Author's note: And final chapter. I hope you all enjoy it. Again, no romance intended, at all. But read it how you will.
Disclaimer: I don't own anything.
Chapter 3: Musings of the Wounded
It was late. Really late. He knew he should be in bed. Lord knows Pepper would have his head if she knew he wasn't yet. But she was out of town anyways; she wouldn't know.
Just one more calibration modification; one more test drive; one more drink. Tony wasn't one to 'sleep' anyways. He was a creature of the night, a night owl, insomniac extraordinaire. Sleep was for children, and average-intelligence people who didn't mind wasting half of their lives unconscious. Not Tony; he used the quiet of the night to his advantage. In the dead of night, when all was silent and soulless, Tony's mind went into overdrive; no outside noise to fill his thoughts and distract him. Tony's advanced brain ran at lightening speed, throwing around as many new ideas and modifications and inventions as it could.
Tony stared at the contraption in front of him with burning eyes and heavy concentration, his work station only lit by a desk lamp in the otherwise blacked-out building. A set of pliers held in shaky hands, he slowly reached the bolt on the device in front of him, tightening it ever so slightly. With his other hand he blindly reached for his drink to his left. He fumbled around a little before his fingers finally clasped the glass, and pulled it towards him, only to frown at the empty bottom. Well that just wouldn't do.
Finally pulling himself from the device, Tony turned around to stare at the dark expanse of his lab. Little white dots flashed around his stinging eyes from the drastic change of lighting, and he had to shake his head in an attempt to clear them. Still they persisted and started to make him dizzy. Either that or the prolonged fatigue was finally letting itself known. Tony's knees suddenly became weak, and he had to grab the edge of the table just to keep himself upright.
"Whoa." Tony mumbled to himself, in shock. "Where did that come from?" Shaking his head, he carefully pushed himself away from the table, and heavily made his way across the lab. The bar was in sight; if he could just get one more drink, he could finish this piece of junk already. His legs were wobbly, his steps lagged, his vision started blurring, then leaning. Tony fell to his knees in an exhausted heap. He could barely lift his head anymore, everything was so heavy with fatigue. Perhaps four days of no sleep wasn't as good an idea as Tony first thought it was.
Alright, can't stay on the floor forever. Tony leaned heavily on his arms, trying to push himself up to stand. His limbs were jelly and wobbled unsteadily with the more weight he added to them. His body leaned to the side, forcing him to the ground once more, laying curled on the floor on his side.
'Well, it's not so bad down here.' Tony thought in exhausted defeat. His heavy eyes finally drooped closed and his breathing evened out. His body relaxed into the cement ground, and his mind fell into slumber.
Images flashed passed Tony's closed eyes; flashes of a different time, a different place. An uneasiness gripped his heart that he couldn't explain. The faster the images went, the more anxious Tony grew, as if his body was anticipating a threat his mind had no knowledge of yet. Then the images started to clear, sharpen, display. They were familiar.
A cave. A cold metal table. A car battery. Weapons strewn about haphazardly. Dim lights, little cameras in the corners. Surrounding cold, fog, fear.
"No." Tony demanded. He wasn't going to let his mind do this to him. Not again. Every night since he escaped that hell his mind tortured him, every night he tried to fight it, every night he failed. His last attempts at fighting it by avoiding sleep altogether obviously didn't work out. There was no escape, not really.
Yinsen was talking to Tony, his mouth was moving but no sound came out. Tony was suddenly laying on that metal table again. The dim lights were blinding from his angle and he squeezed his eyes shut, shielding them with an arm. Suddenly his arm was yanked away and forced to the table beside him, then his other arm. His feet were grabbed and pressed roughly into the table as well, completely immobilizing him. He was trapped, and surrounded by faceless men, and Yinsen, who seemed to be screaming voicelessly at the men. He did nothing however, to stop them; merely stood back out of the way, continuing his silent pleas.
Another man came into Tony's sights then, the same one that had apparently called all the shots in that camp. Raza leaned over Tony and cocked his head to the side curiously. His mouth moved then, asking Tony a question. But like Yinsen, he had no voice, Tony could only stare silently in confusion. This seemed to have angered Raza; he slammed his hand on the table beside Tony's head, startling him and everyone in the room. Raza was screaming, seemingly repeating what he'd said earlier; still Tony stared, a fear creeping into his eyes as the panic of not having an answer for the man grew.
Raza sighed; Tony didn't hear it but he could feel the agitated breath hit his cheek. Raza stood straight, staring down at Tony blankly. Then, he smiled.
