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Observer Effect

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Natasha woke slowly to the sound of voices. She had to swim through the fuzzy haze of painkillers that someone had put her to understand them, but she knew it was important that she do so. She pulled her thoughts from the fuzz and lay there, breathing evenly as her brain caught up with her ears. Soon, the harsh whispers became distinguishable from each other and she recognized Clint’s voice.

“... what you think you’re doing. Getting involved with you was a fucking mistake. The amount of physical therapy she’s going to have to deal with just to get back into working form-”

“I’ll pay for her medical costs, I already said-”

“You can’t just offer to pay for shit and have that make things better. Throwing money a broken bone doesn’t make it go away-”

“That’s not all I’m going to do! It’s just a temporary solution anyway, once-”

“No. Fuck off, Stark. You’re the temporary solution. You’re the one who got your dumb ass captured. You’re the one who should have fought that maniac-”

“I have before- I know exactly what kind of toll it takes- Which is why I’m going to do everything I can to help Nat get back on her feet-”

“Don’t you fucking call her that. You’ve known about her for a year, tops. You were her fucking mark, Stark. You don’t get to call her Nat like you give a shit about her.”

“Jesus, Barton, I’m trying to help-”

“Your help means jack-fucking-shit-”

“Stop. Fighting.”

Natasha blinked hard. God, was that her voice? She sounded like she’d been gargling gravel and dust. She coughed, head turned to the side and wincing as the sharp motion jarred her injuries. She tentatively moved her right arm, the one not in a wrap and used that elbow to prop herself up.

To his credit, Clint immediately abandoned his fight with Tony and came right over to her bedside. He was pale with his worry and shaking with his anger, but he pulled up the chair beside her bed and looked attentively at her. “Nat, hey, don’t push yourself. They just got finished patching up your leg. You need to rest.”

“I’ll rest in a bit,” she muttered. She looked across the room at Tony, who was barely recognizable in the hospital gown he wore. She blinked, surprised to see how bandaged he was. There was more than the ones she could see under the edges of his collar and sleeves of his gown. His fingers were bandaged and so were his feet and there were several more patches of bandages along his legs.

He flushed red at her examination and put his hands behind himself like a child caught filching cookies. “That was a hell of a rescue, Natasha.”

“Did you know he was there?” she asked. At Tony’s furrowed brow, she clarified with a sharper tone. “The Winter Soldier. Did you know he was there?”

Tony blinked as if surprised by the question. Good. Natasha needed him to be as uncertain as possible. He told more of the truth when he hadn’t had time to think of a good lie. “No,” he said, “I didn’t know he was there.”

She narrowed her gaze. “But you know who he was.”

“Is,” Tony corrected quietly, dropping his gaze. “And it seems you do too.”

Natasha didn’t even blink. The best and surest way to get Tony to crack open and spill his secrets was to give secrets in return. She didn’t think anyone in the hospital was listening in -the door was shut and Clint wouldn’t have let anyone bug the place on her- and she didn’t care of Clint knew this. “He was one of my teachers. It’s not hard to recognize a gaze when the face hasn’t aged a day since I remember it as a girl.”

Clint sucked in a sharp breath but Natasha ignored him. She focused on the way Tony’s eyes fluttered shut. The grim expression that crossed his face, as if a suspicion he held was now confirmed for him.

“He’s not supposed to be real,” she said, “Let alone known about by someone like you.” Tony’s lips twisted into a brief, sharp smile at her words but the expression was gone by the time she’d said her next sentence. “How do you know him? Don’t waste your breath on a lie if you can’t bring yourself to tell me the truth. I don’t have the patience for it.”

Tony rubbed his eyes with the heel of one hand, carefully avoiding using his bandaged fingers. “I’ve read about him,” he said when he’d lowered his hand. His eyes didn’t meet hers, but he was staring at the wall as if looking at something far away, something in his memories. “I’ve seen some video of him. I don’t… think you realize how deeply I dug into the Shield servers, did you? I don’t think even they realized how much I had access to.”

“He wasn’t on the Shield servers,” Natasha said, “There’s no way that they would have information on him. I would’ve known.”

Now his eyes pinned her, the orange light as steady as his voice, “Did you search every bite of data that they had? What about the hidden folders, the locked servers, the cipher-coded documents? Did you read everything, Natasha? Or did you find a little dirt, enough to keep yourself safe, and let the rest go?”

