**This Chapter has been revised**
SUMMARY: After a life of war and adventure, all she wanted to do was live a fairly quiet life running her little café and avoid inquiries on future children from Mrs. Weasley. She didn't expect Tony Stark to wander his way into her life and decide to never leave. FEM!Harry/Tony Stark
He woke with a startled, garbled scream of terror, jerking upright and tumbling off the bed in a tangled heap on the floor of his bedroom. Trembling uncontrollably, he slowly pulled himself to his hands and knees. He remained in that position with his head hanging limply as he fought the urge to retch everywhere. He tried to regain his awareness and remind himself that he was not in that thrice cursed cave, he was not being tortured, he was not carrying a nuke through an inter-dimensional portal, and he did not just die.
It was just a nightmare; another to add to the countless that came before.
When he felt safe enough to try and stand up without puking, he slowly clawed his way to his feet, using the bed as a brace. He eyed the red numbers of the clock and saw that it was 9:23 in the evening and he fought the sudden urge to break down and cry.
The past few days had been complete hell for him.
They'd all thought that after the Chitauri, mindless bug monsters would be a piece of cake. And, while they were quite stupid, they operated in a hive mentality, attacking enforce with groups of a dozen or more at a time. They also had a Queen that somehow managed to birth out dozens more of those damned things every hour. As the only one that could truly fly, he'd been relegated to containment to keep them within the designated area while the others picked them off and searched for the elusive Queen.
It took them three days to find her deep in the sewers of the city.
Tony didn't think the others fully realized the burden they had placed solely on his already fragile shoulders. By then severely sleep deprived from his own messed up issues, he had little rest during the confrontation, constantly on the move to herd the swarm back to the other Avengers and S.H.I.E.L.D. agents, picking off any strays they managed to miss. The few precious moments of rest he was granted when they did remember to give him a reprieve was consistently interrupted by the nightmares, kept secret only by JARVIS muting the communications in his suit when he woke with startled cries and half screams of terror. He survived solely on adrenaline and concentrated caffeine till he was able to return to the safety of his tower and pass out face first onto his bed, but the nightmares struck again, relentless in their assault of his psyche and their mission to wear him down to the point of no return.
This time he'd only managed a little over forty-five minutes of sleep.
And people wondered why he drank so much…
Tony made a desperate escape to the bar of his penthouse suite in search of something strong enough to chase the nightmares away for a few hours at least. Normally if he drank himself into a stupor just short of alcohol poisoning, he could catch a few hours of uninterrupted sleep. Unfortunately, he usually ended up doing stupid shit that he'd get yelled at for later in the time between getting royally fucked and passing out.
Tonight, however, he just didn't give a shit. He blindly grabbed the nearest bottle of scotch, a glass from the shelves, and sat down on the floor in front of the bar wedged in-between two of the stools. He poured himself a glass and downed it in one go, immediately pouring himself another and downing that one as well. He pressed the glass to his forehead, trying to draw some comfort from the cool glass against his skin to no avail.
He honestly didn't know how much longer he could continue on like this…
He was running on empty, not even fumes left to keep him going.
He forwent the glass this time and took a long draw straight from the bottle, staring blankly out through the large panoramic windows of his penthouse suite to the Manhattan skyline as the buzz of alcohol slowly began to hit his system. As he set the bottle back on the floor, his eye caught a glimpse of something across the room draped on the back of the couch.
It was that blanket he snitched from that pretty barista in Chelsea.
It was lying innocently on the back of the couch exactly where he left it before being hauled off to Chicago to once again clean up someone else's mess. Even in the darkness illuminated only by the lights of Manhattan and the blue glow from his reactor he could see the colors of the woven yarn, looking like a rainbow puked all over it.
He used the stools and the ledge of the counter to haul himself to his feet and he walked over on wobbly legs unstable more from exhaustion than the alcohol he just consumed.
If one thing could be said about Tony Stark, it was that the man could hold his liquor.
