Robotic webcrawlers found the postings within minutes:
AIRPLANE CRASH COMPLICATED BY TS DORA WINDS
Two Avengers Aid Response in Fitton Disaster
DOZENS DEAD AND INJURED, HUNDREDS STRANDED
Photo Essay: University Hospital Coventry Trauma Centre Meets Challenge
WHEN “SUPER” POWERS AREN’T ENOUGH
Exclusive Interview: Iron Man One of Many Seeking Loved Ones Through the Night
Thanks to a chance encounter, Tony Stark was able to contact our photographer, Tom Young, when he became aware of the disaster at the Fitton Air Field. This interview, and the photographs attached to it, were granted to the Cambridge Circular as thanks for our assistance.
The Cambridge Newsweek did not post high definition images from its stories to its website. Lots of text, yes, because text was easy, and didn’t take much memory, and that’s why people looked at the website, for the in-depth news stories of local interest. And some pictures, yes because people liked pictures, but the ancient and cranky computer which had “server: please don’t break” written on it in permanent marker still had a floppy drive and a tiny RAM and none of Tom Young’s persuasive arguments in favor of upgrading to something which could handle images more than a few hundred pixels wide had worked.
He had a feeling that was going to change. Just not quite yet.
“Well, you’re free to send someone up here to buy a copy off the newsstand,” Sharon Bellamy growled into the phone which, like almost everything in the building, dated to an earlier century. “I certainly can’t stop you. But if you take pictures of our pictures and then put them online you damn well better include the right copyright information.”
The phone squawked and she grinned, showing every one of her tobacco-stained fangs. “I don’t care. That’s my photographer’s price. Pay up or drive. But I warn you, the roads are terrible. My photographer only got back from Coventry because Thor gave him a lift.”
And that was a story yet to be told. Tom was working through the pictures he’d taken during that incredible flight, trying to tease out locations with the help of Google maps and satellite photos, because the damage from the storm was so pernicious it beggared imagination. If he could create a coherent narrative, though, Sharon had promised to consider including it in the special edition.
He didn’t bother to look up when he heard her toss the handset back onto the cradle. “I promised Stark the story would be an exclusive.”
“Yes, and I negotiated with Potts to get a slice of the pie when the wires called.” Sharon waved away the objection. “They’re going to pick up whatever they can get, and if the legit services pay for the privilege it’ll be easier for Stark Industries to sue the pants off the cheaters. So we set a price. You get half, I get ten percent, and the rest goes into whichever charity seems like it’s doing the best job of reaching people who need help recovering from the storm.”
“That’s not why I took the pictures,” Tom protested, not very vigourously. Most of his attention was on the screen of the shiniest piece of tech in the room, a second-hand Mac with a new graphics card.
“No, you took them because you’re surgically attached to that camera of yours.” She pried herself out of her chair and wandered over to look over his shoulder. “Think of it as your chance to win a Press Award.”
“I’m not that good a photographer,” Tom said. He moved another image into the mosaic he was creating on the screen and scowled at it. “The light changed...” he muttered, and started playing with the white balance.
Sharon snorted. “Well you got the biggest scoop of the year.”
That needed an answer. He let go of the mouse and leaned back in his chair so that he could look his boss in the eye. (And resisted the urge to prove her right about his camera by reaching for it, even though the shot would have been a good one.) Sharon was a wizened veteran of an earlier era, a newspaperwoman christened in caffeine, nicotine, alcohol and scandal who had nevertheless chucked her job when the paper she was working on got bought out for the third time because she refused to be a drone for a monstrous conglomerate. She and her husband Mac had sold their London house to buy a printing plant and start a paper of their own near Cambridge. She ran the editorial side of it, he ran the print shop, and their children and grandchildren scoured the shire for stories. Between them, they produced a bi-weekly compendium of local news, always including a smattering of longer thought pieces concerning national and world affairs which might affect the same people who wanted to know about bike routes and council shenanigans. They’d also, over the years, shepherded any number of unrelated local bright lights into the business. The majority of whom had gone on to other things and other places.
“I’m not planning on leaving,” Tom said. He knew perfectly well that the photographs he took were a large part of why the newspaper was still in business. People liked being in the paper, and when they were, they’d buy a copy, or more likely a dozen copies, because what good was being in the paper if you couldn’t point to it on your wall? The profit margin, slim as it was, would be even slimmer if it weren't that Sharon had a photographer who was willing to go to every meeting and school sports day. "I like it here. You don't have to worry about me striking out for the big time."
"I ought to be," Sharon said, although she sounded reassured. "You could do some seriously good work if you had the chance."
Tom smiled and looked back at his screen. "I already do."
The Cambridge News is a real paper/website, which, from what I can see of it online, would make Sharon proud to be a part of. But it has better pictures than my imaginary one does.
Somehow, the second floor break room had turned into the place where they were meeting. There was a perfectly good conference room on three, with a gigantic table and the kind of chairs interior decorators choose because they won’t actually have to sit in them, but instead they were all here, sitting around the edges with a lonely pouffe in the middle of the room, like they were the Council of Elrond waiting for Frodo to go put the Ring on the pouffe where everyone could covet it from a safe distance.
Not that anyone was coveting anything except another cup of coffee. And Will Robinson had first dibs.
He cast a longing eye upon the large silver coffee urn, wishing that the hospital had opted for a nice Keurig and individually made portions. Granted, when the thing finally finished working it would provide 20 litres of caffeinated bliss, but it took forever to brew.
Will sighed and turned his attention back to the stack of papers in his hand. “All right then, any other questions about Martha Newcombe?”
Everyone shook their heads or murmured a negative.
“Who’s next?” Sarah Carpenter from Pediatrics asked. Of all the specialists in the room, she had the fewest patients just now, so she’d taken on the role of coordinator. Which was good, because nobody else had the energy for the job.
Will flipped to the next printout. “Crieff, Martin, Captain.” He skimmed down his notes. “Comminuted fracture of the left femur, approximately four inches above the knee. Numerous contusions over the dorsal plane, abrasions on hands, knees, and elbows. He’d been lying prone in a mud-bottomed drainage ditch, pinned there by the debris which caused his injuries, and wasn’t found or treated until thirty-five to forty minutes after the accident, by which time he was in danger of drowning. The paramedics began oxygen and IV therapy right away, and administered tramadol for the pain, Valium to keep the patient calm, and a prophylactic dose of Cipro. Due to the conditions it was more than an hour before they were able to get him out, and it took another hour for transport here. Crieff arrived with the hypothermia still unresolved, and began to evidence the symptoms of a right ear otitis and aspiration pneumonia during the night. We cleaned him up with betadine, installed a central line, and a foley catheter and exchanged the emergency immobilization splint for a Thomas’ splint. We kept the leg on ice packs while we used a Hiebler jacket to warm the torso, and warmed humidified oxygen at 20% via face mask with 10% dextrose IV fluids to raise his core temperature, and get him stable enough to be moved to the ward. He was agitated at first, but a co-worker was found and stayed with him to keep him calm. We called for a pulmonary evaluation... Mike, do you have the report from Kiran?”
Mike Richardson from Pulmonary rattled his own printout. “Lungs full of guck, oxygen absorption nowhere near where it ought to be.” Will wasted a moment of envy on the older doctor’s ability to cut through the details to the important parts. “Lots of coughing and wheezing and he’s a good candidate for a bronchoscopy and lavage. I don’t want to wait another day for the cultures if you’re right about the mud. Fungal infections are nasty. Did you start him on heparin yet?”
Will shook his head. “No, just kept up the tramadol.”
“You do realize that you’re risking a clot,” Gene Bastion, from Orthopedics interjected in the “I am almost a department head” tone of voice that made Will want to find something to throw. “You should have started him on heparin injections as soon as possible.”
“Hell no,” Richardson said. “It’ll be bad enough going into his lungs already. I don’t want to start a bleeder that close to his heart.”
“Whether the patient is on Heparin or not, you’re not going to be able to do anything until Anesthesiology evaluates him,” Sarah pointed out. They all looked to the couch, where Doris Wojcikowski was propped up against a pile of scrubs. She snored.
“Are there any anesthesiologists coming in?” That was Tamara Nagle, from Surgical Specialties. Will was pretty sure she usually did hand surgeries, but she had the same red-rimmed eyes as everyone else so she’d probably been up all night too.
“Everyone’s here, including nursing staff, except for Beth Comyn. She’s still in Edinburgh.” Sarah made a note. “We’ll try to get someone for you, Mike, and schedule in the bronchoscopy as soon as possible.”
“And I’d like to get a frame and pins on that fracture,” Bastion said. That started a wrangle between him and Richardson, which Will ignored, because the coffee urn had finally started making happy noises. He pried himself up out of his chair and rooted through the cupboards for a cup. The sugar bowl had been depleted, and there wasn’t any cream, but that didn’t matter. There was coffee, and it was hot, and the first sip tasted like a promise that he wouldn’t actually tip over onto his nose any time soon.
“Robinson?” He blinked, realizing that his name had already been said two or three times, and turned to find everyone staring at him.
“Uhm, what?” Had he moaned over the coffee? He wasn’t sure.
“Martin Crieff,” Sarah said, tapping on her clipboard. “Any other complicating factors we should be aware of?”
Will felt the corner of his mouth pull up into a wry smile. “Well, his boyfriend is Tony Stark...”
Many thanks to Sabrina Phynn, who has risen above the call of duty to keep me from making the medical details too outlandish. (And thanks for GB, too!)
The Grand Victorian Hotel had once been just “Grand House,” built in the late-nineteenth century by a baronet who had acquired the estate shortly after the Tudor Mansion which stood on the spot was destroyed by fire. The Tudor mansion had itself replaced Caludon Castle (a single wall of which still stood in lonely isolation across the garden from the hotel dining room.) And the Castle had been built upon the foundations of a fortified manor, dating back to the Norman conquest. The present building rose four stories, stone and brick, built from the rubble of the previous buildings, and it had all the towers and crenellations a merchant prince turned minor nobility might wish to proclaim his newfound glory: turrets, balconies, dormers, chimneys, windows round and square and wide and narrow, some filled with colored glass, and others with traceries of stone, shaped to echo the openings in the ruin, and all of it jumbled together with enough other architectural doohickeys to provide nesting space for half the birds in the neighborhood.
The baronet died while his children were still young, and his debts were unpaid, according to the open pamphlet under Tony’s elbow, and his wife had turned the home he had built into a hotel, her one great talent being hospitality, and it had been the fallback position of the family finances ever since. Her great-grandson was cooking Tony’s eggs and bacon over a bed of coals in the kitchen fireplace as a matter of fact, the electricity having been cut off while crews with chainsaws dealt with all the trees that had been knocked into powerlines nearby.
“We’ll have the generator running again as soon as Simon gets back with the petrol,” Bartholomew Ashby reassured Tony.
“Fair enough,” Tony said absently, running a rag through the left greave of the suit and frowning at the crap that showed up on the cloth when he finished. “It’s not like I need juice to sleep.” He was ensconced in the scullery, the suit supine on the big deal table, cracked open so he could access the interior. Ashby had offered to clean it for him, but Tony needed something to do with his hands. And the light was good in here, coming in high clerestory windows.
“Well, it does make things a bit easier when I can just turn on the kettle.” If Ashby were seriously discommoded by having to crouch in a humongous fireplace and make like a medieval chef it didn’t show in his voice or his manner. He plated the eggs, having already toasted some bread and scooped beans out of a big pot that was sitting to the side of the fire. Then he added the bacon and a generous slice of scorched tomato. “Would you like some tea with this?”
“Any chance I can get some scotch?” Tony asked. He set aside the cleaning rags and accepted the plate. “It may be morning for you guys, but it’s bedtime for me.” And he needed something that would make his brain shut up and stop noticing everything in the room. Sex and engineering were both out, so that left alcohol.
“I’ll fetch some.” Ashby took a moment to wipe the sweat off his face before heading out of the kitchen. As he pushed open the door to the dining room, the murmur of the voices which had been muffled by baize rose to audibility.
“...and now they’re saying the river won’t go down until tomorrow...”
“...right into my kitchen. Five inches if it was an...’
“...hope my chickens will be all...”
“...least it’s hot enough that everything should dry without...”
