--And of all the ways he could and should have died (crushed in the bones of his Ferrari, panting under a woman, or blown up in his lab to name a few) this is easily in the top ten ways Tony Stark Should Not Have Gone Out, parched with his heart trying to beat around a block of metal in his don’t think don’t look and lungs so compressed he can’t take a deep breath.
Sun. Hurting in his eyes and digging down into his guts and wrapping itself around every nerve. He hurts. Impact hadn’t exactly been on a feather pillow, and that was after getting chest-gutted. They’ll find him, someone will find him and he’ll be able to take a deep breath – he can’t breathe, impact knocked things loose, every time he tries something hurts deep inside his chest, he’s sure he’s bleeding, he feels like he must be bleeding.
He can’t breathe and the cotton around his head is suffocating him but he doesn’t dare take it off, ditch it like he badly wants to do. It’ll be cold tonight, he’s so thirsty Jesus what he wouldn’t give for a bottle of water. As soon as he gets home, and he is, he’s getting home, but as soon as he gets home he’s buying out the first water company that crosses his path.
He’s a dead man walking, he can’t touch, but-- but just a little, just a palm over it and the pressure makes pain echo down through his chest, radiating into his shoulders and spine and fuck.
He hears something. Keep moving, keep walking, he hears it again but he’s been hearing things for the past two days, only not, only it’s overhead, it’s a chopper, and he’s screaming before he can stop himself, laughing until he tastes iron and he’s never been more grateful to see Rhodey running up to him in full fatigues, like the weirdest guardian angel ever.
He falls but Rhodey is there, making some smartass remark, and Tony laughs and tries not to cry because he’s not going to do that, fuck if he’s going to cry now.
When he wakes up, he isn’t home.
He knows home. The smell of it, the texture; Jarvis practicing his witty repartee. He smells desert and dirt and the pain is trapped under something foggy and dense, but somehow it’s still as bad as it’s been since this shitshow began.
“Relax,” Rhodey says somewhere near. He’s on a stretcher, lights overhead, the sound of uniforms and boots on linoleum and faces all around him wearing green, and Rhodey who looks like he went three rounds with a terrorist cell and lost. Or maybe that’s him.
The pain is getting worse, and Rhodey leans down over him, grips his hand hard and says, “Tony, you’ve got to tell me what it is.”
The lights dim overhead, just for a second – a doorway, the shadows lit in blue – but Rhodey is there, he’s got a hold on him so Tony knows it’s safe. The pain is coming worse, ratcheting up towards agony, like the cave -- those sick bastards operating on him -- and he hears an animal whimpering, he had a little dog as a kid who whimpered like that after he was hit by a car. “We’re in Bagram. MedEvac to Landstuhl is on its way. They’re going to stabilize you here, but before they can help you I need to know what we’re dealing with. Do you understand?”
The whimpering is awful, and Tony coughs, throat dry even though he must have sucked down six bottles of water in the chopper, even when Rhodey tried to stop him. “Don’t,” he says, and coughs again. “Don’t take it out.”
“No one’s going to touch it,” Rhodey says, and there are doctors and voices and blood is pumping out around the casing of the arc reactor; he’s bleeding all over the place, sheeted down his belly, down his sides, up over his neck. Tony drops his head back down, he is not going to cry, even if no one would ever give him shit because he’s got a fucking battery lodged between his lungs and he can’t breathe.
“Don’t do this,” Rhodey barks in his Colonel Voice, like he thinks that does anything for Tony, like he thinks he can get him to listen, except maybe it does because Tony can’t look away from him. “Focus on me,” he says, squeezing Tony’s hand just as hard as Tony is squeezing his. “What is it?”
Tongue stuck to the roof of his mouth but fuck, fuck. “Night light.”
The voices around him pause, and some of the terror slips off Rhodey’s face. “Now is not the time to be a smartass, Tony.”
“Always time,” Tony says, because one of the docs is doing something awful and Tony knows if he looks down he’s going to see his chest gaping open like a scene out of Alien. “Reactor. Like at the factory.”
