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The meeting

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Cassidy has been working for S.H.I.E.L.D. medical for three years and six days. She doesn’t count, only the recent anniversary made her realize that she’s been staying in this madhouse for that long.

She didn’t apply for the job; one day an elegant man in an expensive suit appeared in her hospital in Dallas and asked for a talk.

‘I’m a representative of a Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division. I was informed by your superiors that you possess the qualities we are looking for in our medical staff,’ he said – and that was it.

Cassidy listened carefully to everything the man had to say and was given a week to make a decision. It wasn’t difficult, her family was far away anyway, she didn’t have a boyfriend or even a group of friends in Dallas, and the pay was much better. Besides, the thought of working for one of the most secret agencies in the country made her excited, it was her childhood dream of being a part of something bigger coming true.

Within those three years and six days she has seen a lot of strange things.

Around the time the attack at New York happened and the Avengers came together, Cassidy as sent on a sick leave with a broken leg – joys of working in field – and when she came back after those four months, meeting some of the accident-prone heroes was just a matter of time.

 

 

The coffee is ready, sandwich sitting on her favorite plate and a magazine filled with crossovers is waiting on the table, all ready for a half an hour break, when the Helicarrier’s alarm starts roaring over everyone’s heads. The rooms and corridors are instantly filled with agents rushing out, blue flashing lights meaning attack on the ground, leaving make the crowd look unreal.

Cassidy stands up and rushes back into the sickbay to get her orders from the head doctor; when she enters the room most of the staff is already gone.

‘Agent –’

‘You stay here, Cass,’ her boss, Agent Jones, orders, packing a few scattered items into his field bag. ‘I’ll send you all you need to know when I’m on Quinjet, no time now – we’ve got a pretty hot situation down there, so I’m leaving you alone. People will need as many of us as possible on the ground, you should be okay – I have to go now,’ he adds, putting on a jacket and grabbing his suitcase.

‘Be careful, boss,’ Cassidy says, observing he man from the middle of the room and a few seconds later she is all alone. ‘I guess break’s okay now,’ she mutters to herself and goes back to the small room, leaving the doors open to see if anyone enters the sickbay.

When she’s half done with her sandwich her cell phone buzzes: it’s a message from Jones, just like he said. HYDRA attack, lots of their soldiers around the city, hence the need to have most of the agents down there, and that in addition to some of their gigantic robots that are the Avengers’ job. Cassidy breathes with relief when she reads those words – HYDRA stays on the ground. They never attack the Helicarrier, it’s not their objective, so at least the few dozen agent onboard are a safe.

She drinks her coffee and finishes her food, but she can’t concentrate on the crosswords, glancing at the phone every few seconds to see if there’re any new messages from S.H.I.E.L.D.’s general info system or her boss.

Within the next hour there are a few updates on the fight – still going on, there are more HYDRA’s goons than ever before – and Cassidy goes to the sickbay and starts pacing around the big room, trying to calm her nerves with organizing all the equipment and meds on the tables and counters to look symmetrical. It’s a little OCD, but it helps.

 

 

Another hour passes the same way; the only information Cassidy gets is a twitter-short report of the situation down on the ground, sent to all S.H.I.E.L.D. agents; the fight is still pretty heated, but HYDRA is slowly being dealt with.

Cassidy spends the whole time alone – all the people who are still on the ship have their jobs to do – so when someone walks into the sickbay while she’s organizing gauze packets from the smallest to the biggest in one of drawers, with the door behind her back, she jumps slightly and turns around quickly, almost making her head spin.

There’s a man standing two steps to the right from the doorway, leaning against the wall, breathing heavily, his head down – medium height, muscular, she notes, with brown hair and a goatee –

‘Mister Stark?’ she asks, running up to the man, suddenly forgetting about everything she wanted to ask the superheroes about, it’s definitely not a situation for questions – he doesn’t respond, just keeps taking ragged breaths with an obvious difficulty.

Cassidy is at his side a second later, getting a better look at his face – cyanosis, that’s never any good – she presses her fingers to his neck, noticing easily that his pulse is too quick, his skin cold and clammy, droplets of sweat on his temples and forehead; it all looks as if he was simply suffocating. For a second, Cassidy almost panics: there is no doctor on the ship, since everyone in danger is supposed to be down in the city, she’s alone and she’s just a nurse and she doesn’t even have that much experience, only eight years and that’s nothing – but then she shakes her head, takes a deep breath and almost drags the man to one of the examination beds.