The door swung shut, cutting off the words, and Tony shook off the distraction and made himself eat. He hadn’t expected the hotel to be a marvel of modern conveniences, not with a name like the “Grand Victorian”, but he hadn’t expected it to be sitting opposite a fireplace with an actual fire in it on a hot day either. And the place was full up. Some time during the night the Ashby’s had begun providing refuge to their neighbors who had been flooded out when the River Sowe couldn’t cope with all the rain. Ashby had offered him (and Thor, who hadn't come back yet from whereever it was he'd gone to) rooms at the top of the family wing -- the old servant’s quarters, actually, but with big dormer windows that meant Tony could get in and out again without ever using the front door. One of the Ashby daughters was up there making up a bed right now. And there was a bathroom just down the hall.
“Not a cave in Afghanistan,” Tony reminded himself. If Martin could manage in a tiny attic room all the time, Tony could manage for a few days. And he could park the suit on the roof near a chimney stack, where no one would go poking at it, which was a good thing. But fuck, he missed his tech.
The eyes of the helmet were blinking at him. Tony put down his fork and fumbled out the power cord he’d rigged for the arc. It took a couple of tries, but he got the connection made and slipped the helmet on. “What’s up, J?”
“A call for you, sir. From the hospital.”
“Crap. Put me on,” Tony said, wishing that he hadn’t eaten anything yet. His stomach wanted to go into reverse.
Apparently JARVIS hadn’t waited for permission to make the connection, because a female voice responded. “Is that Mr. Stark?”
“Yeah,” Tony said. “Yeah, it’s me. What’s wrong?” He braced his hands against the table, waiting for the blow.
“Mr. Crieff’s condition is unchanged,” came the reassurance. “Please, I didn’t mean to alarm you. But our Pulmonary specialist would like to do a bronchoscopy and lavage as soon as possible, and we simply don’t have any anesthesiologists left for it. I’ve had to put a halt to all non-emergency procedures requiring anesthesia for the next eight hours.”
“I don’t understand,” Tony said. “I mean, I’m a quick study, but I can’t...”
“No, of course not,” she said. “But we have a member of staff who has been vacationing in Edinburgh. She’s volunteered to return, but the roads are...”
“Awful,” Tony finished for her. He wanted to rub his eyes, and the helmet was in the way. Between downed trees and flooding he’d seen plenty of reasons why someone in a car was going to have trouble coming halfway across the country, and that was only on the relatively short hop from Fitton to Coventry.
“If you could someone to bring her down by helicopter,” the voice from the hospital said persuasively. But hell, Tony could do better than that.
“Give me her name and phone number,” he said. “We can start from there.”
“Look, just get her into some Tyvek coveralls and a full face motorcycle helmet and I can have her back here in less than an hour.” Tony probably couldn’t hear the whine in his voice, but Steve could. “I can last that long.”
“I thought you said you wanted to clean the suit before you used it again,” Steve said, as carefully reasonable as a man who had just been woken up from a much-needed nap could be.
“I’m doing it now!” Steve knew that if he could just see Tony, as well as hear him, he’d see the man in frantic motion, but that didn’t mean putting him back in the suit was a good idea.
“And I can probably find someone to bring her down with a helicopter in two or three hours, which isn’t that much longer,” Steve sat up and reached for the clothes he’d peeled out of when he thought they’d actually finished for a while. “Or I can contact Thor.”
“Sir, if I may,” JARVIS interjected. “According to news reports, Thor has become involved with rescue and recovery operations from the flooding along the River Avon. I have attempted to communicate with him via the earpiece, but it has either ceased to function, or he has placed it somewhere for safekeeping.”
“Or lost it entirely,” Steve grumbled. Thor did his best, but not even Tony had found a way to keep him from damaging or misplacing electronics -- particularly tiny ones. And an earbud sized for Tony counted as tiny in Thor’s vocabulary.
“I swear, I’m going to give him barrettes next time,” Tony growled. “Clip the communicator right into his hair.”
“Braid it in,” Steve suggested. “That’ll keep it from falling out.”
“With my luck he’d get all sparky over something and set his hair on fire,” Tony said. There was a dangerous pause. “Which... might... not... be... so... bad...”
“Don’t damage the Asgardian, Tony,” Steve said. “He’s useful.”
“Only if you can get his attention,” Tony grumbled. “C’mon Steve, just call the lady and tell her to find some protective gear. I’ll drink some coffee and go pick her up and ... shit...” There was a clatter and a clanking, and a stream of bad language from Tony.
“Are you okay, Tony?” Steve asked.
“Yah, yah... shit... just... dammit... dropped the suit on my foot.”
“All of it?”
“Everything but the helmet! Fuck! Fuck, fuck, fuckityfuck, fuck!”
“Did you break anything?”
“No, no, the suit’s okay. It’s fine.”
“I meant your foot.”
“It’s. Bruised. Just bruised.” Steve wasn’t sure whether to believe that -- Tony wasn’t very good at assessing his own injuries.
“I really think you should get some rest, Tony. Put some ice on your foot and relax.”
“But Martin... Steve, you couldn’t hear the way he was breathing. If the doctors think this is important enough to ask me for help it’s gotta make a difference to Martin. I don’t want him to have to wait.”
Steve ran a hand through his hair, trying to think. He had been able to hear the way Martin was breathing actually. That soft straining wheeze every few breaths, and the frustrating coughs that never seemed to make anything easier. He knew what it was like to struggle for air, knew how much worse it could get if Martin’s condition worsened. “Maybe,” he began, and then lowered his head as if he were going to butt his way past some obstacle. “Maybe you should just send JARVIS.”
Elizabeth Comyn felt the perspiration gathering on her back and under her arms, and wondered how much of it was due to the warm day and how much was just nerves. Not that the monkey suit she was wearing helped. The protective suits at the hospital were much more breathable than the coveralls available from the local constabulary. “I’m sorry you had to break into your emergency supplies,” she told Constable Murdoch.
“Well, it is an emergency,” he replied, waving a broad hand at the still soggy streets of Auchengray. Half the village was out and about, helping the other half move downed tree limbs or mop out low-lying cottages. A few people had stopped to enquire after the stranger who had flagged down the passing police car, and Beth could see the word had spread, even though only the children were bold enough to stare at her Tyvek-covered glory. Murdoch passed her the pair of rubber gloves he’d drawn out of the kit. “And I’d have had to open it anyway. They really should be using more safety gear down in those cottages by the beck.”
“Probably.” Beth tugged on the gloves. “I just hope this isn’t some kind of elaborate practical joke.” Bad enough that she’d had to cut south of the main roads because of the huge traffic accident near Polbeth, if she’d let herself get delayed again because she was gullible enough to believe that a voice on her mobile was really Captain America she’d... well, she didn’t know what she’d do, but it wouldn’t be good.
Murdoch shrugged sympathetically, and then froze, looking at something up beyond her shoulder. “I don’t think so,” he said slowly.
Beth turned to look and sure enough, there was a small dot in the sky, growing larger at an incredible rate. Before she could even think of an intelligent reply to Murdoch, it was recognizably Iron Man, and by the time she had enough breath to say, “I guess not,” he was hanging in the air ten feet away.
“Just get us down, J,” she heard him say, and then, from the same space, a British voice said, “I would prefer not to exacerbate the damage, sir.” With an inhuman precision, the armour rearranged itself, white light spouting from the hands and the back and just one of the feet as it settled gently onto the grass. The faceplate flipped up, revealing Tony Stark’s face. His eyes were bloodshot and shadowed, and he was sweating almost as much as she was herself, but he tried to smile. “I hope you’re Mrs. Comyn.”
“Miss, actually.” Beth said, uncertain about what was to come next. “Beth. We use first names on the ward these days.”
“Tony,” he said, although she was fairly sure it was going impossible to think of him by his first name. His eyes flickered over her assessingly. “Didn’t you find any head protection? It’ll slow us down if you’re eating bugs.”
“Not yet,” she said. “I was still driving when Capt... when I was called.”
“Yeah, Cap said you’d already made a start.” He started to shift position and flinched, his eyes shutting and the color in his face draining away. “Fuck.”
“Really, sir, I must insist. Let me control the suit entirely,” said the mystery voice, and Stark nodded, straightening out his face with an effort.
“Okay, J. Give a come hither to that kid in the red sweater at eleven o’clock, will ya?” Stark said, and then whistled loudly while one arm of the suit came up to beckon at one of the youngsters who were watching from the far side of the road. “Yes, you,” Stark called, when one of the boys tapped his chest in question.
It took a push from his younger sister to get him in motion, but the boy trotted over and stood, fidgeting with the edge of his sweater as he looked from face to face among the three grownups. “Yes, sir?” he asked tentatively.
“What’s your name, kid?”
“Michael. Michael Lennox, sir.” The boy’s shoulders relaxed a bit at the familiarity of the question.
“You know everyone here, right, Michael?”
“Yes, sir. Of course.” Michael brightened. “Were you needing someone? I can fetch them.”
“Not someone, some thing. But you might have to bring the owner too. We need a motorcycle helmet that’ll fit this lady to take with her to Coventry, and it’s not going to get back here any time real soon. I could pay for it, but I left my wallet in my other pants.”
Michael blushed and giggled, covering his mouth with both hands, and the children who had nerved themselves into following him across the road burst into laughter as well, their nervousness forgotten.
“Oh that’s right,” Tony Stark said, as if he just remembered, and Beth found herself liking him for the pretense. “You guys would say trousers. Right, Michael?”
“Yes. Yes, that’s right, Iron Man. Is the helmet for flying? So you can go faster?”
“Yup. She’s needed, and this is the fastest way to get her there. Think you can find one?”
Michael pursed his lips and turned to Beth with a considering eye. “Do you know what size helmet you wear, Miss?”
“Medium?” Beth guessed with a shrug. “But that’s for rock climbing.”
Michael scowled. “I guess we should just get them all.” He turned to the other children. “Salah, you ask your brother. Mary, talk to Eddie. Pat, if your dad still has that old motocross helmet in his shed, it would work.”
“What about Mr. Ross’s welding thingummy?” piped up one of the older girls, as she mimed pulling a facemask down and up again.
“Can’t hurt to try,” Michael said. “The rest of you, come along with me and we’ll ask the rest.” He jerked a thumb at the adults down the street, who had given over working and were frankly staring. “C’mon.”
The children scattered.
Beth, given a few moments to think about everything that had been said so far, had found a new thing to be nervous about. “Damage?” she asked quietly. “Is your flying armour not working?”
“The suit’s fine,” Stark said. “I’m a little dented.”
“How dented?” Beth asked, glad to feel her medical instincts surging to the fore.
“Dropped something on my foot.” His face moved a little, as if he’d shrugged inside the frozen armour. “It’s not critical.”
She found herself giving the suit the same sort of critical eye he’d given her. It certainly wasn’t pristine, but there weren’t any dents, just a few places where the paint job needed work. “Didn’t the armour protect you?”
“Not when it was what I dropped,” Stark admitted, with a wry expression.
“If you would be so kind as to examine the injury,” said the mystery voice, and the suit began to open up, the front pieces retreating towards the back.
“Aw, JARVIS!” Stark protested, but whoever it was that was controlling the suit was relentless. In a moment, the billionaire was exposed. “Shit!” he said, heartfeltly, when he took a step forward onto the grass and stumbled, his right foot clearly too painful to support his weight with certainty. Beth found herself across the grass and stooping to prop one of his arms across her shoulders without a thought. Constable Murdoch was a moment behind her, and it spoke volumes that Stark’s insistence that he could walk, really, was countered by the way his hands clutched hold of the support he was protesting. They got him over to the bonnet of the police car, where he could sit while Beth knelt to examine the injured foot and Constable Murdoch went to the back to fetch out the medical kit.
The Iron Man armour was apparently reluctant to be left behind, because it closed up and clomped over to where it had a good view of the proceedings. “The injury occurred twenty-three minutes and forty two seconds ago,” it volunteered. “The foot has been held immobile within the boot for eighteen minutes, and the climate control for that portion of the armour set at its lowest possible temperature, so you may find it cool to the touch. Sir also imbibed forty millilitres of malt whiskey, as a temporary measure against the pain.”
“Did he now?” Beth mused as she worked off the sock to reveal a green silk tie, wound around the foot and ankle in a configuration she recognized from her long ago tenure in the Girl Guides. Better for a sprained ankle than an injured foot, but it had no doubt helped some. Still, that and the alcohol were straight out of amateur night. Although given Stark’s reputation, she would have had to avoid paracetamol in any case. Good thing there was some ibuprofen in her car.
“It’s just a bruise,” Stark said between clenched teeth as Beth probed delicately along the darkening skin. There was enough edema already to suspect at least a hairline fracture of the fourth or fifth metatarsal.
