His eyes still hadn’t adjusted to the dim light. Everything was around him was a haze of indistinct shapes, bleeding into a fog of greens and greys. He resisted once more against his bounds, twisting and turning in a desperate attempt to free himself. But it was no use. His restraints were too strong. Turning his head to the left and breathing hard, he tried to organise his erratic thoughts.
Where was he? Where was he?
He had to figure out where he was.
He had to.
Suddenly a dark figure stepped out of the darkness and loomed over him. Their features were blurred, but Tony knew exactly who it was. He tugged again at his restraints as the figure grabbed his face and made him face right so that his neck was exposed. A clicking noise assaulted his ears – a now familiar sound that he had come to know as the predecessor of terror. The figure pulled out a large syringe-like device that was filled with a luminous liquid, and Tony stared at it, wide eyed. He couldn't see, but he felt the figure grin sadistically, before plunging the contraption into his neck.
Tony cried out and felt himself thrashing uncontrollably as the chemical pulsed through his veins. When he screamed, the sound was so alien that he barely recognised it as his own voice…
Tony's eyes snapped open, his heart pounding. Slowly, it dawned on him that it had all been a nightmare. He sighed in relief (but also slight annoyance at the inconvenience of waking up in the middle of the night) and closed his eyes, putting his head back down on the pillow.
Only it wasn't a pillow.
He realised, with a stomach-churning shift of gravity, that he was not in his bed back at Avengers Tower.
It's very disconcerting to expect to find yourself lying horizontally in your room, when you're actually trapped vertically between two walls of solid rock.
Tony's breath caught in his throat and he moved quickly, only to find that his right wrist was stuck between one of the walls and a small boulder. His sudden movement sent a few small rocks plummeting past him down, down, down, deep into the crevasse, and he realised that if he wasn't careful, he too would fall down.
Trying not to panic, he attempted to make sense of the situation he had found himself in. He noticed that he was in his Iron Man suit - but that didn't make much sense either, as the last thing he remembered was falling asleep in back at the Tower. How on earth did he get here? And where the hell was 'here', anyway? He looked up to see if what was above him could offer a clue to his location. His view was limited and all he could see was rock - so he must be in a cave somewhere.
A cave? How did he...?
Nothing was making any sense.
Sitting here fretting about it isn't going to help, he told himself, You're in the suit - get out of here!
Of course. Plus, if JARVIS was working, he could tell him where he was.
The suit was currently powered down, but if he rebooted it he could use the thrusters to fly out (and wrench his wrist out of the rock at the same time). Only rebooting it could be an issue, since he was stuck in a slightly awkward position.
Nothing that he couldn't manage, though.
The fail-safe switch which JARVIS had installed (since Tony thought fail-safe's were a waste of time) was under a small panel on the back of his right leg. That in itself would have been fine, if he could use his right arm. He couldn't pull up his leg either, due to the confined space, and he was limited to how much he could move his left arm because of how his right arm was stuck. However, after a painstakingly long time, he managed to wriggle into a position where he could just...about....
Suddenly the suit came to life, and the displays glowed around his face. The light illuminated the crevasse, but it was somewhat dim – clearly the battery was a little low. But Tony didn't care - he knew he could get out now.
"JARVIS?" said Tony, "JARVIS, talk to me. Where am I?"
The display around him flickered.
"H́-̴h͜͝͝ę̵l͡-̷҉l̕͢͠l͜o͘͞.̵.͜.҉̧ss̛͘͠-̧si̵r̕͝...." the AI replied, it's voice glitching. The battery gauge flashed in the corner of Tony's eye – power was at 2%.
"Dammit!" he cursed, "JARVIS, route all remaining power to the thrusters, now!"
For a second, nothing happened, and Tony thought that he'd used up all the power and that he was going to be stuck there until he starved. But then the thrusters burst into life and he shot upwards, yanking his wrist free. The power didn't last for long, but it was enough to get him up and out. He crashed down onto the cave floor, wincing at the impact. He rolled onto his back, groaning slightly. The suit automatically opened before shutting down completely. The section of armour around his wrist, however, was so crushed that it wouldn't come off. Huffing in annoyance, he sat up and tried to prise metal off, studying his surroundings as he did so.
The cave had quite a low ceiling, but tunnelled back a good distance into the rock – much further than his crevasse (although it would have been difficult to get past it without falling in, he noted). In the other direction was the entrance. Daylight flooded in – the light of a midday desert sun, he thought, although he wasn't quite sure how he knew. He couldn't see much of what was out there beyond that, though, as it was too bright.