If she doesn’t get her act together and behave professionally, there’ll be no one to do it for her.

Cassidy pulls the bed’s back up so that Stark can sit upright and when she’s doing that, moving as quickly as possible, he looks up at her, his eyes glossy and unfocused, and shows her a zero and then two fingers – she understands immediately.

‘Just a second, I need to make sure you won’t slump down onto your back, it’d make breathing more difficult – that’s standard treatment, of course, good, no that you’re seated I will give this to you –’ she stops for a seconds, grabbing an oxygen mask, putting it on his face and putting the elastic around his head so that the mask won’t slide down, she doesn’t trust him to hold it. ‘Okay, perfect, now try steady, even breathes while I do the rest,’ she adds, quickly putting an oximeter on his finger and looking at the numbers, too low, but at least not dropping down.

Time to take another breath; she wishes he could tell her what the hell has happened and why is he here instead of in one of the city’s hospitals, but asking for an explanation from someone who is barely breathing is a very bad idea.

‘Mister Stark, there isn’t anything blocking the air flow, right? No objects? I need you to focus, I need to know this –’

He shakes his head for no and Cassidy feels a wave of relief, but that’s just the beginning, it only makes things easier for her since she won’t have to perform an unprofessional surgery of some kind.

Then, suddenly, Stark stops breathing and Cassidy’s heart starts beating frantically.

‘Mister Stark? Are you with me?’ she asks, looking at the number on the screen, they’re dangerously low and if it continues like that, there’ll be tissue and organ damage and she won’t let that happen. ‘Mister Stark!’ she adds, almost shouting, shaking his shoulders a little – he opens his eyes, that’s good, and takes a deep, hungry breath, and then another and another, as if even the pure oxygen in his lungs didn’t do much.

Cassidy’s eyes are between his still bluish sweaty face and the monitor, the numbers are stabilized but still much too low.

‘I may need to perform CPR in case you stop breathing again, Mister Stark, so please do your best not to –’ she starts when suddenly, he grabs her hand so tightly that it’ll leave bruises and stares straight into her eyes, looking frantic, and then taps his chest with his other hand – and Cassidy remember that yes, he has the shining device embedded into his chest.

Fuck. That – that makes everything complicated.

‘Is that what’s causing the asphyxia?’ she asks and he relaxes a tiny bit, closing his eyes but keeping to breathe pretty steadily. Saturation numbers are slowly, almost invisibly climbing, much slower than Cassidy would like, but it’s a start.

He nods for yes, looking dizzy and disoriented, but it’s not surprising. It’s a miracle he managed to get to the sickbay in this state.

‘I need a quick look at your medical file,’ she tells him and takes out her phone, typing a quick request with her eyes fixed on him and the monitor. It will be approved, regardless her clearance level; her unit has an emergency status so all request all approved automatically. There it is.

Okay – chest x-rays, good, she pulls on up and stares for a few seconds before scrolling to the next one and he next, all showing he device embedded in Stark’s chest – no wonder he doesn’t want CPR, it’d kill him – then there’s what she needs, proceeding instructions, something that always accompanies medical files of anyone with special needs. Shrapnel pieces near his heart, the reactor going three inches deep into his chest, 3 inches diameter, replacing some of his sternum and ribs, moving the lungs to sides and squeezing them inside his ribcage – how the hell does the man even live normally, not to mention all his work and being an Avenger, Cassidy wonders, he shouldn’t be able to – ah. So Stark’s normal blood oxygen level seems to be in low nineties, according to the chart, which means his current numbers are not as low as she’s feared when she’s been comparing them to the standard numbers. Occasional short breathes. Slightly elevated blood pressure, the organism trying to deliver enough oxygen to all the cells. Chronic headaches. Pain.

Cassidy looks at the data again, and then at the man – his breaths now less irregular and much calmer – and blinks a few times. She’d never suspect any of this, looking at what everyone is allowed to see, Tony Stark in his expensive suits, flashing smiles, charming crowds, never letting a grimace on his face – and she’d never expect him to be quite so honest with the medical. Most of the agents, the Avengers, too, from what she’s heard, try to keep up their macho acts and don’t tell the whole truth. Agent Barton is the best example, Cassidy has known him for some time and boy, he’s a pain in the ass. One time he walked on a broken foot for hours before Agent Coulson managed to drag him to the sickbay to get it looked at.

