Happy Hogan laid deathly pale on a bed in the hospital room, his chest barely rising and falling. Pepper gripped Happy's hand tightly between her own as she sat beside him, her face blotchy with tears. Some women looked pretty when they cried. Pepper just looked broken and sad, and it tore something in Tony to see her that way when she was usually stronger than anybody he knew. Thor, Clint, Natasha, and Bruce had arrayed themselves around the bed and stared down at Happy's still form, waiting. Tony stood frozen in a shadowed corner of the room looking at the scene in front of him, like a shop manikin looking out it's window at the real world and not believing such a world could possibly be real. The monitors began screeching and beeping erratically. Happy's eyes tore open and he yelled agonizingly as his body convulsed, once, twice and then fell still, his eyes glaring in Tony's direction but no longer seeing. Pepper screamed in anguish while the Avenger's turned as one to stare at Tony, their faces accusing. "It's not m-my fault." Tony stuttered, raising his hands as if to ward off a blow, while Bruce quirked an eyebrow.
"Isn't it, though?" Bruce asked, condemning. Tony's hands lowered in defeat and gestured toward Happy's corpse.
"I didn't mean-" Tony began.
"You caused this, intentions are immaterial." Natasha interrupted calmly. Pepper refused to even look at him, entirely ignoring his existence.
"This is all your doing." Thor said, damning.
"What kind of hero kills his friend?" Clint asked conversationally.
"Genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist…murderer. Forgot to add that did you?" Captain America said, before joining the hero's arrayed against him, his figure unapproachable, imposing, and somehow more solid than Tony has ever been.
"You haven't changed at all have you?" A soft voice whispered sadly. Beside him in the corner Yinsen shook his head disappointedly, his face a sheet of blood beneath his broken glasses.
"Yinsen?" Tony asked. Yinsen smiled his small knowing smile but was unforgiving. "I tried." Tony begged them all desperately. A stern male voice echoed cruelly out of the darkness behind him.
"Children try! Are you a man or a child?!" Tony recoiled and then heard Bruce calling for his blood.
"Tony? Tony!" Bruce called. Tony waited for Bruce to turn into Hulk and finally end it all.
"I'm sorr-" Tony started before feeling a hand on his shoulder shaking him. He lifted his head up, before blinking his eyes open. Bright florescent light stabbed deeply into his corneas, as he reoriented himself. Bruce's face swam before him, his contours scrunched up in concern. He held a vendor cup of coffee in the hand not resting on his shoulder. Tony stared blankly up at him for a moment before abruptly hauling off and slapping himself in the face, hard enough to snap his head round to the side, darkening the already bruised portion of his face. Bruce flinched backwards still holding the Styrofoam cup of coffee, which he managed not to spill.
"What are you doing!?" Bruce shouted, his eyes still their usual brown. Tony rubbed at his cheek gingerly.
"Just making sure I'm awake." Tony muttered. Bruce heaved a sigh and moved to sit beside him on the bench.
"Trust you to be overdramatic... You could have pinched yourself, you know? Are you awake then?" Bruce asked.
"Seems like." Tony said ruefully, still feeling at his cheek. Bruce adjusted his glasses before handing over the coffee cup.
"Here this is for you." Bruce said. Tony grabbed at the cup gleefully.
"Bruce, you are a god!" Tony exclaimed.
"I think Thor already fills that position in our little club." Bruce said. Stark chugged the drink in one long gulp and finished with a sigh.
"Nope, its definitely you Brucie. The Java God. All Hail the Java God. All Hail!" Tony intoned.
"Tony, are you sure you're all right? You look…?" Bruce asked. Tony's face was haggard, his eyes and face were bruised and tired, and his hair was still mussed from wearing his helmet. Tony ignored the questions in favor of his own more pressing one that he had wanted to avoid asking at all cost. His nightmare was fresh in his mind.
"Is Happy…did he make…?" He began hesitantly. Bruce's lips turned up in a half smile.
"He's out of immediate danger and is currently resting in the ICU." Bruce said.
