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It Only Hurts (When I Breathe)

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Tony knows how he is going to die.

It isn’t going to be splattered against the sidewalk from a mission gone wrong. It isn’t going to be from a failing liver (he didn’t really drink that much) or a laboratory explosion (those were usually pre-planned purely for the joy of watching Steve get that constipated look on his face) or of old age (because there was no way he was making it that long--he’d already used up 25 of his nine cat lives).

He is going to die from Not Breathing.

It didn’t used to be a Problem. It had been a problem, but not a Problem. Not until After.

There had been instances before, but they were minor compared to the After.

Before Not Breathing had been more of a not breathing. (There had been him, seven years old and gasping as his father looked down on him, his mother crying, and after that he stayed away when his father was smoking and it really wasn’t an issue). Before it was easily taken care of with standard treatments, labeled mild, and controlled, and the only real ‘flare’ had been when he was twenty and had pneumonia and had been hooked up to oxygen and chest tubes and things that just weren’t fun.

But that was just once (and maybe a few more times--once when he tried to run a marathon) but it had never been like this.

Not until After.

After there was this thing in his chest (this thing that glowed and kept him alive and that he couldn’t keep from touching at least once every half-an-hour just to make sure that it was still there, and warm, and working) that went too deep and too wide and sat where pieces of his ribs and lungs once had (protecting him) and keeping the little metal bits that were trying to tear him to shreds from continuing to rip through his lungs and into his heart (and as if this thing wasn’t enough, those little metal bits, shrapnel, were littered through his chest, putting scar tissue into places where it just didn’t need to be).

The thing was heavy and tight and it kept him alive. But it also made him Not Breathe. (And really, his lungs had been the traitor to begin with, but they hadn’t been this bad, hadn’t refused so absolutely to cooperate with the rest of him).

There was a constant zipper in his chest, soft and whistling, and if he talked fast enough, loud enough, than he couldn’t hear it and for a second (or maybe two) he could pretend he was really Breathing, not doing this sort of whistle, skip, gasp, thing that kept oxygen flowing to his already abused heart.

And when he couldn’t, on days where he just couldn’t talk fast enough or loud enough and they might hear, might realize that he was Not Breathing and just pretending, those were the days (weeks) that he locked himself in his lab to work, Jarvis pumping oxygen enriched air through the room. Days where it was really bad (the days where he didn’t need to hide the whistle-wheeze because he couldn’t even get enough air to whistle-wheeze) he locked everyone out of the lab, pulled down the curtains, ignored the shouts, the pounding, and curses, and curled up on the worn leather couch wrapped in his blanket (the one he liked to hold under his nose when he really couldn’t Breathe, as if somehow it would help) and his nebulizer, watching classics like My Fair Lady, and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, and The Wizard of Oz (things he would have watched with his mother, when he was little and couldn’t breathe, and she’d sit with him and stroke his head and not point out how bad he was at breathing--good thing she couldn’t see him now). He’d fall asleep to Jarvis’ quiet commentary through the movies and if he was lucky he’d wake up and would be able to Not Breathe.

Tony had learned all the little tricks to keep his Not Breathing just Not Breathing and not NOT BREATHING (like not thinking about standing water, because do you know how hard it is for an asthmatic with a car battery to make it through water boarding--but if he could make it through that, then he should be able to handle a little cigar smoke). He drank lots of black coffee (caffeine helped keep his airway open--it also kept him from thinking about water, and deserts, and this thing in his chest), took scalding showers (could ease a tight whistle to a wet wheeze if he was lucky), used his daily inhalers (they were hard to hide), and his rescue one (he hadn’t found a way to use that in the suit--and he really needed to, he really, really needed to), and his nebulizer at night when it wasn’t enough, and when it was really bad, really, really, really bad, he had an oxygen tank safely hidden away (and he reserved that for when everything else hadn’t worked--for days he flew nukes through the atmosphere and into different dimensions).

So he was going to die from Not Breathing (because that was all he did was Not Breathe now) and no one would know (not even Pepper or Rhodey) because he hadn’t told them before, and he wasn’t talking about it After.

And it might just be today.

Today the suit felt like a coffin, closed tight and pressing close. He knew it was bad because that comforting whistle-wheeze (that sound that told him was alive and breathing even if it didn’t feel like it) had disappeared, and his chest hurt, it hurt, and it was pulling tight, so tight, all around the reactor.