Natasha shivered. How was he so good at guessing her actions? Clint was right, they had known each other for little more than a year and during that time she had been the one observing him. He’d barely interacted with her, though those few times were always with a surprising level of insight and trust. He’d claimed early on that he knew her, that he’d checked into her background for the safety of Pepper, but Natasha thought this was more than that.

He acted like they had been close, but she’d forgotten it somehow and he was the only one with memories left of their time together. There was nostalgia there in his words and patience in his actions and trust in his eyes and Natasha felt herself respond to it even though she should’ve mistrusted it from the beginning. She shouldn’t believe him. He could be acting.

“My AI found out information about him,” Tony looked away from her again, “That’s part of her job, to find out information. I turned her loose on Shield once they came knocking at my door and she dug up his files. We didn’t get into everything, of course, because there are even Shield servers that aren’t connected to the main one. Or rather, there are Hydra bases that aren’t connected to the Shield side of things. It’s easier to fly under the radar, that way.”

Natasha’s good hand tightened her grip on the sheets, “So they weren’t just saying hail Hydra for the fun of it, were they.” Her own voice sounded flat and resigned. She knew the truth already. There was no reason to ask.

Tony shook his head. “No. It’s really Hydra.”

“Fuck,” Clint whispered, “That’s- That’s got to be bullshit.”

“It’s not,” Natasha said tiredly, “A woman I tried to question took her own life with a pill hidden in a tooth. She seemed almost fanatically pleased to be able to do it like I’d made her dream come true in forcing her to die for the cause.”

“Thwarting the enemy in their plans, sewing chaos, and mayhem, throwing down their lives for the good of their organization,” Tony said with a shake of his head. He had that far away look again, though with it the lines on his face seemed deeper and made him look older, “They take pride in being unstoppable as a whole force, even if that means they are easy to defeat on a one by one basis. It will take extraordinary means to stop them in any permanent way.”

“Except for that fucking maniac soldier,” Clint snapped. He put his hand on Natasha’s shoulder, drawing her attention off of Tony’s shadowed expression. She frowned at Clint because she needed to know why he looked like that, what he had planned. He had something, she could tell. There was no way that he was just going to let Hydra continue. His father had fought Hydra. Tony might not want to be his father, but he acted like him more often than not.

“Natasha,” Clint said, “If you knew who he was, why did you try to take him on by yourself?”

“I didn’t recognize him at first,” she said with a shake of her head. “And I don’t think he recognized me at all. Or if he did, he dismissed it as irrelevant. By the time I figured out who he was, he was already winning the fight.”

“I’m sorry,” Tony said abruptly. He took a few steps closer but still kept his distance from the bed and, more importantly, from Clint, moving more towards the opposite side of the bed than him. “If I had known he was there-”

“You didn’t,” she cut him off, “And you weren’t the one who asked me to show up. That was Nobody.”

Tony winced visibly, “No, that was Kletka. Nobody told me she was surprised you’d acted to save me and thought you’d done surprisingly well, considering the circumstances. She didn’t think you’d bother. She hadn’t wanted to contact you at first. She blamed you for getting me into the mess, though Barton is right. I was the one who got myself into that.”

“Even after what I did for you before?” Natasha asked with a frown. “I helped you once-”

“You and I made a deal before,” Tony said with a shrug, “This time, you were acting on your own conscience. Nobody, ah, doesn’t think you have much of one.”

A strange mix of shame and guilt and irritation swept through Natasha, making her feel hot and then cold and then miserable. She looked down at her knees, suddenly not able to look at Tony herself. She twisted the sheets in one fist, “How long has she been watching me?”

“A while,” Tony admitted.

Natasha found the steel in her spine at once and shot him with an icy glare. It didn’t make her feel any better to see him flinch at her gaze. “How long , Tony.”

He chewed his bottom lip and then muttered, “It doesn’t matter how long it’s been. She looks through the digital histories of those she watches. If it’s digital, if it’s connected in any way to the internet, even if it's through the network of another computer… Look, she’s very thorough. The thing that happened with the Winter Soldier was kind of her worst nightmare. She hates how unpredictable things can be and wants to find the patterns in everyone’s actions. That’s just how she is.”

“The AI isn’t fucking alive,” Clint snarled, mostly under his breath, “It can’t have nightmares.”

Tony’s lip curled in a silent look of disgust but he didn’t argue with Clint. Clint just sneered back at him in silence. Natasha frowned at them both. “There’s a lot you’re not telling me, Tony.”

He shrugged his shoulders.