‘I’ll hook you up to an ECG now,’ she tells Stark, noting the black tight suit he’s wearing, probably some kind of a special fabric to wear under his armor. ‘And I’ll give you some fluids via an IV, do you understand?’ she asks, walking up to him. He looks at her with his brown eyes,  more lucid now, and nods. ‘Is there anything else I can do for you?’

A shake for no. Okay then, it’s just a confirmation of what’s in the man’s file.

Cassidy works quickly and efficiently for the next few minutes, taking off the top of Stark’s undersuit – he doesn’t protest – placing the ECG leads in all necessary places and turning the machine on. When everything seems to be okay, the oxygen levels climbing a little, she nods to herself and gets the IV bag. It takes a second to get the cannula ready in his arm and the IV installed.

‘Are you feeling a bit better?’ she asks him, letting the fluid flow into his veins slowly. Stark’s eyes are closed, but he smiles wearily under the oxygen mask, what Cassidy takes as a yes. A second later she gets a text with the situation update: everything is slowly calming down and should end within one or two hours, but there are quite a few people injured so the medical team might need to stay down there for some more time to make sure all the patients are transported to local hospitals.

A second later she gets a second message with a question: Stark with you?

Yes, she replies. There’s no time or need of more Q&A right now, Stark is stabilized and everything is under control.

‘Your heart is beating pretty fast, Mister Stark,’ she comments, checking on the electrodes just to make sure everything is working fine. He takes a second to breathe deeply, then his hand goes up to the mask to lift it for a moment so that he can speak.

‘Tony,’ he says, his voice rough and weak. She hates to see him like that, but it’s good to see he’s aware of his surroundings. This almost certainly rules out any kind of brain damage.

‘Cassidy,’ she offers her name, smiling a bit tightly; as the adrenaline dissipates, she suddenly realizes that she’ll spend the next few hours in one room with half-naked and exhausted Tony Stark, trying to make sure he doesn’t die of asphyxia in the meantime. It’s not how she was hoping for a meeting with one of the Avengers to be like.

They sit in silence for a few minutes, Cassidy staring at the monitors and thanking heavens for Tony’s body slowly making use of the oxygen pouring into his lungs. His skin is not that clammy anymore, even though it’s still not looking as it should, but that’s going to take a while.

‘Has this happened before?’ she asks. Stark – Tony – looks questioningly at the phone in her hand; she was looking at is just a moment ago. ‘Oh, this – it’s an emergency file only, not the full one. I don’t get all of your medical history, need an appropriate clearance level and access codes for that. It’s only what I need to save your life.’

He nods again, confirming Cassidy’s suspicions; he’s acting much too calm for someone who has never been in such a situation before. Somebody could blame this on exhaustion, but Cassidy has been working at S.H.I.E.L.D. long enough to understand that these people are used to exhaustion. Stark might not be an agent, but he does act like one a lot.

He doesn’t close his eyes, observing the interior with bored half-aware curiosity, taking his time as if he was cataloguing everything he can see in his head. Cassidy has to admit that the place looks much neater than usual, after her cleanup and without any other patients or doctors wandering around – he might be used to a different activity and mess level. She can only imagine how the place must have looked when she way away.

‘Does this happen often?’ she finds herself asking before she can stop the words from coming out of her mouth. There you are, her chatterbox nature just can’t lay low for a day.

‘Define often,’ Stark says and Cassidy gives him a long warning look saying don’t take your mask off, yes, she did ask, but he should know better than to answer, right?

‘For normal people, I’d say once in a lifetime is often, but for someone like you, I’d say once a year?’she replies anyway, quickly adding, ‘don’t take it off again.’

He frowns slightly, apparently wanting to say something more than can’t be expressed with headshakes only, but in the end offers her a simple sharp nod. Cassidy breathes out slowly, wondering how the hell does the man cope with the knowledge that this can happen again, and, as it seems, is likely to happen again – and how can he still insist on being Iron Man.

‘Don’t worry,’ he says quietly.