He looked down at his wrist and sighed. There was no way he was going to be able to get the armour off with his bare hands. He needed a screwdriver, if not a whole toolkit.
There might be something out there..., he found himself thinking, looking towards the cave entrance. The desire to explore overwhelmed him, and before he even realised it he found himself at the opening, looking out. He squinted against the light and waited for his eyes to adjust.
His cave was a good few metres up the cliff. Below him stretched a great wasteland, the sand stretching towards the horizon if he looked left and right. Directly opposite him was another cliff, and the two walls of rock lined the wilderness so that it was almost like a long, dusty corridor. Scattered across the ground were the remains of various articles – bits of brick, glass, and metal – all twisted and broken, sweltering in the heat of the sun. There were a couple of things that Tony recognised (fragments of buildings, parts of cars, the skeletal remains of a plane) but most of it was discernable rubble. But, somehow, Tony knew what he was looking at.
It was all that was left of a city that had been razed to the ground.
Something stirred in his mind. All of this seemed familiar, somehow, as if he had seen it in a dream…
That was when his dream suddenly came rushing back to him. Or was it a dream? He couldn’t tell. So much information suddenly flooded to the forefront of his mind it was difficult to sort out what was real from what wasn’t. He sat down and held his head in his hands and tried to think. He couldn’t remember what had happened at the beginning that well – some kind of attack? At night, perhaps? And then he and the other Avengers (except for Thor?) moved to the camps and fought off giant machines that would often try and destroy them. Crawlers, they were called, he thought. They were like something out of War of the Worlds, he couldn’t help but think. The whole thing had been incredibly surreal. It had to have been a dream he decided.
But then…then he had died. And he had felt it.
And he had smelt things, too – the smoke, the dirt, the death….the sickening smell of burning bodies that made him gag just thinking about it.
That couldn’t have been a dream. Could it? It couldn’t have. He’d died. He couldn’t be…he’d…
And then there was another dream-like memory….in the green-ish room, with the figure injecting something into his neck. But the memory was odd – he remembered it as if that hadn’t happened for the first time. As if it had happened many times before. He didn’t understand. He didn’t understand any of it.
It had to have been a dream.
He stood up again and stepped out of the cave. The sun scorched his face.
But it still doesn’t make sense, he thought as soon as he managed to get down to the dust on ground level. Why did he recognise this place, if he’d only seen it before in a dream? And how did he end up in the Iron Man suit in the crevasse? Even if everything he’d dreamt turned out to be real, that wouldn’t explain how that had happened.
He shrugged on the tattered hoodie which had been tied around his waist to protect his skin from being burnt and walked out into the desert. He didn’t expect to find a screwdriver in this wasteland, but he might find people who would be able to explain to him what the hell was going on.
He wandered aimlessly for what felt like hours, glancing at the floor every now and then.
He was glad he’d had the forethought to put his hoodie on – even though the heat was stifling, he knew that if he’d kept it off, the sun would have heated the metal around his wrist to an unbearable temperature. He kicked the rubble at his feet, fruitlessly searching. He sighed and looked up. There was nothing here.
That was when he saw the rusty remains of the plane again out of the corner of his eye. It was one of the dominant features in the wasteland, and Tony headed towards it. He figured that if he was going to find a screwdriver anywhere, it was likely to be there. He wasn’t completely sure why he thought that, but he wasn’t completely sure of anything anymore, and he didn’t exactly have anything to lose.
He was almost there when he first looked over his shoulder and saw it in the sky. It was just a dot on the horizon, and for a minute he believed that his hopeful eyes were playing tricks on him. But then it got closer and more definite, and while Tony couldn’t distinguish its shape, there wasn’t exactly much else it could be.
A small plane. Or a helicopter or something.
Something with people in.
And, quite possibly, a screwdriver.
He abandoned his search and went right out into the open in the hope that the pilots would see him. He knew there was no point in shouting, but he did it anyway, waving his arms frantically. It was moving at a painstaking pace, and Tony huffed with impatience.
Come on come on come ON.
His eyes were completely fixed on it; so much so that he didn’t notice the figure running across the dust towards him until they grabbed him roughly and dragged him back towards the plane skeleton. He tried to cry out but the wind had been knocked out of him. His assailant pushed him to the floor and slid an M-16 rifle of his shoulder. Tony could no longer see the aircraft.
