The Dark Horse

This time, when the Chloroform soaked rag was clamped over his mouth and nose, guided by a huge, ragged hand, panic had not assailed him as was typical in these situations. No, this time, there was no fear, no anxiety, only pure unadulterated anger and severe annoyance. Because Tony Stark was just about sick and tired of being abducted.

Within the short months he'd spent as an Avenger, Tony had been kidnapped twice, excluding his current dilemma. Prized for his intelligence, and being generally weaker than all the other Avengers, he was a very convenient tool to be utilized by various assholes and terrorists in their ambitious attempts to bring down SHIELD or take over the world or obtain his Arc Reactor in order to unlock it's destructive potential. So far they had all been despairingly unsuccessful due to the quick reactions of his teammates, but what they could never have anticipated was that, once the traumatizing shock of the tortures and abuse he'd suffered had run its course, he'd become absolutely resolute on never letting it happen the same way again.

This time Tony was ready, and he knew with sincere conviction that whoever these guys were, their horribly uninformed assumptions about him were to be the death of them all.

When he awoke in the back of some kind of van, or so he could only assume having been blindfolded with a thick strip of cloth, he quickly cleared the fog from his mind and evaluated his current condition carefully and silently, not wishing his captors to become aware of his consciousness just yet. He knew immediately that his wrists were handcuffed behind his back and that an uncomfortable amount of duct tape sealed his mouth shut efficiently and ruthlessly but thankfully he couldn't identify any injuries. Being rendered blind and mute was high on his list of worst fears, but he squashed the feeling of panic that lingered in the back of his mind and molded it into adrenaline. He would need adrenaline.

His feet were not secured and when he felt movement to his left he kicked out as hard as he could from his prone position, feeling the satisfying crunch of his foot colliding with some poor fool's face. There was a loud howl that made him grin beneath the tape.

"Little shit broke my nose!" A man screamed and suddenly hands were on him as Tony bucked wildly and dangerously, a hurricane of flying appendages. He counted six hands, so assuming the man who's face he'd just renovated was not assisting in restraining him, there were four people in this van, plus one driver. Five individuals all together.

He'd faced worse odds, he supposed.

They were scrambling to control him, their grasps painful and rough, as they shouted orders at each other. Tony continued to flail, lashing out with whatever wasn't currently hindered. Someone punched him hard in the ribs and he instantly ceased his blind thrashing with a muffled grunt of pain, breathing fast through his nose when the blow left him winded. Perhaps he should have stopped the minute he'd counted the people in the van, but he had boundless energy and he wanted to use it while he was still somewhat unharmed. Every hit he landed now was a potential advantage and he knew he would not have such a luxury later on.

"I wouldn't do that again if I were you." A gruff voice warned him, and he begrudgingly heeded this suggestion. Hands remained on his body through the remainder of the ride, holding him down, heavy and unrelenting and he couldn't help but recall the horrors of his previous stints of captivity, particularly the illegitimate surgery he'd had the pleasure of experiencing while awake. His heart rate quickened, the familiar feeling of helpless violation all-encompassing and he had to convince himself that continuing to present a docile exterior was his best bet at avoiding further pain and injury.

The van slowed about twenty minutes later and pulled into what he assumed was some sort of garage when he heard the protesting screech of something large and metal being lowered. Doors were slammed open and Tony was jostled as he was pulled unceremoniously out of the hatch and placed on his feet. He stumbled slightly, disoriented by the blindfold and unbalanced without the capability to steady himself with his arms, but was able to contain it quickly. Men were on either side of him, gripping his biceps and he was forced to walk blindly forward.

He counted his steps exactly as he had done so long ago. Thirty, enter door, turn right, twenty three, turn left, enter door, trip and wobble uncertainly up four fucking flights of steps as idiots laughed at him, exit stairwell into hallway, turn left, fifty three paces forward, turn right, forty five paces forward, turn left into room, five paces, forced roughly into chair. Shouldn't be too difficult to remember.

