Tony hadn’t felt a weight on his chest like this since before he and Yinsin had converted the magnet in his chest into a miniature arc reactor. Was he dreaming? Or had the escape from the cave been an elaborate, horrible dream and Yinsin was still—
The weight dropped off his chest and landed on across his thighs as Tony shot up.
“What the hell!”
It wasn’t a car battery crushing Tony’s chest. It was a kid. A little kid. A little kid with large, warm liquid brown eyes, a serious tan, and hair that was a shade of brown he’d never seen before under a red and gold knit cap.
The kid, apparently over the shock of being dumped and yelled over, frowned up at Tony. “Ow.”
Tony frowned right back. “I’m sorry, were you tortured and held prisoner in a desert cave for God knows how long?”
He regretted the words almost as soon as he began to say them. Not because he was worried about offending the kid. Tony was all but certain that his father had been telling him war stories from the womb.
Saying the words out loud had dispelled the last of his sleep-fueled fog, bridging the connection between what he knew and what he remembered,. It wasn’t a dream. Tony had escaped. Yinsin was dead.
“Bad words!” The kid in his lap gave him a laser-focused, narrow-eyed stare. Someday, it would be intimidating. Not today.
Tony leveled the same stare at the kid. “I’ll say whatever I f—”
“Anthony Edward Stark, don’t you dare swear at your grandson.”
Tony’s head shot up at the unexpected woman’s voice. He closed his eyes tightly for a moment then opened them. “Bayarmaa? Bay?”
The woman smiled at him. He’d only ever seen her via web-camera, but he knew that bright smile against richly tanned skin, even if it had been a while. “What are you—Grandson?!” Tony’s head snapped back to the kid, still sitting in his lap and still giving him the world’s tiniest death glare. It might have been cute if he weren’t so serious. And if both his parents weren’t werewolves.
“You’ve been out of touch, Tony.”
“Yeah. I can see it. How old is…”
“Kelden. He’s two-and-a-half. We did email you.”
Tony’s mouth opened in wonder. “I think Pepper mentioned it.”
“I’m sure she did,” Bay said as she approached the pair. She was smirking, watching grandfather and grandson stare at each other.
Wonder still marked Tony’s face, and Kelden’s expression had turned curious and suspicious in response. Until he noticed his mother. Then he broke into a bright sunny smile that made Tony’s heart ache in a way it hadn’t in years.
Bay picked up her son. “Why were you troubling your grandfather? He is still healing.”
As if she had broken a spell, aches and bone-deep weariness suddenly and forcefully made themselves known to Tony. Parts of him felt like they were on fire and others were worryingly numb. “I feel like I’ve been shot out of a rocket.”
Eyeing him sympathetically, Bay nodded. “From what I understand, you were.”
“You don’t pull any punches, do you, kid?”
Bay smiled warmly, as if he’d just paid her a thoughtful compliment. “None.” Then, with her free hand, she gently pushed at Tony’s nearest shoulder. “Go back to sleep, Tony.”
“I’m not tired.” He was dog tired.
“Maybe not, but you are in pain.” It didn’t take much for her to get Tony horizontal again. “We’ll go get the others.”
“Others?” Despite himself, Tony felt himself slipping away. He clutched at wakefulness, not wanting to fall back into muddy memories.
“Pepper and Rhodes—”
“You never call him Rhodey. Why is that?”
“—and Oz, of course.”
Wakefulness sparked at that. “Oz is here?”
Eyebrow quirking up in what was a familiar gesture, Bayarmaa said, “Did you really think your son would send his family to the States to meet you and not come himself?”
“When you say it like that…”
Bay leaned over a placed a soft kiss on Tony's forehead. He was surprised to feel a wetter, more forceful kiss on its heels.
"I have a grandson." Tony couldn't stop staring at the kid.
Bay's voice was kind when she said, "Oz thought you might like that, when you finally pulled your head out of your rear."
"No sympathy," Tony said, eyes rolling up to meet Bay's.
"None. We'll be back."
Familiar warm brown eyes were inches from his when Tony woke again, some unknown time later. He frowned.
The little face frowned right back.
"You again," Tony groused, without really meaning it.
"’Gain," the little boy agreed.
"You really are your mother's kid."
"He certainly is," an amused Peppers Potts agreed from her seat beside the bed. "At least from what I've seen these last few months."
"Pep..." Tony breathed, before recovering himself. "Pepper. You, uh, you look good." It was all he could do to not reach out and touch her.
An incredulous smirk tugging at her lips, Pepper glanced down at herself and Tony noticed for the first time that she was wearing a set of old Air Force BDU's. "I'm not sure you're awake yet, Tony."
"No, no, blue fatigue is really you. Especially in last decade’s patten."
Pepper chuckled, but it quickly turned wet. She sniffed and swiped at her eyes.