Natasha pressed on, “There’s probably a lot that you’re not telling anyone. I keep getting this feeling that you trust me, but you really don’t, do you? You just treat me like you trust me like you want to trust me, and that’s good enough, isn’t it? You can’t trust anyone or else they’ll take advantage of you. Like all the people you’ve already trusted who’ve already turned on you.”

He smiled at her, a fractured, honest little thing that didn’t distract Natasha enough to hide the way his hand made it halfway to his chest to rub at his sternum and the circle of the arc reactor there before he forced it back down again. “Well you know that’s true,” he said in a genial way as if Natasha hadn’t just ripped at his emotions, “You’ve read all about me in my file.”

“Your digital file,” Natasha said pointedly.

The grin he gave her was brief and fierce. Yes. She’d caught onto his little game and he wasn’t upset that she had. She wasn’t some authority to get him trouble; she was someone who could share in the deviousness of the ploy. It bothered her a little bit that he was right about that. She’d already shown she wouldn’t turn his secrets into profit for herself. She shared in them and became guilty by association.

Natasha sighed heavily.

Clint gave her shoulder a gentle squeeze and she leaned into the gesture for a moment. “You should rest,” he said quietly, “They only finished up on your leg a while ago.”

“I will,” Natasha said, “I just have one more thing I need to know.” She stared down at her hand forcing it to relax, to smooth out the wrinkles in the sheet. She knew already Clint wasn’t going to like this question. He clearly didn’t like or trust Tony in the least little bit.

But Natasha had made her choice. Going back to Shield would only put her in tighter binds because they wouldn’t be able to trust her now. She’d no longer be a member of their team. She’d be an asset.

If she’d had no other choice- If her only other option was out in the wild with no one to watch her back but Clint, with no one to provide missions or back up or supplies- Maybe if she’d been younger, if she’d escaped without any injuries, she would have tried but now…

She looked up and met Tony’s gaze. He looked sad and tired but not afraid. Grim, she’d thought before. He looked grim. Whatever he had planned to do, he’d see it through no matter what.

“What’s next,” She asked with a sweep of her hand to encompass herself and Clint, “When we’re done here, what’s next, boss?” She added the title with a twist of her lips that could’ve been called a smile, purposefully mimicking the way that Kletka said the word.

Her wagon was hitched to Tony’s now.

Might as well let him take the lead and drive the damn thing.

 

 


 

 

“Natasha!” Clint hissed. Tony heard that but didn’t care about it. He was looking at Natasha’s face. Looking into her eyes. They were green, he knew, green and familiar. What had been her words? The same gaze in an unchanging face?

Tony knew that to be true. He’d recognize Natasha anywhere now. Maybe not by her walk or her hair or her clothes, things she could change about herself to disguise herself from sight, but from the look in her eyes and the way she spoke to him, he would know her from anyone else. Tony felt his skin prickle with the realization that she had his back for real this time. She was his. She didn’t belong to Fury anymore. She didn’t have Steve to be her moral guidance.

He was it. Him. Tony Stark.

And maybe it wouldn’t always be that way. Maybe she would eventually find someone who could better suit her needs. Maybe she would turn on him, just years later when he finally really trusted her.

Maybe.

Tony had an idea to fix that, too.

“When you’re safe to travel, we’re going back to the menagerie,” Tony said with an easy smile. Natasha was going to call him her boss? He could be a boss. He had loads of experience in being a boss. Even to employees who hated him, like Clint. “Pepper will have gotten the jet all ready for us, so all we need to do is get a discharge from the hospital, pick up the princes and head out to the tarmac.”

Natasha nodded.

Clint did not look pleased, “You can’t be serious,” He looked from Tony to Natasha, his glare softening only somewhat, “You’re really going to stay with him? Nat, he almost got you killed.”

“I almost got me killed,” Natasha said. “I didn’t have to tell Nobody to turn off the lights. I could’ve had you and Thor come down there with me and then they would have fought from the beginning.” She shook her head when Clint made to protest again, “Clint, I’m working for Tony now. You don’t have to if you don’t want to. I won’t force you to join me.”

“With how much shit you have on him, he should be working for you,” Clint retorted, “You think people are really going to just sit back and let him keep quietly taking over the world? Because that’s where this is going with his crazy powerful AI. Next thing you know he’ll build himself a giant robot army and make everyone call him King Stark or he’ll shoot us into the sun.”

Tony was glad they were looking at each other instead of him. He couldn’t manage to stifle his wince at the accusation of a giant robot army. He’d be careful with them! More careful than he was with Ultron. There would be safeguards along with the safety checks- He had plans. Careful, careful plans.