No one asked why he wasn’t talking, each of them occupied by the mutant spider thing that was ravaging 52nd street, trying to keep it from moving, from causing more damage, from killing any innocents. It was good they weren’t asking, because he couldn’t have answered anyway.

“Sir, your oxygen levels are rapidly dropping. I’m pumping 100% oxygen now.”

That was a lie on Jarvis’ part, because he can taste the Albuterol in the air, not much, not concentrated like it would be if he was home with a mask over his face, because it was filtering through the whole suit, but enough that a little of the hurt went away. Enough that when one of the eight giant legs came down, he was able to blast out of the way.

“Thanks, J,” he managed to gasp.

“Sir, your oxygen levels are holding steady at 83%. I recommend that you return soon so that you may have a treatment.”

“Only if you make coffee,” Tony tried to cough, to clear the mucus from his lungs, but he couldn’t (you need air to cough) and gave up.

“Already brewing, Sir.”

He wasn’t sure what he’d do without Jarvis.

A spindly leg drove into his side and for a second there was nothing but panic, clawing at his throat, closing around his chest…Captain America cut the leg off with his shield and the Hulk picked it up to use as a bat. Even as he watched his teammates ravage the spider, he had to back off, take a second, force himself to breathe.

“You okay, Iron Man?”

“Yeah, Cap,” Tony managed, cutting his microphone so he could gasp in peace.

He didn’t have to hear Jarvis’ voice to know the suit was being flooded with fresh air, he could feel it on his face, and for right now, it had to be enough. One hard cough later (couldn’t the monster squeezing around his chest just back off for today?) and he turned his communication system back on. “Stupid thing scratched the suit.”

Tony could hear Natasha snort. “Is that all you think about,” Clint teased, “how good you look?”

“Just how much better than you.” The banter was going to cost him.

A second later, Thor managed to drive the leg the Hulk had been waving around through the spider and it collapsed into the street. Tony couldn’t help the hand that reached up to squeeze reflexively at his arc reactor--even if he wasn’t able to reach it through his suit.

Alright, giant bug of the day down.

“Iron Man, I want you to head back and get that side looked at. Based on the way the suit crumpled, you probably have bruised ribs.”

Thank you, Captain Obvious. If he could breathe, he’d probably tell Steve that. As it was… “Aye, aye, Cap.”

“Everyone else is on clean-up duty.”

Tony could hear Barton groan.

“Alright, J, bring me home,” Tony mumbled, closing his eyes momentarily at the dizziness. He could feel the autopilot kick in and trusted Jarvis to steer him back to the Tower.

His landing wasn’t the most graceful ever, both knees taking the brunt of it, and he had to wait a minute before he could stand so Jarvis could remove the suit.

“I must insist you come down to the lab immediately, Sir.”

Tony nodded, knowing the AI would see it on one of its many cameras, and stumble-stepped towards the elevator.

His lab door slid open, curtains already lowering themselves. Dummy had his nebulizer case in hand, whirring and chirping as he spun around Tony. “Thanks,” Tony patted Dummy’s arm and accepted the case, collapsing on the couch.

By the time he had the medicine measured out and the machine plugged in, Dummy had returned with his blanket.

Mask in place, nebulizer humming, and curled under his blanket, Tony struggled to take deep breaths, to force the tightness away and welcome the wheezing back. A large screen lowered down in front of him and a title screen flickered by. Mary Poppins? Seriously?

Tony would have said something, but he was tired, and his chest hurt, and maybe this time he was going to fall asleep Not Breathing and just not wake up.

Maybe Mary Poppins wasn’t such a bad choice after all. Instead of hot deserts and cold water Tony dreamt of dancing penguins and breathing.

He dreamt as his chest loosened its violent hold, he slept through his own loud wheeze, and watched the penguins step lightly across tabletops as Steve pounded on the door.

“I’m sorry, Captain Rogers, but Mr. Stark is currently occupied.”

“Jarvis, I need to check on him.”

“He cannot be disturbed right now, Sir. I will let him know you stopped by.”

Steve could hear the stubborn note in the AI’s voice, knew he wasn’t getting through. So he traveled back up to the living area as Tony slept fitfully on his couch with a spoonful of sugar flickering in the background.