With a wave of Raza's hand, the men surrounding Tony all moved in a flurry of coordinated action. One man came up beside the table and forced a sack over Tony's head, shielding everything in darkness. And then, his whole body exploded in pain. Tony's back arched as he screamed; he tried to pull his arms free, to fight and escape, but his arms and legs were glued to the table by the men causing his distress. He tossed and turned and convulsed and screamed, nothing stopped, and not a sound was heard.
At one point Tony got so desperate that he screamed and begged for Yinsen to help him, to stop the men. He never received an answer; betrayal shot through his clouded mind, and anger, at the men and at Raza and at Yinsen. Screams of agony mixed with screams of rage and desperation. There was no escape.
Hands were gripping Tony's shoulders now, these ones stronger than the rest. He tried to wriggle free, to fight against the iron grip but it was fruitless; his body was weak and aching and no match for those hands. The hands squeezed Tony's shoulders, not painfully, but eagerly, desperately; begging for his attention. The encompassing pain had ceased, but the hands tightened. Tony figured it was Raza seeking answers again; he fought harder against the hold, against the strong unrelenting arms. Still they held fast, but they never caused pain, they just held him in place. They started shaking Tony lightly, desperately wanting whatever they thought he had. Well he didn't have anything; he wished desperately that everyone would leave him alone.
". . .ark!"
An echo floated around the air for a moment, causing Tony to briefly stop in his struggles and question if it was real. Where did it come from? Who was it? What did it mean? Did he really hear it or did he imagine it? He couldn't even really tell what it said, it was muffled and far away. Perhaps it was just his imagination.
The arms shook Tony's shoulders again, forcing his attention back on the immediate threat. Tony tried pushing the arms away, tried prying the fingers from his shoulders and freeing himself. The hands pushed his own away though and held strong.
Okay, Tony definitely heard it that time. It was still so far away, but more welcoming than Tony's current predicament. It gave him hope that maybe someone was coming to rescue him. He tried fighting harder against the arms holding him to try to make it to that voice. That voice sounded safer than where he was, he had to reach it, to get out of this hell. But the more he fought the stronger the arms became, trying to hold him down and detain him. He felt suffocated and panicked, lashing out at anything he could reach. He thrashed and flailed, not caring where his arms went, just as long as they helped him out of here.
He knew that voice. Why couldn't he place it? It was a very familiar, and friendly voice. There was no threat in the words, only panic and concern. Who was that voice?
"It's me Tony! It's okay!"
Tony frowned, trying to place the voice. It was a friend, right? Or was it a foe? Then why would they say it was okay? If they intended harm they wouldn't try to console him, would they?
"Wake up, Tony. Open your eyes."
That command confused Tony. Wasn't he already awake? And being tortured by Raza and his men at that? Tony shook his head and blinked in shock and confusion. His eyes were open, how could he be sleeping? The worry in the voice was compelling though, he decided to try to do what it asked. Tony took a breath and closed his eyes, squeezed them and focused on "waking up". He opened them very slowly, the darkness gradually morphing and changing, taking shape.
A room lay in front of Tony, not the cave he had previously been in. The hard cold under him wasn't the metal table, but a cement floor. The arms that held him weren't restraining him, but coddling him? One arm was slipped under Tony's head, elevating it in its crook; the other hand pressed against Tony's chest lightly, the warmth of it seeping into his chilled bones. It was. . .soothing. The hands loosened their intense grip then, and merely held Tony gently, comforting his frazzled body with their contact.
Tony finally looked up at who it was that held him in such a tender way. Only then did he finally notice the worry-creasing forehead, the panicky breathing, and the deep blue eyes full of concern.
"Rogers?" Tony croaked drowsily as he frowned.
Steve seemed to completely deflate with relief at the sound. A heavy sigh released his tense shoulders and his head dipped tiredly. "Oh, thank god." Steve breathed.
"What?" Tony asked, confusion flooding his whole being at that point. He was on his lab floor, in Steve's lap. . .confusing indeed.
"You had me worried." Steve said breathlessly. "I walked passed the door to find you laying on the ground thrashing about like you were being attacked. You started hyperventilating and kicking out around you. I thought you'd knock the tables onto yourself. I tried to wake you and keep you from hurting yourself,". He sub-consciously rubbed at his cheek. "But you turned on me." He mumbled. "Anyway, you're awake now. Are you alright?"
Tony merely stared at the man for a moment, processing everything he'd just been told. So it was a dream; that made sense. A nightmare. That was normal nowadays. Tony finally allowed himself to relax on the ground. His body went heavy with exhaustion and his ragged breathing slowed with his erratic heartbeat.
Steve's worried face softened the slightest. "You okay?" He asked softer this time. His hands started rubbing Tony's shoulders gently, reassuring and alleviating.