‘I’m not –’

‘You’re worried,’ he cuts in and Cassidy gives him a sharp annoyed look.

‘Okay, I am, but –’

‘It only happens when someone hits me in the reactor, it moves a bit in my chest, everything is there is… sensitive – and a mess – and creates some swelling and –’

Cassidy is hovering over him in a second, pressing the mask to his face with a scowl.

‘You don’t need to explain me things, especially not now – just keep the mask on, you idiot,’ she states, and then suddenly realizes that she’s just called Tony Stark an idiot and he’ll have her fired or something – but he laughs instead of being angry. Well, it isn’t really a laughter and Cassidy freezes, listening closely to the sound he’s making, it’s something between a hiss and a choke, but she can say he’s trying to laugh under the mask because of the sparkles in his tired eyes.

Okay, mental note, you can call Tony Stark an idiot. That’s an interesting discovery.

Cassidy stares at him firmly when she sees he wants to speak again – his saturation is still so low, the IV is done just in a quarter, at least his heart has calmed down a bit, even if it’s still beating faster than normal – but Tony Stark officially doesn’t do normal.

 

 

When Stark’s, or maybe Tony’s – Cassidy doesn’t think he can just call him by his name all of sudden – oxygen level gets to ninety, it takes an hour, he promptly takes the mask off and takes a deep breath, but doesn’t get off the bed.

‘It’s ninety now – that’s safe, I know that’s safe,’ he says with a tired grin.

‘That doesn’t mean –’

‘It means I’m not gonna drop dead on you now, so you can just go back to whatever you were doing before I roamed in here, I can just sit here and do my breathing by myself –’

‘You came in here with blood oxygen level of seventy-six while anything below ninety is much too low, looking like you were barely aware of where you are, and you’re telling me to leave you alone? You are an idiot if you think I will,’ Cassidy replies fiercely, checking the IV; it’ll be done in a few moments now.

‘Yeah, you know, I’m pretty self-sufficient all the time and I haven’t –’

‘Don’t care,’ she cuts in, standing up and putting arms on her hips. ‘I don’t care if you’re Tony Stark, you’re going to listen to me right now,’ she adds firmly, her voice almost angry.

‘You’re great when you’re all professional,’ he comments; Cassidy agrees internally, but she’s not going to admit that; she would have expected herself to be more… fangirling. But she’s he only person around so she has to be her own boss – and people not obeying her orders have always pissed her off.

‘Put that mask back on,’ she barks and when he does, she disappears into the small backroom to grab her book of crosswords. If he wants to go back to whatever she was doing before, fine. She will.

She checks her phone – no new messages, besides the one from a few minutes before saying that everyone should be back on the carrier in three to four hours, delay because of something that HYDRA did to Quinjet navigation systems that prevents the teams from taking off.

Now they wait.

 

 

‘Thirty-seven down, that’s tungsten,’ he says, putting the mask back in place instantly and grinning slightly. An hour has passed and he’s been well-behaved.

Cassidy looks at him, eyebrows raised, and then back at the crossword: another name for wolfram, eight letters, she has the last one and it is an n.

She writes it down, glancing at the monitors – everything seems fine, the oxygen level seem okay now, but she won’t risk taking him off high percentage oxygen until a doctor who knows more about the man’s case clears him.

Cassidy solves a another half dozen words when suddenly feels a twist of hunger in her guts. The clock on the wall shows it’s almost five, and the only thing she had so far were two sandwiches. Makes sense.

Stark looks like he’s sleeping on the bed, but she can tell he’s just resting still perfectly aware of what’s going on around.

‘I’ll be back in a second, don’t you dare to do anything,’ she tells him, standing up, and walks out of the sickbay. There is a doctors’ room across the hall, with a mini fridge, so she’s quite sure there will be some food she can take – and there is. There are a few people nice enough to bring in more food than necessary, in case something like today happens. She takes two sandwiches and some salad and she grabs two bottles of vitamin shakes that they always keep for long nights and exceptionally stubborn patients, a.k.a. agent Barton.

Walking back into the room, Cassidy notices gladly that Stark is still in his place – oh.

‘Those are mine, the crosswords, you brat, you don’t have to solve my words –’

‘I like to,’ he murmurs, she can barely make out the words because he does it with the mask on. His lips and fingers are still bluish, but he finally looks more like someone who is alive rather than half-dead.