"He's really alright." Tony said. It wasn't really a question, but Bruce answered anyway.
"Baring any further complications, he should be fine, though you won't be able to see him anytime soon." Banner said. Tony nodded.
"And Pepper?" Tony asked. Bruce looked down at the white tile floor.
"She's awake and asking for you." Tony thanked Bruce and went to find a nurse to take him to Pepper's room.
Pepper Potts lay on a bed in her private room. She looked wan, pale, and worried. She wore a pale blue paper hospital gown as if Michael Kor had designed it solely for her use. She brightened perceptively when she saw Tony enter and raised her bed to a seated position. "Hey Pep. How are you feeling?" Tony asked, sitting in a chair placed beside her bed. He leaned forward, his hands clasped tightly together between his knees.
"W-water?" Pepper asked, her voice dry and reedy. Tony quickly grabbed up the cup of ice chips sat on the table beside her bed and gave her some. After sucking on the ice for a few minutes, Pepper's voice returned almost to its normal timbre.
"Tony, what happened, where's Happy, what happened to Maya? No one has told me anything yet." Pepper said in an aggravated tone. Tony frowned.
"Maya…Hansen? What has she got to do with anything?" Tony asked.
"She's the one who abducted us." Pepper said with a fierce expression on her face. Tony puffed out a startled breath.
"She's alive? Oh, she was on extremis, wasn't she? Hmmm, should have thought of that. I never even looked for her body after that whole mess with Killian. The Avengers and I saw no sign of her when we stormed the AIM base, she must have fled." Tony said.
"And what about Happy, where is he?" Pepper asked, her eyes searching his face. Tony's frown grew more pronounced making the years that had dropped off his face over the past months, suddenly return with interest.
"He…he got shot, but he's alright, stable." Tony swiftly reassured her. "He saved your life Pep." Pepper Potts had known Tony Stark for a long time and she could hear his thoughts as if he had spoken them out loud. He saved you when I couldn't. You almost died because of me. And so did he.
"This wasn't your fault. You did everything you could." Pepper said.
"I know." Tony said, his head bowed. But it wasn't enough, was it? It never is. Pepper winced her eyes closed in sympathetic pain.
"Oh...Tony." She said. Tony picked up an ice chip for himself and began chewing it loudly.
"JARVIS has been trawling through the dregs left behind on AIM's servers. It appears that you were taken because of the Extremis virus in your blood. And now that I know Maya was behind this, that makes even more sense, she must have wanted a cure for herself." Tony said thoughtfully. Pepper's soulful eyes looked into the distance before swinging back to Tony's own.
"She did and at any cost. The woman's gone completely insane. Does the virus do that, or is it just that people can't handle having that kind of power. Am I going to go mad? Is that what will happen to me Tony?" Pepper asked, her eyes tearing. Tony smiled as gently as he knew how and placed a hand on top her small one.
"No Pep never, you're one of the sanest people I know." Tony said. Pepper's expression turned wryly.
"For some reason, coming from you, that isn't all that reassuring." Pepper said. Tony shrugged helplessly.
"I didn't say I was sane." Tony said. Pepper began giggling and put a hand to her mouth to stifle herself.
"You always know just the right things to say. But Tony, I feel it, the Extremis, its been reactivated hasn't it?" Pepper asked. Tony looked away guiltily.
"I'm not going to lie to you Pep, it has." Tony said.
"But you can fix it again." Pepper said. Tony shook his head sadly, his hands folded beneath his chin as he considered her.
"It's not that simple Pepper, your body has already become accustomed to the revived virus, and what AIM, Maya has done has made the previous modifications useless. You know that I can't remove Extremis. I was only able to neutralize it. But I swear to you Pep, I will fix this." Tony said, a determined cast to his features. Pepper looked away from his expression.
"I'm sorry Tony." She whispered.
"Sorry? You've nothing to be sorry for." He replied gruffly. Pepper twisted her fingers in her lap.
"I've never wanted to be a burden to you." She said softly. Tony snorted.
"Ms. Potts, a burden? Stop the presses, I've changed my mind, you have gone mad, off to the loony bin with you." Tony said.