“Maybe,” she said, thinking it would take an x-ray to be sure. “But it won’t hurt to get a proper compression bandage on it.”
“Says you,” he grumbled, but he closed his eyes and let her get to work.
The worst thing, Tony decided, about nosy medical types, was how frequently they were right. Four ibuprofen and a professional wrap job on his foot and he could almost manage to think about something besides his foot. Unfortunately, mostly what he was thinking about was how good a shower would feel right now. With JARVIS steering, he didn’t need to think about flying, or hanging onto his passenger (which, technically, he didn’t need to do anyway, since the nervous Nellies in Scotland had decided that they ought to wrap a hammock and a bunch of bungee cords around them both before they’d let him take off.) He didn’t even need to keep an eye on the HUD, because his smartass AI had decided to shut down everything but the map, and the little dot on the map which was the suit. Which left the itchy place on his left shoulderblade, the scrape on his right hand, and his bladder.
Which was a problem, because he wasn’t wearing the undersuit, so no high tech fabric to wick away liquids, and he was carrying a passenger, so no vent that wasn’t going to be really awkward to employ. He didn’t want to piss off the lady by pissing on her.
His brain, which was way past its bedtime, supplied him with a sudden image of Mr. Miyagi, teaching an esoteric karate move: “Piss on! Piss off!” while the camera desperately tried not to show what his student was doing. He snorted with amusement, and JARVIS cleared his non-existent throat. “Sir?” And man, when had he programmed J to be quite so tentative? “Are you all right?”
“‘I’m good, J,” he said. “Just passing the time. You got an ETA for me yet?” It was a little over 250 miles from Edinburgh to Coventry, which wasn’t even fifteen minutes worth of flying under ideal conditions, but you couldn’t expect anyone to break the sound barrier with nothing between them and the atmosphere but a polyethylene jumpsuit. Heck, they hadn’t even managed to go that fast on the way up, since JARVIS refused to use the repulsor in the right boot. Tony figured they’d be lucky if they made it back in a couple of hours, and it would probably be closer to three. Still faster than finding someone with a helicopter and talking them into taking the trip, but frustrating all the same.
“Not quite, sir. I am still considering whether to repeat our rooftop landing, or divert to the employees’ entrance of the hospital. Do you have a preference?”
“Can you get Geedi to meet us on the roof?” Tony asked, because there was a reason that the answer might not be yes and he was too fucking tired to remember it.
“No, sir.” JARVIS said, and Tony gave himself a mental pat on the back for building a smart AI with a bigass memory cloud. “Mr. Dinaase is enroute to Fitton with Mr. Shappey, as per your suggestion, and given the traffic situation on the ground, we will most certainly arrive before his return. Would you like me to contact Mrs. Crieff?”
“Nope, nope, nope. She’s gotta stay with Martin.” Tony really wanted to be able to scrub his face with his hands so he could think better, but he couldn’t, not with the suit all configured to follow JARVIS’s orders and the helmet in the way. “Don’t we know anyone else down there?”
“I know people,” said a third voice, and Tony startled so hard he banged his head on the bumpers that kept the helmet in place. If he’d been in control of the suit it would have gone off course, and even with JARVIS in charge, he’d swear it dipped a little.
“J, do you have the speakers on?” he asked.
“No,” their passenger said, and her voice wasn’t loud at all. “But my helmet is touching yours, and I could hardly help but listen.”
“That’s...” Tony thought about it. “That’s good. That’s excellent really, because that means you don’t have to be bored. JARVIS, give us some tunes!”
“Soooo...” Sarah Carpenter let the word slide out as she and Beth Comyn watched the small red and gold figure that was Iron Man vanish past the trees by the river at the far end of the parking lot. “Good flight?”
“The first ten minutes were amazing,” Beth allowed.She scowled after the departed superhero. "After that it got a little uncomfortable. Did Jarvis tell you about his foot?"
"Well, I didn't haul the wheelchair up here for you," Sarah said. "Not that you aren't welcome to use it. You look kind of green."
Beth promptly flopped into the offered convenience and began wrestling free of the top half of the Tyvek coverall she was wearing. "Much better," she said. "I didn't mind most of it, but dodging ducks as we were coming down to land got to me." Her shirt, reveled, was patched with sweat, and Sarah hastily grabbed for the handles of the chair and dragged it through the French doors that separated the Executive Director's private balcony from his rather cluttered private office. Beth perked up a little, rubbernecking unashamedly. "Oooh, I've never been up here before. Is that actually a massage table?"
"Yes," Sarah said. She knew that Rupert had a bad back, but she also knew he wasn't interested in sympathy, which was why he dealt with it in relative privacy. Fortunately, Beth was already on to the next amenity.
"And a private loo!" she exclaimed. "I wish I'd known that. I could have bribed Tony with it."
"Tony, is it?" Sarah enquired.
"Well, when you've spent two and a half hours in a compromising position with a man, it seems silly to stand on formalities."
“I did notice the full-body hug,” Sarah said. It had been hard not to, although how else Beth could have made the trip she couldn’t imagine. It wasn’t like you could sit on a super hero’s back like a horse or something whilst they flew.
Beth sniggered. “Trust me, it looked even more scandalous before we ditched the hammock wrapping.” She grinned up at Sarah as they made the turn into the corridor. “It was meant to make me feel more secure, but it kept catching in the wind and by the time we reached Hadrian’s Wall it had to go. Then again so did Tony, so that worked out well.”
“Oh?” Now that was an opportunity which should not be wasted. And Sarah could not imagine Beth wasting it “So is that codpiece a reflection of reality?”
Simon Ashby pressed back against the chimney stack and waved at the target he’d just spray painted onto the roof, hoping that Iron Man would understand that that was the place where the roofbeams were most likely to be able to stand up to a hard landing. Rather to his surprise, the superhero didn’t smash down into the three-point landing position so familiar from the newscasts, but hovered instead before gently coming down dead center on the indicated spot.
“Aw, J,” Tony Stark whined as the faceplate of the helmet flipped up. “You didn’t need to call for a welcoming committee.”
“We don’t mind,” Bartholomew said, from his perch in the window, and Simon fought back a grin when Stark’s head swung from him to his twin. “Gave us an excuse to let the girls do the cooking.”
“Which...” Stark looked back and forth again and settled on Bart. “You made me breakfast,” he said, with certainty, pointing a shaky finger. “But you didn’t mention a doppelganger.”
“I did, actually,” Bart said, clambering out onto the roof. “This is my brother, Simon. Congratulations, most people can’t tell us apart the first time they see us.”
“Or the second,” Simon added, grinning as Bart came in for the chorus on “Or the third.” In spite of the tiny scar above Bart’s left eyebrow, and the crooked place where Simon’s right pinky finger hadn’t healed quite straight, the twins were used to being able to play Box and Cox with impunity. Didn’t look like that would fly with Tony Stark, even though the man was clearly exhausted. “How did you know?”
“Genius,” Stark said, absently. He might have figured out who was who, but he was still looking back and forth between them uncertainly. “What are you doing up here?”
“We got a call saying that you might need some assistance in getting to the shower,” Simon explained.
Stark flinched, and sighed, closing his eyes. “Way to go, J. Did you ever think that you might want to warn me that you were going to arrange for a couple of strangers to hold my head under water?”
“I apologize, sir.” Simon couldn’t see the speaker, but the voice was the same as the “Jarvis” who had called his mobile. “That parallel had not occurred to me. Perhaps Lord Thor could assist you instead?”
“He’s asleep in the room beside yours,” Simon offered, waving at the next dormer over.
“Yeah, I can hear him. Man, if there was anybody who ever wondered why they call that mook the god of thunder, they can stop wondering.” Stark still hadn’t opened his eyes, and it seemed to Simon that the man was gathering his strength for an ordeal, despite his babbling. “‘Sokay, J. I can do this. I survived it the last time, didn’t I?” And didn’t that sound ominous. Simon exchanged a look with his brother, wishing that the “twin telepathy” their sisters often accused them of really worked. The last thing they wanted to was traumatize Tony Stark. Not when it seemed like there were going to be opportunities to provide rooms for whatever Avengers or Stark Industries staff might follow him here.
“We could run a bath downstairs,” Bart offered uncertainly, and by the way Stark shuddered, that was not the offer he wanted.
“How about a chair in the shower stall?” Simon said. “That’s pretty much what we have in the handicapped suite. Which is occupied by a lady who very much needs it, or I’d have you meet us at the front door and we’d risk the photographs. You don’t even have to touch the taps until we’re out of the room.”
Stark opened his eyes, and for the first time the ghost of a smile turned up the corners of his mouth. “Find one with wheels and I can use it like a walker,” he countered, as the Iron Man armour began to fold back on itself, revealing the more vulnerable human inside. His clothes were rumpled, and ill-fitting, nothing Simon would have expected if Bart hadn’t warned him. And if he’d been tired at breakfast, he was clearly holding on by a thread now. If it weren’t for the aroma of too much work that wafted out of the armour as well, Simon guessed that he’d never want to make it farther than the bed. But it was hard to sleep dirty, when you didn’t have to.
Simon offered an arm, so the billionaire could take hold of him instead of the other way around; Bart positioned himself on the other side in the same way. After a moment of hesitation, Stark reached out and took hold. “All right, Thing One and Thing Two,” he said, and Simon couldn’t begrudge him the ancient joke. “Let’s get inside.”
“You must be Tony’s ‘Spitfire’,” said the voice, and Martin dragged open his eyes to see who was talking. It was a girl -- well, a woman, and not all that young really -- in scrubs, with hair still wet and fragrant from a shower, a stethoscope dangling from her neck and a nameplate that said “Beth C.” pinned to her shirt. Probably not a reporter, then, although Martin’s mum had already headed off one enterprising freelancer who had tried to bribe the radiology technician for a copy of Martin’s films. As a result, Martin’s paperwork and armband all said Martin Smith now, although it wasn’t a subterfuge which Martin had any confidence in lasting long. “How are you feeling?”
Still,Martin was pretty sure that Tony wouldn’t have told a reporter that he called him Spitfire. “I’m thirsty,” he croaked obediently, even though that meant he had to swallow back a cough that talking wanted to set off. He wasn’t thirsty, technically, but no one would give him anything to drink because there were still tests he had to take, and his mouth and throat were a zone of unhappiness. “Do you know Tony?” he added, because his throat couldn’t hardly feel worse.
“Not very well,” she said, doing something that clanked to the bed so that she could begin to push it out of position. “He gave me a lift down from Scotland just now so that I could prep you for your bronchoscopy.”
“Just now?” Martin asked, ignoring the bronchoscopy part. He’d already gone over that with one of the doctors, but the news about Tony was, well, new. And unwelcome. Martin felt a wave of frustration at Tony that he was fairly sure was completely inappropriate. “He was meant to go and get some rest!” And that was whining, blast it, but the woman - Beth - just grinned down at him as the ceiling tiles moved past her head.
“I got the impression that Tony Stark is not very good at what he’s “meant” to do. Although if it’s any comfort, I think he only dodged getting the x-ray of his foot so that he could go and get some sleep.”
“An x-ray of his foot?” Martin’s mum asked, and that was a relief because Martin’s voice would have squeaked if he’d tried. And he couldn’t hold back the coughs any more, and all the frustration had him wanting to climb out of this stupid bed and go find Tony and yell at him for getting hurt which didn’t make any sense at all when it was Martin who had got hurt first. He balled his hands into fists to keep them from waving around, and squeezed his eyes shut in the vain hope that he could keep the tears from escaping.
It wasn’t fair. It wasn’t fair, and he knew it was never fair and he was better at enduring it not being fair than this, he was, but he was tired and he was worried about Tony and he hurt and he wanted to go home and have this all be just some horrible nightmare.
He was aware, vaguely, that the conversation had stopped, and the bed too. But his mother’s hand on his, coaxing his fist to uncurl, that was a certainty. And there was another hand, on his opposite shoulder. That had to be Beth. They meant to be comforting, he could tell, but just knowing that they had noticed he was in need of comfort was enough to make it impossible not to cry.
He looks like his father, Wendy Crieff thought, and then pushed the realization aside as best she could. Davey had been so very ill those last few days, and in so much pain. It had made no sense to try to keep him clean-shaven, that was all, and the scruff of Martin’s beard and the smells and sounds of the hospital had combined to bring back memories best left to gather dust. And Martin needed her now, poor dear.
“Sweetheart,” she said, smoothing his hair back from his face with her free hand. “Sweetheart, take a deep breath and try to calm down.”