“Why is it in your chest?”
“Shrapnel,” Tony says, and alarms go off around his ears and he can’t breathe and the pain is going to eat him up from the head down. “In my heart. I made it. Not the shrapnel. …Well. The shrapnel too.”
“Okay. Okay,” Rhodey says, and squeezes his hand harder, and tries his best not to look completely horrified, like they haven’t known each other for fifteen years and Tony can read him down to the atom. “Can we take it out?”
“No,” Tony says, or maybe shouts, from very far away. Rhodey is pushed aside and there are faces overhead and it hurts worse than fucking anything and Tony surprises himself by fighting, like these people aren’t here to help.
Shouting, and Rhodey, and a mask over his face, and then nothing.
When he wakes up, he’s bathed in cold sweat. It’s so loud, and he’s freezing, and Rhodey is there again, looking like he hasn’t slept in four days. When he notices Tony’s awake he takes his hand again; Tony would crack a joke if it he didn’t need it so pathetically badly. There’s a nurse, and a doctor, both in fatigues and each touching him but Tony doesn’t give a fuck about them, not when Rhodey is right there. “Where,” he asks, but his voice is lost under the roar all around them.
Rhodey leans in close to his ear. “Flight to Landstuhl,” Rhodey tells him, and Christ Tony doesn’t want military assholes operating on him, he’ll end up in a lab buried underground and never come out, or they’ll take out the reactor and he’ll end up with shrapnel in his heart, and he’d fight but he can’t so much as move. Rhodey squeezes his hand, it’s a thing now between them, and Tony is panicking here but Rhodey says, “You’ve got the beginning of heavy metal poisoning,” as if this is somehow news. “They’ve got your films, they’re going to replace the casing for the reactor. They’re building you one as we speak, medical grade. Don’t give them shit, it’s not every day a genius inventor with a battery the size of a dinner plate lodged in his body is dumped on their doorstep in need of a chest prosthetic.”
Tony closes his eyes. He appreciates the awful humor, but fuck if he trusts these clowns as far as he can throw them. “Can’t breathe.”
“Metal’s up against your lungs. Whoever—” and now it looks like Rhodey is going to cry, and it would be funny if it all weren’t so tragic, “whoever performed the implant did as best they could, Doc here says it wasn’t that bad, actually. He said you sustained a serious impact, which kind of dislodged things.”
The ‘Doc’ looks about fifteen years old. Tony wouldn’t trust him to go get his coffee, let alone operate on him.
He’s going to die, very painfully and very soon, but first he’s going to go crazy from the metal poisoning and probably shit his pants because that’s just the sort of day he’s having, that’s his life right now, the final indignity in the whole long line of bullshit that’s happened to him since he stepped foot in this hellhole.
“Don’t take it out,” Tony says; he really needs Rhodey to get this. “Shrapnel.”
“We know,” the doctor says, but Tony isn’t looking at him, he’s looking at his friend, the only person he trusts to do what needs done.
Rhodey nods, firm, meeting his eyes. “We won’t take it out. Promise.”
When he wakes up, he’s certain he’s having a heart attack. The pain is as bad as he’s ever experienced, like his chest is crumpling in on itself, he can’t breathe and there are people over him, shouting, but the worst part, the worst part of the entire thing, is that Doogie Howser is sitting on top of him with his hand in Tony’s chest.
The pain stops.
Tony inhales as hard as he can, shuddering, and Doogie says, “I’ve got to keep my hand here for a minute, okay? One of the wires is tripping, that’s what caused your pain. I’m really sorry about this.”
There are doctors. Everywhere. Six, ten, might as well be a hundred, and Rhodey, who apparently hasn’t slept in a week and who tells him, “One of the wires in the reactor is having a negative charge on the metal casing. Can Jarvis tell us how to fix it?”
“What,” Tony says, because there’s a dude sitting on him with his hand in Tony’s chest to the wrist, this is his life, this is where his choices have brought him. “I can do this.”
“You really can’t,” Doogie says firmly.
