Hey, y'all! I've recently discovered just how much I love fanfiction and how much fun it is. Not sure about my skills as a fanfiction writer yet, but I love Iron Man, so I figured-why not give it a shot? MAJOR spoilers ahead for Iron Man 3, by the way. Oh, and I don't know Iron Man or any of the characters, because Lord knows what would happen if I did.
So, without further adieu, onwards!
You'd think explosions only sounded that way in cartoons, but they sounded that way in real life, too. They also happened just as suddenly, and were over just as quickly.
What cartoons don't show, though, is the aftermath.
Everything was flattened, and what hadn't been flattened was charred rubble and dust. The lucky ones had died at the detonation. The unlucky ones—they'd just have to wait and wait and wait for the inevitable. Broken bodies lay underneath a clear December sky.
But amongst the wreckage, someone began to stir. A small blonde head popped up from under a pile of rocks and debris. A blood-smeared face that hadn't yet lost its baby roundness took in the carnage with wide, dazed eyes.
The blast was still ringing in his ears and everything hurt and the world was blurry and he just wanted to sleep until everything was better. He went to push his sweat-soaked bangs out of his face, but his arm wasn't working for some reason. He looked down at it, and vaguely registered that a bone was sticking out of the skin—skin that was coated in not-yet dry blood.
He barely had a chance to turn to the side before he vomited all over the ground. He'd never gotten so nauseous so fast before, not like that. He spat the bad taste out of his mouth, and whimpered. Suddenly, he was very, very cold. He drew his knees in closet to his chest; that simple movement used up what little energy he had left. Then, his eyes flickered shut again.
Maybe, he thought, if I go to sleep, I won't have to wake back up. Maybe, all this'll be over, and it won't hurt anymore.
Is this what dying felt like?
He did wake up, though. He was just as disoriented as before. He couldn't be sure of how much time had passed; he couldn't be sure of anything, really. But there was one thing he kept coming back to, one constant—he needed to find his mother, and his sister. If he could find them, things would be alright.
That's what he told himself, anyway.
He gingerly untangled himself from the ruins and stood on shaky legs. He took a few tentative steps, realized he could still walk, and took a few more.
Between the wreckage and his shell-shocked brain, it was slow going—but he did his best. His bad arm made it impossible to lift anything up, but he kicked at piles when he could in the hopes of dislodging the already shaky foundations.
"Mom! Amber! Can you hear me?"
At one point, he uncovered an arm—just an arm by itself, mutilated and bloody. He didn't know what had happened to the person it belonged to. Could you live without an arm? Were they going to have to cut his broken one off? Mostly, he just wanted to cry, and then he wanted to sleep again. But he had to keep looking. Two words, "Find them, find them, find them," thrummed along to the beat of his heart.
It seemed inevitable, really, that he would end up at the diner. He took a deep breath and stepped through what had been the doorway not thirty minutes ago. This was his last hope. "Mom?" he said, desperation filling his lungs, "Mommy, please! Are you here? Mom!"
He looked behind the counter, in the kitchen, under tables. He was about to give up and collapse right there on the floor, when he saw her. Curled up in a corner right near the door—her hair was matted with blood and one of her legs was worse off than his arm, but she was there.
"Mom!" he yelled as he stumbled over to her.
He got down on his knees and tried to take her pulse like the doctors in TV shows. He couldn't feel anything, but he didn't really know what he was doing, either. He shook her shoulder—gently at first, but then rougher as she didn't respond.
"Mom!" he said, "Mom, wake up. Wake up, Mommy! Wake up, please, Mommy, please!"
She stayed still. He began to talk, not really conscious of what he said, "Mom, it's Harley. You need to wake up, 'cause me and Amber need you. You need to wake up so we can go to Disney World this summer, like we've always talked about. Mom, Iron Man is going to be here soon so just hold on, okay? But you need to wake up so he can help you. He's going to save you, that's what he does. But you need to WAKE UP!"
Nothing. And Harley, suddenly, the same way he knew the ocean had tides and there were stars in the sky—he knew his mother was dead. For a moment, he felt everything so acutely that he felt nothing. Then, just as abruptly as the explosion, the agony came.
It wasn't a particularly loud cry—a half-asleep sob more than anything else. But it woke Tony nonetheless. A few weeks ago, this wouldn't have been a surprise, because a few weeks ago—Tony was lucky if he slept during the night at all.
A lot had changed in those few weeks, though. Doctors had taken the shrapnel out of Tony's chest, which made room for better blood flow and easier breathing. Life had been different since the operation—less manic, less feverish, less destructive. Normal, even; or, at least, what passed for normal when it came to him.