“I-I-I’m t-t-trying,” Martin gasped. “I-I-I...” a fusillade of coughs interrupted him, and he closed his eyes, his grasp on her hand tightening. “I’m sorry.”
“Easy,” the nurse said, from the far side of the bed, as she went through the ritual of checking Martin’s pulse and respiration. “Easy. Are you worried about the test?”
“I’m worried about Tony!” Martin burst out between coughs. “He was tired hours ago, and he’s still awake, and he’s hurt, and I can’t do anything to help.” And wasn’t that just like her Martin, to be worried about someone else when he was the one who should be worried about. Always taking responsibility. Even when he needn’t.
“I’m sure he’s all right,” she murmured. The nurse echoed her, saying that she knew Mr. Stark was intending to get some rest when he left, but neither of them were convincing Martin, and he had been given far too many medications to pretend himself calmer.
But that was an idea. “Could you give him something?” she asked Beth.
“I could,” Beth said. “But it would be better if he could relax on his own. It’s too bad I left my mobile in my locker. I’ve got Captain America’s number in my received calls. He could probably call Tony and get him to tell your son that he’s all right. Or at least check on where he is.”
“Oh, my, that’s an excellent notion.” Wendy let go of Martin and dipped into her handbag for her own mobile. “I have that number too. Or at least someone’s number in America. Miss Potts, I think. But I spoke to Captain Rogers as well.” She shifted through tissues and keys and the little knitting pattern booklets she was meant to be selling in aid of the W.I. “Here it is.”
A part of her didn’t believe she was about to call a man she’d grown up reading about, but that part of her hadn’t believed anything since the telephone call yesterday evening. And disbelief wasn’t going to stop her, although the realization that Captain Rogers couldn’t have had any more sleep than she had herself did make her hesitate for a moment before tapping the button to connect the call.
It scarcely had time to ring before there was an answer. “Rogers here.” For all that promptitude he sounded more than half asleep. Wendy remembered belatedly that it was still terribly early in the morning in the States.
“Captain Rogers? So sorry to disturb you. It’s Wendy Crieff calling.”
“Mrs Crieff. Mrs Crieff?” She could hear him waking up, his voice growing clearer with each word from his initial mumble. “Is something wrong? Is Martin all right?”
Oh, dear, this was more difficult than it seemed. Now she’d gone and alarmed a superhero. “Yes of course, I mean, no, he’s rather upset. Worried about mister... his friend Tony. Can you... uhm... check on him somehow? So I can tell Martin that he’s all right?” Wendy noticed that Martin had opened his eyes and was watching her, although he was still crying, and made herself stand a little straighter and smile confidently while she patted his arm with her free hand.
“Check on Tony?” Captain Rogers’ voice went on full alert, and she bit her lip, because she was still alarming a superhero, and there wasn’t a moment to get a word in of reassurance. “Did something else happen to Tony? JARVIS? Can you tap into this call, please?”
“Of course, Captain,” came a new voice -- an English voice that Wendy had heard once or twice as a part of the night’s conversations, although no one had introduced the speaker. “How may I be of assistance?” And he, at least, seemed unperturbed.
“Mrs Crieff, this is Jarvis,” Captain America said, with absentminded courtesy. “He can give us a status on Tony.”
“Sir is asleep at present. And I have no indication of any emergency which might require his presence.” Wendy thought that Mr Jarvis sounded protective of his... employer, perhaps? She wasn’t quite sure who it was she was speaking to.
“It isn’t an emergency, Mr Jarvis,” she said, seeking refuge from her embarrassment with formality. Oh, dear, she was making a fuss, wasn’t she? But it was far too late to back away.. “The nurse here, Beth, she mentioned that Mr Stark has injured his foot, and Martin is very concerned.”
“Is Captain Crieff available?”
“He’s right here. Here, I’ll hold the phone where he can hear you.” Wendy put the phone down near Martin’s head before realizing that the news might not be good.
But Martin gulped down some air and managed to croak, “Jarvis?” and even that was progress, because Wendy could see him gathering the threads of himself together enough to speak.
“Captain. I assure you, Sir’s injury is minor,” said Jarvis, and Wendy let herself breathe again. “It certainly did not impede him from sleeping once he was able to bathe.”
“But if he flew the armour to Scotland... he was so tired,” Martin protested, albeit with decreasing distress. Apparently he knew and trusted this Jarvis person.
“Captain, I flew the armour to Scotland to fetch Miss Comyn,” said Jarvis, proving the converse was true as well. “Sir was little more than a passenger.”
“He’s right,” Beth put in. “Not that it was an exciting trip. We spent most of the flight listening to Anna Russell and Flanders and Swann.”
Martin blinked and coughed, the little line between his eyebrows deepening the way it always did when he was confused. “But... Tony likes ACDC?”
“I asked for the Ride of the Valkyries, and then we got distracted,” Beth said, beginning to move the bed down the corridor once more. “His mother was a fan of opera, so he knows the Russell ‘Ring’ almost as well as I do.”
“Oh.” Martin said. “And you’re sure he’s all right?” Wendy wasn’t sure who he was asking, but it was Jarvis who answered.
“Infrared sensors indicate an inflammation of the tissues which took the brunt of the impact when the armour fell, suggestive of deep bruising or a minor fracture. Miss Comyn bandaged the foot, immobilizing the injury until Sir is ready to seek out further treatment. By the time he awakes, additional personnel from Stark Industries and the Avengers Initiative will be available to ensure that he does so.”
“Jarvis means that Nat and Bruce are hitching a ride with Pepper and coming over there to help out. Don’t worry about Tony, Martin. He can’t get around any one of them, much less all three.” Steve Rogers was clearly used to sorting out problems. “Now, what are you supposed to be doing right now?”
“Some kind of test.” Martin admitted, still restless, although his hands had relaxed sufficiently that the color was coming back to his knuckles. “But Tony...”
“Tony will be fine. And when he wakes up the first thing he’ll want to know is the results of your test. Right?”
“I suppose so.”
“I know so. So take a deep breath, let it out slowly, and then go get your test done while I talk to your mother for a minute.”
“Right. Right.” Martin tried to obey, and ended up coughing and wheezing, but a second try was a little more successful. The nurse gave Wendy a thumbs up and started the bed back into motion.
Wendy, left behind for the moment, put the phone up to her ear. “Thank you, Captain. I’m sorry I had to waken you.”
“That’s all right, Mrs. Crieff. I don’t need that much sleep these days, and Martin’s a friend.”
Wendy blinked. “Has he...er... visited often?” she asked. Because while it was one thing to accept that her son (who had announced that he was bi when he was sixteen) had somehow managed to “hook up” with Tony Stark (who would clearly sleep with anyone who was willing to hold still long enough), it was something else entirely to realize that Martin had made friends with Captain America.
“A few times. Tony’s met with him more than the rest of us. But we like him. You should be proud to have a son like Martin.”
Wendy was aware of an unfamiliar warmth filling her from somewhere near her toes. She hadn’t heard anyone tell her that since a ten-year-old Martin had made a presentation on the mechanics of flight for his science class. “Don’t you know,” she said. “I always have been.”
Pepper Potts made her way down the aisle of the Stark Industries corporate jet, still elegant despite the soft slippers which substituted for her usual high heels. She nodded to Natasha, who was awake, but somnolent, and got a small nod in return. She tucked the blanket higher over Happy, who had gone right past sleepy into snoring blissfully unaware of his surroundings, and then moved on toward the back, where Bruce Banner was studying a hologram drifting over the projection table.
“Tree roots?” Pepper guessed, slipping into the chair beside him.
“Bronchii,” Bruce said, dialing back the hologram until ghostly lungs surrounded the knobbly tangle. “I’m reviewing lung disorders so I can run interference between Tony and Martin’s doctors.”
Pepper made an unladylike noise. “Better you than me,” she said. “I’d rather handle the press.”
The corner of Bruce’s mouth turned up and his eyes danced. “This is why it’s important to have a team,” he said. "Because I wouldn’t last five minutes in front of a microphone.”
She wasn’t sure about that. Bruce kept his temper under conditions that made her want to lose hers. But she nodded all the same. “Maybe you can answer my questions too,” she said.
“About how much I should yell at Tony -- or if. Just why was it so urgent that it couldn’t wait for Steve to find someone with a spare helicopter?” Pepper tucked back some hair that was straying out of her ponytail. “I can figure out what a bronchoscopy must be. But lavage sounds like French for washing something. How can you wash out lungs?”
“It isn’t exactly ‘washing out’,” Bruce said. “Although they will send some liquid into the lungs and pull it out again.”
“How?” Pepper said, “And why do they need to do it so quickly? And why did they need that particular person from so far away?”
“My understanding is that most of the qualified anaesthesia personnel at the hospital weren’t rested enough to do the procedure safely,” Bruce said. “And Elizabeth Comyn is staff, she knows the equipment and the doctors. She knows where everything is if something goes wrong, so she won’t need time to regroup or hunt for what she needs. It’s pure luck she was available to be brought in.”
“Is something likely to go wrong?” Pepper was feeling very much out of her comfort zone with all this. She’d never seen Tony focus on anyone the way he’d focussed on Martin, for one thing, and the medical arcana had never been her area of expertise. Still, she hadn’t gotten where she was without faking it until she could make it, and she had a lot of respect for Bruce’s expertise.
Bruce sighed and leaned back. “It might. Here,” he said, changing the hologram again. “How much do you remember about the insides of your lungs?”
“A little. The air goes into the lungs into smaller and smaller places until the oxygen and carbon dioxide can switch places in the blood. Then the carbon dioxide comes out again and the oxygen gets shuffled off to the rest of the body.”
“Close enough.” Bruce pointed at something and Pepper pretended she understood what she was looking at. “The important bit is that the lungs aren’t just about air, they’re about blood too, so if you get an injury in them, you can bleed a lot. And because Martin has a broken femur, they’ve got him on medications meant to keep blood flowing. So a mistake during the BAL could be very bad indeed.”
“Bronchoscopy and lavage. Martin was pinned in the mud, and he aspirated some of it -- that’s what’s causing the pneumonia. But because it was mud, there’s a good chance that the infection is fungal. By going in and getting samples, the doctors can determine just which drugs will be most effective. And the procedure in and of itself might help a little, if it dislodges any foreign matter that’s caught in the alveoli.”
That was about as clear as the mud that Martin had been caught in. Pepper raised an eyebrow at Bruce, who grinned ruefully. “It’s not as dangerous a procedure as it used to be. They use fiber optics now. And they’ll have Martin sedated at the very least.”
“Why did they need someone for anaesthesia then?”
“If something goes wrong -- or if Martin can’t stay calm enough on the sedative alone -- then they’d have to put him completely under. And as much as I like Martin, he’s not the most copacetic man I’ve ever met.”
Pepper had to laugh. “No, not really.” She hadn’t conversed with Martin for any length of time, but she could still hear the panicked note he’d hit when she’d asked him whether or not his intentions towards Tony were honorable. “But they’ll try the sedation first?”
“Yes -- it’s easier on the body, and his body has enough to fight with right now. And the usual sedatives Propofol and midazolam tend to cause amnesia -- he won’t remember anything about the procedure afterwards.”
“So once he’s sedated, then what?”
“Topical anaesthesia on his nose or mouth and the airway, so he won’t feel the bronchoscope being put into place. The fiber optic scopes are small enough that he’ll still be able to breathe, even if he can’t talk. Once the doctor gets a look at what’s down there, he’ll find places to do the lavage, releasing a few cc’s of solution into the lung and then drawing it back out through the scope. The samples go to the lab after that.”
“That doesn’t sound difficult.”
Bruce didn’t quite shake his head, but he did end up with it canted to one side. “Depends on how good the person behind the scope is. There are a lot of ways to make mistakes.”
“And how tired they are,” Pepper pointed out. “It might have been better to wait for everyone to be rested.”
Bruce didn’t agree. “Cultures take time to get results, so the sooner they get the samples, the sooner they can adjust the medications they’re using to fight back the pneumonia. Not to mention that the longer Martin’s not on the good anti-coagulants, the greater the risk that he might have fatal complications from the broken femur.” He tapped a control on the table, vanishing the hologram. “Tony went to boarding school; he probably had to read A Separate Peace and he’d remember that the kid that died on the operating table from a broken femur.”
“So I shouldn’t yell at him,” Pepper concluded, and got a brief smile as reward.