"I'm serious Tony." Pepper snapped, her eyes and skin burning with sudden heat.
"So am I. You could never be a burden Pepper. I'm the one always dragging you down. You became infected with Extremis because of me, you were kidnapped because of me, and you were almost fucking killed because of me. I'm your burden." Tony said, his face twisted. Pepper broke out into a sudden laugh. Tony looked at her in surprise.
"You know for all your vaulted genius, sometimes you are a complete idiot Tony Stark." Pepper said between her laughter.
"What?" Tony asked, completely befuddled. Pepper held out her fingers and tapped them one at a time.
"I am the CEO of a top Fortune 500 Company because of you, I've had the best years of my life because of you, I've made a real difference in the world because of you, you've saved my life multiple times including saving the entire world from invasion by the way, and I've also met the greatest love of my life all because of you." Pepper said. Tony stared.
"Oh. Am I..?" Tony began haltingly.
"Yes you! You were the greatest love of my life Mr. Stark and don't you dare make me repeat myself!" Pepper threatened. Tony lifted his hands in concession.
"Wouldn't dare face your wrath Pep, even when you're wearing nothing but a glorified bed sheet, or maybe especially when you're wearing nothing but a glorified bed sheet." Tony snarked. A plump nurse knocked politely, before entering, baring a tray in her arms.
"Here dear I've brought some soup for your dinner. Would you like anything Mr. Stark?" The nurse asked kindly. Tony's face suddenly looked sickened at the smell of minestrone suffusing the air.
"No thank you." Tony said stiffly. The nurse looked miffed at his rude tone for a moment before leaving the room.
"Tony?" Pepper asked, worried about his change of mood. Tony scrounged up a smile for her.
"I'll leave you to your supper, alright?" Tony said, getting up to leave.
"Sure." Pepper said in a subdued voice.
"Just get some rest and I'll be here when you wake up." Tony assured her before he left.
Tony stood out in the courtyard of Knickerbocker Hospital and studied two ravens sitting in the single tree standing tall in the middle of the cement. Tony counted his breaths as he deeply inhaled and exhaled trying to calm himself. The ravens turned their heads in tandem to study him in return with their beady black eyes. "Man of Iron, my friend, I spied you from the window above! How are our companions? Have the healers finished their work?" Thor hailed him as he strode into the courtyard. Tony took one final deep breath before turning to face him.
"Hey Thor, not as of yet. Pepper is someone only I can heal, and Happy… He's a strong guy, I'm sure he'll recover." Tony said, trying to reassure himself. Thor nodded happily.
"Yes, I could tell upon meeting them that your boon companions have much spirit to them. They are fighters!" Thor announced while raising a fist.
"They shouldn't have to be!" Tony abruptly snapped. Tony turned away from the god to face the oak again.
"Anthony?" Tony flinched at the appellation. Thor noticed and said. "Apologies, Tony." Tony waved it off.
"Sorry." Tony said. Thor stood next to Stark in silence for a moment.
"Your friends make their own choices, you cannot make them for them, nor should you." Thor said quietly, or at least quietly for him. Tony looked aside at him.
"Is this some godly wisdom then?" Tony queried. Thor shook his head self-deprecatingly.
"No, I've rarely had wisdom, consider it knowledge that I acquired too late." Thor said glumly. Tony looked over at the larger man.
"Your brother?" He asked neutrally. Thor nodded once.
"Indeed. I made many mistakes with him, I wanted to control him, force him to see things and do things my way. I was a fool. And both he and I have suffered for my foolishness. I would not wish the same to happen to you." Thor said. Tony snorted to himself.
"Pepper is right, I am a moron in so many damn ways. Thank you Thor, for your help in rescuing them and for everything else." Tony said. Thor slapped him on the back causing him to move several steps forward.
"Think nothing of it friend Tony. You gave my lady Jane and I a new home and a new family. Do not think that I will ever forget that debt nor cease attempting to repay it." Thor said, gripping his arm companionably. Tony said nothing, touched beyond words.