Tony felt the handcuffs being manipulated and one of his wrists was freed but before he could make use of the opportunity, all four men from before were holding him down again, taking every precaution against another outburst. When the cuff was snapped back across his wrist, he found he could not lift his arms leaving him sufficiently attached to the seat.

All of a sudden the tape was ripped from his face, and although it hurt extremely bad, as he was certain it had torn some hair out of his goatee, he didn't react outwardly. Inwardly he was cursing these morons to hell. The nasty rag serving as his blindfold was also removed, and he blinked rapidly against blinding light, trying desperately to focus on his captors. This was in vain, however as he could only make out five looming silhouettes against the brilliant spotlight shining behind them. They were tall and wide in the shoulders. He wondered if he'd been kidnapped by the New York Giants.

Tony could Identify the familiar shapes of three M16 A-2 model assault rifles among the blurry shadows before him. None of the weapons were burdened with attachments or scopes, the men obviously choosing to rely on mere iron sites for proper aim. It was quite rudimentary and outdated to be standing there, holding weapons originating from the Vietnam war, and he realized that he was currently in the hands of a group of terribly disorganized and potentially incompetent individuals. He wasn't sure whether to be relieved or disheartened by this fact.

Waiting in tense, drenching silence, Tony glowered up at his captors' shadowy forms, his body absolutely radiating insubordination. His right side ached distantly and he doubted the hit he'd taken earlier had done any more than bruise a couple ribs. Slowly and silently, he twisted his wrists in the handcuffs and found that the left cuff was significantly less tight than the right one.

The shadows were shifting uncomfortably before him and, although he could make out no facial expressions, they seemed to be exchanging hesitant glances with each other. Tony saw that one of them was visibly shaking and managed to just barely suppress a grin.

"So what should we do?" The shaking form whispered fearfully, gripping his weapon tighter and negligently flagging all four of his buddies as he turned to address them. This made Tony uneasy. Wimpy over here clearly had not the slightest clue what he was doing with his rifle and he knew that an apprehensive gunman could be conceivably fatal.

"Let's just kill him." Came the snarling, nasally response from the larger, second to last man on Tony's right. He sniffed and wiped his nose with a drag of his forearm and was at once identified as the man Tony had kicked in the face. Snots lacked a weapon and he used the extra freedom his hands enjoyed to turn and gesture angrily at Wimpy. "We're already being paid to off him as it is, why do we need to demand a ransom?"

Another assassination attempt to be executed by hired thugs? Tony shook his head in astonishment at just how irritatingly typical this was. Seriously, if you're going to kidnap an intelligent, well-known billionaire who happens to also be an Avenger, you have to be fucking creative and unexpected about it. And even then did you stand little chance of actually succeeding in such an endeavor. This whole situation would soon become just another trivial inconvenience for him, akin to an extra long board meeting.

"Two reasons, you idiot," The one in the middle answered cooly, an average-sized shadow in comparison to the others. "The first being that we have no guarantee that he'll actually pay up. The second? We have Tony Stark at our mercy! We should take advantage of this opportunity and try to get more money out of SHIELD." Tony could sense an aura of command and relative intelligence emanating from this one. He was obviously the brains of the operation.

"That's a good idea, dude." Said the ass-kisser next to him, who also held a rifle. The fifth man remained noticeably mute, shifting his own weapon in his hands impulsively.

Brains turned to Ass-Kisser and nodded his approval. "See? At least someone else has common sense."

"No. No, no, no, no. I don't like this." Wimpy piped up, shaking his head and looking directly at Tony who offered him a petrifying glare in response to his unease. He began twisting his left wrist in it's loose cuff, concentrating all he had into not making it noticeable. "The Avengers will come and fuck us up, man. You saw what happened to those other guys."

Snots groaned loudly and cracked his knuckles in irritation. "So let's just kill him, take that stupid thing out of his chest as proof and disappear to South America with our reward. We already had a plan, let's stick to it!"