Tony grabbed the corner of the blanked and lifted it to his face, burying his nose in the woven yarn. The damned thing was garishly tacky, but it smelled of gentle vanilla and jasmine tinted with just a hint of coffee. He inhaled the unique perfume that lingered on it and kind green eyes and coffee-black curls instantly came to mind.
He was suddenly filled with the urge to see the only person that had shown him any concern as a human being in weeks.
He quickly gathered the blanket up in his arms and made for the door.
He didn't care that it was almost ten at night or that he just downed almost half a bottle of scotch. He didn't care that he had no idea what her name was or where she even lived. He had to do something before he went completely insane. He had to return the damned blanket.
He had to see her again.
Tony gave a start and nearly tripped over the end of the blanket when JARVIS's computerized voice sounded through the penthouse.
"JARVIS," he croaked, "issue Gag Order 34-D."
"Sir, I must protest," the ever present AI said with concern.
"So noted, so ignored," he said.
"May I at least suggest a shirt, Sir?" JARVIS said with a sigh. "And perhaps a coat? It is October after all. Temperatures outside are near freezing at the moment and weather sources indicate that a storm is moving in. It would be wise not to endanger your health, Sir."
Tony stopped and glanced down, suddenly realizing that he was indeed topless. Apparently he'd writhed himself out of his shirt sometime during the brief forty-five minutes he'd been asleep. "Oh, right," he muttered, making a detour to his closet to grab a random shirt and pull it over his head.
Helen sighed and turned off the last television on the wall, cutting off the news anchor mid-word before walking back over to the counter to start wiping down.
The tabloids were proclaiming the latest incident the "Infestation of Chicago" and now that the battle against the mutant wasps itself was seemingly now in the clean up stages, it seemed that every godforsaken news channel was replaying highlights and doing commentaries over the event.
After three days of watching news reports, live footage, and worrying senselessly over that bloody jerk, Helen was just tired of it. She didn't understand why that now she had met him in person she couldn't get him off of her internal radar. It was like any mention of his name or status as Iron Man sent her unwillingly to full attention.
Their meeting had been brief at best; not nearly long enough to form any meaningful relationship outside being general acquaintances, but something inside of her recognized him as important and refused to let her forget it. It was unnerving how her mind circumvented any common sense and immediately labeled the man as significant as any of her old team. The past three days had her at her wits end as she truly and deeply worried for the man while she watched him battle away in Chicago.
Perhaps it had been that look in his eyes that instinctively drew her in – the look of hopelessness hidden behind a tight wall of defenses that was slowly starting to crumble away. She saw it only briefly after he had made his call before he seemed to collect himself up again and shore up his external defenses, but that look was one that she herself wore towards the end of the War when she had broken to the point that she couldn't seem to put herself back together again by herself.
Helen had been blessed enough to have an extended family that loved her enough to help fit the pieces back together and give her a chance to heal away from England. She wondered if Tony Stark had anyone like that to help him without taking advantage of him.
She doubted it.
"You know. I've had tea from all over the world, but I don't know what you put in yours that made it so damned good."
She jerked out of her autopilot daze and let out a shriek of surprise, dropping the towel in her hands as she jumped and spun around in shock only to knock over the collection of bottles she'd just rearranged on the counter as she moved. She cursed fluently in Ancient Egyptian under her breath as she scrambled to collect the scattered squeeze bottles and return them to their original position.
"Bloody hell! I'm too tired for a heart attack," she said accusingly to the intruder only to freeze when she saw who it was that decided to show up ten minutes before closing time.
Speak of the devil…
"Good God!" she exclaimed in shock as she finally comprehended the sight of Tony Stark standing there wearily with her blanket in hand looking as if he was literally going to keel over and pass out at any given second. "Are you alright?" she squeaked clutching the last squeeze bottle to her chest in horror when her brain regained the capability to form words.
"You know I vaguely remember having this conversation before," he said with an exhausted smile that did little to alleviate her concern for his welfare. "I am alive and coherent and by my qualifications that's pretty damned good, but I will admit that I've had better days…weeks…months really."