‘You eat everything?’ she asks, sighing, and dumps all the food on the nearby desk.

‘Huh?’

‘Can you eat everything?’

‘Don’t eat strawberries,’ he answers, still scribbling something frantically.

‘Why?’ Cassidy asks, walking up to him and taking the pen and the magazine out of his hands, making sure the oximeter is fine. ‘You’re not allergic –’

‘Mental trauma,’ he replies, sounding perfectly serious. ‘Brings back bad memories, you know, the worst kind – and omelets. Could live without them.’

‘Fine then,’ she says, starting to remove the ECG electrodes; everything’s been fine for the last hour, so it doesn’t seem like he still needs them. ‘You can have the mask off for a few minutes. Eat,’ she adds when she’s done with unplugging him and she throws a turkey sandwich at him. He’s favoring his right side, she notices as he moves to catch the package: that’s only expected given the impressive bruises forming on the left side of his chest and hip.

‘Thanks,’ he says and bites in. Cassidy takes her sandwich and looks at the crossover – he managed to fill half of the medium sized one while she was gone for two minutes. Impressive.

‘I’ll keep you here until the med team comes back, so that a doctor can have a proper look at you,’ she offers when she’s done with her sandwich. She points at the salad, but Stark shakes his head for no. ‘Drink this. Will do you good,’ she adds, this time walking up to him and handing him the bottle.

He doesn’t take it, just stares at her hands for a moment and then looks at his lap. Cassidy waits for a long moment, but when it becomes obvious that he won’t take it, she drops the bottle onto his lap. Stark picks it up a second later. She doesn’t’ mind, whatever works. She’s seen stranger things.

‘So, as long as this is off,’ he starts, pointing at the mask while Cassidy automatically glances at the oxidation level monitor: it’s dropped by half percent since he took the mask off, but the  numbers are better than his normal ones, so the current situation is great, all thing considered. ‘Can I explain?’

‘Explain?’ she repeats, crossing her legs and putting the pen away.

‘From before. You asked me. You were worried.’

‘About you not breathing –’

‘Happened a few times,’ he says, sounding a bit distant. ‘Five, I think. In two years,’ Cassidy gasps, but he ignores her. ‘This was almost the worst, I normally have a system in the suit that gives me almost pure oxygen inside the helmet and it’s fine until I can get to a doctor safely, but one of those HYDRA good disabled my systems for a sec and when they were back online, I couldn’t get the suit to filter the oxygen for me, so you know. Not good. And I was in the air, so getting here at top speed was faster than getting to a hospital on the ground without crashing, and then trying to explain why exactly am I suffocating.’

‘Why are you telling me all of this?’ Cassidy questions, a bit distrustfully; people don’t share, at least not until someone is asking. And she certainly hasn’t expected the honesty or the patient waiting instead of trying to run away to join the fight from Iron Man himself.

‘You helped me. Saved my life here. And lying to your doctor never ends well. Been there, tried that –’

‘I’m not a doctor.’

‘You’re as good as one,’ he offers, with a smile, somehow managing to look dashing and make Cassidy blush even being all sweaty, with messed up hair and still blue lips.

‘You’re such a charmer, Mister Stark –’

Tony.’

‘– Tony, but it won’t work on me.’

‘That’s okay, because there is someone –’

‘I didn’t mean that,’ she smirks and shakes her head. ‘Mask on, mister.’

‘Can I just put it to my mouth to draw a breath or two and still talk? It’s boring, not talking, and you won’t like me when I’m really bored, I try to be nice but it’s difficult, my brain just won’t stop –’

‘It will if you deprive it of the necessary oxygen,’ she cuts in. But okay. ‘I think you can, as long as you breathe more than you talk. Your monologues are pretty legendary around here,’ she allows, observing his reaction. He quirks his lips slightly and leans back to find a comfortable position.

‘You seem relaxed,’ Cassidy voices what she was thinking earlier. ‘For someone who’s been hardly breathing for, I assume, several minutes.’

‘Yeah. I feel safe,’ he offers, making her brows furrow. ‘You know, everyone expects me to hate hospitals, I get it, but I don’t hate them – doctors saved my life several times, so despite all the bad memories, my overall experience is positive. I mean, it’s nice to be alive instead of dying. Been there, too, so I know. I’m glad I’ve got you people to count on –’

‘So you trust S.H.I.E.L.D.?’

