Chapter Twenty-Nine: End Of The Line
Tony didn't leave the medical bay for the next 48 hours.
This was seriously saying something considering the billionaire's natural aversion to anything medical related and his probably less than healthy hatred of SHIELD and their black hole of sneaky secrets and lies. But there was nothing in heaven, hell or earthly bound that was going to move him from Howard's side.
Surprisingly no one objected to this.
The rest of the Avengers in fact were fully behind Tony and took it in turns to keep him company and occasionally bully him into eating. Something that he was grateful for although he would never admit it out loud. Like himself Bruce had also not left the bay since the doctor had given him the prognosis preferring to keep his own tabs on Howard's condition. It wasn't that he didn't trust the SHIELD physicians he just trusted his own eyes and instincts more and he had a better understanding of the older man's physiology that the SHIELD medics couldn't even hope to grasp.
Regardless of the reasons Tony was grateful for the company, he was pretty convinced he'd have snapped if he'd been left to his own devices.
They were once again sat by Howard's bedside, him, Bruce and Steve. Steve was sitting silently in the corner, sketchbook propped up against his knee the 'skritch' of the pencil across the paper the only sound in the room. Bruce had a tablet in his hand, eyes dark and face drawn in concentration as he worked through the latest set of labs and Tony was sat in complete silence his gaze never straying from Howard's sleeping face or the steady hum of the medical equipment.
For a moment the room seemed freeze in time as the still body on the bed twitched and the dark ringed eyes slid open.
Then as if nothing had changed the universe started flowing again and the three Avengers in the room crowded around the bed alert and on edge.
"Howard?" Steve's voice was quiet and laced with concern.
The glazed brown eyes flicked to the source of the sound, his lips moving sluggishly but no sound slipping out. Tony stood silently next to him unsure what to do or say, while Bruce checked over his vitals. The atmosphere was tense, awkward and the three men just wanted the moment to be over. Finally Bruce nodded that everything was okay and backed away as Steve spoke again his broad hand resting on Howard's shoulder.
"Howard, can you understand what I'm saying?"
His head lolled forward in what they assumed was a nod which was followed by a low moan of pain which dispelled any relief the trio may have felt at the reply. The physicist poked a few buttons on the console and Howard seemed to melt backwards into the bed in relief, Tony let out a breath and began to move slowly away from the bedside only to be stopped by a hand wrapped around his wrist. Tired eyes followed the line of his arm and along the gangly arm holding him fast.
Tony swallowed around the lump in his throat.
Howard's lips moved but again no sound emerged and his hand slipped from around Tony's wrist, falling slack to the bed as he slipped back into unconsciousness. Tony blinked back the tears threatening to spill and took a stuttering breath trying to regain his composure, he would not break down now; not here where fucking SHIELD and Steve could see. Fuck no that was not happening. Bruce seeming to sense what was happening wrapped an arm around Tony's upper arm and led him toward the door.
"Come on Tony we haven't left here in two days, I think we need a break... You got this Steve?"
Steve nodded and grateful for the excuse Tony allowed himself to be led from the room.
The two of them barely made it five feet out of the door before they ran quite literally into the director of SHIELD. Nick Fury looked completely unsurprised at their appearance, in fact he looked as if he'd been waiting for them, well one of them at least.
"Stark, we need to talk."
Tony looked up at him bleary eyed not quite registering the request and Bruce's grip on his friends arm tightened slightly.
"I don't think now is a good time Director." The physicist answered, his voice clipped.
Fury didn't reply but the look on his face made them both aware that there was no room for argument and his voice was as clipped as Bruce's when he replied.
"I don't believe I was talking to you Doctor Banner."
Bruce flushed with a momentary surge of anger but Tony shook his head and let out a long suffering sigh and ran a hand through his dirty hair looking more worn than the Director had ever seen him.
"Whatever Fury, where are we having this little party?"
Nick rose an eyebrow at the billionaire's easy agreement and began walking down the corridor toward his office. With a reluctant grimace both men followed him wondering just what clusterfuck they were both walking into now. The office was silent as they entered, Fury sat behind his desk; hands steeped in front of him face dark and unreadable and both men couldn't help but feel a quiver of something tremble inside them.
"Take a seat."
Tony sat but Bruce remained standing, unwilling to give up his position in case he needed to make a hasty retreat, the Director took no mind of it and turned his attention to the billionaire sat in front of him.
"We need to talk about Howard's condition."
Tony felt his stomach twist and he seemed to sink back into the uncomfortable office chair; he was just done with all this bullshit.
"What about him. He's dying, that's what the doctors said." He kept his voice as bland as possible.