Tony wakes to loud Not Breathing, and gives himself a moment to feel relieved at the sound. He isn’t up to doing much more than laying there, buried under his blanket, and he sits still and wheezes and cradles the black coffee that Jarvis made and Dummy delivered while watching MacGyver build a bomb out of toothpaste and dental floss (really?) because for some reason it was Jarvis’ favorite show. Tony sits and doesn’t think about Not Breathing, about how it is getting worse, and more often, and how his chest fucking hurts right now, because you can’t think about those things when you’re learning to build a bomb out of toothpaste and dental floss.

Tony hears the pounding this time, realizes that it is movie night, take-out night, and that it‘s his turn to pick. But he doesn’t really have the strength to form coherent sentences, let alone stand, or pretend that he could breathe in front of everyone, so he settles for picking up the nebulizer and trying another treatment (had it been four hours?) to see if it would make his head stop spinning and maybe, just maybe, a little more of the ache in his chest go away.

He doesn’t hear what Jarvis tells the person pounding at the door, but he hears them a second later.

“Tony, whatever you’re working on can wait. You need to eat. And it’s movie night.” Steve. He was probably holding down that red speaker button outside the door right now.

The thought of taking a deep enough breath to answer sends phantom pain through his lungs, so Tony curls deeper into the couch and tries to make his wheezes soft and even as the warm mist from the nebulizer fogs his mask.

In and out. In and out. Not so hard. Babies did it all the time.

“Tony.”

“Sir, what would you like me to tell Captain Rogers?”

Tony thinks for a minute, tries to get his oxygen deprived brain into gear, but comes up empty. He should be fixing the suit right about now, but that would require more air than Tony is currently willing to give up.

“Tony, answer me! If you don’t answer me, I’m going to break down the door and come in!”

Jarvis, luckily, doesn’t need oxygen to think. “Mr. Stark is currently out.”

Steve must let go of the little red button, because now Tony can’t hear the conversation, but that’s okay, because he wasn’t listening anyway. He debates for about the millionth time whether he should tell the Captain, because his Not Breathing is definitely getting worse, but the thought of being grounded, left behind while the others went off, leaving them open to attack, scares him more than Not Breathing.

He thinks about trying to explain it to them. Steve might understand (hadn’t he had asthma?), but this wasn’t asthma, this was so much different, so much worse, because he had asthma before, but now, now he had Not Breathing. Asthma was sometimes. It was long runs, and cigarette smoke, and hot days, and cold air, and just moments. Not Breathing was all the time, every day, every second, and nothing made it go away.

It hadn’t been so bad at first, After. There was a lot of not breathing and occasional Not Breathing, but ever since the reactor had tried to poison him, ever since moving to New York, he spent more and more time Not Breathing, until now it seemed like all the time. (Because it was all the time, wasn’t it?) And things like falling in rivers, or being out in the hot sun always made it worse.

Maybe if he moved out of the city (away from the smog) he’d be better.

Or maybe not.

And he doesn’t want to leave the city, because then he’d have to leave the Avengers and the only thing worse than dying from Not Breathing would be dying without them there.

He can’t tell them either, because as soon as Fury finds out, they’ll be gone and it’ll be just him and the Not Breathing.

So he closes his eyes and goes to sleep and pretends that tomorrow he’ll be able to breathe.

He isn’t surprised when he can’t breathe tomorrow, but the Not Breathing is a little better, and he can hide it today.

When Tony makes it to the kitchen (he needs coffee, lots of coffee if he wants to keep going with his pretense) he finds that Thor has somehow managed to set the toaster on fire. Clint’s guilty look tells Tony that it was him that convinced the demi-god to shove six Pop-Tarts into the little slot. He should scold Barton, at the least harass him, but the smoke isn’t going to help his wonderful acting job, and so Tony leaves just as quickly as he appeared.

He ends up in the living room, where Natasha is reading a book and Thor is now watching E.T. and laughing over Midgardian’s version of aliens. Natasha gives him a once over, eyebrow quirking, and for a second (she knows, she knows), Tony panics, can’t even Not Breathe, but he forces past it and smiles. “Miss me?”

Natasha snorts and Thor pulls him down onto the couch and that’s the end of that. Until Steve comes in, arms laden with groceries, and insists Tony eat, because he knows he hasn’t (and of course he hasn’t, because have you ever tried to eat while Not Breathing?), which brings him back to the kitchen and the lingering smell of smoke.