‘Not completely, but I know you want to do more good than bad – and honestly, whom should I trust with this,’ he taps the blue light in his chest, ‘inside my body?’

‘You’re being pretty open,’ Cassidy comments, trying to remember anyone else who told her they liked hospitals, but she doesn’t think there’s been anyone.

‘Well, everyone with half brain could put that together, if they look me up – especially here. You all know Howard was a dick. I liked that in a hospital everyone’s attention was honestly focused on me, on my well-being. It was nice, someone taking care of you when you’re a kid – but no, I don’t have Münchausen or anything – I’ve just always associates hospital more with a place where they want to help you and save your life rather than the other way round – and I do like the smell.’

‘Antiseptic?’

‘Yeah. What can I say, my buddy likes the scent of petrol, everyone has their thing.’

Cassidy smirks, she knows a few of those people. She herself enjoys the scent of fresh paint more than she probably should. 

‘How about we get you some painkiller? You can tell me what works best for you or I can check in your file –’

‘Don’t need,’ he cuts in, rubbing his eyes. He’s exhausted, Cassidy can tell, but still perfectly alert.

‘Your side is purple,’ Cassidy points out, looking at the info she has in the phone and nodding to herself. ‘I’ve got you stabilized here, so little painkillers won’t do any damage.’

‘… I don’t want,’ he says, quieter this time. Cassidy frowns.

‘Why?’

Because.’

‘You’re going to have to give me a reason if you don’t want me to force-feed them to you,’ she states, shaking her head. He must be in pain, Cassidy knows, given the state of his side. He doesn’t appear to have internal bleeding – she’s checked – or fractured bones, but his side is one big bruise and she can’t just let him be in pain like that when she can help him.

‘That’s not in my chart,’ he says finally, not looking at her. ‘I know they listed something, but I don’t take painkillers unless the pain is unbearable –’

‘Bur that’s inhuman –

‘That’s what I want,’ he says, staring somewhere behind her, his eyes unfocused. His hands move unconsciously towards the blue light in his chest. Cassidy notices that and suddenly everything clicks.

‘You tried –’

‘I tried to get rid of the constant ache, yes. It’s not that bad then you get used to it, but at the beginning, I thought I could… yeah. Just get rid of it. It didn’t end well.’

‘You built up a tolerance,’ Cassidy guesses, sitting down at the edge of the bed and fixing her eyes on the blue light seeping between his fingers. ‘And you took more and more.’

‘My father was an alcoholic,’ he whispers, and Cassidy suddenly feels like someone else should be here in her place, someone that’s known the man for longer than a few hours, maybe one of his friends, but he doesn’t seem to think the same. ‘I was that, too, pretty much. Almost. Then I got my act together, toned down, pretended more often than not, all the jazz – you remember Afghanistan, right?’ Cassidy nods, even though he’s staring at his lap and doesn’t notice. ‘I had a few bad months afterwards, forgetting that what I’ve been through before is still inside me and never goes away. Once an addict, always an addict, whatever your drug might be, so… I don’t really do painkillers.’

Cassidy sits there, without moving, for a few moments, and then delicately peels his hands off the reactor and takes them in hers. He is so cold.

‘Let me put a bruise cream on them, at least, all right? You lay down, breathe some oxygen, I want to make sure everything’s fine and I apply some cream.’

‘Okay,’ he agrees, putting the mask back on obediently. If he trusts doctors to take care of him, Cassidy vows to do everything she can.

‘Sorry for all the heavy stuff, but your fault you’re getting confessions,’ he says softly when she comes back with a small tub of the cream in her hands. ‘You got me high on oxygen here.’

Cassidy smirks, pulling a chair next to his bed and rolling up he sleeves of her shirt before she starts applying the cream as carefully as she can.

Tony soon falls asleep. Cassidy continues until all he bruised area is covered with the ointment, and then she tiptoes back to her desk and continues doing her crossword, glancing at Tony’s chest raising and falling after each word.

 

 

He wakes up with a start less than half an hour later, sitting up abruptly and wincing from the pain, looking around in search of something familiar. Cassidy jumps of her chair and runs up to the bed and wraps her hands around his wrists.