Fury didn't look impressed by the response and if Tony's eyes weren't mistaking him (which at this point was entirely possible, he'd been up for pretty much three days straight by this point) he actually looked a little uncomfortable. Well that certainly didn't bode well, a world where Nick motherfucking Fury was uncomfortable over something was not a world that Tony cared to be associated with. Mustering up the last dregs of his swagger he pinned the other man with an unimpressed look.
"What aren't you telling me Fury?"
There was a flicker of eyes and then Nick was composed once again.
"It has been suggested that he be put back in to cryo-status." The slight snarl on his lips indicating that this was not his idea.
Tony saw red, all previous fatigue forgotten.
"Are you fucking kidding me?! That's what created this whole situation in the first place!"
Fury took a deep breath, forcing his voice to be calm.
"No, you being unable to keep your nose out of other people's business created this situation Stark."
The billionaire bit back the next wave of vitriol dancing on his tongue, Fury's point was unfortunately a valid one but that didn't mean he was going to take all of the blame for this mess.
"Well, if you didn't keep peoples fathers…" and he spat the word "…hidden from them and just y'know told them they were alive I wouldn't have had to go on my merry cyber crusade."
It was a definite twisting of the events, Tony knew that but he wasn't going to be made to feel bad for what had been an unfortunate accident on his behalf. The rest of the events had just followed; hell Fury had helped instigate half of them this was just as much his fault as it was Tony's and Tony refused to be fed to the wolves. He glared at Fury who glared back but his heart wasn't in it.
"Stark regardless of blame the truth of the matter is we have a situation. Howard is still a valued member of this establishment and therefore it is his right to have everything done to prolong his life. We may not have a remedy that will cure him now but a few years down the line who knows. Especially if you and Doctor Banner put your heads together."
Again there was that curl to Fury's lips that suggested that these weren't his words and that this was not something he really agreed with and it left Tony feeling cold. Anyone who could twist Fury's arm in such a way was not someone Tony ever wanted to become acquainted with.
"I don't fucking care what me and Bruce can do, I don't care if we fucking cure cancer, all I know is that he is not going back into the fucking freezer because you and the powers that be want another toy that they can play with. Nu-uh, not happening."
Tony was on his feet arms spread wide and braced on Fury's desk, looking exactly like the mad man they so often likened him to. The Director however looked completely nonplussed by Tony's reaction and folded his arms across his chest as he leaned back in his chair, the perfect image of composure.
"It's only a suggestion at this point Stark…" Fury replied, in a tone that suggested that the opposite was probably far closer the truth. "I thought I should be the one to inform you before some stupid intern did."
The sentence grated across Tony's nerves and even though he knew, knew Fury was trying to help him in whatever way he could he could stop the anger taking over.
"Fury, if you think for one second I will let this happen you can go fu…"
"If I may offer my opinion." Bruce's voice was almost painfully polite as he cut across Tony's comment.
Both of the seated men jumped; not visibly but there was a measure of surprise in both of their eyes as if they'd forgotten that he was even there. Fury seemed a little relieved at the interruption and he nodded to Bruce. The physicist shifted more than a little comfortably and removed his glasses; wiping them on his shirt while he pieced together his thoughts.
"I feel that you're all missing a vital point here. Mr Stark senior is still conscious at this point and able to make his own decisions, his rational has not yet deteriorated to a point where he is unable to do so. Therefore you would be infringing on his human rights if you did not allow him the choice at this point. He's not considered a threat…" Here Bruce winced a little "…And is still a private citizen so he should be allowed to choose…. On camera of course."
When he looked up the physicist found both men looking at him with something akin to approval on their faces and Bruce quickly dropped his gaze, not liking being the target of their scrutiny.
"Well it seems Doctor Banner has found a way to solve this little problem." Fury sounded almost pleased.
Tony rolled his eyes; as if that wasn't obvious. But he knew that they would have to work quickly, if whoever wanted Howard back in status caught wind of this they would send someone to assess his capacity and that would not work out well for them, he could just tell. He gave the Director suspicious look and shrugged, spinning around and facing Bruce.
"Good idea Big Guy, come on let's leave the Director to do… whatever it is he does when he isn't harassing us."
The billionaire strode forward with all the dignity he could muster even though his body felt like lead and his heart felt like it was about to explode in his chest from the anxiety. Bruce followed him out deep in thought and looking about as pleased as a penguin in the Bahamas.
"I don't like this..." He said quietly, not really talking to Tony more voicing his train of thought.
Tony nodded in reply, he hadn't liked a damn thing about this whole situation since day one why was now going to be any different?
"..At least Fury gave us a heads up or whatever that was…" Bruce ran a hand through his hair, messing it up even further "…But still; whoever is still pulling strings is still a threat…"
"I hear you bud, but if we get Howard's informed consent, recorded then if they try to take him again we can cause a ruckus; except y'know legally this time."
