Stark was perfectly capable of taking care of himself and surely if he needed help he would ask for it.

...

Tony asked for a moment alone.

He listened to the minutia sounds of the tower, as he had for so many days now, wondering if this would be his last moment of hope before it was revealed that his sight was gone forever. The past two weeks had been, for lack of a better term, eye opening to what it would really mean for Tony Stark, for Iron Man, to be blind.

He remembered thinking it would have been better to die than go blind and lose everything he thought he was.

"Hey JARVIS?"

"Yes, sir?"

"Nothing." There was a beat when he thought the AI wouldn't answer him.

"Might I say, sir, that I'm very pleased that you have recovered so well from your brush with the Maggia?"

"Have I?" He said, distracted, anxious. He didn't know what he needed. It would be better to just get it over with.

Promising, Streiten had called his last MRI. They would soon know, and Tony wasn't exactly sure why he had asked for a moment before they removed the bandages. It might be because... once they were removed, if his sight hadn't returned, there would be no hope left. While there was a question of whether or not he was healed, he at least had hope. It was no way to live life, but, in short, he was afraid.

"No matter what the outcome of today is, Sir, it will be all right. I will make sure of it," JARVIS said quietly.

"Thanks, J." He sighed, steeling himself. "All right. Let's do this."

After a few moments, he could hear them all come in-- the Avengers team, Pepper, Fury, Dr. Streiten. Pepper sat beside him and took his hand, entwining their fingers. He could smell her perfume; it instantly calmed him. There was not much he was afraid to face with her by his side.

"All right, Mr. Stark. I'm going to start removing the bandages. Please let me know right away if you start experiencing pain. We've dimmed the lights so that will hopefully minimize any discomfort from exposure to light, but it will still likely cause some pain."

The blindfold came off; a peculiar sensation of cold, after wearing it for so long. A slight tug where gauze had been taped down, then a release of pressure he hadn't been aware of except as it was relieved. "How we doing Stark?" Fury couldn't help but ask. The entire group was tense, holding their breaths, unnaturally still.

"Good," Tony murmured, his throat tight with anxiety. "Should I open my eyes now?"

"Yes, slowly." He felt Pepper's hand tighten around his, an almost unbearable pressure.

His eyelids felt stuck together for a moment, giving him a brief squirm of worry that his eyes somehow wouldn't open but in the next instant, they began to open. It was a difficulty; even the dim light made his eyes smart and his eyes automatically clenched tightly closed in response. He made a sound of worry, shaking his hand loose from Pepper's as he reached up to rub his eyes but felt someone gently prevent him.

"No, no; it's all right, slowly there, that's the way, give it a moment to adjust. Don't rub your eyes."

As patiently as he could, he waited a moment then tried again. It was less painful this time, though tears were dripping down his face from the irritation. He finally got his eyes opened, but happy and afraid that he could see light, blurry images, but nothing definitive.

"What do you see?" He heard Cap ask anxiously.

"It's... it's blurry." He tried to keep the worry from his voice.

"That's all right, it could be the irritation and disuse, just wait a moment. And me that gauze, there. Ok, I'm going to wipe away some of the drainage. Hang on, hang on. Okay. All right, Mr. Stark, try opening your eyes again when you're ready."

Tony opened his eyes. After a moment of his eye muscles adjusting, the faces of his friends, loved ones, came into focus. He couldn't help but grin, tears again clouding his vision, with joy, relief. "I can see you all," he said, turning toward Pepper. Her lovely, tear-stained face filled his field of view and he thought he'd never seen anything so beautiful in his life. Her smile of relief and love broke his heart, and he wiped the tears away, carefully, then turned back to his happy and excited teammates. Natasha was hugging Clint, Steve was grinning like an idiot, Fury looked pleased, and Dr. Streigten looking relieved and happy.

"Oh, man, I changed my mind. I forgot you all got hit with the ugly stick, bring back the darkness," he quipped, teasing them. He stood up as they crowded around to embrace him, pat his shoulder (a bit too exuberantly, but Cap was excited and still sometimes forgot his own strength), congratulate him. Clint reached over and squeezed his arm.

"You all right there, Stark?" He asked quietly. Tony gave him an appreciative smile.

"Thanks to you, Barton. Thanks for having my back."

"I always will," he assured him. Tony grinned. For the moment, seeing his team so relieved and happy for his sake, he felt safe and loved, as if the Avengers were truly something happy... something like family. He wasn't thinking of the fear that seemed to follow him like a shadow ever since the wormhole. For once, it seemed to him there was nothing they couldn't face, as long as they did it together. The End