“No,” Bruce said, leaning back in his chair and looking at something that Pepper couldn’t see. “Not much anyway.”
Someone was patting his hand.
Not all the time. Just now and then, as if to reassure him of their presence.
Which was. Nice.
Nice. Because he was feeling all floaty, and he had vague memories of being asked questions and not caring that he didn’t know the answers.
Which was. Not nice.
Unless maybe he was Arthur now. Arthur never seemed to mind not knowing the answers. So maybe it was nice after all. Because if he was Arthur he didn’t need to care about not knowing the answers.
If he was Arthur, was Arthur being him?
He tried to imagine Arthur being him and it didn’t work, it didn’t work at all. Except for the hat. Imaginary Arthur kept pointing to the hat on his head and grinning as the hat erupted in more gold braid each time. Which wasn’t right, because... because...
“Stop that, Arthur,” he said aloud, and the hand patting his stopped patting and started squeezing.
“Martin, dear.” What was Arthur doing using his mum’s voice? “Martin, sweetheart, open your eyes.”
He frowned. “‘Sit mornin’?” he asked, wondering if it was worth the effort to obey.
“It’s almost afternoon,” came the reply. “Come on, now, the nurse wants to make certain that you’re recovering.”
Nurse? he wondered, but his eyes came open of their own accord, and he saw his mum and the nurse leaning over his gurney and something clicked over in his head, unlocking memories of the night before and the long worrisome morning. He was hurt, and in hospital, and people had died, and Tony was sleeping, and his mum was here, and the nurse wanted him to try to cough, and he didn't want to do that, because coughing hurt, and there’d been something they wanted him to do, something that meant that Tony was hurt and the nurse was here, and it was... It was...
He blinked at Beth Comyn, pulling the shreds of memory into a question. “Did I pass the test?” he asked. “Or do I have to do it again?”
Beth smiled. “I never make promises,” she said, pleased by the way Martin’s eyes were flitting between his mother’s face to hers. He was definitely conscious now. “But, I’m pretty sure Dr. Richardson got what he needed this time around.”
“Good,” Martin said, letting his eyes slide shut. “I hate tests. I never get them right.”
“Well you came through this one with flying colours,” Beth said. “Once you decided to cooperate, you did everything I asked you to do.” Once Martin had got it into his head that he needed to complete the test so Tony Stark could get the results of it, he’d faced the procedure with bitten-lipped determination. The sedatives, which sometimes revealed less savory aspects of a patient’s character, had only made him more willing to help (if a little too willing to explain how aeroplane engines worked.) And when she’d asked about the nickname ‘Spitfire’, he’d admitted, with a charming blush, that he’d wanted to be an aeroplane when he was small. She was beginning to see why Tony Stark had taken interest. “All that’s left now is another x-ray to make sure you have all your bits and pieces in proper order. Can you work up some saliva and spit in this for me?” She offered him an emesis basin.
He opened one eye, saw the basin, and scowled. “Why?”
“Swallow and gag reflex,” Beth said, blithely, knowing that neither Martin nor his mother needed to know that she’d be looking to see if there were any blood in the sputum. “We can’t let you eat your lunch until we know that the sedation has completely worn off.”
“Oh.” He pushed up a little and she hit the bed control to give him some more support. His adam’s apple bobbed a little, and he grimaced, his mouth working as he did his best to oblige her. At last he had enough of a mouthful to spit into the basin, and Beth took it over to the side while he leaned back, allowing his mother to wipe the dribbles at the corner of his mouth with only a vague wave of protest. “Throat hurts,” he managed after a moment.
“It will for a bit,” Beth said, as she retrieved a lemon swab. The sputum sample was clear, and for all that it didn’t seem comfortable to do it, he appeared to be swallowing well enough. It wouldn’t hurt anything to ease the soreness from the procedure with the swab and a topical spray. But first the swab. It would be an easy way to check on his gag reflex. “Say Ah.”
Douglas’s headache eased up by mid-morning, although it hadn’t entirely disappeared; something he admitted to the earnest young junior doctor who was making rounds with a mixture of reluctance and impatience. He wasn’t entirely confident that he was ready to be released from hospital, but he was more than ready to sleep somewhere without constant interruptions. The doctor was equally torn, given that the ward was holding three more beds than it had been designed for. Caution won out, and Douglas resigned himself to attempting to slumber his incarceration away despite the intermittent ventures of the trolley with the squeaky wheel, the very confused elderly gentleman who kept calling for his son, and the cacophony of snores from patients who had already accomplished a safe retreat into unconsciousness.
He had almost managed to convince himself that he’d kept his eyes closed long enough to do the same when he felt a presence hovering near his bed. Lunchtime, perhaps, although after the offerings which had been made at breakfast any sense of anticipation failed to materialize.
“Why’s he asleep? It’s the middle of the day!” someone hissed indignantly.
“I can see that. It’s okay. Just get the camera ready.” Another voice ordered, not nearly so quietly. “I want this scoop before security here cracks down the way it has at Coventry.”
Camera? Scoop? Douglas had resigned himself to being at the wrong end of a microphone at some point. Between the disaster and Martin’s unexpected heroics -- not to mention the intervention of two superheroes -- a certain amount of peripheral notoriety was inevitable. He simply hadn’t expected it to begin before he’d had a chance to bathe and shave. He slid his hand down to the nurse call button and pressed it, shifting position as if he were still asleep.
“Mr. Richardson?” The ruse was clearly unsuccessful. “Mr. Richardson, we’d like to ask you a few questions.”
Douglas waited a few beats, hoping that the arrival of a member of the staff would prevent any problems, but all that happened was someone shaking the bed. He took a deep breath and opened his eyes.
“No,” he said quite clearly.
The stout young man who was standing beside the bed blinked, but didn’t retreat. Behind him his stork-like companion held up a mobile, clearly trying to get a good angle on the camera. They looked like an adolescent retake of Laurel and Hardy, down to the wispy brush of mustache darkening the upper lip of the stouter one, Douglas thought, and then frowned, trying to remember which one was Laurel and which one was Hardy.
Douglas pulled the blanket up to his chin. “No,” he said again, when Hardy (or was it Laurel) opened his mouth. “No cameras. I have no intention of being immortalized as a model for inadequate hospital gowns.”
Laurel (or was it Hardy?) immediately began to put away his mobile, but paused when he got an elbow in the ribs. “Wait. Wait. Just let me... Let me explain,” said Hardy.
Douglas channeled his inner Carolyn. “Turn. The camera. Off.”
Both boys flinched and much to Douglas’s satisfaction the tall one not only put away the camera, he also tugged nervously at his collar, as if it were restricting the movement of his adam’s apple. His rounder friend went pale, but he was made of sterner stuff.
“All right,” he said. “All right. No camera. But can we record your answers? It’s for your own protection, really, so you’ll know we won’t misquote you.”
“You might begin,” Douglas said frostily, “By telling me who you are and where you mean to quote me.”
“Oh. Um. I’m Davis Farrow, and this is my cou...my partner Ian Smith. We’re um. We’re with the Warwickshire Daily.” For some degree of “with” no doubt, given the lad’s failure to produce press credentials, but Douglas could appreciate a well-attempted bluff.
“Smith..,” Douglas mused. “Smith. Any relation to Dirk Smith, the groundsman at Fitton air field?”
The thin boy brightened in Arthuresque fashion. “Well yeah,” he said, his voice unexpectedly deep. “He’s my ...” He broke off when a well-padded elbow hit him in the gut.
“Neighbor. He’s a neighbor.” Farrow said, glaring at his unfortunate compatriot. “Just a neighbor. But he’s mentioned that you might be willing to um... to recognize an opportunity.”
Douglas settled back against his pillows, lifting one eyebrow. “That depends,” he said. “On the size of the opportunity.”
My apologies everyone. I hit a slump, and then as I was beginning to get out of it, I screwed up my shoulder (did you know you can have arthritis at both the sternum end and the shoulder end of your clavicle? I wish I didn't!) and typing turned into an awful chore. I'll try to do better.
Molly McKinnon nominated herself to oversee the delivery of the tray that had come up from the kitchen for the patient in bed twenty-four. She’d retired six months gone now and had only come over to help out after the storm, so it was safer for her to ignore the argument simmering between the ward sister and the self-important lout from Orthopedics than it would be for anyone still on the payroll. If nothing else she could always plead a touch of deafness in whichever ear was most convenient.
The little junior nurse who was hooking Mr “Smith”’s bed back up to the monitors was only vaguely familiar. Molly was the first to admit that after thirty-five years on the wards the faces of the new staff tended to blend into one colorful panorama of undisillusioned helpfulness. The name tag helped, though. “Hop it, Lou,” she said, kindly, but in the voice that assumed she would be obeyed. “You don’t want to be here when the Bastable turns up.”
“The Bastable?” the woman standing near the window asked, neatly forestalling the junior nurse’s chance to question Molly’s presence or orders. She was a woman of Molly’s generation, who bore an unmistakable resemblance to the patient. His mum, probably. Her hair had faded to a silvery pink while his was still bright orange, but their expressions were similar, the slight cants of confusion to the head and the half-bitten lips of uncertainty in counterpoint to the exhaustion in their eyes and determination in the set of their jaws.
Molly moved the bedtable over and placed the luncheon tray without answering. She unveiled the contents with a flourish they didn’t deserve. The patient frowned. Molly couldn’t blame him. Poor lad. According to the chart he hadn’t so much as an ice lolly since yesterday, but a chicken stock cube disintegrating in a cup of nearly hot water and a chartreuse gelatin wobble oozing gently into slime on its plastic plate weren’t much of an improvement on the IV. “Beth Comyn put in the order for this, so you best eat up,” she advised him anyway. “Before Dr. Bastion comes over here and smacks it out of your hands.”
The patient frowned as he picked up the spoon. “But isn’t...” he croaked, and then cleared his throat carefully. “I mean, Beth seemed very nice, but she isn’t a doctor is she? Shouldn’t I wait for the doctor? I mean, doctors ourtrank nurses, don’t they? I don’t want to get it wrong.”
“I’m sure she put in the order at Dr. Richardson’s request,” Molly said, without attempting to disabuse him of the notion that doctors were infallible. He was on too many pain meds for logic, and would only retreat into stubbornness if she argued that nurses were quite as well trained and frequently better informed when it came to a patient’s needs.
“Why would a doctor want to take Martin’s food away?” his mum asked as he ventured a bite of green goo. It must have agreed with him, because he went for a second spoonful straightaway.
Molly snorted, gleefully aware that her lack of official employment freed her of the obligation to be discreet. “Because he’d love to get a shot at being in all the press conferences,” she said, “so he’s trying to schedule a surgery before he goes off shift.”
“Press conferences?” They both paled, and the patient squeaked, “Why would there be press conferences?”
“Because he’s a self-important grandstanding twit?” Molly said, and then patted him on the shoulder. “It isn’t that he wouldn’t do a decent job of it under normal circumstances. He competent enough even if he is a twit. But he’s been here since well before midnight. Dr. Ellison and Dr. Wojcikowski are due to come in this evening and they’ll have had a nice rest and so will you if we hold things off for a few hours. So eat up now, you won’t get another chance until at least tomorrow.”
“I won’t?” He poked at the jelly wistfully. “Does that mean I can’t have any coffee until then?”
Molly considered the request for a moment. Coffee might keep him awake when he should rest, but it would no doubt ease the caffeine withdrawal headache that was drawing the line between his eyebrows. “One cup,” she decided. “How do you take it?”
I feel like I keep apologizing for being slow, but I'm slow! But I have some vacation so hopefully you'll get another update before too long. I've also realized that I have a whole bunch of Sherlockiana at the Watson's Woes comm on LJ that hasn't been archived, so I'm going to try to catch that up too. And clean house. And catch up my paperwork. And medical stuff. And can you say that I'm kidding myself? Yup, that's right...
By the time Geedi made it back to Coventry Hospital it was past three in the afternoon. He’d had to detour repeatedly on the way to the Fitton airfield because of downed trees and flooding, and detour again along a different route on the return trip because of accidents. And now as he neared the hospital the traffic was picking up -- more people were venturing out, driven by curiosity or necessity. He turned into the lot and began to wind through the rows, looking for a space large enough for the limo, murmuring “yellow car” now and then without being truly aware that he was doing it. He was hoping not to park too far away from an entrance. He had a back seat full of bags to carry up to the ward and it was going to take at least two trips, even if he balanced several of them on top of Captain Crieff’s wheeled suitcase. Arthur’s enthusiastic assistance at the shops in Fitton had been very enthusiastic indeed.