Twenty minutes and one roast beef sandwich later, Tony is back in his lab with the nebulizer firmly in place, wondering how much worse this can possibly get.

He isn’t really getting any work done anymore.

He’s barely pulling through missions.

He’s too tired to even make it to bed most days.

Jarvis is rattling off numbers and times and medication names, but Tony isn’t listening, too focused on the harsh sound in his chest, the tightening around the arc reactor, the way his shoulders hurt. In and out. In and out.

It didn’t used to be this bad. (He keeps telling himself this--wondering where he went wrong). Even After it wasn’t this bad. But then there was the nuke and aliens, and giant bugs, and strange robots, and portals and non-stop mayhem, and Not Breathing.

He’d had Jarvis run the calculations. Had taken x-rays himself.

Tony could see the mass of scar tissue built up around the reactor, could see the little pieces of shrapnel in his lungs, and he wondered, even now, how he was able to Not-Breathe so well with his heart and his ribs and his lungs all squished out of place.

In and out. In and out.

Jarvis said that there was a 1 in a million chance that he should have lasted this long (lived at all) with his organs pressed out of the way for that thing (arc reactor--part of him, not separate, not thing), pieces of lungs missing (didn’t he need those to breathe?) the rest littered with scar tissue and sharp, poking, tearing, metal.

He figured that was Jarvis’ way of calling him a stubborn bastard.

In and out. In and out.

The Avengers alarm blared loudly through the lab. Couldn’t the world just let him Not-Breathe in peace?

One night, as he lies alone in his room (and not a particularly bad night either), Tony recalls the last time he knew he was dying, and the string of self-destructive behavior he left in his wake.

He tells himself it is different this time. People are relying on him.

Steve is relying on him.

He’s never really had people rely on him before this. Without him, the world would keep on turning, Stark Industries would still survive. But now he had a team, a team that was depending on him, trusting him, believing in him, and he couldn’t let them down.

This time, he really wants to live. Even though he probably won’t.

So he uses all his tricks (the hot water bill is going to be astronomical) and guzzles coffee like its no one’s business and talks really fast. Except when they’re out on a mission, because now he has to save his air for important things. Like making sure everyone else is okay, and, of course, not passing out.

“You feeling alright?” Natasha asks, a few weeks after the spider incident. “You’ve been awfully quiet lately. I’d think you were building something spectacular, like an Avengers Transformers Jet, but normally you’d be running around bragging by now.”

“That’s because the Transformers Jet was totally last month.”

Natasha just raises an eyebrow, skeptical, and Tony grins.

“You should eat more often,” she says finally. “And get some sleep. You’re starting to look like a supermodel.”

Tony juts out his chin and struts down the hallway, making sure to sashay. As soon as he rounds the corner, he’s doubled over, leaning hard against the wall and trying not to cough. He spends the entire afternoon in his lab.

Jarvis is running through possibilities, trying to find different medicines, doctors, anything that might help his creator. He’s running these even as Tony sleeps (because Jarvis doesn’t have to) small and lonely on his leather couch.

He still hasn’t found a way to put a rescue inhaler in the suit--a way to deliver the medication he seems to need all the time now. He knows, after this mission, that he needs to make that a priority.

This last mission was bad. He’d been pulled underwater by some giant octopus creature, and for a second (minute, eternity) he was holding a hot car battery in his hands and there was no air (even though Jarvis had it cycling through the suit all the time now, even though there wasn’t any water actually touching him) and there wasn’t Not Breathing, there was nothing but his chest tightening around the reactor and blind panic.

The Hulk managed to pull him free, but it took him too long to recover. And while Thor probably wouldn’t notice, and Bruce might not remember, and the super spies were currently otherwise occupied…

Steve was looking right at him.

He hovered, willing his chest to loosen as Jarvis rattled numbers in his ear. “Tony, take a breather.” Poor choice of words, Cap.

Tony wanted to protest, but that required more air than he had right now. He could see Natasha turn at the sound of Steve’s voice, looking up from her spot on the dock. It was too far away to see the accusation on her face, but he could feel it.

There was a little gasping sound surrounding him, echoing inside the suit. Everything was blurring and he felt himself drop a few feet before Jarvis took over the repulsors. “Sir, you must return now.”