‘Tony, calm down, you’re fine – don’t take the mask off, it’s helping you, it’s making your breathing easier – you’re in S.H.I.E.L.D. sickbay, remember? Just you and me,’ she keeps talking as Tony calms down, his eyes getting more focused and his breathes slowing down, until he slumps back onto the bed. Cassidy lets go of him and he takes the mask off and covers his face with his cold hands.

She stops, wondering if she should ask what he was dreaming about, because it’s obvious that he’s been woken up by a nightmare, but in the end she decides against it.

Sleeping pills are certainly out of question, too. Everything about him is complicated.

‘Hey, Iron Man,’ she says in the end, pushing his legs to the side of the bed and sitting more comfortably. Tony lets his hands fall to his sides, but keeps his head low. ‘This is between you and me, all right? You’re fine. We’re fine. I’m not telling anyone,’ she assures him, knowing that that’s what most people would be afraid of, and he confirms her feeling.

‘I wanted to ask you,’ he murmurs, running one of his fingers around the reactor’s casing, tracing its smooth edge. ‘Don’t tell my team.’

‘Don’t –?’

‘They don’t know,’ he continues, sounding almost shy, something she’d never expect to hear from the man. ‘Doctors know. The team doesn’t have to.’

‘You don’t trust them?’ Cassidy asks, frowning slightly. They’ve been a team for a few months now, right? They should have each other’s backs –

‘No, I do, but – they’d be worried. They’d want me off the team.’

‘But you don’t want to stop.’

‘This is the best thing I have right now,’ he admits, looking up at her. ‘I don’t want them to see me as weak.’

Cassidy can suddenly feel this strange warm feeling in her gut, it’s not exactly pity and not exactly admiration, but it’s something in between. She knows that he’s been trying to atone for his times as the Merchant of Death, everyone knows that, but he’s done enough by now –and that’s exactly what she tells him.

‘I haven’t,’ he insists. ‘I don’t mind being hurt –’

‘That’s not normal.’

‘Don’t psychoanalyze me –’

‘Hey,’ she cuts in, keeping her voice warm and encouraging. ‘I’m a nurse, not a psychologist. I – I just don’t want my patients to be in pain.’

‘I won’t give up being Iron Man, even if this is the price,’ he explains, waving at his chest and side and lifting up his finger with the oximeter. ‘I don’t want them to know.’

‘I won’t tell anyone but your doctor,’ Cassidy swears, even if she wishes he would share with someone: it’s difficult to bear any kind of burden by yourself. And Tony, as it turns out, is a perfectly normal and kind guy and he deserves to have someone who understands.

 ‘Thanks,’ he says and takes the mask obediently. He’s getting forty percent oxygen right not, just to maintain good levels to let his body recuperate. ‘I like you,’ he adds, finally looking at her, and putting the mask on. Cassidy smiles.

‘I like you too, Tony,’ she offers, gets of the bed to grab her magazine and a pen, and waves the crossword at him. Tony nods and they’re instantly lost in a maze of words.

 

 

That’s how Jones finds them when the teams are finally back. Tony has a blanket wrapped around his back now, half of his torso sticky with a second layer of the bruise cream.

They almost managed to finish all the crosswords. Cassidy found out he’s absolutely terrible at guessing people’s names, celebrities or singers or actors are not his thing, while he’s prefect at anything science-related and all the out-of-use words. Cassidy revealed her fascination for geography and weakness in sayings and maxims.

‘You didn’t reply to my last message,’ Jones says as soon as he’s in the room, looking around to take in the Cassidy-made order. He looks worn out, with slumped shoulders and splatters of blood all over his coat – he takes it off and tosses into a laundry basket in the corner; there tends to be lots of blood stains in S.H.I.E.L.D. jobs, so they are prepared.

‘It was five minutes ago, boss,’ she replies without taking her eyes off the page in front of her. ‘You wrote you’ll be here in five minutes. I figured I’d wait.’

‘Cocky,’ Tony comments, sounding remotely sleepy, but Cassidy’s not surprised; she served him two cups of chamomile tea and it does help the body calm down.

‘Ignorant,’ she shots back, alluding to his lack of interest in the newest gossip. He does use all the pop-culture references and Cassidy doesn’t know how that works. Maybe he’s just pretending he doesn’t know the names. He could be.