The physicist chuckled slightly at that.
"That would be a nice change Tony; my 'criminal record' doesn't need any more adding to it."
Tony waved a hand in a dismissive fashion "Psh, please. Domestic terrorist is so 1990's. The new fad is being a traitor."
The lightness of the comment belied the truth behind the words and both of them knew it. Neither of them exactly had exemplary records, it wouldn't take much for them to be 'apprehended' if they were to suddenly fall out of favor and while the idea was horrifying to Tony he could only imagine the fear it held for Bruce.
"Come on you crazy traitor then, let's go save your old man from becoming a Popsicle again. After some food…and possibly a shower because no offense Stark but you smell rank." Bruce joked, although his heart wasn't in it.
Tony let out a sharp bark of laughter and nodded, giving his armpit an unscrupulous sniff and recoiling slightly.
This situation could hold for half an hour.
Steve had sat in silence as Bruce had led Tony out only pausing slightly in his sketching to look at the man lying prone on the medical bed. It was strange but this was the most out of place Howard had seemed to him since the start of this whole fiasco; quiet, still and hooked up to a ridiculous number of machines that he couldn't even begin to name never mind explain what they did. He was used to seeing the man being active, much like his son always was and this stillness disturbed him more than he cared to admit.
They had gone to save him and had ended up putting him in an even worse situation.
And if that wasn't some form of messed up survivor's guilt he didn't know what was.
His eyes darted up as the door to the medical room swung open admitting both Tony and Bruce; they both looked a little better than they had before they'd left just over an hour earlier but the haunted, world weary look still hadn't completely left them. He offered them a small nod and turned back to his drawing feeling more than a little awkward.
"How has he been?" There was gentleness in Tony's voice that had been lacking previously.
"Been kinda fitful..." Steve answered "Mumbling in his sleep."
The billionaire frowned at that, not wanting to imagine the visions running through the old man's head. He'd had enough brushes with death that he knew how much they could haunt your sleeping psyche.
"We need to wake him up Steve, things got complicated again… And well we need to talk to him."
The Captain sighed.
"I had a feeling that might be the case, do you need me to leave?" He asked, closing his sketch book over and placing it on the bedside table, standing to leave the room.
Bruce shuffled a little, looking uncomfortable. "It's up to you Steve, I don't know how well either of you will take the news we were just given or how it will affect either of you but if you want to hear it I have no objections."
The physicist turned his tired gaze on Tony who just shrugged in response.
"It's a free country Cap, although sometimes I do wonder about that."
Steve rolled his eyes and settled himself back into the bedside chair. "Then I'd like to hear what's happening."
The two scientists nodded and Bruce withdrew something from his pocket walking over to Howard. Gently he shook the man asking him to wake up and after a few minutes of no response the brown eyes slid open. His eyes widened slightly when he recognized Bruce and his mouth gaped a little like a dying fish.
The physicist gave a long drawn out sigh; he hated the reactions that people meeting his other half seemed to invoke but as he looked closer he saw there was no fear on Howard's face, instead there was a look akin to gratitude and no small amount of intrigue. But not an ounce of fear, Bruce could see where Tony got that particular trait from now and it made him smile a little inside. Howard was certainly more coherent that earlier, clearly recognizing those around him; so that would make this whole plan run a lot smoother.
"Yes Mr Stark…"
The was a pained exhale of breath "Incredible…"
Tony and Steve couldn't hide their smirks as Bruce felt the back of his neck flush red but right now wasn't the time to have this discussion. Nor ever.
"Mr Stark we need to talk to you about something important."
Howard's jaw clenched and he nodded, he was obviously in a great deal of pain so they had to get this done as quickly as possible. Tony stepped forward and outlined what Fury had told them in his office behind him he felt Steve stiffen as the talked about cryo-stasis; Tony could get that the man still had issues with anything relating to the cold, ice or freezing. Howard listened intently to their explanation his dark eyes pained and glazed but not inattentive and it made Tony's chest twist. By the end of the explanation the elder Stark looked completely worn out and just defeated, completely and utterly defeated; a completely foreign look on the usually assured man's face.
The billionaire sighed. "And that's everything... I, we can only do so much now and we need your help one last time."
There was a rasping breath from the man on the bed as he gingerly shook his head.
"I... No, no more. I just want it to end. I'm tired of all this fighting, I just want to die in peace. I do not want to go back into cryo-stasis nor do I wish to be resuscitated."
Tony blinked away tears as he nodded back feeling relieved and saddened as Howard convulsed as a wave of intense pain hit him. Tony gripped the older man's hand as tightly as he dared trying to offer as much comfort as he could, ignoring the pained stares from both Bruce and Steve. He didn't need to deal with his own emotions right now never mind the emotions of others.