“M’good, J,” Tony protested, eyes blinking. In and out. In and…

He was kneeling on the ground. Why was he on the ground?

“Cap,” Natasha shot one of the flailing tentacles. “We’re good here.”

Steve turned. “Tony, head back. We’ll be there shortly.”

Jarvis took off before he could say anything. (But what would he say? He didn’t have enough air to keep his eyes open anymore).

Everything is fuzzing in and out. Colors and sounds standing out in sharp relief one second, then fading the next. He isn’t sure how he makes it down to the lab, doesn’t know when he lands on the battered couch (his home now), just hears the soft English accent leading him on into nothingness.

Steve leaves the others to clean up.

He’s trying not to panic as he makes a break for Tony’s lab. He knows what he saw (knows what he heard), saw his own fear confirmed on Natasha’s face. What the others hadn’t noticed, she already had. Today just seemed to cement it.

“Jarvis, I need to know what’s going on,” he snaps, ripping his cowl off and dropping it on the floor of the elevator. (If there wasn’t this clawing fear clogging his throat, he may have felt guilty about leaving it there, as it was, he didn’t really care).

“Mr. Stark is currently in his lab. The lab is locked down.”

It is. He can see the curtains pulled. That’s a sure sign that Tony won’t let anyone in.

Too bad. The genius is going to have to suck it up today. Because he recognized that sound (remembered it from so long ago). That was a sound his own body had made Before--but only on his very worst days. And on his very worst days…

“Jarvis let me in.”

“I’m sorry, Captain. I cannot.” And the AI sounds truly sorry.

“Jarvis, override code Sierra-Papa-Alfa-November-Golf-Lima-Echo-Yankee-Papa-Alfa-November-Tango-Sierra.”

There was a brief pause and then, “Spangley Pants override accepted.”

The hiss of the door sliding open was immediately drowned out by a loud humming. It took Steve longer than it should have to find their resident billionaire. His eyes scanned the lab, trying to process (shouldn’t he be yelling by now about the override?), discover Tony’s latest hiding place (under the work bench was where he’d been caught by Pepper on numerous occasions), just make sure that he was okay (because he had to be--he was just tired, working too hard, too late).

Finally his eyes fell on Dummy, who was hovering and making a distraught whine over a lump on the couch. Except…

The lump was Tony.

In two steps Steve had crossed the room, knees cracking hard off the cement floor. How had he made himself that small--how had he curled himself under that tattered blanket?

There was some sort of mask and warm mist, and tubes and attachments and they were all connected to a little black box. This was where the humming was coming from.

But even over the humming Steve could hear the harsh rasp of an inhale, the stuttered gasp of an exhale, and the sharp whistle in between. His own chest tightened with phantom pain, a remembrance of Before (when he was sick and weak and going to die--so much like Tony’s After) and struggling to have your body fulfill one basic need: breathe.

There weren’t these black boxes then, and his own breathing had sounded like that only on the very worst days. (The days that started with a zipper in his chest and tightened to a vise that choked off his oxygen supply).

But if this was what Tony was doing behind closed curtains…

Tony was having worse days than he’d ever had.

For a second Steve’s angry that Tony didn’t trust them (him). And then he’s worried (heartbroken) because Tony has gone through this all alone.

He wants to shake him awake and yell at him (or just make sure he’s breathing, because he seems to be skipping every other inhale now), ground him forever from his suit (keep him safe), and offer up his own lungs as replacement. He wants to fight this (but how does someone fight when their own body is the thing betraying them). And he remembers how much worse it was to lay on your side gasping for air (fish out of water) than to freeze in the ice. He couldn’t control freezing in the ice, but he should be able to control something as easy as breathing (remembers berating himself as a child for what others could do as babies--doesn‘t realize that Tony‘s already thought the same thing).

Dummy is spinning in little circles now, and maybe that is a robotic form of panic.

Steve resists the urge to wake Tony up. (When did those dark smudges appear beneath his eyes? When did his hands become so thin?)

Somehow, though, he manages to slip behind Tony on the couch, pillowing the other man’s head in his lap (and maybe it’s his imagination, but Tony seems to breath better propped up--more whistling and less gasping now). Dummy settles down to the left of them, and he’s momentarily shocked when a giant screen drops in front of him.