"Look, I'd rather have the guarantee of more money than risking the possibility of none." Brains elaborated. "Even if Nick Fury doesn't want to pay up, Virginia Potts would give us what we want in a heart beat, as soon as she's seen what we did to lover boy here."

Tony's ears perked at this and his menacing gaze turned to focus on Brains, lips curling into a sneer. Mentioning his beautiful, perfect Pepper and suggesting to drag her into this was an unacceptable no-go that left him feeling infuriatingly violated.

"He makes a good point." Ass-Kisser said. "We're here, we've already got him. It can't hurt to take advantage of the situation. What do you think?"

They all turned towards The Mute who supplied them with an indifferent shrug.

"But the longer we keep him here, the more chance there is of SHIELD finding us." This time, when Wimpy spoke, he flagged Tony and the inventor visibly flinched as the muzzle of the weapon passed by his face. He was unable to hold his tongue any longer.

"If you keep swinging that thing around, you're not gonna have anything left to bargain with!" Tony snapped, and all attention was turned to him. Shit. He ceased twisting his wrist, which had become painfully raw.

"Shut up, Stark. You've got it coming as it is." Snots threatened. "We're trying to figure something out."

Tony released an exasperated huff. "I can see that. Is this your first kidnapping, girls? Or are you all just painfully bad at it?"

Before he knew it, the butt stock of a rifle was making swift contact with the side of his face and he released a strangled yell as stars burst into his vision, brilliant and numerous. He spat out a mouthful of blood originating from a fresh wound inside his cheek and his sight cleared just in time for him to watch The Mute step back as he returned his weapon to the low ready position.

"We'll do worse than that if you speak again." Brains said, quiet and threatening.

Tony grinned up at Brains, "Why am I being punished? It's not my fault. I'm notorious for not being able to control my mouth. If you wanted me to remain silent as you morons bicker like you're all married to each other, you should have left the tape-"

He was cut off when that damn rifle The Mute was holding found it's target, this time in his stomach, knocking the wind from his lungs and leaving him gasping and coughing. He recovered quickly though, and re-initiated his attempts to free his hand, feeling that this situation could soon spiral out of control if he didn't act quickly. Rubbing his wrist against the cold, unfeeling metal was becoming excruciating, as he felt it break skin. Now, though, the action was easy to hide.

Snots laughed, "If you want to continue living, you'll keep your mouth shut."

Tony rolled his eyes at them, panting. "Shit, between Mute Mary's love taps, and watching the exceedingly long conversation the Sister Wives are having in front of me, I may just die of boredom anyway." Oh man, he was really asking for it.

"Somebody shut him up!" Brains snarled and Ass-Kisser stepped forward, a role of duct tape in his hands. "I don't know why you took it off in the first place."

"Hey, fuck you." Tony managed with a grin and a nod in Brains' direction before his mouth was once again taped shut.

They sat that way in silence for a few moments, Tony working his way slowly through layers of skin as he tried to squeeze his hand through it's cuff and five men watching him and making him terribly uncomfortable. Finally Brains spoke up, "Can't we all agree that we'd like to lay into this guy a bit? Afterwords I'll take a picture, send it along to Fury and see where it goes from there."

The only one who didn't nod in agreement was Wimpy who seemed resolute on staying out of this. "I really, really don't like this idea."

Tony had to agree with him on this one. Although he could handle a beating, having been subjected to numerous, painful and exceedingly long thrashings in the past, his heart rate sped up regardless, and apprehension of what he knew was coming dominated his thoughts. Jesus Christ, he had to get out of there before it turned into another Afghanistan.

"Well I sure do." Snots said before he executed a vindictive pummeling.

Tony grunted and groaned and yelled through the tape as the beating continued, ferocious and unyielding, all the while, tugging on the loose cuff with his other hand desperately as warm crimson seeped from his wrist, lubricating the appendage. Blood accumulated fresh in his mouth and eventually he was forced to swallow it, vehemently biting back the nausea which threatened to send his stomach into a state of rebellion. Goddammit, he hated this. He took merciless blows to his face, his abdomen, his chest, his body being thrown from side to side in the assault until everything ached viciously and his vision became a dizzying array of color and indistinct shapes. Finally it ended, and he was left panting heavily through his nose, his head thrown back and his eyes clenched shut in a futile effort to alleviate the pain.