“What the hell are you playing at?!” the man snarled, barely glancing at him as he peered over the edge of their hiding place and tracked the craft with his gun.
“I...” Tony started, still trying to get his breath back.
“You stupid dog! Do you want to die or something?!” the man said. He was wearing a tattered brown trench-coat over a dark hoodie (which had the hood up), and the lower half of his face was covered with a bandana. He also wore reflective goggles over his eyes.
“Not particularly,” muttered Tony under his breath.
There was silence for a moment, and Tony looked cautiously over the man’s shoulder. The craft was much closer now, and he could see that it wasn’t a plane at all. In fact, he wasn’t quite sure what it was – it was nothing like he’d ever seen. Before he could get a proper look at it, however, the man told him to get down and stay out of sight. He then dug his hand into the pocket of his coat and threw a piece of cloth at Tony, keeping his eyes fixed on the craft.
“Here, tie this around your mouth,” he instructed.
“Why should I?” asked Tony, holding it in his hands. The cloth was dirty and smelt of sweat. The man lowered his gun slightly as if he was wondering how someone could be so stupid.
“Well, would you rather get a mouthful of sand if a swarm of Dusties come along?”
Tony tied the rag around his mouth. He had no idea what a ‘dusty’ was, but he got the feeling he didn’t want to find out. He peered at the other craft in interest.
"What the hell is that thing?" he asked.
"Uh, a Blinder," the man said as though it was obvious, "Where have you been
for the last three years?"
Three years? What…?
The man sighed.
"We need a more defensible position," he said, scanning their surroundings. He caught sight of another section of the plane, where the hull had not been so badly damaged and curved over to form a sort of tunnel.
"Over there, quick!" he said, and the pair of them scurried for cover. He poked his gun through one of the broken windows and looked through the scope, the craft now back in his sights.
"I'm guessing that you don't have protective goggles, since you don't even know what a Blinder is, and I haven't got a spare, so you're just going to have to look away, close and cover your eyes and pray that it's a Mark 1. And don't uncover them until I say so,"
Tony opened his mouth to protest, but before he could, the man said:
"Don't you even think about arguing, or I will shoot your face off, got it?"
Tony did what he was told. There was something about the man that made him think he wasn't joking.
For a couple of seconds, nothing happened. Then an incredibly bright light consumed them - so bright that Tony's eyelids flared white, despite the fact that his eyes were covered and closed and he was looking away. After a couple of seconds, the light dimmed to a bearable level, and Tony almost opened his eyes, before the man said:
"DON'T look. Not yet,"
Suddenly the light flashed again, somehow even brighter than before. His eyes seared in pain as the light intensified...and then gradually faded away into nothing.
"Ok, you can open your eyes,"
Tony did, and tried to blink away the coloured spots that were dancing across his vision. He watched as the man frowned, in haled, and then fired one shot at the Blinder. The lower section from which the remnants of the light were still glowing exploded, and the whole craft came crashing down. It exploded again when it hit the ground, and a plume of smoke billowed up into the air. The man clicked something on his gun and then slung it back over his shoulder with an air of satisfaction. He stood up.
"Nice shot," said Tony, getting up as well.
"I've had a lot of practice," the man said.
"You've taken them down before?" he asked.
"Oh yeah. About 50. Although I had a friend once who would have said that that was nothing and boast about how many he had taken down,"
"Had a friend?"
"We don't talk anymore," the man said, walking out into the sun.
"Oh. I'm sorry,"
The man frowned.
"Don't say sorry. No-one says sorry anymore. Anyway, he was an arrogant jerk who's ego was way too big for his own good,"
Tony chuckled a little.
"Sounds a bit like me,"
The man smirked, and then his smiled faded. He stopped and thought for a moment, trying to look at Tony's face.
"Take off that rag," he said after a few seconds.
"But you said –"
"Just do it, ok?"
Hesitantly, Tony obeyed. He pulled the rag away from his face, and the man took a step back in shock.
"What? What is it?" Tony asked, worried, "…is there something wrong with my face?" Maybe he had some horrible injury that he somehow hadn't noticed or –
"No," he replied, pulling down his hood and taking off the goggles and bandana, "I mean, everything's wrong with it, because it's impossible…but..."
Tony stared in disbelief at the man's now-visible face.
"Welcome back from the dead, Tony Stark," said Clint Barton, smiling.