“Clint,” Natasha rolled her eyes, “He’s not going to shoot people into the sun. And he’s not going to try and make himself a king.”

“You don’t know that.”

“What I do know is that he won’t be able to do that if I’m with him. Or at least, he won’t shoot me into the sun and maybe he’ll be a good king. Maybe he’ll give me a country to rule as a duchess. Maybe thinking someone wants to become king of the world is a child’s idea for a bad guy. What I do know is Tony’s got power, Clint, and that power can protect me.” Natasha snapped, showing a curl of her annoyance with the curl of her lip, “If he’s going to be as powerful as you’re afraid of him becoming, why the hell should I get in his way? You really think I’ll be able to work against him when his AI knows me? Think about it, Clint.”

He shut his mouth, jaw working over words he didn’t say. Tony watched him for a while, long enough to make sure he wasn’t about to say something and that he was actually going to think about it, and then cleared his throat. Natasha looked at him. Clint kept staring down at the bed.

“I don’t think Hydra is going to try and retaliate openly,” Tony said, “Because they’ll probably be busy licking their wounds and waiting to see what I will do, to see if I figured out who they were. Shield, on the other hand, is probably going to work harder against me now so I need to pull back for a little bit, get some distance and some area to work. We’re going to the menagerie because it’s the second safest place and it’s relatively off the map.

“You’ll be able to safely recover there and there’s space for Thor and Loki. Foster and her team will meet us there as well since that facility has the equipment she needs to continue her work.”

“That’s quite the full house,” Natasha said, “Vanko’s all right with that?”

Tony shrugged a shoulder, “He agreed when I asked him. He might change his mind once everyone is there, but if so, we’ll make arrangements then.”

Natasha nodded, “Do you have any idea about my medical condition now? How soon I’ll be able to be transported?”

Tony shook his head, “They didn’t tell me and I don’t know how much they told Barton. I’m well enough to travel so we’re just waiting on you.”

And on Thor and Loki’s return, but he wasn’t worried about them. Yet. It had only been one day. And no one had come into the hospital talking about super strong men fighting or anything so whatever they were up to it hadn’t left a trail of injured people behind. That would have to be enough.

“Clint?” Natasha asked.

Clint shuddered. He looked up at her with a haunted sort of look in his eyes, “It’s not good, Nat,” he said quietly. He hesitated a moment, then apparently decided that Tony was going to find out anyway so he might as well talk, “Your leg got the worst of it with the broken ankle and both bones in your lower leg. They don’t know exactly what happened to your kneecap but he basically ruined that. You’ll have to get surgery to fix it properly but they didn’t have anyone capable of doing the surgery here since it’s apparently really finicky.” Clint licked his lips and cleared his throat. He wasn’t looking at either one of them, just at his hands which were clenched together on the side of the bed.

“Your broken arm might have permanent nerve damage. Your ribs are all cracked pretty badly and you narrowly missed a puncture to the liver that would’ve fucked you completely. You were pretty deep in shock when you got here and they had to put in a metal rod for one of your lower bones because he just smashed it to pieces.” Clint glanced up at Natasha and grimaced, “Long story short, you got fucked up, Nat, and you’re going to need time and good doctors and muscle therapy to get it all back. If you can get it all back.”

“Will I have to relearn how to walk?” Natasha asked. She’d paled as Clint explained, but didn’t flinch away from the new reality.

He shook his head, “No. Maybe. I don’t know. They didn’t really want to say for sure, because of your kneecap.”

“So I’ll probably need a wheelchair when we leave here,” she said quietly, probably mostly to herself. “Will you go get a doctor for me, Clint? I want to talk to them about my condition, see if there’s anything they didn’t want to tell you that they’ll tell me.”

He gave her a look that Tony only saw the edge of but she just looked back at him as if it didn’t matter they both knew she was trying to get him out of the room so she could be alone with Tony. Clint sighed and got up. “I’ll go,” he said, “But I won’t be long.” He warned with a shake of his finger, “You really need to rest, Natasha.”

She nodded to him, giving a slight smile as he left. Tony stepped aside so he wouldn’t even be close enough to tempt Clint into a shoulder check. Clint left, shutting the door behind himself with a little more force than necessary.

Tony sighed softly and ran his fingers through his hair, carefully, though. The tips were still sore. He was still sore. They’d tended his wounds and given some local anesthetic for it because he’d refused any stronger painkillers. It was bad enough that his back was oddly numb. He was trying not to think about his fingers or toes.