“Do you have any preferences, Sir? Mr. Stark likes to watch movies when he isn’t feeling well.”

He has no idea what Tony would like to watch (and he should, shouldn’t he?) despite having lived in the same Tower for over six months.

“Surprise me, Jarvis.”

Steve only has to wait a moment before yellow text starts scrolling up the screen. He wonders if this is where Tony got his idea to create his AI friends in the first place, watching Luke and R2D2 interact and wanting a droid of his own.

It’s nearly an hour later when Tony’s breath stutters, then falters entirely, and Steve is just about to panic when he starts to cough harshly, pulling himself up on one elbow and pawing for the mask on his face.

“What…the hell…” he gasped, glaring up at Steve.

“I used override code Spangly Pants.”

“Emergencies,” Tony’s wracking cough vibrated Steve’s entire frame. “Avenger…emergencies.”

“I think this qualifies,” and if his voice was a little dry (he’d been picking up on this sarcasm thing thanks to Tony and Clint), well, who was going to point it out?

Tony half groaned and closed his eyes, collapsing sideways onto Steve (only because he was in the way) as he continued to try to clear the mucus from his lungs.

Eventually he settles, his wheeze still loud above the nebulizer he’d never turned off, and realizes that he’s smashed into Captain America’s side. Steve’s arm is wrapped around his waist (and he better not be cuddling) holding him steady despite the labored breaths. In and out. In and out.

On screen, people are being crushed by a garbage compactor. So is Tony’s chest, apparently.

To his credit, (if he is going to insist on sitting here) Steve doesn’t say anything. He isn’t patting Tony’s back, or whispering words of encouragement, or pointing out how shitty Tony is at Not Breathing (things he knows certain doctors have tried in the past), or attempting to ground him from the team (because Tony would beat the crap out of him here and now just to prove he could do it). In fact, Steve’s eyes are intent on the screen in front of him, and if his thumb is moving in little circles where it is resting on Tony’s arm, then sue him.

Because Steve knows that the last thing you want when you are like this is for someone to point out how bad you are at breathing (you think I didn’t notice?), or to pretend that if you would just calm down that somehow it would all go away (because have you ever had your body betray you with something as fundamental as breathing--it doesn’t just go away--it lurks around dark corners and jumps you in the middle of the night when you’re least expecting it), or pity you because their lungs work better than yours.

So he keeps his eyes fixed on the screen in front of him, watches as the movie changes from A New Hope to Empire Strikes Back, and doesn’t comment when he feels Tony’s head drop to his shoulder, his weight settle against Steve’s side. The mask is back in place now (and it seems to be helping--but how had he not noticed this before?), and Tony’s eyes are drooping again. Dummy has calmed down, appears to be watching the movie intently, whirring with excitement at the battle scenes. Jarvis is silent, though he has relocked the entire lab (and if someone comes looking, Steve isn’t letting them in).

Eventually, Steve’s eyes close too, his head pillowed by the back of the couch, and when he wakes up in the middle of the night, he finds that Tony is now half-sprawled on top of him (he can feel the rumble in Tony’s chest against his own, does his best not to flinch away) and the blanket that the other man had wrapped himself in is now draped over both of them. A smile curls at the corner of his lips as he wraps one arm around Tony’s back and pulls him just a little closer. He falls asleep to the sound of Tony wheezing, and the comforting thought that at least the other man is breathing.

Knocking on the lab door wakes him, and Tony shifts, mumbling incoherently and coughing under his breath. He waits a second, but Tony doesn’t get up.

“I’m sorry, Captain Rogers. But Agent Romanov is being quite insistent.”

He manages to slip out from underneath Tony without disturbing him, and makes sure to tuck the blanket firmly around him before sliding out the lab door.

“How bad is it?”

Steve rubs at his forehead and shuffles his feet. Natasha just nods.

“Are you going to ground him?”

“No,” he says without hesitation (because he used to be the kid that couldn’t breathe--and he hated to be left behind).

“Okay.” She doesn’t question his decision. “You want breakfast? Bruce was making pancakes. I can bring some down.”

And he thinks (hopes) that maybe, everything is going to be alright.

Steve never says anything, and a little of the ache in Tony’s chest eases.