He looks down and wants to start screaming, only he thinks that would be the opposite of a good idea. “I can do it.”
“Not an option,” Doogie tells him, as if he gets a say in any of this. Tony would punch him in the face if he wasn’t stopping Tony from having a heart attack. A pretty little nurse is holding his arc reactor away from his body. The wiring is slick with his own blood and that isn’t supposed to happen, the bleeding, that’s not how it works.
Rhodey catches his gaze. His eyes are a very deep brown, and Tony can read everything in them. He trusts Rhodey more than anyone else, save maybe Pepper – Jesus, Pepper. “We’re in Landstuhl,” Rhodey says calmly, gently, like he’s speaking to a spooked animal. It would be insulting, if Tony wasn’t the spooked animal he was speaking to. “Some of the best doctor’s in the world are here to help you. The prosthetic is almost done, they’re just trying to figure out how to fuse it into your ribcage and get the pressure off of your lungs and heart. They’re going to operate in the next four hours. Some of the shrapnel can be removed, but you’re going to be left with about six pieces that are too dangerous to extract.” And at that Rhodey sounds sincerely sorry, as if he were the one who built the bomb that blew Tony up. He isn’t, Tony knows who that was. “Do you understand me?”
“Yes,” Tony says. The pain in his chest is almost more than he can stand.
“The casing,” Rhodey says, and the cute nurse, whose uniform reads Rodriguez, holds up a small square of something – titanium, a fused alloy of some kind.
“This is what they’re using to build your prosthetic,” the nurse says. “The reactor doesn’t like it.”
“Negative charge,” Tony slurs. His brain feels like it’s been dipped into syrup. “You need a coating. Non-conductive.”
“We know, but we need it to be medical grade. Can Jarvis help?” Rhodey asks – Jarvis, at home with the bots and Jesus has anyone even been checking in on them, there are fail-safe’s to prevent, prevent – but they got lonely, Tony knows because he designed them t– has anyone checked on them.
“They’re fine,” Rhodey says, and fuck, fuck, “but you’re not. Can Jarvis help, Tony? Does he have the schematics?”
Stupid to ask. Stupid, but Rhodey is folding his fingers around a Starkphone and his brain may be mush but it’s all muscle memory, and in fifteen seconds he’s hacked through the wireframe and inputted his code and –
“Sir?” Jarvis says, and Tony’s eyes burn and he says, “Hey, buddy. Can’t really talk right now. I need you to listen to Rhodey for a little while, okay? Alpha-five-nine-six-zero-nine-nine.”
“Understood, sir,” Jarvis says, and Tony’s arms are going numb and an alarm starts to scream and the last thing he hears is, “How may I be of assistance, Colonel Rhodes?”
He wakes up sometimes. Rhodey is always there, and there’s a window behind him. Sometimes it’s raining, sometimes it’s sunny. Sometimes there are people speaking to him, and sometimes he isn’t in his room at all, and someone above him is telling him to breathe deep and count back from a hundred.
Pain is constant, to varying degrees, but the drugs are the kind that Tony doesn’t really care.
It seems to take a really long time before he can open his eyes, before he can focus enough on something without his body letting him know he needs to go back to sleep. The sun is only just starting to come up, and Rhodey is beside him, pecking away at a laptop and drinking a cup of coffee that Tony would steal from him in ten seconds flat, if the thought of moving didn’t make him want to puke.
Rhodey catches his eye and smiles. “Hey. You with us?”
“What?” Tony asks, and his voice sounds like hell, like the aftermath of an all-night binge but somehow worse. “Fuck.”
“Oh yeah, that about sums it up.” But Rhodey seems calm, relaxed even, so Tony relaxes too. He reaches up to touch his chest but gets his hand caught for his trouble, pressed back down to his side. “Everything went fine. Doc was able to get the prosthetic fused in.”
Tony inhales, slowly, and finds that the awful pressure is gone. It still hurts like a motherfucker, but it’s pain he’s familiar with, pain that will go away eventually – or at least fade enough to let him keep on going with his work. “Where are we?”