"That's for breaking my nose, you punk." Snots spat as he walked away, but Tony ignored this, his entire being focused solely on releasing his hand. Almost there...

He vaguely noticed the synthetic 'shutter' sound of a cell phone capturing a photograph. Were these idiots going to pursue extortion through use of fucking SMS?

"Stay with him." Brains commanded and Tony slowly lifted his weighty head so he could see what was happening. "The rest of you, come with me." He exited the room with The Mute, Ass-Kisser and Snots in tow, leaving behind a very hesitant Wimpy to guard their captive, just in time for Tony to utter a muffled scream of agony as the cuff slipped off, snapping bones in it's wake.

'Worth it,' he assured himself as he whimpered quietly, drawing the other man's complete attention. He began to move towards Tony, weapon raised and shaking. And Tony smiled through the agony. 'Totally worth it.' Wimpy had moved just an inch too close...

He sprang then, grabbing the rifle with both hands and pushing it back forcefully into Wimpy's face before kicking him in the chest, effectively leveling the smaller man and leaving him in an unconscious heap on the floor. Acting quickly, he ejected the magazine and counted twenty 5.56 NATO rounds. He shoved the clip back in and pulled the charging handel, putting a round in the chanber, and flipping the selector switch from 'burst' to 'semi'. Really, who uses freaking burst? He ripped the tape from his mouth with a gasp of relief, noting the sticky, blood-coated underside with a sneer before tossing it to the ground and moving out.

He left the room, shouldering the rifle and aiming the muzzle straight forward to focus his area of fire. Tightening his hold on the pistol grip in his adrenaline fueled excitement, he cycled through his memorized steps, and walked slowly and carefully forward through the gloom, knees slightly bend, heart thudding almost painfully against his arc reactor, all other injuries completely forgotten. He kicked the door to every room he encountered open, thoroughly prepared to begin firing at any moment and making sure to keep the iron sites at eye's level. He was searching for them, searching for the man who had taken the picture of his misery-ridden form as he'd sat suffering in that chair. He refused to allow that picture to circulate across the vast expanses of the ever resilient internet. Or worse; end up in Pepper's inbox.

Eyes narrowed, determination creasing his sweaty brow, Tony made the turn into the second hallway and spotted the open, glowing stairwell exactly fifty three paces ahead of him. But before he could proceed he heard the sounds of a conversation echoing out of the entry way, and immediately lowered his rifle, jumping behind the corner he'd just rounded with a rush of cold, prickling fear. Back against the wall, he waited silently, one hand over the arc reactor, trying desperately to stifle it's strong glow.

"God, my nose hurts." He heard the familiar voice emanating from within the stairwell. Snots. Tony kept his mouth shut, eyes wide with anticipation and breathed slowly to calm his speeding pulse.

"Yeah, that looks painful." Someone replied. "It's all purple and swollen. You should get some work done with this money we're about to get." Ass-Kisser.

There were no other voices and the pattern of steps taken gave him the impression that only the two men were currently ascending. Good, that meant one M16. He heard them reach the top floor and step into the hallway.

"That's kind of a dick thing to say." Snots snapped back, voice very loud and very close. Tony clenched the hand guard of his pilfered firearm and took a deep breath.

"It's not if it's true. I'm just sayin'." They were about half-way down the hallway now.

Tony surged around the corner, buttstock of the M16 set firmly in his shoulder and raised so the muzzle met the stunned faces of his two captors. "Scream and I'll shoot both of you." He threatened quietly but sternly. "You, drop the weapon."