He hadn’t let them numb those. He needed to be able to feel them. To make sure he still had them.

Tony ran his tongue around the inside of his teeth, reminding himself that he still had that, too, and then walked up to Natasha’s bed. He sat on the end of it, beside her less damaged leg, and folded his hands in his lap.

“What is it, Tony?” Natasha asked, her green eyes so bright. She had her head tilted to the side. The Winter Soldier hadn’t hit her about the head any, so she still looked as lovely as ever looking at him. Tony gave her a smile.

“There’s something I can make and give you,” Tony began, “that will heal all your wounds. I don’t have it yet, I still have to synthesize it, but that won’t take me very long.”

“What’s the cost of this, what is it, a drug? A chemical?”

“A serum,” he said quietly, with all the seriousness that he could muster. For some people, that word didn’t mean much. For him, because of his legacy, his father’s legacy, it had all sorts of connotations.

Natasha’s wide eyes showed she understood those connotations. Her mouth opened slightly then closed again, lips pressed tight in a line.

Tony took that as a cue to explain, so he did. “It’s not the same thing my father made. It’s not even what the military’s been trying to make, or Bruce Banner, if you’ve heard about him.” She nodded. She had, of course. Tony shouldn’t have been surprised, though he was a little, “It’s not complete yet, it’s still being worked on but I, well I haven’t given it my full attention yet. I wasn’t planning on it, really. I was just going to keep an eye on it, make sure it didn’t become dangerous.”

“The same way you’re keeping an eye on Banner, to make sure he doesn’t make something dangerous,” Natasha said. The surprise had left her face and she looked as serious as he felt.

“I’m not just- It’s not just that with Bruce,” Tony said quickly, “He needed more than to be cooped up or experimented on or to wander around the planet. I gave him what he needed.”

Natasha nodded, but her expression didn’t change. Tony pushed past this distraction, “That’s beside the point because the point is I have time to give it attention now. And a good reason, too.” He looked pointedly at her.

She blinked. “You’re going to refine a super soldier knockoff serum to heal my busted leg?”

“There’s more to it than that,” Tony said in exasperation, “There’s way more than that, but yeah. The serum, when fully realized, will be able to regenerate your injuries. It helps with older injuries too,” Tony said with a thoughtful frown, remembering the ease of pain and scars he’d felt when he’d taken his diluted does of Extremis for the surgery. “Scars and residual injuries will get better too. You’ll get some other side effects, but they’ll be under your control.”

“Side effects?” Natasha asked immediately, interrupting him.

“Ah, yes. Superhuman strength. Increased stamina, agility, perception, attention. And the ability to heat your body to the melting point of most metals,” Tony said the last sentence in a rush. It sounded absolutely insane in this timeline. There weren’t aliens already running around -ok there was Thor but he hardly counted- and there weren’t superheroes. Captain America was still in ice. The Winter Soldier was probably the most dangerous thing running around right now.

Well. The Hulk too, but he was safely tucked away.

“I’m sorry,” Natasha said, reaching up to cup her hand around her ear, “Could you repeat that last one?”

“The perfected serum will make sure that the shifting will be completely under your control,” Tony said reassuringly, “But you will be able to adjust your body’s temperature to the melting point of most metals. Not just internally but on a skin contact level. I… don’t know how I’ll design appropriately flame retardant clothing for you to wear, but I’m sure I’ll figure something out.”

“Or I could get good enough to only heat up my hands,” she said, “Since it will be under my complete control.”

“That is a much better solution, yes,” Tony agreed. There probably wasn’t any way to make clothing that wouldn’t burst into flames or melt under the influence of Extremis. It would be like trying to make a space suit that could walk on the surface of the sun.

Well, maybe not quite that hot, but close enough. Tony could use loose metaphors in his own head, he was allowed some freedom.

“How long will it take you to perfect the serum?” Natasha asked.

Tony hesitated. He had to get the lot of them to the menagerie. Had to get them all settled in, make sure that no one killed anyone else, then go to Colorado. And then he had to work on the serum with Maya there, slowly enough that it didn’t seem like he walked in knowing the formula even though that was exactly the situation. He’d have to test the waters, make sure that Maya had something else to fall back on once the formula was achieved. Maybe developing a diluted enough form of it to be used more widely spread? Something that accelerated healing and just made people a little warmer than normal.

That could work. Maybe. He didn’t think she would want to use it at full strength. That would be insane. Even the portion that Tony wanted to give Natasha wouldn’t be full strength.