The kid, Kevin or Kelvin or something, had already been looking at Pepper because she'd laughed. Now he reached for her. "Pepper o-kay?"
"Hey, that's my line kid. But, he's got a point. Pepper o-kay?" Tony said in a near perfect imitation of the boy sitting on his bed.
With a smile that was probably more watery than intended, Pepper nodded. “We got you home, Tony. Okay, not exactly home but, it’s closer than—"
“Wait, what are you doing here?” Tony asked. As unexpected as it was to wake up to see his daughter-in-law and grandson, Pepper was almost the last person he expected to see. “I told Rhodey to keep you away.” They’d had the conversation on the transport plane from Afghanistan.
Pepper’s face instantly flushed. “I know! He told me!”
“Hey! I was trying to protect you. Ow!” Tony glared at the kid as he rubbed the spot on his chest where he’d been poked by bony toddler fingers. “What happened to leave granddad alone — he’s still recuperating.”
“Yell not nice!”
Tony glared at the kid some more, only to be met with one of equal obstinance. “Butt out, kid.”
“Considering…” Pepper said, as she smoothly rose out of her chair, scooped up the toddler, and sat down again with the boy in her lap, “…that if not for your son, Oz, I wouldn’t be here, I think I’m on Kelden’s side.”
"You say that like I've got some other kid out there who usually takes my side."
Pepper didn't take the bait, reminding Tony why he liked his personal assistant and why she sometimes infuriated him. Even Rhodey would have gone for a potshot that easy in an argument.
"Why did you tell Colonel Rhodes not to let me come see you while you're in the military hospital?"
Tony sighed, acknowledging to himself how much he hurt. Grouchy as the kid made him, at least his grandson distracted him from...everything. "Pep, I look like sh--
"Wow, that is some death glare," he said instead of finishing his sentence.
"What debt glare?" Kelden asked them.
"Later kid," Tony said, which had the kid leveling one him, too. "That's cute. Try it again when you're twenty. Maybe I'll actually be scared."
"What?! It's good advice! All he's doing now is making me wish I had a Polaroid. I'm sunburned, malnourished, dehydrated, I'm shot full of everything but lead, I'm sure something's broken, plus a half dozen other issues these Air Force docs don't wanna tell me about, and all I wanna do is snap off a bunch of Polaroid pictures. Ow." Somewhere in the middle of Tony's rant, he'd started to laugh.
"I probably shouldn't do that," he said, actively trying to contain his mirth.
Pepper reached around the little boy in her arms to touch Tony's hand. "You probably shouldn't, because you do look like you've been run over by a Mac truck--"
"Gee, thanks, Pep."
"But you have no idea how much I've missed your less than appropriate humor."
Tony's eyebrows shot up. "Really? So--"
"Notice how I said 'less than appropriate' and not ‘inappropriate’."
Tony smirked. "Can't blame me for trying."
Pepper gripped the hand under her and squeezed. "It wouldn't be you if you didn't try."
Leaning forward as far as he could from her lap, Kelden put his little hand on Pepper's arm as near to Tony as he could get. "Try."
There was a curious stinging in Tony's eyes. "Well hell."
Instead of waking up to a creepy toddler, it was loud, overdramatic airplane sounds that pulled Tony from unconsciousness.
And high-pitched giggles. Apparently the kid was never far away.
Tony tried to lever himself up on his elbows to better berate his best friend. Instead he was distracted by the feeling of muscle and skin pull uncomfortably across his chest. "Ow." He flopped back onto the hospital bed. "More ow. Godd-"
"Junior pilots in the room, Tony," Rhodey said, eyeing him around the little boy he was holding aloft.
Tony snorted (not without some pain). "I remember when you were a junior pilot. You could make a sailor blush."
"Then I guess it's lucky we're on an Air Force base, where your grandson won't run into any sailors," Rhodey said as he did imaginary strafing runs with the kid. Who seemed to be liking it, if the toothy grin and non-stop giggles were any indication.
"That was a good night, Rhodey, and you know it."
Tony's friend didn't deny it. He might have even had a grin to match the kid's, but it was hard to tell when he kept twisting and twirling and lifting and dipping the little boy.
"Dude. You're making me nauseous."
"Tony, c'mon, man. Me and Kelden are just having fun." Rhodey made more of those exaggerated airplane sounds. And spinning. He kept spinning.
Sweat broke out across Tony's forehead and upper lip. He covered his eyes with his free hand. "At least push a can closer."
With an expertise that Tony might have admired (or mocked) in other circumstances, Rhodey had Kelden secure on one hip and a bedpan under Tony gasping mouth in moments. He didn’t throw up, but Tony’s vitals were sufficiently distressed to get a nurse’s attention.
The young man hardly spared Rhodey a glance as he reviewed the machines -- though he did give a critical eye to the bedpan in his hand -- before approaching Tony himself. He spoke to both of them, though, when he said, “Anything actually come up?”