Ass-Kisser gave him a hesitant, confused look and raised the muzzle instead with a maniacal grin. Tony didn't hesitate and his bullet made it's home right between Ass-Kisser's eyes, scalp, skull and brain matter exploding outwards, before the man could even react. The lifeless body crumpled to the ground. Ears ringing with the deafening sound of the shot fired, Tony trained the muzzle on Snots, but it was too late. Snots had grabbed the M16 from his fallen comrade and fired a haphazard shot, which missed Tony by mere inches and made him flinch, before rolling into one of the rooms on the right.

"Fuck." Tony also took cover on the other side of the wall, gasping with terror. A few more shots flew through the plaster right next to his ear, sending white debris fluttering to the ground like snow, but the suppressive fire was short lived, and he heard Snots curse as he encountered a jam. Reacting instantly, Tony rushed out from his safe position and entered the room Snots had ducked into. He was kneeling immediately to the right, messing with the useless weapon frantically but Tony kicked it out of his hands, sending it skidding along the floor. Snots looked up and stared nearly cross-eyed into the polished, shiny depths of his impending demise.

"That's why you never use burst. Hands behind your head." Tony said hurriedly, kicking the door behind him shut. Snots complied, clearly terrified and quivering like a helpless kitten. "Get up. MOVE!" he jumped to his feet, whimpering quietly. Tony shoved him toward the far corner and turned to face the closed door, wanting to maintain visibility of the area should anyone burst in. He forced Snots back down to his knees in front of him and crouched as well, effectively using the brute as a very robust human shield. He knew it was sort of messed up, but this was beyond morals now.

"Ok, Fancy Feast, start talking." Tony demanded, words spilling from his mouth quickly as he kept an unwavering eye on the door. "Where are your friends?"

"I'm not saying anything." he mumbled, and Tony brought the butt of his M16 down on his face just hard enough to send him a very clear message. The bruised, swollen mess began to bleed again, and he gasped in pain, hands moving to gingerly cup his broken nose.

"Hands behind your fucking head, I swear to God, you remove them again and I'll remove what's left of your face." Snots' hands shot back up, and tears burst from his squinted eyes. Tony scoffed with exasperation. "You have thirty of my precious seconds to tell me where your buddies are." He growled, and Snots just shook his head, face screwed up with frustration, fear and pain. Tony felt not the least bit sorry for him.

"I don't know! Last I saw them they were in the garage." He relented. Tony bared his teeth in disgust.

"Pathetic, aren't you?" He snarled before knocking Snots out with one swift hit to the head. He quickly searched the pockets of his leather jacket and located a phone, but it had no camera. Not the one he was looking for, but important enough to keep for later use. Right now, he had to get out of there before Brains and The Mute came to investigate the flurry of gunfire.

Quivering with nerves, the inventor made his way to the door, stopping only momentarily to eject the magazine from the jammed rifle and deposit it into a pocket on the cargo pants he wore. He loathed the fact that the door swung inward, but opened it anyway, sweeping the hallway right then left with his raised firearm and breathing a sigh of relief when no one was there to ambush him. Moving more swiftly, he descended the stairs at the end of the hallway silently, the confusing maze of the abandoned building transforming into a simple mathematic equation in his mind as he recalled his steps. Within minutes he had located the garage.

He entered stealthily, weapon moving with his whole body as he scanned the dark, enormous garage, man and metal becoming one entity. There was one more M16 out there and he could not be too careful. He spotted the van he'd been brought there in and an assortment of various boxes and wooden pallets against the far wall but otherwise the room was dismally empty. Something wasn't right and Tony's heart moved to pound in his throat, the darkness making him feel very exposed as his arc reactor glowed noticeably through his shirt.

Suddenly the silence was broken with deafening bangs and he dropped to the ground, low crawling towards the van as rounds pinged and ricocheted around him. Taking shelter behind the vehicle as shots continued to fly his way, Tony crouched there and gripped his weapon tightly as though the molded plastic and iron could somehow envelop him in a protective shell... until he noticed a rhythmic flashing in the driver's side mirror on the other side; The flash of a muzzle as it expelled NATO 5.56.