Helen dimly wondered how she could be pissed off at a guy that looked so pathetic. This was a thousand times worse than his walk of shame the other day.
"How are you even standing?" she blurted.
"Stubborn pride, concentrated caffeine, and maybe a healthy dose of scotch," he said weakly. "I wouldn't worry. I've gone longer than three days with no sleep. This is nothing. I'll be fine," he said right before swaying dangerously on his feet. "Or maybe not," he admitted.
Helen panicked and ducked under the counter, coming up beside him to stabilize him with an arm around his waist before he face planted. "This is not fine!" she said sharply as he found his balance again, wrinkling her nose at the scent of alcohol that lingered on his clothes. "And what the bloody hell do you mean you haven't slept in three days?"
"Well if you want to get technical, it's really like three months."
"Three mon – you have got to be kidding me," she said, cutting herself off in disbelief. She started to guide him to the door. "Come on. You need a bloody hospital."
He stiffened and locked his knees, nearly making them both fall over. "No. No hospitals!" he cried.
"Mr. Stark, you need a–" she protested.
"No," he said firmly, cutting her off. "Shove me in cab and send me home if you have to, but I'm not going to a hospital. They smell funny and they're too clean. They give me the creeps," he said with a shudder.
Helen gritted her teeth in irritation. Was this man for real? Why did he have to be so difficult? She was far too tired to deal with an annoying, unstable, alcohol induced billionaire right now.
"Fine then," she grumbled, guiding him over to the couch instead. "Sit here and don't move," she said, helping him sit down, "I need to finish closing up."
"Thanks," he muttered tiredly, slumping against the plush cushions.
She just shook her head in exasperation and made her way back over to the counter to make something up for him. She was just too tired for this.
"Hey, Helen? What did I do with the – what is he doing here?" Kitty asked, spying the billionaire over on the couch as she exited the kitchen.
"He showed up a few minutes ago," Helen said, grabbing a fire-red coffee mug from under the counter, fixing the drink she had in mind for him. She finished it with a bit of cream and handed it to Kitty. "Go give this to him before he falls asleep. I need to clean the machines."
Tony was slumped against the couch with this head resting on the back, staring at the ceiling blankly as he sat there in the exact same spot he was the last time he was here. His mind was a chaotic mess. He was too tired to think clearly, but too afraid to willingly pass out there on the couch.
He was beginning to realize that coming here was an incredibly stupid idea.
"Dude, are you, like, even alive? Because while I'm all set to blow shit up and go Rambo, it would really suck if you were starting the zombie apocalypse already."
Tony turned his head to stare blearily at the college aged blonde standing there with mild concern on her face and a fire-red coffee mug in her hands. He vaguely recognized her from the other time he was here by the shocking pink streaks framing her face.
"Here," she said, holding out the coffee mug to him, "Compliments of the Boss Lady."
"Thanks," he muttered, taking the coffee mug from her.
"Careful. It's called a 'Sucker Punch' for a reason," she said.
He took a sip of the coffee drink and sputtered as the intense espresso about hit him in the face just like the name suggested. Sucker Punch indeed. He coughed a bit as his eyes watered. "What the hell is in this?"
"Uh… like a metric shit-ton of caffeine?" the blonde said with a roll of her eyes. "It's got enough in it to jumpstart an F-15. I'm expressly forbidden from having them though," she pouted. "I guess I apparently tried to destroy a Wal-Mart the one time I managed to sneak one. It seems that people really don't like it when you cause stampedes of giant bouncy balls through the aisles or snipe people with the Nerf guns from inside the clothes racks."
"People also don't like it when you try and start a fire in the camping section to 'make the display scene more believable'," the brunette behind the counter called out with a roll of her eyes. "Just ignore her, Mr. Stark. That's what the rest of us do."