“A couple of weeks?” He hazarded. “I’ll have to see where Maya is in the development but I haven’t got anything else on my table right now so I’ll get it done faster than I would otherwise.” That wasn’t exactly true, either, but the other thing that he had planned didn’t really require him to do it in person. And he didn’t want to think about it, either, especially when his stomach just turned at the thought of the thought of it.

“Maya Hansen?” Natasha asked, “She was one of the biologists at your tower. I remember her.”

“Yes, same Maya,” Tony said. “Anyway, I want to give you the chance to see this serum at work first then see if you want to use it. You don’t have to, I’m not using you as a human test subject, and if you want a diluted form of it, something just to help your natural healing, we can do that too.”

“But you wanted to offer me the kind that allows me to melt steel first,” Natasha said with a little curl of amusement in her voice, “Because...why? Do you think I always wanted to be able to burn through metal?”

Tony laughed and shook his head, “No. Not that. I’m just...worried.” He glanced to the side, towards the floor where his shadow left a vague outline on the tile floor, “The Winter Soldier is still out there. Stopping him won’t be easy and I’d rather not rely on Thor to be around to beat him. Thor will have to go back home, eventually. I need someone who can be strong enough to face him, who will be nearby when I need them to be, who I can rely on. I need someone who can be powerful but not use that power for stupid shit. And this serum is powerful.”

“The temperature control sounds like the most dangerous aspect of it,” Natasha said, “It will probably require someone who has a good control over their temper. Someone who is practiced in maintaining a cool head in the heat of the moment. Someone who thinks things through.”

Tony nodded. Even though he could think of times where Natasha had acted impulsively, he was always going to see how she acted, not what her thoughts were. She had been the most cautious of them, the slowest to anger, even more than Bruce on his best days. She was above and aloof but in the middle of them. She was the only one of the lot of them that he would choose for this.

Well, no. Pepper would’ve been his first choice since she was as straight on the moral road as anyone could be, but he wasn’t going to do that to Pepper. Not in this lifetime. Not when he had all the cards and all the choices. Pepper was going to be safe and protected from this bullshit.

There was a soft sound like a sigh. Tony looked up to see Natasha leaning back against her pillows. She looked at him, eyes half closed and expression thoughtful. “I want to think about it, Tony. I want you to make the serum, but I want to think about it. I don’t know if I want that kind of power.”

Tony nodded.

“Can I tell Clint about it?”

“If he’s going to work with us, you can tell him,” Tony said, “If he won’t work with us and if he wants to go back to Shield or something, you can’t.”

Natasha nodded. “Sounds fair.”

Tony hesitated and then reached out. He put his hand over Natasha’s, fingers curling lightly around hers. He hid the painful wince that shot up his arm at the pressure on his fingertips and looked up, meeting her eyes. “I’m sorry,” he said quietly, “This should never have happened to you, but I can’t undo it even if I want to. All I can do is help you move past it and make up for being the cause of your injuries. And… thank you. If you hadn’t come to get me-” he shook his head, eyes closing as he took in a deep breath to try and keep calm.

Natasha turned her hand in his and gripped his back in return. She didn’t say anything, though, which was fine. Her tight grip was enough.

Tony held tightly to her hand, despite the pain. She was alive. He was alive. They would heal and move on. It would all be all right.

 

 


 

 

Thor approached the doors to the healer’s hall with his arms laden with gifts. The glass doors slid open with a whisper of metal and he triumphantly strode in. Loki was at his side, carrying only one package to Thor’s half dozen. He was also carrying the phone, which allowed them to communicate with the lady Kletka, though he’d put it away once they reached their destination.

The entrance to the hall had a scattering of people in it, some in white medical coats or the uniform of the Midgardian nurses, and others in casual wear. Thor could feel them turn to stare, eyes growing wide and mouths dropping open and he felt his grin turn a little smug. He and Loki had pulled looks throughout the entire day- indeed, from the moment they had left the tailor’s apartment, they had not gone unnoticed.

Loki somehow ended up in front of Thor, reaching the greeting desk first with his smile and genteel manner in impeccable place, “Madam,” Loki said to the matronly woman who sat behind the desk, half-moon glasses on the end of her nose and her mouth open slightly as she looked awed by Thor to Loki. “My brother and I have come to visit our companion who is resting here,” Loki continued, “His name is Tony Stark. Could you direct us to his room?”

She blinked slowly, staring at Loki blankly for a long moment and then she abruptly flushed and nodded, “Oh. Yes. Mr. Stark. He’s- I’m sorry but who were you again?”