Tony let out a long, shuddering sigh. He closed his eyes to recompose himself, then nodded. "Yeah." He grunted out. He had to get out of here, up to his room, away from the judging eyes of Captain America. He attempted to push himself off the floor but his limbs were weak and exhausted, and he fell right back down.
Steve caught him quickly before he hit his head on the ground. "Whoa, take it easy. You wore your body to its limits with your all-nighters, you need to take it slow." There was disapproval in his tone.
Tony huffed slowly in defeat, allowing Steve to cradle his head. There was no saving his dignity now. "I suppose you're having a field day with this one; the cocky and pompous Tony Stark is scared of nightmares and can't even get off the floor." He said bitterly.
Steve frowned down at him. "A good captain doesn't celebrate when a soldier is down." He practically recited with that same 'Steve Rogers conviction' tone he always seemed to speak in.
"I'm not a soldier." Tony mumbled miserably, staring at the wall across from him shamefully.
Steve sighed sympathetically. "No, s'pose you're not." He said softly.
Tony huffed lightly in annoyance. "I hate this. I hate that these stupid figments of my imagination have so much control over my life. You know the very sight of a rock makes me flinch? What kind of man flinches at a rock?"
"The kind that was tortured in surrounding walls made of them?" Steve offered lightly, a small smirk twitching the corners of his mouth.
Tony looked up at Steve then, a new appreciation surging through him. Iron Man and Captain America had budded heads since they first met; they may have learned to tolerate each other more over the months, but they never missed an opportunity to bust each others' chops and criticize the way they did things. And here Steve was, sympathizing and even justifying Tony's weakness of a traumatizing past? The man never ceased to surprise Tony, that was for sure.
"You can't control these like everything else, you know." Steve said softly. "Trauma isn't something that just goes away if you ignore it, or refuse to acknowledge it. It needs to heal over time. You can't just brush it off as a flesh wound and get on with your life."
Tony sighed, taking in everything Steve was saying. He nodded slightly in appreciation for the Captain's wise words. "How do you know so much about it?" He asked curiously, a small smirk on his face.
Steve returned the smirk, but it didn't reach his eyes. "Let's just say I know a little bit about Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder." He said with the slightest bitterness in his tone.
Tony's smile fell with the realization that, Steve did know; quite a bit actually. Tony had read his file thoroughly countless times growing up, trying to get to know the man his father had idolized. Tony knew those files front to back by heart; all the tragedy and heartache that the Captain had endured in his life. And that was just what was recorded; Tony didn't know much about his past before the serum; it could've been good, or it could've been just as tragic. By that ghost of sorrow well-hidden in Steve's eyes, Tony guessed it was the latter.
Tony sighed, shaking his head slightly. "Does it ever get better?" He asked softly. "You had more time than anyone; did it help you?"
This time it was Steve's turn to sigh as he ran a hand through his hair. "To be honest, I didn't really have any time at all. It may have been plenty for the world, but not for me."
"What was it like for you? Waking up, I mean." Tony asked.
Steve frowned in thought. "Like, I fell asleep for a few days, woke up and, everyone I know is gone."
That sorrow was back, shining in those haunted blue eyes so nakedly for the first time, since Tony had known him. Steve had never shown weakness or vulnerability before; he was always the big strong leader that the team and the world could lean on. But he had no one to lean on; he just stayed to himself, suffered in silence. He bore his troubles and traumas stoically all on his own. Tony could relate, but he always had Pepper and Rhodey to drag the truth out of him. He was never truly alone. Steve. . .he had no one. No one to force him to open up and let it all out; no one to insist their constant presence no matter how 'unwanted' it was. No one to grab him and squeeze him until he finally broke, and then slowly clean the pieces of him and put them back together.
Tony couldn't help the sudden sympathy and admiration he felt for the man with the realization. "How do you do it?" He asked suddenly.
"Do what?" Steve questioned.
"Keep going." Tony clarified as he carefully sat up—with Steve's help of course—and leaned against the same table with Steve. "After everything; everything you've lost, everything you've been through, you just keep fighting. You never fall under all that weight. It can't be easy."
Steve blew a long breath out at the enormity of the question. "No, far from easy, that's for sure." He breathed out. Then he shrugged. "I honestly don't know. There are days that are harder than others; where I just want it all to stop and go back to how it used to be. But I could never just give up; if people thought that way the world would be in greater chaos than it already is. My Mama taught me better than that. She taught me to always stand up and stay strong for what you believe in."
"Well,". Tony sighed. "You certainly make her proud." He mumbled in his 'Tony Stark condescension' tone that he was known for, but the coupling sarcasm was lacking; Tony meant what he said, he just didn't want to be seen complimenting the Captain. That didn't fit his reputation after all.