“No,” came from Rhodey and Kelden.
“I wish,” came from Tony.
The nurse took the wrist of Tony’s free hand and began manually checking his pulse. “Just nausea then?”
Tony, eyes closed, nodded tightly. “Think so.”
The young man nodded to himself. “Okay. I’m going to get some anti-nausea medication and add it to your drip,” the nurse said as he placed Tony’s hand back on the bed. “You’re cleared for that.”
“Tony…” Rhodey said as the nurse left. His warning tone had him cracking an eyelid to see the face he was making. Instead of the judgement he was expecting, and was used to seeing, Rhodey looked distressed. Kelden was lying along his shoulder, thumb of one hand stuck in his mouth and the other clutching Rhodey in his tiny golden fists.
Tony nodded, or tried to. “Yeah, sorry man.”
Rhodey nodded in return. “S’okay.” He put the bed pan down, then started rocking Kelden.
Tony might have tried for that bad joke about being a natural born mother hen, but another wave of nausea rolled over him. He closed his eyes just as Rhodey brought the bed pan back.
It felt like longer, but the nurse returned within a few minutes with Tony’s anti-nausea meds. “Sir,” the young man said, probably addressing Rhodey, “I’m going to have to ask you and the child to leave. Dr. Mann wanted us to let her know when he was fully awake to—”
“I understand,” Rhodey said quickly. Tony knew he was no stranger to military hospitals. “Have someone let us know when it’s okay to come back.” Tony heard him hand the bed pan off to the nurse.
Almost before the words were out of Rhodey’s mouth, Tony heard more people – and possibly more equipment – approaching his room. “Yes, sir, we will,” the young man said, effectively dismissing Rhodey and Kelden. His friend had told him before that it was a weird feeling, being dismissed by a junior officer who, because of their medical training, had more authority than you did. Lots of officers tried to fight it, but he had quickly learned from experience and observation that things went better for people who respected their medics, no matter the difference in rank.
Rhodey came close. With Kelden still in his arms, he crouched by the bed so that they were all approximately at eye-level with each other. Or at least that’s what it sounded like when Rhodey began to speak. “They’ve got good people here, Tony. Try not to cause too much trouble, okay?”
Then he stood up to leave. Over the rush of medical stuff descending on him, Tony heard Kelden say, “Gran’da ‘kay?”
“Yeah, buddy. Your grandpa’s gonna be okay.”
Eventually there weren’t any more fluids, blood or otherwise, that Tony could spare for Lieutenant Colonel Doctor Amy Mann and her tests. He’d been poked, prodded, stuck, drained, questioned, mmhmmed, aha’ed, hmmed and raise-eyebrowed past the point of self-preservation all the way into exhausted whining. At some point, Pepper had shown up to go to bat for him, even though Tony wasn’t technically allowed visitors yet. Sometime after, Bayarmaa had come in to relieve Pepper. Tony had fallen asleep again to the sweet sounds of his daughter-in-law not-pull any punches on someone other than himself for once.
The nurse who had taken his pulse was hovering over the bed when Tony woke again, some time later.
“Mr. Stark, how are you feeling tonight?”
“Like a test subject for a mad scientist,” Tony groused, not meaning a word. Dr. Mann had been thorough, but she and her team had managed to be both kind and clinical.
The young man smiled. “Dr. Mann said you were a beast.”
With a pleased smile that hinted at lechery, Tony asked, “Were her exact words ‘sexy beast’?”
“Little ears, Tony.”
Who startled. “Oz?”
The nurse stepped aside so Tony could see his son…and his grandson asleep in his lap. The nurse quickly took in the scene and quietly excused himself from the room.
“Oz,” Tony said again. “You’re here.”
“Of course I’m here.” Oz stood, slinging Kelden over his shoulder in a practiced move as he did. He pushed the hospital chair into the space where the nurse had stood to take his readings.
Oz sat down in the chair. “We’ve been part of the search party since you were reported missing. Me and Bay and Mom and Dad. Mom says hey, by the way. Dad did more of a…” Oz jerked his chin up in a gesture of acknowledgment, his face pleasantly neutral.
Tony’s heart fluttered painfully in his chest. Even the machines picked up on it. “Why? I haven’t talked to you in three years.”
Oz’s lips ticked upwards in amusement of all things. “Wasn’t sure you noticed.”
“Bay pointed it out.”
Which got an actual chuckled out of his son.
“I’ve been a sh—” Tony caught himself. Kelden might be asleep, but he’d already had three different adults curb his language around the kid. And the adult sitting beside him now… “I suck as a dad, kid.”
Oz shrugged. “I’ve got a dad. I don’t need another one. But you’re the only Tony I have. I’m not looking for a replacement.”
“They don’t make’em like me, kid,” Tony said with a bravado he didn’t feel.
Holding Kelden tight, Oz reached over and gripped his father’s free hand. “I know.”