“Landstuhl,” Rhodey says, brow furrowed. “Sorry, should have probably said that first. I’m not surprised you don’t remember, you had some metal poisoning.”
“Intact,” Rhodey says with a snort. “Talking to me, aren’t you?” When Tony doesn’t say anything, and he gets over his own surprise at Tony actually not saying anything, he continues. “Folks here know what they’re doing, you’ll be really impressed with the prosthetic. The reactor took it just fine. There were a few complications; Doc had to do a graft around the casing, so they took some of the skin and muscle from your thigh. Your days as a speedo model are over.”
“A tragedy for all mankind,” Tony says. Then, “I need to see it.”
“Not happening,” Rhodey tells him, with the ‘that’s final’ thing in his voice he always thinks Tony will respond to. It’s cute, it really is, but Tony’s got the hospital smock halfway off already, he’s digging into the bandaging around his chest, as much as he can with his right arm halfway to useless and all the wires everywhere. The reactor is glowing blue underneath. “Tony.”
“I have to see,” Tony says, and this time he can’t actually stop the panic that eats at his voice, and when Rhodey reaches out to stop him Tony grips his hands so tightly his joints ache. “I spent a month attached to a car battery I had to carry around or I’d die. I need to see it.”
Rhodey crumples like a paper bag. “Alright, just – Doc! Hey, Doc,” and that’s when Tony realizes he’s in the ICU where the hard-luck cases are kept, because he’s got his own nurses desk right outside the door. A doctor who looks like he’s about twelve years old comes in, as do four nurses, descending on him like Tony’s about to croak.
“Mr. Stark,” Doogie says, and Jesus Christ it’s a travesty is what it is, Tony’s not even sure the kid’s voice has cracked yet. “How’re you feeling?”
“This is my doctor,” he tells Rhodey, spearing him with a glare. “Did I do something to you in a previous life?”
“I’ve heard it all, Mr. Stark, nothing new,” Doogie says, smiling at him. “Actually, you came up with a few, I was pretty impressed. Mike Mitchell.”
“Not surprised you don’t remember,” Mitchell says, pulling out his stethoscope. The other nurses do other things around him, checking IV’s (of which he has an epic amount, now that he’s aware of them he realizes they sting), a bag with yellow fluid down at the bottom of his bed (fuck), his temperature and blood pulse. Doc leans over and gets the stethoscope down his back, listens. “How much has Colonel Rhodes explained to you?”
“I need to see it,” Tony says, very aware of the note of panic in his voice and just as aware that there is absolutely nothing he can do about it. His fingers clench in the blankets by his hips. “I’ll do whatever you want.”
Mitchell freezes, his expression doing something strange. One of the nurses leaves suddenly. “Hey. You’re safe here with us. If you need to see it, I’ll make that happen right now.”
Finally. The nurse returns – cute, brunette, whose uniform reads Rodriguez -- and Tony relaxes, though coin toss on whether it’s the Doc’s reassurance or whatever the nurse just injected into the IV. Of which he has many, total overkill.
Another nurse, built like a linebacker, brings fresh bandaging, gauze, the works, and as Mitchell gets his shit together Tony lets his head roll a little to the left, to look at Rhodey. The man looks like he’s going to pass out, and that isn’t going to work, that’s not how this plays out. “Hey,” he says, and Rhodey meets his eyes. “It’s all good.”
“You just got a shot of something good.” Rhodey snorts, amusement warring with all kinds of things they’re way too cool to acknowledge, and Tony just knows he loves this guy, this is his fucking BFF, surgery and chest implants and all kinds of crazy shit and he just sticks it out. It’s kind of awesome and a lot humbling, and Tony’s going to have to think on what he’s going to do to thank him, once this is all over and Tony is on American soil eating a cheeseburger the size of his head.
Mitchell says, “Ready?” and Tony rolls his head back, looks up at the Doc.