"I, um Steve, Tony would you mind giving me and Howard a minute?" Bruce said eerily calm.
Both of the other men looked up and blinked a little confused and shocked but didn't argue with the request (even if Tony kind of wanted to.) Steve placed a comforting hand on Bruce's shoulder squeezing once before leaving the room, Tony followed a moment later eyeing the other man suspiciously. Bruce wouldn't have requested some alone time without good reason but something about it didn't sit quite right with the billionaire, maybe it had been the strangely detached way he had asked or the somewhat vacant look in the physicist's eye but something felt off.
Dear God he hoped Bruce wasn't about to do anything stupid and he let out a small snort of laughter as he realized the irony of that statement. But he had nothing to worry about Bruce had a surprisingly sharp moral compass he wouldn't do anything to put anyone at risk.
Steve raised an eyebrow at his snort of laughter and Tony shrugged.
"Just musing on the irony of things. " He muttered.
The soldier seemed to understand and let the subject drop but he still stared at Tony, blue eyes sharp and thoughtful.
"You're doing the right thing you know."
Tony started; not entirely sure where that comment had even come from and turned to Steve seeking further explanation. The blond shifted slightly, uncomfortable under the sudden scrutiny but he continued onward.
"By Howard I mean, giving him the choice... He's had so few of those recently and I guess it makes me feel better knowing he got to make his last one for himself. Thank you."
It was as if Steve's statement was an omen as all around them warning alarms went off. The two men looked at one another and dashed into the medical room. Inside it was strangely tranquil despite the alarms blurring all around them; Bruce was standing to the side of Howard's bedside his face an impassive mask but Tony could see the grief, pain and was that guilt in his eyes? He didn't question it as he sat down and took hold of the weathered hand of his father feeling the man's shallow pulse slowly crawl to a halt, Tony's mechanical heart seemingly with it. It had been agonizing the first time he'd lost his parents although admittedly that had been more for his mother than his father. This time, this time it was all for Howard and it burned like a thousand suns.
Steve stood at the door stopping any of the other medics coming in explaining that this was Mr. Stark's final request and that they really should know better than to intrude on such an emotional moment when they clearly weren't wanted. A few of them looked a little shamed-faced but the majority just looked a mixture of frustrated and a little saddened, they may be SHIELD but they were still human and grief was something they had all experienced.
The seconds ticked by into minutes and the alarms finally ceased their incessant racket. Tony sat motionless still clutching on to his father's hand, feeling the warmth begin to seep from it. Beside him Bruce laid a hand on his shoulder, gently trying to get Tony's attention.
"Tony do you... do you want me to..."
The billionaire gave a slow, slow nod and the physicist swallowed.
"Time of death, 20:06."
The silence that engulfed the room was stifling, it felt like a physical vice around Tony's chest squeezing all the air from his lungs. He let go of Howard's hand, laying it gently on the crisp sheet before standing and backing away almost like a frightened child. Without a word he turned and strode toward the doorway SHIELD minions scattering in his wake. Bruce and Steve followed hot on his heels wary of what Tony was planning as he darted into an empty room and shut it behind him.
The soldier and physicist looked at each other worried and Bruce tentatively knocked on the door.
There was a strangled sob and both men felt their hearts lurch in sympathy.
"Tony, can you let us in." Bruce said softly.
"'s open." Came the muffled reply.
Steve opened the door slowly the thin beam of light illuminating the darkened room, the billionaire sat curled up in the corner arms wrapped around his knees, face buried in them looking for all the world the lost little boy he always denied ever being. The two men sat next to him unsure what to say.
"What happened?" Tony choked out, feeling a little bit of his outburst.
"I don't know..." Bruce replied, his voice still sounding somewhat detached "He just closed his eyes like he was at peace and then everything just went down from there."
There was a hiccup as the billionaire tried to compose himself and Steve sat beside him a solid wall of comfort. He knew that he could grieve later, in his own way; right now his comrade needed him.
"At peace?" Tony asked finally looking up from his knees, his face was blotchy and tear streaked.
Bruce nodded "Yeah... He was just ready to go."
The words were quiet but heartfelt and Bruce felt his twist painfully in his chest as his best friend suffered yet another loss.
"Yeah... Good." Because what else could he say at this point?
The billionaire seemed to be slowly pulling himself back together, still frayed slightly at the edges but more like the Tony they both knew. He offered them both a weak smile and Steve clapped him on the shoulder.
"It's better this way... he's not hurting anymore and he won't think he's being a burden anymore. Yeah, it's for the best and now we can move on."
There was a tremor still present in his voice but the words were sincere and Tony knew that the two man sat next to him shared his sentiments wholeheartedly. They had all had their world's turned upside down and both had found their way through it but this time none of them would have to do it alone.
They were a team.
They were Avengers.