There it was again. Tony opened his eyes and stared blearily around the bedroom. He nudged the sleeping form of Pepper next to him, "Pepper. Hey, Pep. Wake up," he whispered.
Pepper mumbled something incoherent and sat up, "Tony," she yawned, "What's going on? It's 2:30 in the morning."
"Do you hear that?" Tony asked.
Pepper stared, "Hear what? What are you talking about, Tony? I thought the nightmares were done—,"
"Mom, wake up, please!"
"There!" Tony exclaimed, "That. You hear it, too, right?"
Pepper, suddenly much more alert, swung her legs out of bed, "Oh, Tony," she sighed as she put on her bathrobe, "It's Harley."
That made Tony feel incredibly stupid—which was as unpleasant as it was unfamiliar. Of course it was Harley. Who else could it have been? It was Harley, from the small town in Tennessee. Harley, of the smart brain and the even smarter mouth. Harley, who'd lost his mother and his younger sister not quite four weeks ago. Harley, who reminded Tony so much of himself.
"I need a doctor!"
Erlanger Medical Center was a flurry—no, a tornado—of movement. Doctors and nurses were racing around, trying to find gurneys and supplies and open rooms; the hospital was running dangerously low on all three things. Every few minutes, a grief-stricken howl would sound off from the waiting area—always a mother, a father, a sister, or a brother who could no longer lay claim to that label.
A haggard looking nurse rushed up to Tony, "Is he—?" she asked her question without voicing it; she couldn't finish, it was just too awful. Oh, this one was hardly more than a baby.
"He's alive," Tony said, "But he's suffered a lot of trauma, and he's in shock. His arm is broken, obviously, and there's a pretty severe scalp laceration. I don't know about internal injuries, but I'm sure they're substantial. His heart rate is elevated, but his breathing is holding steady, for the most part. He lost consciousness on the way here, and he needs to see a doctor before that becomes a permanent state of being."
The nurse bit her lip, "Sir, I'm so sorry, but we just don't have an open room right now—"
"No. No!" Tony barked, "That's unacceptable. He needs help now. He is going to die—what about that is so hard to understand? He's ten years old, and he's going to die if you don't do something!"
The nurse blanched under Tony's intense stare, "I'm so sorry," she said.
"If you were really sorry, you'd find a way to help," Tony challenged.
He chewed the inside of his cheek, and looked down at the child cradled in his arms. He was going to fix this. That's what he did, right? Harley had been the one to tell him that. His throat tightened at the realization; Harley had trusted him to fix things, and now he was lying broken in Tony's arms.
Tony took a deep breath, and clenched his jaw. He was the mechanic. And dammit—he was going to make things right.
Tony looked at the nurse again, forced his expression to become softer, "I'm about to tell you something," he said quietly, "But you can't make a scene, alright?"
The nurse pursed her lips, "Sir," she said, "I understand your concern, and I wish I could do more, but I can't. We are very busy, and I don't have time—"
Tony quickly removed the sunglasses and baseball cap he'd been using a makeshift disguise. The nurse stared at Tony for a moment until her expression blossomed into one of shock, then understanding, "You—you're—it's—you're him! Iron Man!" she babbled.
"Shhh!" Tony commanded, "I need you to keep it down, okay? If you can find some way—any way—to get him a bed and some sort of medical attention, I can assure you this hospital will be getting, ah, an endorsement of sorts very soon—courtesy of Stark Industries."
The nurse snapped to attention; money had that effect on people. She nodded, once, and rushed down the hall to—Tony assumed—see about getting Harley the help he needed. Tony felt a flicker of remorse for the bribery. The hospital was overflowing with people who were critically injured—some even worse off than Harley. They deserved help too, didn't they? What he was doing wasn't ethical, but did the ends justify the means?
Suddenly, Harley stirred in Tony's arms, which put every other thought completely out of Tony's mind. Tony shifted his gaze downwards, "Tony?" Harley croaked, "Where am I?"
"Hey, pal, I'm so glad you're awake. You're safe now, okay? We're at the hospital and they're doing everything they can to make sure you get fixed up. You just gotta hold on a little longer for me, alright? You're so brave."
Tony had no idea what he was jabbering about. All he knew was that he wanted to keep Harley awake as long as possible, because he was terrified that his next slip into unconsciousness could be his last.
Tears pooled in Harley's eyes and spilled down his cheeks, making little tracks in the grime that coated them, "Hurts," he choked out.