"Screw you!" the blonde cried to the British woman with a huff. "Really, you shouldn't listen to everything she says…"
Tony stared at the blonde hazily as she continued to blather on about random crap. He could tell that she was talking by the way her mouth was flapping, but all that seemed to come out of her mouth were muted "wah-wah" sounds like he was stuck in a Charlie Brown cartoon.
His vision suddenly went blurry and he barely had time to panic as he realized what was happening. The world went black as his body finally gave out due to exhaustion. He went completely limp against the couch, succumbing to the darkness as the coffee mug fell out of his hands to shatter in a wet mess on the concrete floor.
"Shit!" Alex screeched in shock, jumping away to avoid getting soaked with coffee as Stark suddenly collapsed against the couch. "Uh… Helen?" she cried with a tinge of panic. "I think the guy just died!" Alex cried, poking the man's shoulder.
Helen carelessly dropped the rag she was using to wipe down the tables and hurried over to find that sure enough, he'd passed out cold. She let out a string of expletives, cursing her rotten luck as she did a standard check for his vitals. His temperature was higher than she would have liked and he was breathing a bit erratically.
She should have just shoved him in a cab and been done with it.
"Did you drug him?" Alex hissed.
"What? No!" Helen cried indignantly, not that the thought hadn't crossed her mind when she made him that drink. She rubbed her hand over her face tiredly. "Go flip the wards," she said with a sigh. "It's past closing time anyway."
Alex did as asked and made her way to the outer door to slide the open sign over to 'closed', activating the cleverly designed outer layer of wards around the building. There was a faint shudder of magic as a muggle repelling charm activated and an illusion settled over the large windows to show a darkened, vacated interior.
"What should we do?" Alex muttered worriedly as she made her way back over. "Should we call an ambulance?"
"No," Helen said with a frown, remembering his outright refusal to go to the hospital. "He's unconscious, not dying. Let's get him upstairs. I'd rather have him passed out on the couch in my living room where I can keep an eye on him rather than leave him down here."
Helen gave a casual wave of the hand and wandlessly vanished the mess on the floor before casting a simple levitation spell on the man. With Alex's help, she managed to guide him up the three flights of stairs and into her fourth floor apartment, resting him gently on the couch in her living room. Bayer watched the event curiously from his dog bed having been brought up some hours ago.
"I feel like we just kidnapped someone," Alex muttered, tossing the blanket on the back of the couch. "I hope you know that if anyone asks, I'm totally blaming you. Seriously, we should have dropped him off at the closest muggle hospital and called it good."
"Go home, Kitty," Helen said. "I've got it from here."
"Okay, but I hope you know that this is by far one of the stupidest things you've done," Alex said as she made her way to the door. "Don't come crying to me if he has you arrested!"
"I'll see you later," Helen said absently as she started to remove the man's coat so he wouldn't end up roasting. She was glad to see that this time he was at least dressed for the October weather.
Alex rolled her eyes and left, closing the door behind her, leaving her alone with the unconscious billionaire now passed out on her couch.
"Damn my saving people thing," Helen muttered with a small sigh as she opened his coat. She paused when she noted a faint blue glow filtering through his t-shirt with the AC/DC logo on it. Curious, she briefly traced a finger over the faint glow, noting how the edges of the device were raised against his chest. She was tempted to lift his shirt and investigate, but decided against it and continued removing the coat from his person carefully. She draped it across the back of the couch and removed his shoes before grabbing the rainbow blanket off of the couch.
"You better not steal it this time," she muttered as she opened the cover and draped it over him.
She paused and ghosted her fingers across his tired face. She leaned forward and placed a gentle kiss on his forehead before retreating to her bedroom to start her nightly routine.
Working on auto-pilot, she changed into a pair of fuzzy green pajama bottoms with cartoon pandas all over them and a black spaghetti-strap tank top with a silver Chevy logo on it. She climbed into bed and gave one last glance towards the hallway before settling down to sleep. It felt like she scarcely touched her head to the pillow before a startled cry jerked her awake again.
He was trapped.
Voices taunted him with their damning words as he struggled to free himself from the suffocating bonds that held him captive.