“My name is Loki and this is my brother, Thor,” Loki said with that same smooth smile, “Please, we had to leave our friend here late last night and he was in terrible shape. We hope to find him doing better since he has been in your fine care if only you could tell us where we might find him?”

She visibly hesitated, which Thor found quite remarkable. Loki had charmed far more sensitive information from far more guarded individuals in the past. Ultimately, she did give in, leaning in and whispering, “Mr. Stark’s on the third floor, in the long-term recovery unit. He was moved there this morning to stay in the same room as another patient.” Then she paused, leaned in more with a glint in her eye and whispered even more softly, “Another female patient. They were brought in together, you see.”

“Oh my,” Loki murmured. “I do see indeed. Perhaps you could give me the room number? That way I won’t have to embarrass myself searching up and down the halls..?”

“His room is 326. It’s at the end of the hall, one of the larger ones with a window over the courtyard. Nothing but the best for Mr. Stark, you know.” She said, sitting back and busily pulling out a clipboard. She pulled a pen from the cup beside her, one that had a fake flower taped to its back end, and tapped the tip on the clipboard, “Just fill out this visitor’s log with your name and I’ll get you two temporary passes. You wouldn’t be able to wander for very long on that floor anyway.”

“Thank you, Madam,” Loki smiled and filled out the paper for him and Thor with a little flourish of the pen. The woman smiled, cheeks still somewhat flushed, and bustled about with her machines to make the passes. Thor shuffled the packages that he held in his arms as quietly as he could, making sure to smile in a friendly way when he accidentally caught the eye of a passing nurse.

Loki took the passes for them both as soon as the woman handed them over, thanking her again and then sweeping past the desk without a look back. Thor followed behind him, keeping his stride as purposeful as Loki’s. They both stepped into the elevator together, joining a woman in a white coat who stood there holding a cup of coffee in her hand and looking so startled that Thor had to look at the ceiling to keep from laughing.

Loki pressed the button with the number three on it and they stood back as the doors began to close. The woman blinked rapidly and ran a hand over her face. Then she shook her head and asked, “Visitors?”

With a turn of his hand, Loki displayed the badges that he’d procured. “We are. You are a healer here?”

“Oh this is going to be one of those days,” she said softly, mostly under her breath. Then she sighed and nodded, “I am.”

The elevator came to a stop on the first floor. There was another doctor waiting there and he looked up, did an abrupt double take and gaped at Thor, then at Loki. The doors began to close before he moved and if not for the first doctor reaching out to hold back the door, he wouldn’t have made it.

“Uh,” he said, standing dumbly in the elevator. “What is..going on, Meredith?”

The woman gave a smile that reminded Thor of Loki. He saw her shrug nonchalantly and sip her coffee. “I’m just headed up to meet with Bailey on that hairball case. What about you, George? Which floor did you need?”

“Five,” he said automatically. He was still staring, realized he was staring suddenly and abruptly pulled off to the side, standing beside Meredith and far from Thor or Loki. Loki glanced at Thor from the corner of his eye, a ghost of a trickster’s smile on his lips as he feigned an utterly disinterested expression. Thor did his best to act casual about the whole thing. It helped that he had to fiddle with the things he was carrying and looked distracted because of them.

“And I meant, well you know what I meant, Mer,” George whispered. He was peering around her shoulders at Thor. Thor looked straight ahead. “About them.”

“What about them?” Meredith asked with an honest confusion that made Loki snort. George frowned and looked at him. Meredith’s eyebrows rose but she didn’t say anything. “I think they’re visiting someone here.”

The elevator stopped again at the second floor. The door opened up to two more doctors, one a blonde woman and the other another man, though this one with sandy brown hair. He blinked, once, and said immediately, “What’s with the nerd getup?”

The blonde smacked his arm, “What is wrong with you! We’re in the hospital! They’re probably here to see someone injured!”

“Are you two getting on or what?” Meredith asked in a bland voice.

“Of course we are,” the man said. He hurried on, the blonde following, and the doors slid shut once more. He looked at the buttons but didn’t push any. The blonde reached over and pressed the L button. Without an ounce of shyness, he looked Thor and Loki over. Loki ignored him in favor of pretending to check one of his gauntlets. Thor smiled at him. “Is that real leather?” he asked.

“Why certainly,” Thor said.

“Jesus,” the man shook his head, “And you wear that in this heat? You’re either crazy or crazy dedicated.” The woman glared at him again.