He snuck towards the back of the van and peered around it's bumper. Sure as hell, there he was, a lone gunman perched atop some boxes, firing indiscriminately at the spot Tony had occupied previously. He took aim, sucking in a couple of deep, steadying breaths and fired upon the conclusion of his final exhale. The man released a strangled yell, and then a gurgle and the shooting ceased. Tony sighed, recovering from the exhilarating and terrifying experience and lowering his weapon in a moment of exhausted vulnerability.

He nearly suffered a heart attack when an arm encircled his torso from behind, crushing his lungs and a knife followed to rest at his neck. Damn.

"Drop it." The cold voice of Brains sent shivers through his body and he placed the rifle softly on the ground, raising his hands submissively. "Come with me. Now." Tony was shifted as Brains attempted to turn him in the opposite direction but this was the wrong move. As soon as he felt the knife at his neck slacken, he saw his opportunity and took it. He shoved the arm holding the blade up over his head and utilized a pressure point in the man's wrist, making him drop the object with a resounding clang.

Brains growled, furious as Tony swung around to meet his captor face to face, noting the large scar marring his otherwise handsome features and the shoulder-length brown hair before he jumped to the side, dodging a punch aimed at his chest. This surprised him, and he mused briefly over how the man knew about his weakest point before a mad scramble for the knife began, both men clawing each other and wrestling desperately. Eventually Tony got the upper hand and threw Brains to the ground, kicking the knife away under the van just before the scarred man jumped up with a snarl and tackled him.

They both fell to the ground in a gaggle of flailing limps, grunting and shouting Brains assaulting him ferociously with a barrage of fists which Tony dodged or blocked accordingly, but he was unable to stop all of them. A few hits landed and he felt warm blood running freely from his nose. Brains' teeth were bared, animalistic and terrifying, spit flying everywhere, and in his rage he didn't notice Tony hook a leg behind his thigh and roll him into a mount that put Tony on top. Now it was his turn.

He laid into this man with all the remaining strength he had, and Brains was unable to keep up as blow after blow smashed his face and cries of agony and desperation escaped his busted mouth. Eventually, he lost consciousness and Tony just sat on him, panting and tired, adrenaline draining from him as though it was leaking from a broken seal somewhere on his body. He looked down at the bloody mess and promptly vomited, disgusted by his own handiwork, yet curiously satisfied at the same time. He was almost positive the man would not live. Gasping and wiping his mouth, he turned back around and recovered the phone from his pants' pocket, relieved to find the picture he'd taken had not been sent to anyone. He kept it for future use.

Standing, wavering slightly as vertigo assailed him, he stumbled over to a door on the left side of the garage and left that dismal building with it's musty smell and it's dead bodies, stepping out into the cool night air. The stars were incredibly bright and Tony stood there and enjoyed them for a moment, realizing that he must be very far from the city to be able to view them so clearly. Extracting the older phone he'd taken from Snots, Tony dialed a number, chuckling briefly at how very antique the keypad looked to him and held it to his ear.

"Director Fury." The cool, hardened voice on the other end answered and Tony was exceptionally happy to hear it despite his annoyance with the man.

"Hey, track this signal and send a jet down here. I need a lift." There was a long pause and he could practically see the director's one eye narrowing in disbelief.


"The one and only."

"What the hell happened to you?" he was shocked to hear a hint of concern within that usually unfeeling and placid voice of his. Tony scoffed, astonished at the question and rested a hand on his forehead.

"I'm sorry, were you not tracking me being abducted from my bed? Or does this shit just happen so much that you consider it less than a priority?"

He somehow knew that Fury's fingers were currently working deep circles into his temple. Good, he wanted the man to be frustrated, because that's how Tony felt. Frustrated and angry at SHIELD's apparent inability to keep the members of it's tentative, long-shot experiment safe from the hands of maniacs.

"Stark, just sit tight. We've got a lock on you and I'm sending a jet now." He sounded irate. Tony enjoyed every second of it.