‘I’ve got all the data since Mister Stark came in waiting for you in the folder. I still have his on oxygen here, as written, but I wanted someone to look at him before we sent him home.’

‘Perfect,’ Jones murmurs distractedly, already looking at the data Cassidy prepared. ‘It was worse than the previous times, Tony,’ the man says. ‘Anything to share?’

‘JARVIS couldn’t provide me with oxygen in the meantime, so you know. Tough one.’

‘You better make sure it won’t happen again, lad,’ the doctor comments, looking through the ECG printout and humming to himself; from Cassidy’s experience that means everything is good. When he’s done, he grabs a stethoscope and walks up to the examination bed.

‘That’s gonna be the first thing I do,’ Tony says between holding breaths for Jones, Cassidy stands a few steps back, holding Tony’s blanket.

‘Quite a scare, huh?’

‘Not the way I imagined myself dying, no,’ Tony replies cheekily, but Cassidy can tell he’s only half-joking. That’s pretty insane approach, she thinks, but that’s a quintessence of what she’s learned about him within those few hours in one room. He flashes her a smile, looking a bit funny with his a bit too long sweaty hair stuck to his forehead in a few curls.

‘I’ll be nice enough to let you go now, just make sure to sleep with an oxygen mask on thirty percent, just in case, and come back tomorrow for full check-up. Everything seems fine, you lucky bastard, but I want to do some brain tests, just in case. In the meantime you catch some sleep. You need it as much as I do. And – good job in the field.’

‘You too,’ he waves at Jones who disappears in the corridor, probably heading for the showers, and Tony’s eyes are fixed on Cassidy again. ‘So.’

‘So,’ Cassidy repeats, raising an eyebrow and handing him the blanket. He doesn’t take it so she puts it on the bed and final frees his finger of the oximeter. Tony puts it in his mouth and sucks it the way kids do when they get a paper cut.

‘Thanks for, you know, everything in here – it was a pleasure, Cassidy. I’d give you a thank you kiss, but I’m all sweaty and gross. Another time?’

‘I can wait,’ she blurts out, blushing slightly, feeling shy and small all of sudden. ‘I think you can wear this,’ Cassidy says, walking up to one of the cupboards and taking a soft cotton t-shirt out. ‘We keep them for the doctors who get dirty in field, what you can imagine happens all the time –’

‘Thanks,’ he puts it on quickly and runs his hands across his chest, smoothing the soft fabric with obvious content. ‘I’ll give it back –’

‘No need –’

‘– or better, I’ll send you a hundred red ones with Iron Man prints. The design is amazing. You’ll all love them,’ he decides, nodding to himself. Cassidy has no doubt he will do exactly. ‘Well, I hope to see you again,’ he adds, walking up to the door and putting his hand on the handle.

‘I hope not to see you again. Here,’ Cassidy replies, stressing the words the make the message clear. They both know he’ll end up here sooner or later, honestly, it just has to happen, but she’ll never be happy seeing anyone needing help. ‘I trust you’ll take care –’

‘Regular exercises, yes, a lot of fresh air, oxygen mask at night – I even take care of me diet, you know. Eat lots of antioxidants. I could life on blueberries alone,’ he says, opening the door, shows her a victory sign, and disappears in the corridor.

Cassidy falls to the chair heavily and looks at the clock; she should have been off duty for at least two hours now. She can feel all the tension in her shoulders and back, suddenly making her feel sore and lifeless, but – it’s okay. Tony is well, as well as he can be in his situation, and she managed to do her job.

She takes a few moments to get up from the chair and walk into the small room to grab her bag; she is supposed to catch Nellie on her way out so that Nellie can come and take over.

On her way out, Cassidy gets the magazine with only three crosswords left, and when she’s putting it into her bag she notices something scribbled on the back. It’s easy to recognize Tony’s handwriting: it’s small and neat, with lots of weird swirls, contrary to her square capital letters.

It’s nothing romantic – sorry, but you know I’ve got an eye on someone – but if you wanna grab a coffee the next time you’re on the ground, gimmie a call. T.

The number is written below, followed by ;-). Cassidy smiles back at the piece of paper.

Maybe the meeting didn’t go that bad after all.