Geedi still wasn’t quite sure how he was going to explain all the stuffed polar bears on the company account to his boss when he got back to London.
The Starkcomm burbled urgently as he was rounding the hospital for a second time and he decided to ignore the “employees only” sign on the backlot. He went down to the muddy end near the river so he wouldn’t block anyone and stopped the car. For a long moment, all he did was lean his head back and listen to the pings and clunks as the engine adjusted to a lack of activity. He was very tired, he admitted to himself, and he did not truly wish to be sent on another errand. Then he took a deep breath and tapped his pocket to acknowledge the signal. “Yes, Geedi Ishaar Dinaase here. How may I help you?”
“Geedi, it’s Pepper Potts. The GPS has you back at the hospital in Coventry, is that correct?”
“Yes, miss,” Geedi said, as calmly as he could. Pepper Potts! Had Mr. Stark complained? He had seemed friendly enough, if distracted, when he had arrived in Coventry that morning. Had Geedi’s division head mentioned the stuffed polar bears already? “Am I meant to be somewhere else?” He wanted to deliver his packages and head for home.
“Not that I know of,” she said. “In fact, if Tony comes up with another wild goose chase for you, tell him I told you to say no. However, I am hoping you’ll agree to stay on shift for a few more hours and stay with the Crieffs until I can get there. Double time and a half, of course. I know it’s an imposition, but given the flooding, and the traffic reports I’m seeing, you can’t possibly make it back to the London office before midnight.”
“The roads are very bad,” he had to agree. “What would you like me to attend to for Mrs. Crieff?”
“Moral support, for the most part. Fend off reporters and see to it that she eats. Notify me if there are any situations which need my influence. I was hoping Sarah Kaufmann would be there by now, but she was in a fender bender near Milton Keynes, and hasn’t had any luck getting her car repaired. Everyone else at the London office seems to be dealing with either the flood in the basement there or floods at home. And while there are some security firms in Coventry and Birmingham, I’d much rather have one of our own people on site. Not to mention that it would be convenient to have the car you’re driving once we get there. We’ve got a room booked for you at the hotel for tonight, and any expenses will be covered by the company. Have you had lunch? And your prayer and rest breaks? If the internet is to be believed there’s a Somali mosque north of Coventry, but there’s also a prayer room at the hospital.”
Geedi blinked and sorted through the flood of words for the things he needed to respond to. “I have been fed, and it is some time before I should pray again.” The days were very long in England in summertime, and ‘Asr would be nearly two hours later than it would be if he were back in Kismayo. But he appreciated the courtesy. Not every supervisor remembered the importance of Salat. “May I draw toiletries and other necessities from the things which have been purchased?” he asked.
“Of course,” came the prompt reply. “Is that a yes?” Miss Potts sounded hopeful.
Geedi thought a moment longer. His flat was on the third floor, and his flatmate had not called or texted to report any storm damage, so that was not a consideration. He had an opportunity to favourably impress both Miss Potts and Mr. Stark (or unfavourably impress them!) which was. He did not think he would be punished for refusing -- Miss Potts was making it clear that she was leaving the decision to him. And he was very tired! But Mrs. Crieff reminded him of his grandmother, and he truly did not wish to see her left without assistance. He nodded to himself, realising that he had already made his choice. “I would be happy to stay for as long as you require.”
My apologies to anyone if I referred to the prayers incorrectly. I did try asking at a forum to see if I could find out how Geedi might think of them, but I never did get an answer, so I had to rely on Google and extrapolation.
Also apologies for taking so long... as usual. *sigh*
Natasha dismissed the dancing pole she’d been using as an improvised barre while she stretched and it sank into the cabin floor with a soft sigh. Polite applause broke out from behind her, and she turned, catching Happy belatedly joining in with Pepper and Bruce. He was blushing fiercely, and even Bruce had a touch of color high on his cheeks, but Pepper was only grinning ironically from her place at the holodesk. Natasha bowed extravagantly, which made them all laugh. She thought about telling Bruce that it was his turn, but just then the “seatbelts” chime went off.
“Ladies and gentlemen, please take your seats as we begin our descent into Bristol,” came the announcement from the cockpit. “Cabin crew, prepare for landing.”
“Nice to know that those things are still useful,” Pepper said as Natasha joined her at the worktop and belted in.
“You should stretch out too,” Natasha replied. “Too bad you won’t have time.”
“Isometrics,” Pepper replied, clasping her hands in front of her and making an exaggerated expression of effort as she pulled outwards against the clasp. “I had to learn how to work out the kinks from long flights without getting Tony’s friends all excited when I was still his PA. It’s not the same thing as a good stretch, but it’ll do until we can get to the hotel.”
“And how long will that be?” Natasha asked.
“Well, the helicopter should be waiting for us when we deplane at Bristol, and the Customs people are going to meet us on the tarmac. I’ve arranged for us to fly directly to the helipad at the hospital at Coventry, and from there we have a Stark Industries car and driver to shuttle back and forth to the hotel -- say,” Pepper rearranged the holograms in front of her with an expert air, “twenty minutes to get to Bristol, another twenty for the chopper ride and five minutes to the hotel, actual travel time plus three hours for the formalities and dealing with whatever we find once we get there.”
“Does that include Tony?” Natasha asked drily.
“Oh, I’m letting you and Bruce deal with Tony,” Pepper said, and her eyes were dancing. “He’ll listen to you two.”
Natasha had to concede that. Tony did listen to Pepper, most of the time, but he would squirm out of getting medical care whenever possible. He was worse about it than Clint, really, and that was saying something. The more sensible (and durable) Avengers were forever having to coax, threaten, or drag them into Medical. Really, it was easier when they just got knocked unconscious. (Natasha had her own reasons for disliking being in Medical, but that was mostly because she hated having to apologize for damaging the staff.) But in this case, perhaps, there was a better alternative.
“What if we send Happy with Bruce?” she suggested. The former chauffeur/bodyguard had had plenty of practice dealing with Tony in less than optimal condition. And that would free her up to stay with Pepper.
Who was frowning, just enough to show that she’d caught up with Natasha’s thinking. “You think someone’s going to go after Martin?” It wasn’t really a question.
Natasha cocked her head a bit to the side, which wasn’t really a nod. “With three Avengers taking sides with Iron Man? Even if someone is stupid enough to think Tony’s out of commision because of a minor injury, they’re less likely to be stupid enough to think they can get past me.” And Pepper would be less vulnerable with Natasha at her side, too.
Tony was dreaming about the desert.
It didn’t happen often anymore, but it happened, and somehow he had learned to tell it was happening without actually being able to do anything useful like stop it happening so the dream would go on with the sand and the sun and the grit-laden wind all in 3d Technicolor Sensurround and all he could do was fight the panic with a part of his mind trying to sit aloof rating the performance for accuracy and details while he tried to wake up.
Wake up, Tony.
In the dream his feet were sinking deep into the sand, making every step even more of a pain-filled struggle than usual. He could see the edge of the dunes, not that far away, but it never got any closer no matter how far he walked. It hadn’t when the desert was real either, or it hadn’t seemed to. He’d been lucky, landing the first crude iteration of the armor in amidst soft wind driven dunes instead of the rocky plains, but there’d been no chance of water while he was on the sand, and oh, he wished he hadn’t remembered that, because now he needed to wake up and have a drink and he needed to take a leak, too.
Come on, boss, wake up.
He’d hallucinated in the real desert too. Maybe. He wasn’t sure anymore. He’d had this dream so damn often at first, and all kinds of people showed up to give him a hard time or cheer him on. Pepper more than Happy, but Happy too. Obie, entirely too often. Not the Obie who had tried to kill him, but the Obie who had brought him New York pizza and played show tunes on the baby grand. Nick Fury. Howard. Not Rhodey, usually, unless it was Loki wearing Rhodey’s face and riding on top of a goddamn Chitauri space whale. Tony hated it when his subconscious threw in that one.
Why aren’t you going in?
Not enough room to maneuver, doc. I don’t need the black eye.
Oh, good. The hallucinations were talking to each other now. Keep ‘em busy, and off Tony’s sunburned back. Anyway, he had to keep walking. That was how the dream worked. You walked and you walked and you never remembered the way out until JARVIS tweaked the HVAC down to frostbite levels or set off the sprinklers or Steve called for an Assemble or ...
Here, let me through. This might help.
The hot wind swirled around him, twisting tighter and filling his nostrils with a scent so strong that for a moment he didn’t recognize it.
But then he did, and the dunes faded away, leaving him in a body that ached and sweated in unaccustomed humidity and heat. But it was his body, and his nose, and his eyes, which needed to open now, dammit.
He uncurled, one hand already reaching. “Coffee,” he croaked, and somewhere beyond the blessed cup Bruce chuckled.
“Coffee,” he agreed. And pulled it back out of reach, ignoring Tony’s whine. “But not till you sit up.”
Martin wondered if it were worth the effort to be annoyed. Probably not. The people who kept waking him up just when he’d managed to drop off were only doing their jobs, after all, and Martin had a great deal of respect for people who did their jobs and did them well. He just wanted them to do their jobs to someone else and let him sleep. Or try to sleep. Because if he wasn’t getting woken up by people doing their jobs he was being woken up by the need to cough or clear his throat. And it was annoying.
But he was sotired.
Just a snippet (that has consistently refused to be added to for far too long) to reassure you that I haven't forgotten about the story and I mean to go on with it! *sigh* I did warn y'all...
Consultant Surgeon Clarence Ellison listened as the on duty ODP listed the remaining contents of the surgical supply cabinet, running calculations in his head. “And you say there’s a truck on the way?” he asked.
“It was meant to be here an hour ago,” Nora Cheatham observed sourly, her voice tinny over the bluetooth earpiece. Clarence nodded grimly and shifted his hands on the steering wheel. His normal commute took ten minutes, but he had been on the road now for more than forty and the hospital was only just coming into view. No sooner had the emergency crews cleared the worst of the storm debris than the public had found it necessary to run out for the emergency supplies they had failed to stock before the storm, or merely to gawk at those less fortunate. It made him rather wish that he had access to the helicopter that was currently perched on the roof of the parking garage. Not that he needed it to finish getting to work, but perhaps to send it out in quest of a case or two of surgical sponges.
He turned the corner of the building and saw that there were several news vans sitting outside the main entrance. “Nora, what’s going on with all the tv news? Was there another disaster?”
“Didn’t you listen to the news?”
“Only the traffic report.”
“Then you don’t know that Tony Stark’s boyfriend is on the orthopaedic ward?”
“I didn’t even know Tony Stark had a boyfriend,” Clarence managed to say, thereby keeping his reputation for unflappability intact. And then, because you didn’t become the head of a teaching hospital’s surgical department for being a slowtop, he kept going. “But if that’s Stark’s helicopter, then I’d like to speak to him.”
A note to any British readers -- if I've got any of the medical staff's titles wrong, please feel free to let me know. Internet research only goes so far!
Natasha registered the change in the bustling movements of the overcrowded corridor before Pepper, who was patiently working her magic on the hospital’s CEO. Reginald Exeter was clearly torn between the desire to see his hospital praised on international television and the awareness of just how much of a cockup it would look like to the world if anything went wrong. He’d retreated to the visiting hours rules (no more than two people at a time) in desperation when facing the press, and now he was trying to find a way to gracefully overturn those same rules for the head of Stark Industries and her coterie of dangerous friends without looking like a hypocrite. Pepper could handle him. Natasha turned, angling herself between the corridor and Pepper without bothering to be subtle.
The center of the approaching fuss was a short, stocky man with a tonsure of white hair, dressed in shirtsleeves and rumpled slacks. One of the on duty nurses was pacing him as best she could as he waded through the importunings of the journalists who were using him as cover to get closer to Pepper. At home, Natasha could have put a bullet into the ceiling to call for quiet and order, but not in a hospital. She raised her chin, and called, “Gentlemen!” in a voice meant to carry.
It wasn’t perfect, but it worked well enough. The journalists -- whom she had already glared into confusion when they’d arrived -- slowed to a stop while the stocky man plowed on. He stopped in front of Natasha. “Miss Romanova, is it? I need to speak to Mr. Stark or Miss Potts. It’s a matter of urgency.”
Behind her, she felt more than saw Exeter heave a sigh of relief. “Ah, Clarence! Miss Potts, this is Professor Ellison, our most experienced orthopedic surgeon. He’s just coming on shift, but I’m sure that if you’ll give him a few moments...”