"I know it hurts, Harley. I know it does. Hey," Tony knew he needed to distract Harley as best he could, "Remember how you shot Killian with your potato gun? God, that was cool. Wasn't that cool? I was pretty impressed, and I'm never impressed. I didn't tell you that, but I was. We can build you a new one if you want—a Mark II. How does that sound?"
Harley's eyes were fluttering shut again, and Tony jostled him, "Can't go to sleep yet, buddy," he said—voice cracking in his desperation, "You can, soon, but not yet. Can you stay awake for me? Talk to me, Harley. Say something."
Harley looked at Tony—his gaze was hazy, but it held, "I don't want to die, Tony," he whispered.
Tony's lips thinned and his eyes hardened, "You're not going to die," he said firmly, "That's not going to happen. You can't afford to think like that."
Really, it was Tony who couldn't afford to think like that. Because, if Harley died, Tony knew he would never, ever be able to live with himself.
I'm going to be late for school!
The thought ran through Harley's mind as he began to slowly wake. Why hasn't Mom gotten me up yet? I've slept way too late! I'm going to be in SO much trouble.
But—wait. Something was different. Why couldn't he properly move his arm? And why was he so achy? He tilted his head to the right, to get a look at his alarm clock, and the movement sent a searing throb through his temples He winced. What was happening?
Hesitantly, Harley opened his eyes. It was bright. So bright. Where was he? It wasn't his bedroom. Why was everything white? Wait….Was it a hospital? Why was he in the hospital? How did he get here? He wanted to sit up and look around, but his limbs were so, so heavy. And he was scared the pain would come back full force if he moved even a little bit.
And then, everything came rushing to Harley in a blur of fear and confusion and sorrow. Killian. The explosion. The diner. His mother. His mother was—
He opened his mouth and tried to yell for someone, but his voice was hoarse from disuse. He only managed to produce a strangled sort of gasp. He cleared his throat and tried again, "Hello? Is anyone there?"
No one answered him; he wasn't sure anyone could even hear him, "Please, somebody, answer me!"
Nothing. He realized, for the first time, just how small and alone he really was. Everything ached, including his heart.
Especially his heart.
He began to cry; his sobs were small and animal-like at first, but they quickly grew in volume. He cried so hard the machines he was hooked up to began to beep. A team of nurses hurried into the room, followed by—
He was carrying a Styrofoam cup of coffee. His clothes were wrinkled, and there were dark shadows under his eyes. He blinked, and then he raced over to the bed, "Harley," he said, and he somehow managed to look happy and sad and scared all at the same time, "You're awake."
"Tony," Harley sobbed, "Tony, it hurts!"
"What hurts, buddy?" Tony asked, "Where?"
"Everywhere," Harley whimpered.
"I can call the nurse and get her to give you some more painkillers," Tony said. "How does that sound?"
Harley looked up at Tony, "I just want my mom," he whispered. "Tony, where am I going to go?"
Tony took Harley's hands in his own, "We'll work something out," he said. "I promise. I'm not going to leave you."
But Harley still couldn't stop crying.
The thing was, Tony realized, you can't just expect a ten-year-old kid to be ready to process this level of fucked up less than five days after the fact. Luckily, the painkillers Harley was taking had kept him fairly drowsy most of the time. A major downside to the medicine, though, was the affect it had on Harley's memory; he'd sleep so deeply that he'd wake up having forgotten most of what had happened and why he was in the hospital. Tony would have to explain it, and Harley always wound up dissolving into confused tears all over again. It was a vicious, seemingly endless cycle. Exhausted and at a total loss, Tony had eventually called Pepper.
"Just trust your instincts," she'd told him. "Do what you think is right. He's sending out cues: watch for them. Is what you're saying making him nervous or sad or uncomfortable? Then change the subject. Stick to easy topics at first, and then ease into the harder stuff. Make sure he knows that what he wants and what he thinks is the most important."
"Pepper," Tony had said, just before he hung up, "I don't know if I can keep doing this."
"You have to," Pepper had answered, "You're the only person this little boy has right now. He needs you."
"What if I make it worse?" he'd asked.
"Oh, Tony," Pepper had sighed, "I honestly don't see how that's possible."
Acting out of character—he was suddenly doing that a lot lately—Tony had taken Pepper's advice. It didn't, of course, fix everything. But it was a start.
Tony had a feeling that his life was becoming just that—one start, one unsure beginning, after another.
Harley was released from the hospital four days later. There was a rod in his arm and eighteen new stitches in his forehead but other than that he was, technically, whole. Tony knew better than anyone, though, that some cracks ran too deep for stitches to hold together.
