Cold – so cold – his throat hurts, his head hurts; his chest aches beyond all imagining, each breath a slice of ice cold pain through his ribs, an unknown pressure deep inside; every movement brings new awareness of an alien thing inside him.
He scrabbles, fumbles; cold, tired fingers ripping, tearing at the bandage, exposing the core of him, the scarring fresh, red, tender, mottled under his fingers. He chokes back bile at the sight, ignores the way his breath mists in the air as he breaths in the scent of mildew, stale sweat and battery acids; swallows the tears, the fear, with long practice.
Hands grab him, hard, rough, lift him to his weak legs, force him through damp tunnels, no care for the heavy battery in his arms or the jagged edges of the walls and floor, scraping against his flesh, tearing new wounds, muddying old. He’s blind, hood over his head, relies on unreliable hands to get him where they need him, no idea what’s going on, what to expect from one moment to the next.
The water engulfs him and he chokes – dual fears of drowning and electrocution racing through his mind; exposed wires, circuitry in his chest. One false move and he could be dead before he knew what was happening. Water is in his mouth, throat, lungs – dirty, stale, muddy; no idea where it’s been, what’s in it. Doesn’t care, can’t breathe, lungs burning and burning, heart racing.
Yinsen looks up at him, tired, pale, already mostly dead, tells him it’s what he wants. It’s not what Tony wanted, not what he planned. The guilt, the fear, drives him forward, out into the heat and the dust, fire, fire, bullets flying, words screamed in languages he can’t hope to understand.
The fear focuses his mind, until paralysis takes hold and suddenly he’s staring at a trusted face, a smiling face, as his mentor pulls out his heart and leaves him to die. He can feel the shrapnel, his heart beating erratically, unable to move, simply watching as his father’s closest friend leaves him without a backward glance.
And he’s staring at the alien ship, staring and staring, engulfed in silence as the nuke flies toward it, not knowing if he’s going to make it this time – not knowing if he’s already used up all his lives, his chances.
And he falls.
Tony wakes with a swallowed scream, a yelp, a whimper and stares at the dark ceiling above him, feels trickles of sweat slide down his temples, through the greying hair there.
With a snort, he pushes upward, slides a trembling hand through his hair.
“Good morning, sir.”
It takes a moment to process the voice, his mind still caught in the fear/guilt/pain/fear of the nightmare.
“J- JARVIS. Hey. What time is it?”
He sits up properly, drops his face into his hands. He’s still trembling, aborted adrenaline rush that he’s never good at dealing with these days.
“It is 3.34 am, sir. I am registering high stress levels again, Mr Stark, Ms Potts has asked that she be informed of such-“
“No. No, JARVIS. I’m fine, good – peachy, even. Do not tell Pepper anything. At all. I’ll talk to her if I need to, and I don’t need to.”
“Very well, sir.”
Tony sighs, scrubs at his face and rolls down, onto his side, facing the empty side of the bed. The side Pepper used to sleep on. Not so long ago, a week – well, ten days. Apparently being a full fledged member of the Avengers initiative had been the final straw to an already damaged relationship.
With one hand cradling the ARC reactor, the other stretched out across the empty space of the bed, Tony clears his mind as best he can – which isn’t very clear at all, really, he thinks all the time, even when he’s doing other things; numbers, equations, graphs, schematics, constantly floating through his brain – and does his best to drift back into the void again.