Pepper waved him silent. “You said a matter of urgency?” she said, taking a half step, but leaving Natasha between herself and a potential aggressor. Natasha approved. Their practice sessions had paid off.
“The helicopter, is it yours? I need it,” Ellison said imperiously. Natasha could believe he was a senior surgeon, He certainly had the arrogance to be one, and by the deference he was getting from the Exeter, most likely the competence as well. Too bad he seemed to be in a hurry to leave.
“It’s from a company in Bristol,” Pepper said, slanting a thoughtful look in the direction of the parking lot, even though Natasha knew perfectly well that the helicopter was out of sight from here. “We only hired it to get here, but I can try to arrange for you to use it. The pilot mentioned having supper in your cafeteria. Where did you need to go?”
Ellison shook his head. “I need to be here. But someone needs to track down our sponges.”
Natasha blinked. She was pretty sure Pepper did too.
Pepper called Bristol, and discovered that the helicopter she wanted to divert was already booked for its next flight. She thanked the proprietor of the company anyway, reassuring him that Stark Industries appreciated the service they’d already received, and would certainly use that company again before hanging up. She was about to contact JARVIS for a list of alternatives when she saw Thor’s hair approaching over the top of the unfortunately undiscouraged clot of press people. She smiled. “There’s your aerial recon,” she told Dr. Ellison.
The surgeon turned to follow her gaze and raised a bristly eyebrow. “And to think that I have always protested ‘deus ex machina’ solutions,” he murmured, watching as the reporters squeaked the moment they noticed the Asgardian looming behind them.
Most of them scuttled back, revealing Bruce pushing Tony in a wheelchair as Happy and Thor blocked access to him from the sides. Thor looked cheerful, Happy looked stoic, Bruce looked like he wanted to be somewhere else. Tony, who had taken the time to dress in something respectable and was wearing his best fuck-you-I’m-Tony-Stark smirk, had one neatly bandaged foot propped up in front of him, and Pepper at least could see that he was stressed out.
Most of the reporters waffled nervously, unlike their New York counterparts who were pretty much inured to the presence of Avengers. But one older man, stauncher than the rest, tapped his cameraman and stepped forward. “Mr. Stark, Lord Thor, it’s a pleasure to see you again,” he said, in a smooth voice, and Pepper belatedly recognized him as the reporter who had been at Fitton all night. He looked different unencumbered by rain gear. Barrow. That was his name. Andrew Barrow.
Tony, to Pepper's surprise, lit up with a more genuine smile, “Drew!” he exclaimed. “Haven’t you crawled back to your cave for some sleep yet? What brings you here? I thought you said you had enough material for a month.”
“I’m flooded out,” Barrow said, his equanimity undisturbed. “At least for a few days. The storm dropped so much water every river in the midlands has burst its banks.” He gestured in a general way at their surroundings. “My best chance for a cuppa turned out to be here. And apparently there’s a Dr. Bastion. who’s been dropping hints about a press conference on your boyfriend.”
Pepper looked over to Reginald Exeter, to see if the hospital’s CEO’s equanimity was equally intact. It didn’t look like it. “Did you authorize a press conference?” she asked, quietly.
“No,” he said firmly. “No, I didn’t.” He ran a hand through his hair and stepped forward.
Of course there was a press conference. There had to be a press conference, if for no other reason than to make the majority of the reporters too busy writing up their notes to ask more questions. Bruce was doing his best not to pay too much attention to the non-medical questions from the reporters. It would only make him lose his temper, and that never went well, even if he did manage to keep a rein on the Other Guy. He wanted to get Tony to X-ray, because he was pretty sure there was a broken bone in that foot, and then he wanted to take Dr. Bastian aside and ... no... that wouldn’t go well either. And he couldn’t depend on Thor to keep the Other Guy in line, because Thor was gone on Sponge Quest.
For a moment, Bruce’s thoughts went back to the mental image of Thor accepting the task of searching out the supply truck to Dr. Ellison. The Asgardian hadn’t gone down on one knee to vow that he would succeed in his mission, but he hadn’t come much short of it. And not one person had laughed, although Bruce was biting back a smile now. He never could tell why Thor’s grandiose gestures didn’t come off as completely ludicrous. Maybe it was the cape.
“Bruce,” Natasha murmured from somewhere near his elbow, and he tipped his head briefly toward her to show that he was listening. “Head up to the Orthopedics Ward and check on Martin.” She passed a slip of paper into Bruce’s hand.
“What about Tony’s foot?” Bruce murmured back.
“Happy’s got it.”
Bruce glanced over to the burly man who was parked in bodyguard mode beside Tony’s wheelchair. Happy wasn’t the swiftest thinker around, but he’d known Tony longer than anyone except Rhodey, and was one of the few people Tony would listen to when he was thoroughly drunk. Bruce wasn’t sure that Tony’s present state of pain and worry was equivalent, but he could trust Happy to be more concerned about Tony’s welfare than Tony was himself. He’d get Tony to the imaging department, all right, but that wouldn’t help without a doctor’s intervention. Bruce leaned over to Natasha, not bothering to disguise the conversation now since he was about to step away. “Get Ellison to order an x-ray before Tony weasels out of it.”
She nodded, and Bruce ceded his place to her, heading toward the door. He scowled at the one reporter who seemed inclined to follow him, and she backed away hastily, reminding him of the way that Martin had flinched the first time they met. His hand closed into a fist, but he caught himself back and made it relax again by the time he reached the elevator. It shouldn’t really bother him that people were afraid that he might transform. He wasn’t fond of the possibility either. And he really didn’t want to alarm Martin.
Bruce ran a hand over his face and did a couple of deep breathing exercises as the elevator climbed. He wasn’t the worst possible choice to act as Tony’s envoy to Martin, he reminded himself; at least he understood the medical aspects. But he really didn’t think that Martin would be glad to see him.
Martin heard his mum talking to someone, and dragged himself back to consciousness in anticipation of yet another round of being poked at. But when he did manage to open his eyes, he was so glad to see Bruce Banner lean in around the curtain by the bed that the part of his brain that usually fussed about potential danger found itself waving uselessly through the fog of the pain meds. “Bruce!” Martin said, his smile more than a little loopy. “I mean, Dr. Banner!” He squinted, trying to see past his visitor. “Where’s Tony?”
“He’s downstairs,” Banner said, coming the rest of the way into the alcove with a bemused expression. “But he’ll be up once they’ve seen to his foot.”
Martin blinked and thought for a moment. “He got hurt,” he said, when he was sure he’d remembered it right. He frowned. “Because of me.” Because Tony had gone to get ... someone... instead of sleeping.
“He got hurt because he overextended himself and dropped the suit on his foot.” The Avenger’s expression was wry. “He isn’t always all that graceful when he’s tired.”
“Or drunk.” Martin added, because it was true. Tony got a little sloppy when he’d had a lot to drink. Not that he’d ever been totally wasted when he was with Martin, but Martin had seen the videos. Only saying so wasn’t really discreet. Martin put his hand over his mouth. “Don’t tell him I said that.”
Bruce Banner’s smile got a little more genuine. “I won’t.” He came over to examine the machines by Martin’s bed. “How are you feeling?”
“Badly. I mean.” Martin closed his eyes and tried waving his hand around to see if it would help him find the words. “I mean I can’t feel.” He opened his eyes and pointed at the IV. “That stuff. That stuff is. In the way.”
“I’m afraid he’s not in any condition for a conversation,” said Martin’s mum, and Martin realized that she’d come into the alcove too and was standing by the bed.
“Hi Mum,” he said, and then remembered his manners. “Mum, this is Tony’s friend. Dr. Hulk. I mean Bruce. Banner. He makes good curry.” Talking was hard. But he needed to reassure Mum before he fell asleep again. “He’s not scary when he isn’t green.”
Wendy knew that at some point she would have to sit down with the internet and find out just why Martin had been trying so hard to reassure her about Dr. Banner, but until then she was more than content to be grateful for his presence. He was such a sweet man! And so very kind. Why, one of the first things he’d done was see to it that Geedi would go and get a proper supper, and Wendy hadn’t been able to convince that young man to do more than dart down the hallway to a vending machine for a packet of crisps and some chocolate. Then he’d sat down with her to explain, in a much clearer fashion than the other doctor had, just what to expect when the new surgeon came up to see to Martin’s leg.
Well, what to expect from the new surgeon, at least. He didn’t think to warn her that the long frustrating hours of waiting while poor Martin drifted in and out of consciousness were about to come to a confusing, noisy end. He did stay with her, though, which she appreciated while meeting in short order the new, rather cranky surgeon, the tall, unmistakably intimidating CEO of Stark Industries, the rumpled, rather intimidated CEO of the hospital, a brisk young woman who was almost certainly incapable of being intimidated, and somewhat behind the rest a demigod with a broad grin carrying a large cardboard carton of full of surgical sponges.
It all made for a crowded cubicle and complicated conversations; so much so that Wendy couldn’t really hear what Martin was saying to the surgeon. Presumably he was giving permission for the surgery, because no sooner had the surgeon departed (with Thor and his box of sponges in tow), than one of the nurses turned up and began to make arcane preparations around the bed. Wendy patted Dr. Banner’s hand to get his attention, and then took a firm hold of his arm. “We’re going to need to go with Martin,” she said. “Would you mind asking one of your friends to tell Geedi where we’ve gone? I shouldn’t want him to worry.”
Author’s note. Yes, I have been stuck on this. Yes, it is because I wasn’t sure what to do about breaking Tony’s foot. I have now broken my own foot (not a research method I would recommend) and I have entirely NEW OPINIONS about what constitutes handicapped accessibility!
There were several people in line before them in the X-ray department. And the X-ray technician was a kid, who had made the effort to look older by putting on a button down shirt and tie, even though his labcoat hung awkwardly over wrinkled slacks and slowly disintegrating sneakers. He’d actually squeaked and dropped the papers in his hand when he realized who had come into the waiting room, too, although he’d recovered enough to remember that he was halfway through taking an earlier patient through to the test room.
“Kid’s so wet behind the ears that necktie’s going to need a raincoat,” Happy’s old man would have growled, so Happy passed the observation along to the Boss to distract him while they waited for their turn. It worked, too, because Tony’s mouth untwisted a little.
“Everybody’s got to learn sometime,” Tony said, and if his shoulders were still too high and his knuckles were still white from how hard he was hanging onto the arms of the wheelchair at least his voice sounded right. “Been a while since I had to deal with amateur night, though.”
Happy nodded. Being as rich as he was, Tony Stark usually commanded the best, whether or not it was convenient for anyone else. But chances were good that in this instance the kid was the best available. “It ain’t like you and me don’t know what comes next, Boss,” Happy reminded Tony. “We’ve busted a few bones between us.”
That got him a rueful shrug and an actual smile. “True.” Tony glanced up at him. “Can’t be worse than that time at Rammstein, right?”
Happy snorted. “Don’t think we’ll need Colonel Rhodes this time, Boss.” Rhodey’s intervention had been timely back then though. The x-ray tech at Rammstein base had turned out to be the guy Tony had busted his hand on the night before in a bar fight.
“Mum, Mum, that’s Iron Man,” the shortest person in the room announced, before breaking free of a parental grip and coming over to stand in front of Tony’s wheelchair. “Hi, Iron Man. I’m Adrian. Did you get hurt fighting monsters? I got hurt too. See?”
“Now that’s wet behind the ears,” Tony murmured to Happy before leaning forward to talk to the child. “Hi, Adrian.”
Happy listened with half an ear as Tony let himself be drawn into a conversation with a five year old with a possibly broken wrist. None of the adults were taking notes or movies, so that was okay. And it was a good distraction. Tony was good with other people -- even little ones -- when he wanted to be. He had actually let go of the arm of the chair and some of the tension in his shoulders was actually easing off. Give him a couple of minutes and he’d probably have everyone in the room telling him what had happened to put them there and never once explain what he’d done to himself. With any luck Happy wouldn’t even need the flask in his inner pocket.
Now they just had to wait.
In his head, Tony knew that there was no help for it; because some of the people in the waiting room outside x-ray had had even worse days than he had. Adrian had been trying to get a cat out of a tree by climbing after it, but most of the injuries were storm related, from falls or being fallen upon when a river had come up in the kitchen or a road had disappeared beneath a slurry of mud. One older lady had walked to the hospital, because she’d lost her phone in the mud when she’d fallen, and had spent the trip trying to decide if her elbow or her shoulder hurt the most. “It never occurred to me that I could pop into a shop and ask to use theirs,” she admitted cheerfully, which Tony suspected had more to do with shock than any lack of common sense.