“My dedication has never been questioned,” Thor replied seriously, “As a Prince of Asgard, it is a matter of honor that I remain steadfast in all that I do.”

“Oh my god,” George whispered.

“Who are you going to visit?” the blonde asked with a sharp glare at her companion. “One of your friends from your guild?”

“We’re here to see our beneficiary while we remain on Midgard. He was injured and brought here late last night,” Loki said, cutting off Thor without batting an eye. Thor closed his mouth again and nodded, realizing that it probably wouldn’t be a good idea to throw around Tony’s name more than they had already.

How was he supposed to know that Tony was so famous? It was a new experience for Thor, to have no one know him but everyone know about someone that he knew personally. He was enjoying it.

“Is it so surprising to see visitors?” Thor asked the group. Then he dropped his tone and whispered, “Loki, perhaps we should have brought fewer gifts…”

“We get plenty of visitors,” the blonde said helpfully, “It’s just, uh, we don’t usually get many bringing gifts.”

“Wait,” George said slowly, “You said the guy you’re here to visit got here last night?”

Before Thor could answer, the elevator stopped again. Loki shifted and the two unnamed healers took the cue and stepped aside for him. He strode past and Thor hurried to follow, “Excuse us,” he said with a bow of his head.

As the doors closed behind him, he heard George say to the remaining three, “Guys, Tony Stark was brought in last night. He-” The doors shut and cut off his words. Thor shook his head and smiled ruefully. What fun the Midgardian healers were! What a curious bunch!

Loki led the way down the hall, past an empty desk much like the first one they stopped at, and Thor had to hurry to catch up. “You need not rush so, brother,” he said, “Tony is unlikely to go anywhere.”

Loki’s next step shortened significantly and he shot Thor a frosty look, “I am not rushing. This is my normal walking speed.”

“That is not true,” Thor said, delighting in pointing out such an obvious lie. “Or I would not have to hurry so much to keep pace with you.”

“You are weighed down by your packages,” Loki said, walking much slower now. He gestured with one hand and Thor noticed he held the phone again in that hand. “Don’t rush or you’ll drop something.”

Thor ignored the warning, which was nonsense anyway, “Does the Lady Kletka require something?”

Loki glanced back down the hallway, but Thor knew it was just his cautious nature. They had just walked that way so he knew there was no one there. He looked then at the phone he held, frowning, and gave Thor a sidelong glance. “Did you know that he knows of the Tesseract, brother?”

Thor blinked, caught off guard by the question. “I did,” he answered honestly. Suddenly, he remembered that Tony had had the cube when he was captured. He sucked in a sharp breath, “He had it with him when he was caught,” he said, “But we did not recover it from our enemy’s base. We will have to return and…” he let the sentence fall away from him at the look on Loki’s face.

Loki’s expression was stormy. He looked much like he had when he’s stood near the throne while Odin had gotten after Thor for going to fight the giants with his companions against Odin’s wishes. It wasn’t the hurt look Loki had worn when he realized that Thor had intentionally left him behind. It was the thunderous one as he realized what a disaster Thor was really in. Loki was always better at noticing when the tides had shifted against him, or against Thor. He looked that way now as he faced Thor in the hallway.

“What does he plan to do with it?” Loki asked, “Did you ask him that?”

“We only had it for a moment before we were captured,” Thor said, “There was no time to discuss the cube. Only to find it and attempt to leave with it.”

“Then we’ll have to have that discussion now,” Loki said with a stiff turn of his head. He was looking down the hall towards the room at the end.

“Has he recovered it? How?” Thor asked, “He has been here the whole time.”

Loki looked at the phone in his hand and frowned. Thor peered over his shoulder at the screen. The image was of two metal clad hands holding the blue cube. Just below the image, attached to it most likely, was a simple two-word message: Got It.

The screen went black a second later. Loki hissed out a curse and pushed at a button on the side. A different screen appeared, greyed out and with a line of six empty boxes with a square with the numbers one through nine beneath it. “It locked me out,” Loki muttered, glaring at the phone, “She locked me out.”

He shook the phone angrily. Thor shifted the packages in his arms so he could safely nudge Loki with an elbow. “Do not fret, brother. We will discuss with Tony what he plans to do with the Tesseract. I’m sure he will be open to such a conversation. He knows I know what the Tesseract is and I assisted him in the initial recovery of the item.”

“Right,” Loki said with utter disbelief. Thor sighed.

“Come, come,” Thor urged him onwards down the hall. With a frown, Loki began to walk again.