He couldn't breathe.
"Mr. Stark?" A voice cut through the darkness. "Mr. Stark, wake up!"
He felt hands on his shoulders and he struggled harder to get away. The hands tugged at him pulling and jostling until suddenly…
…he was free.
He tumbled off of whatever it was he was laying on to hit the floor with a painful thud, the force jerking him back to reality. His stomach revolted and he scrambled to his feet. He blindly barreled through the unfamiliar place, knocking things over until he found the door to the bathroom. He lunged for the toilet and promptly emptied what little was in his stomach until all he could do was dry heave.
He felt a presence kneel beside him as he took a shuddering breath, valiantly trying to keep a hold of himself.
He couldn't take this anymore.
He didn't want to suffer like this, no matter how much he thought he probably deserved it.
His hand reached for the arc reactor in the center of his bare chest, his shirt long missing having once again managed to writhe himself out of it. All he had to do was twist it out and he'd be gone in less than an hour. It was that easy.
Besides, who would honestly miss him if he was gone?
A choked sob escaped his mouth when a hand much smaller than his own rest itself over his just as he was about to twist the damned thing out. They gently pried his fingers off of the glowing, metal device powering his empty heart and held his hand tightly as they wrapped their arms around his trembling shoulders. He felt the last tendrils of control he had over himself slowly crumble away as he was enveloped in the smell of vanilla, jasmine, and a hint of coffee.
"It's okay. I've got you now."
The voice was soft like a melody on a breeze, kind and understanding with vague familiarity. His mind was a mess, too jumbled to put voice to face and at this point he didn't quite care who it was. All that mattered was someone was there.
He turned in the stranger's embrace and buried his face into the warmth of bare skin, breathing in the sweet scent and letting himself fall apart completely, too god-damned tired to hold it all in anymore.
Helen was at a loss as she held the broken man in her lap.
She'd woken up to find him tangled in the blanket, writhing in the clutches of what she could only assume was a terrible nightmare. She tried to wake him, untangling him from the blanket, but he ended up falling to the floor before he barreled for the bathroom, nearly trampling her over in the process. Now she was sitting there on her bathroom floor, leaning back against the bathtub with a grown man she'd met only twice curled in her lap as he quietly shattered to pieces in her arms.
He clung to her weakly, trembling like a frightened child with his face buried in the juncture of her neck and shoulder. She could feel his hot breath on her skin mingling with the tears that fell steadily down his face one after another. One of her hands buried itself into his hair and she tangled her fingers in the sweat-soaked strands at the nape of his neck as he pressed his face deeper into her shoulder as if trying to hide from the world. She brought her other arm to wrap around his back and hold him against her. She rested her head atop his and held him tight, trying vainly to keep her own tears from joining his as her very magic wept for his broken spirit.
Four days ago this man was nothing more to her than an illustrious figure on the television and in the papers…and then Fate decided to once again intervene on someone else's behalf.
Over the years, her 'saving people thing' evolved into a habit of unintentionally "collecting" broken people. She was used to finding the chipped and battered souls, fixing them up and polishing them out to make them shine again. That was how she had ended up forming most of her team.
She briefly loosened her tight hold on a tendril of her magic and let it reach out to gently brush the very essence of him. For a split second she felt his overwhelming pain. The drowning waves of hopelessness, anger, and fear were overpowering, making her gasp and clutch him tighter as her magic recoiled quickly as if burned. From that one brief touch she saw and felt his soul, once a proud flame burning hot and wild, was now just a dying ember so beaten down it was as if the slightest breeze would extinguish it forever.
She buried her face in his dark hairs and reached deep inside of herself to call on the calm aura of her inner animal, bathing the bathroom in the feeling of peace and safety. She held him tightly, singing softly under her voice until his trembling ceased and his breathing calmed deep and even. His grip on her slackened as his body eventually relaxed against her completely.
"No more nightmares tonight," she murmured softly into his hair. "I promise."