These were the low priority people, the walking wounded, who had seen themselves bumped to the back of the line again and again as johnny-come-lately arrivals had bled their way to the front. They had reason to be wary of Tony, even if his presence was a distraction from their own hurts. So he waved off Junior Tech Man’s half-hearted offer to bump him to the front of the line, and tried not to resent it when Junior Tech Man accepted the wave-off and took Adrian back to the exam room instead.
“Thank you,” Adrian’s father said, as he gathered up the family’s clutter to follow his wife and child. “We’ve been here since this morning, and you talking to him has made him happier than he’s been all day.”
Tony shrugged. “No problem.” He was used to little kids thinking that Iron Man was cool, although their parents were generally a lot more hesitant about letting them talk to Tony Stark. Then he thought of an easy thing that Martin would probably like when he told him about Adrian. “Hey, do you mind if I send him a get well card? Hero to hero? I mean, it sounds like his heart’s in the right place if he was trying to rescue a cat.”
Adrian’s father lit up, but hesitated. “I’m not sure I should encourage him.”
“I’ll remind him that smart heroes bring their teams along when they rescue people,” Tony said, and when the man’s body language relaxed at the offer added, “Just give the details to Happy.” That would work, and Pepper would be good at finding the right sort of way to say things to a kid that young. And he could send him some Legos. Keep the kid out of trouble for a while.
Tony opened the eyes he didn’t remember closing and looked over at the frumpy little woman who was studying him from behind thick glasses. Her hands were resting on the top of a cane, and her right foot was encased in a plastic boot secured with velcro straps. “Yeah?”
“You may take my place in the queue, if you like.” She raised her chin, which might have looked like defiance if it weren’t for the double chin wobbling underneath it. “I’m here for a follow-up examination, and my foot is nearly healed. Unlike the rest of you,” her gaze flitted around the room. “I am in very little pain, and I can wait.”
“I shouldn’t take you up on that,” Tony said slowly, as he tried to estimate how pissed off the other people in the waiting area would be if he did. “But I really want to get upstairs to see my boyfriend.”
Douglas resented the fact that the words had slipped out, but it was too late to take them back.
“Oh, well done!” Arthur said, twisting around to observe the car pulled off onto the layby on the far side of the motorway. “I hadn’t seen that one yet! Yellow car!”
“You hadn’t seen it,” Douglas ground out between his teeth, “because you were watching the road. At least I hope that’s what you were doing. You are watching the road, Arthur?”
“Of course I am,” Arthur said blithely, turning back to face front. “I always watch the road when I’m driving. And the other cars too, so I always see the yellow ones that are coming towards me. Or the ones that pass me. But it’s nice when there’s someone else along to see the yellow cars I might miss because they’re not in the direction I’m going.”
“Well, I won’t do it again if you don’t trust me enough to not look around,” Douglas grumbled. He pinched the bridge of his nose, willing the headache that had never entirely receded to go to low ebb again. “I’ve spent enough time in hospital today.”
He sensed, rather than saw, Arthur cocking his head in confusion. “Then why are we going to another hospital?”
“Because that’s where Tony Stark is likely to be,” Douglas said. “And I need to talk to him.”
“I have his number on my mobile,” Arthur offered. “I expect someone’s found it by now.”
Douglas didn’t sigh. That would have been the sort of thing Martin would do, in spite of knowing that Arthur was so very Arthurish, and Douglas had standards, really, that included not doing the sort of thing Martin would do in the face of Arthur’s inevitable if unwarranted optimism. “If I could have saved myself the joy of travelling anywhere except home to my own soft bed today I would have borrowed Carolyn’s mobile. I’m quite certain she has the number. But some things should be discussed in person.”
“What sort of things?”
“Things I’d rather not discuss.”
Arthur bobbed his head as if he understood, which Douglas was fairly certain wasn’t true. “Oh, so that’s why you’re playing yellow car,” the younger man concluded contentedly. “I wondered. Because you don’t need to, usually.”
“Don’t usually need to what?” Douglas said, and he really needed to stop letting words out of his head before they were properly vetted. But there was something which wasn’t as transparent as usual in Arthur’s expression and curiosity got the better of him.
“Don’t usually need to play yellow car.” Arthur’s glance over to him was mercifully brief before his eyes went back to the traffic ahead. “I mean, you don’t usually have things you’re not meant to say because they’ll make people tired of you; and I don’t think your head is always asking questions about things because you already know so many things that are brilliant and you don’t get so lost in what you’re thinking about that you start talking about it, like whether or not cows have dreams and things like that.”
“What has that got to do with yellow cars?” Douglas asked, wondering how much he would regret learning the answer.
Arthur bounced a little on his seat. “Yellow cars are brilliant. And when you see a yellow car and then you say yellow car, then all you’re thinking about is yellow cars and that means you’re not thinking about cows anymore and then you can start thinking about something else like bananas or how nice apples feel. Do you see?”
Douglas gave up and sighed anyway. “Yes, Arthur,” he said, scanning the road for a fresh distraction. “I’m afraid I do.”
“Dr. Ellison, Dr. Wojcikowski has arrived and is in pre-op. She says she’d like another fifteen minutes grace and a cup of coffee before we decide whether to move Captain Crieff into the theatre.”
“Tell her to take whatever time she needs. Thank you, Amari,” Clarence Ellison nodded a dismissal to the nurse who had run the message and shifted his attention back to the array of x-rays on his computer screen. His office was the largest one in the department, but it was still overcrowded. The four junior doctors who had shown up for night shift were clutching their own coffee cups and trying to pretend they were awake, while at least one of the doctors he was about to send home was snoring quietly in the corner. None of the staff who had been on through the day were in any condition to do anything delicate, particularly not his sulking second. “Anything else we should cover before you head home, Gene?” he asked.
Gene Bastion scowled. “Not that I can think of.” Now that he was away from the reporters and the cameras he’d let the performance slip; Ellison could see the way that Bastion was keeping his hands from trembling by closing them into fists, and his shoulders were being held back by a force of will. Which wasn’t surprising, given that the man had just worked two and half hard shifts straight through. Not that Clarence hadn’t done the same before going home to rest, but the younger generation didn’t have the same stamina.
“Then go home and get some sleep,” Ellison said, not unkindly. “You’ve done a yeoman’s work today, Gene. I appreciate how much you’ve accomplished.”
“I’d have done more if my nil by mouth order hadn’t been ignored,” Bastion grumbled. “I can’t believe Exeter authorized retirees to come in and muck about.”
“Well, there’s no harm done,” Ellison said. “And at least this way you won’t have to take the heat if Crieff’s surgery has to be delayed. Tony Stark or no Tony Stark, I’m not going to get pushed into surgery until Doris is happy with his O2 absorption.”
Bastion brightened a little. “Well, if he’s still in the queue by morning, you know I can handle it.”
“Of course you can,” Ellison said. And he meant it, too. Gene was a perfectly competent surgeon when his ego wasn’t getting in his way. He clapped a hand on the younger man’s shoulder and nudged him toward the door. “Now go get some food and rest. We’ll start figuring out how to get ourselves back on schedule in the morning, but for now this will give you a chance to see how the day shift lives. And that goes for anyone else who’s been on swings,” he said, to the rest of the room. “We’ll work our way back to our favorite shifts eventually, but for now the priority is making sure we’ve got enough hands to do the work, and enough of our brains well rested so as to catch minor errors before they become critical. So drive carefully, and get your sleep in. And if you get home and find out your cellar’s awash, call or send in an email and let us figure out the scheduling here.”
There was a general murmur of agreement, and the departing doctors shuffled out the door. Ellison turned to his remaining staff, the juniors who had only just arrived. “Now go and talk to the nurses before they go off shift. They’ve been with the patients all day, and they’ll know things that didn’t fit into the forms on the computer. If there’s anything that needs to come to my attention, make sure it does, but for the most part tonight I expect we’ll be playing catch up with the cases that could wait. Your patients will be very tired of waiting. Acknowledge that from the start, and it may save you some of the grumbling.” His computer dinged, and he tapped the mouse to bring up the newest message from Radiology. “Truelove, stay a moment,” he added, as he waved the rest out the door.
Ellison did his best not to play favorites with the juniors, but it was hard not to when it came to Becky Truelove. Her great-grandfather had been the man who had removed Ellison’s tonsils when he was a child, her grandfather had delivered a speech on epidemiology two weeks ago at the same rubber chicken dinner where Ellison had presented new developments in joint repair, and her father was head of Ophthalmology at the hospital on the other side of town. He didn’t usually work the same shift with her, because it was difficult to impress someone who’d known you since they were in nappies. But he was glad to have her on hand now. Time to find out if unflappability was an inherited trait.
She unwound her long legs from her chair and came over to look at the new x-ray on his screen. “Jones fracture. Pretty much a textbook illustration, except for these lines here.” She tapped the display. “Impact damage? Looks like something fell on the foot. Too small to change the treatment plan, though.”
Ellison nodded. “How many Jones fractures have you treated and what were the outcomes?”
“Four. Two under immediate supervision and two with the leading strings let out a bit longer. Three have resolved without complications, and one’s required a second round of casting, but the patient is 83, and doesn’t like her greens. Still waiting to see how that turns out.” She leaned back and looked down at him with her head cocked to one side. “Considering that the patient’s boyfriend is in pre-op, you can’t be expecting me to work my feminine wiles on him, so why me?”
“I need someone to distract him. Tell him about your grandfather and the goose, if necessary, but keep him out of my hair until his boyfriend is out of pre-op, and preferably, out of surgery entirely.”
Pepper tucked herself into a corner and took a moment to close her eyes and just breathe. With Thor standing between her and the rest of the wide spot in the corridor that served as a waiting room she had a little privacy. Very little, but it would do until Bruce and Nat got back from coaxing Wendy Crieff into having a bite to eat. She pulled out her phone and tapped her favorite speed dial. After half a ring, she was answered.
“How is he, Happy?”
“Fussing. Foot’s busted, and it’s going to be fun keeping him off it.” Pepper had suspected as much, but she wasn’t looking forward to dealing with Tony on crutches. She was surprised when Happy chuckled. “Doctor Truelove’s giving him the business though.”
“Truelove?” Pepper laughed. “Really?”
“Really,” Happy confirmed. “How’s Captain Crieff?”
“They just took him in to surgery. Dr. Ellison doesn’t think he’s in good enough condition for a three or four hour long procedure, so he’s going to support the bone with pins and a frame until the pneumonia is resolved.” Pepper wasn’t entirely sure of all the medical reasoning, but Bruce had nodded agreement, so it was probably for the best. “He’ll have to have another surgery later.”
Happy made a distinctly unhappy noise. “So we’re going to be stuck here for a while, then.”
Pepper shrugged, even though she knew Happy couldn’t see her. “Probably. Did you have plans?”
“Tickets,” Happy said. “For next Tuesday. And reservations for Alfredo’s after the play.”
Pepper loved Alfredo’s, and Happy knew it, even though it was just one step up from a mom and pop hole in the wall. Not the sort of place even the CEO of Stark Industries could make reservations, which meant Happy had probably recruited someone to hog the big booth at the back until they got there. She tipped her head back against the wall and tried not to think too much about spaghetti carbonara. “Which play?”
“That new musical,” Happy said. “The one with...”
It was Pepper’s turn to groan. “How did you manage that? My tickets aren’t for another three weeks!” And she’d resorted to recruiting JARVIS into helping her find them, too. Negotiating with scalpers didn’t fit into her schedule.
“Oh, I get tickets for everything when they go on sale,” Happy admitted. “Or rather, the boss does, and tosses them at me in case you and me get a chance to go.”
“Does he now?” Pepper wasn’t entirely surprised. She had the feeling Tony was enjoying playing yenta. “And why haven’t you mentioned this before?” She leaned against the wall and smiled to herself as she imagined Happy taking a deep breath while he organized his answer. In a world of snappy comebacks it was nice to have someone who thought a little more deliberately.
She was still waiting when she noticed a disturbance at the other end of the corridor. The hospital security guard who had been tapped to keep away the press until Geedi or Happy could rejoin the party was trying to fend off new arrivals. Which Pepper could have ignored if it weren’t for a familiar face appearing over the man’s shoulder as Arthur Shappey bounced up -- quite literally -- to peer over the guard’s shoulders.
“Thor! Thor! Is Tony here? We’ve got to talk to him!”