Steve saw through it though, a small smirk tugging at his lips in appreciation. Then he leaned back against the table with a sigh, staring at the ceiling.
Tony glanced sympathetically at the soldier, then mimicked his sigh and followed his gaze. They stayed in content silence for a while, each lost in their own troubled minds.
"Thanks, by the way,". Tony finally said, his voice soft. "For coming in here. . .waking me up." He looked up at Steve with rare, sincere eyes. Tony appreciated the man's concern more than he'd like to admit.
Steve shrugged modestly. "I did what needed to be done." He looked down at Tony leaning against the table next to him, a light smirk on his face. "No one gets left behind; soldier or not."
That brought a small smile to Tony's face. Seeing the big and strong and always business Captain America crack a little joke was heartwarming to say the least. The playful spark in the soldier's eyes—however small it was—was a refreshing change from the darkness hidden deep in those irises.
Tony lightly patted Steve's arm to reprimand him for the comment; playful banter between colleagues. Tony would never admit it in a million years, but he was thankful for Steve's friendship, for the camaraderie of his whole team. Friends; it was nice to have, after all those years of disdain and judgment.
Steve nudged Tony back, a small chuckle erupting from him and echoing through the empty lab. He missed these kinds of interactions; carefree and light banter between two people. He used to be surrounded by this kind of companionship back in the war; where every soldier knew each other and cared for each other and protected each other, kept them safe and lightened their hearts with friendly jests. To have a friend again.
Deep in the late hours of the night, Tony couldn't stop the yawn from splitting his mouth and displaying his fatigue. His eyes were getting droopy again, his body sagging more into the table behind him.
"Alright mister,". Steve chuckled softly. "Let's get you up to bed."
"Aaaaw, do I have to?" Tony whined through another yawn, using the back of his hand to muffle the sound, then stretching long above him. He looked up to one of the clocks displayed around his lab. "It's only four in the morning." He mumbled tiredly.
"Bed. Now." Steve commanded gently as he stood, carefully pulling Tony up with him, then slinging his arm around his shoulders while his other went around Tony's waist to hold him upright.
Tony 'harrumphed' with a pout. "You're no fun."
"So I'm told." Steve countered with a smirk as he manoeuvred Tony around the lab tables and towards the stairs.
"You know I've stayed up way longer before you came along." Tony whined half-heartedly as he allowed Steve to practically drag him up the stairs, as his feet seemed to have already gone to sleep before him.
"I doubt it." Steve said as they made the top of the stairs and turned towards the bedrooms. "Pepper would never allow it." He smirked in Tony's direction.
"Yeah, well. . ." Tony trailed off, no comeback coming to mind. He knew Steve was right. "You're still no fun." He grumbled in defeat. "You and Pepper both."
"Well, sorry to disappoint you." Steve offered. They reached Tony's room and Steve nudged the door open with his elbow, keeping a good hold on Tony's arm and around his waist.
"You should be." Tony continued, merely going through the motions now in the conversation as his head hung low. "You guys should really learn to loosen up once in a while; live a little."
Steve sat Tony down on the bed and slowly guided his head to the pillow. "I'll keep that in mind." He humored. He pulled the covers down and lifted Tony's legs under them, pulling them up to his shoulders.
"We should have a party." Tony said, attempting to stifle another yawn and failing. "Get you two to really live it up; maybe it'll dislodge those sticks from up your asses and let you relax for once." He mumbled groggily.
Steve startled slightly at the lack of filter on Tony's exhaustion-ridden complaining. Still he shook his head with a chuckle as he tucked the blankets around Tony's legs. "Maybe it will." He said softly. He laid a hand on Tony's shoulder then. "Get some sleep." He said gently.
"You too." Tony said softly, the exhausted glaze in his eyes clearing momentarily to reveal a small concern and sincerity.
Steve smiled and nodded, patting Tony's shoulder. Then he turned and headed for the door.
"Hey." Tony called back groggily.
Steve turned in the doorway, staring at the lump on the bed.
"Thanks." Tony barely whispered.
Steve smiled lightly. "Sweet dreams, Stark." He mumbled playfully.
Tony smirked tiredly, his eyes on the Captain in the doorway as they drooped lower and lower, until finally they closed him off to the waking world.
Steve stayed a moment longer until he heard Tony's soft snores, then he closed the door quietly and headed to his own bed, content that his teammate was finally getting his much needed rest. And soon he would be too, knowing that his team, his friends, were all happy and safe, relieving his mind and allowing him to finally rest.
Author's note: So there you have it. The last chapter. Hope it wasn't too cheesy or anything like that. Again, I intended no romance, but if that's your thing then far be it for me to judge. Hope you enjoyed my first little Avengers story. :)