Harley did, in the end, decide to come home with Tony. Tony had talked with his lawyers and the social worker assigned to Harley's case, and they'd all agreed that this was Harley's best shot for some stability. They were a bit concerned that Tony had known Harley for such a short time, but-Tony had pointed out-foster parents wouldn't know Harley any better. A few quick, routine background checks later, and the matter had been settled. Normally, Tony knew, this process wasn't nearly so quick, but being one of the most famous men in America probably had helped speed it along. And for that, he was grateful.
Harley was understandably apprehensive about the situation, but after quietly explaining to the blanket on his hospital bed that he didn't really have any other family and he didn't want to be in a foster home, really, his mind seemed made up.
"This is new for me, too, Harley," Tony told him as they got ready to leave. "We'll just have to play everything by ear, until we figure out the actual notes."
Harley smiled, just a little, and said, "That metaphor is kind of a cliche, Tony."
Tony laughed out loud, "Smartass," he said. "You're lucky you're technically still a hospital patient so I have to be nice to you."
As Tony filled out all of the discharge paperwork, the nurses who had gotten to know Harley over the five days he'd been at the hospital smiled at the ten-year-old. They were utterly taken in by his blonde hair and round face; they'd regularly snuck him extra desserts, softer blankets, DVDs of old cartoons. Had Harley been feeling better, Tony was sure he would've enjoyed the attention, but the most he'd ever done was smile wanly and offer a quiet, "Thanks," when prompted by Tony.
The nurse, Elizabeth, who was signing them out was fairly young-mid-thirties, Tony guessed-had lost her son in the explosion; he'd been about two years older than Harley, she'd whispered to Tony one night as she'd checked Harley's vitals. She in particular had loved Harley, and she smiled at him from her desk, "You take good care of yourself, okay?" she said. "Have such a good time in New York City, honey. Don't give Tony too much trouble."
Harley nodded, and then he did something that surprised Tony. He extended his good arm towards the desk and folded Elizabeth's hand into his, "I'm really sorry about your son," he said.
Elizabeth paled slightly, and she covered her mouth with her other hand, "Thank-you, honey," she whispered tearfully. "Thank-you so much."
Tony placed an arm over Harley's shoulders, "Come on, kid," he said. "There's a car waiting for us in the garage."
Harley gave Elizabeth a little wave, and started off towards the front doors. Tony was about to follow him, when Elizabeth beckoned him closer, "Whatever happens," she said in a low, tremulous voice, "he needs to end up okay. Please make sure that happens. Please."
Tony met her eyes, "I will," he said. "I promise."
In the wake of the destruction of their home in LA, Tony and Pepper were staying in Stark Tower. It wasn't exactly equipped for permanent habitation anymore, but they were making do. Tony told Harley about their living arrangements as he drove; he could've chartered a jet or called Happy, but he thought a road trip would do them both some good. Upon hearing that they'd be staying in New York, the ghost of a smile flitted across Harley's face.
"Will I get to see a wormhole?" he asked.
Tony smiled, but he also felt a sharp twang he'd become accustomed to recently; it was heartache, though he didn't quite have the word yet.
S.H.I.E.L.D. and the rest of the Avengers were still using it as headquarters, too. When Tony told Harley that, he got genuinely excited for the first time in days, "Really? No way! Will I get to meet them? Are you guys going to go on missions? If you do, can I come? Is the Hulk going to smash stuff? Are bad guys going to blow stuff up—,"
Harley stopped short upon saying those words, and then fell silent and serious again. Tony thought to himself, "He's going to need to see a therapist when we get back," and the immediateness of the instinct had shocked him.
Tony tried to keep things as normal as possible, "Kid, first of all, stop talking. You ask too many questions."
He looked at Harley to gauge how well the joke had worked. Upon seeing the smallest hint of a smile on Harley's face, he continued, "Second of all, you'll maybe get to meet the Avengers if you don't get on my nerves too much. I don't know about missions, but don't count on going on them with us. The last thing we need is some punk-ass kid tagging along. I sure as hell hope the Hulk—whose name is Dr. Banner, by the way—doesn't smash anything, because I'm already getting renovations done in LA, and I don't need them here, too."
He paused as he arrived at Harley's last question. Harley, in turn, turned his stare down towards his lap; he looked like he was trying hard to hold back tears. One hand still on the wheel, Tony took Harley's chin in the other, "Hey," he said gently, and Harley looked up. "There won't be any bad guys there to blow stuff up. I'm not going to let that happen again. I promise."
Tony looked at the child sitting next to him, and hoped to God it was a promise he could make good on.