"Oh no, please take your time. I'll just finish the final chapter of my novel. You know, the one titled 'Furious with Fury: The Many Kidnappings of Tony Stark'. Our hero's just about to find out why he keeps getting fucking kidnapped right under the nose of his incompetent boss."

"I'll be sure to keep an eye out for it on Oprah's suggested reading list." the director said, emotionless and the line was cut off, leaving Tony to resist the urge to throw the phone in his frustration. Instead he screamed into the emptiness around him, one long, pained, furious scream before collapsing to his knees, having exhausted the last bit of energy he'd had left. He may have prepared extensively for this, but he sure as hell hadn't been ready.

He began to finally notice his injuries, the ache coming dull and distant at first, before transforming into consistent agony. He moaned, sitting back on the gravel beneath him, his head, chest, stomach and hand all roaring at him, protesting his conscious state. Finally getting a good view of his crushed hand and shredded wrist in the glow of his arc reactor, he wondered how he'd been able to use it at all. The wrist was a gory mess of mangled skin and blood and his hand was swelling rapidly, the purple digits locking up and refusing normal movement. It hurt terribly and made Tony's eyes water.

Broken hand, a few cracked ribs, a ruptured ear drum, multiple contusions on his face, and various other places, Tony languished in the waves of pain as they threatened to drown his mind with the soothing pull of unconsciousness. But he refused it, stubbornly forcing his brain to continue functioning, giving his thoughts sustenance with a perplexing question: Just who had put a hit out on him this time?

He really couldn't think of anyone he'd pissed off enough recently to attempt an assassination. Then again, there were always unnamed dissidents in the world who remained adverse to his controversial path of existence. He didn't necessarily have to know someone personally to unwittingly antagonize them from far away. This could have been anyone's doing, and he hoped the two phones he had in his pocket would aid in solving this mystery.

Miserable, bloody and cold, Tony sat shivering for what seemed like hours, although it could have been minutes for all he knew, until the promised quinjet appeared, descending slowly fifty yards in front of him and landing with a soft thud. Tony winced when the sound aggravated his shattered right ear drum viciously. Clint jumped out of the back, arrow already set in his bow, followed closely by Steve, who's shimmering disk of American justice stuck out of the gloom like a damn spotlight of hope. Tony allowed a small smile to break through his persistent grimace. Screw SHIELD and all their obnoxious secrets. These were his friends.

"Tony!" Steve shouted when he spotted him, and the shocked faces of both men caused the inventor to laugh out loud maniacaly. This was a mistake, he realized, when his ribs shifted with the movement and he finally keeled over, releasing an agonized gasp, clutching his abdomen with his right arm, the left useless at his side. He heard running and seconds later Steve was kneeling next to him and Clint stood guard, keeping his bow trained on the building and shooting Tony curious glances.

"Oh I'm fine, don't worry about me." It was nearly a whisper as breath became difficult for him, broken ribs screaming angrily at him as his chest rose and fell. He couldn't suppress his groan.

"Liar," Steve accused, face stern and serious and he looked so unbelievably pissed as he looked Tony over, a quick glance to identify any grave superficial injuries. "Where are the others?"

Tony smiled up at him. "Inside. Two unconscious, two dead and one who will wish he was dead as soon as he gets a glimpse of himself in a mirror." Suddenly he was incredibly elated, proud of his achievement and his smile turned into a lopsided grin. He'd done it. He'd rescued himself.

Clint lowered his bow and shared a knowing glance with Tony, his own smile huge and uncharacteristic upon the normally placid face. "Training paid off, huh?"

The inventor nodded slowly. "Every last miserable second of it."

Right before the siren calls of unconsciousness lured him into it's cool, soothing depths, Tony gave himself a proverbial pat on the back. He had risen up as the dark horse among his superior team mates and, against all odds, had come in for a surprise finish in first place.

A/N: There could be a longer story here. Let me know what you think and if there's support to continue it, then I will once Unexpected Places is complete. Thanks for reading! Don't forget to review.