It’s maybe the third or fourth mission before Tony realizes that even though Steve has never said anything to him, that he must have talked to the rest of his team. He hadn’t noticed it before, but now he can see that there is always someone nearby, and that thought helps him breathe a little easier.

The coffee pot is always full upstairs (surprisingly), dark, black, and hot. The fact that they care enough to keep the coffee pot full makes him relax just a fraction more.

He’s Not Breathing easier now, back to pre-Avenger (pre-nuclear flight) days. Logically he knows that it is because he’s (for some reason) less stressed than he has been in months. And for the first time in a long time, Tony acknowledges that he might not die from this Not Breathing (even if most days the heavy weight in his chest reminds him that he’s not quite living either).

Maybe that’s why he’s surprised (and really he shouldn’t be by now) when in the middle of a battle against an array of Doombots, his breath catches. He’d been thrown to the ground, inhaled too hard, too fast, and now it’s stuck and he can’t get it out.

Tony’s bent double, kneeling on asphalt, trying to get up, trying to force stale air to leave his twisted and abused lungs.

“Just take it easy,” Clint’s voice sounds over the comm unit. “I’ve got your back.”

And he does. He’s standing right next to Tony firing off arrows left and right. A second later Thor has landed next to them and is tapping on his visor.

Tony manages to release it, still trying to desperately move air, when Thor holds something in front of his face. A rescue inhaler. “The good Captain said you may need this, my friend.”

Three puffs later and he can hear himself wheeze, follows it with a hard cough that never seems to end. “Thanks…buddy,” he murmurs and starts to pull himself up.

“You should rest a minute, Anthony. The Hawk and I can take care of this.” He swings his hammer, detaching a head from a robotic body.

“Listen to him, Tony,” Natasha encourages, the sound of ricocheting bullets echoing over his earpiece.

“That’s an order,” Steve adds, as if it was necessary. Somewhere off to his left, Hulk roars.

Knowing that they’ve rallied around him is enough to get him standing, enough to shake off the dizziness and let him Not Breathe through the rest of the battle. It keeps him going until he’s standing in front of Fury, who is living up to his namesake.

“What the hell was that, Stark?!”

Tony can’t get enough air to reply. His normal snarky remark is caught somewhere in his windpipe, squeezing it shut. This man could kick him off the team. He could lose all this. He was going to lose everything, just when he felt like he could finally start breathing again (he was finally safe--no terrorists, no aliens, nothing could get through this team to him, so what was a little Not Breathing?).

“I want you to report to medical, now, Stark. If you aren’t fit to be on my team…”

Tony isn’t quite sure what happened, but suddenly he’s surrounded with warm bodies. Clint’s shoulder is pressing in on his right, Bruce (tired and still a little green) is leaning on his left. He can feel Thor hovering mere centimeters behind him, and Natasha has sidled in front of him, just slightly off center so he could still see around her. The message is clear, and if Tony trembles slightly in relief, no one says a word.

And Steve. He’s pressed toe to toe with Nick Fury. His cowl is off, but in his stars and stripes he appears to be twice as tall as the other man.

“My team. My team, Director. If you don’t like who’s on my team, then we’ll find a different agency to work for.”

Before Fury can reply, Tony’s being ushered into the Quinjet and they’re heading home.

Soon after that a nebulizer appears upstairs. It sits on the coffee table in front of the television. An afghan (Tony suspects that Natasha may have knitted it herself, but knows better than to ask) appears on the back of the couch, and now his bad days are spent curled up here--always with someone close by.

Some days its Clint, sitting on the opposite end of the couch and throwing popcorn and yelling at the t.v. Other days its Natasha reclining in front of him on the floor with some book written in a foreign language. Thor feels that Tony is a wonderful captive audience--who clearly has nothing better to do than watch him run across the screen as Donkey Kong, or Mario, or Yoshi. Bruce likes to watch nature programs and sip tea. But most days, its Steve, pressed to his side, or holding him up, or being a pillow as they work their way through classic films and television programs, catching him up on the 70 years that he missed.

Those days are his favorite. They almost make the Not Breathing worth it.

He isn’t sure how he did it before, but he’s breathing better than he has in years. He isn’t touching the arc reactor every half-an-hour to make sure it is working, isn’t waiting for the other cosmic shoe to drop.

Tony isn’t sure how he’s going to die anymore.

But if he’s going to die from Not Breathing, he thinks he’d like to die right here.