It isn’t as bad as Tony thought. The linebacker holds a mirror for him, and no, hah, that’s a lie, it’s awful, he looks like a patchwork doll, there’s a tube sticking out the side of his chest -- “Drainage, we’ll get that out tomorrow,” Mitchell says -- but the reactor itself is glowing, a happy and comforting blue that reminds Tony of when his father was still alive. The metal around it is new though, shinier, and half-obscured by swollen, stapled skin. “We were able to remove four pieces of shrapnel,” Mitchell says, as Tony stares at the glowing blue. “You’re left with six shards, one we’re thinking we can get out once you’re healed enough, though we’d have to go through your back to do it. The other five shards are being kept in place by the reactor – we think.”
“Yeah. You kind of broke our CAT scanner,” Mitchell says, this side of rueful. “And the MRI machine.”
Tony tips his head. “I’ll build you new and shinier ones.”
“Think I’m going to hold you to that.” The doc gently palpitates his chest, inspecting the stitches. “We were able to keep both pectoral muscles mostly intact,” he continues. “Though the right is worse off, and you’re going to need some physical therapy for your arm. There’s some nerve damage in your chest. We did our best to keep as much sensation as possible, and the cosmetic surgeon did a damn fine job – when it’s all healed you’ll barely see the scars – but we won’t know the full extent for a few weeks. We had to remove more of your rib cage to get the reactor to fit as snugly as possible, but some of the casing is still going to stick out. Once the swelling goes down we’ll see how much, but right now I’m estimating about a quarter inch all around if your body doesn’t reject the prosthesis.”
It’s making him dizzy. Then again, that’s probably Nurse Cutie, she’s like a ninja with the needles, a whole tray of them she’s slowly injecting into the port over his head. “Oh,” he says. “Reject?”
“Yes,” Mitchell says. “We’re not seeing any signs of it right now, and to be honest the danger has mostly passed, but we want to make sure that you aren’t going to have a delayed rejection, which can sometimes occur.”
Fuck. He ignores the swimming in his head, forces himself to look at the edge of the casing. He vaguely remembers Mitchell sitting on him, Jarvis’ voice. “Coating?”
“Your A.I. – awesome, by the way – told us what to use. Medical grade silicones, some other stuff added in that made the guys down in Prosthetics about lose their minds. The coating added nearly one-eighth more to the chest prosthetic all around, which was good, because the cavity you had was almost a half inch larger than the final prostheses. We rebuilt some of the chest wall, which included taking some skin and muscle from your thigh.”
Tony lets his eyes close. Mitchell says, “Tired?”
“Yeah.” As tired as he’s ever been in his godforsaken life.
Mitchell redresses the wounds, presses the bandage into place. “Everything is looking great so far, not to worry, alright? You’re in good hands.”
He catches the man’s wrist before he can go. “Hey. Sorry about the Doogie Howser thing.”
“It’s alright,” Mitchell says, and pats his hand gently. “If you have questions, if you need anything, let me know.”
The doctor leaves, and after some last-minute fussing and blood taking from the nurses (“We’ll get you cleaned up after your nap, how does that sound?” Cute Rodriguez says, like it isn’t every teenage boy’s dirty fantasy to be given a sponge bath by a gorgeous nurse), Tony’s alone with Rhodey again.
He hears him shift in his chair, like he wants to say something, and Tony’s not stupid, he knows why the military left one of their colonel’s at his bedside for this long. He opens one eye. “Now? Seriously?”
“I didn’t say anything,” Rhodey begins.
“You didn’t have to say anything, it’s written right there across your face.” Ten seconds of indignation, that’s all he can do, Rhodey’s been there for days now and – “Alright, alright. Do it now, I’m exhausted.”
“I’m not ‘doing it now’,” Rhodey says, glaring, and tucks the blanket up over Tony’s chest.
“Yes you are,” Tony says, warm and tired and as pain free as he’s liable to get at the moment. “What day is it?”
“Thursday, May fourteenth.”
Two months. He’d been trapped underground since March. “They made contact. That’s how you knew I was alive.”
Rhodey’s face shuts down. “They didn’t, actually. No ransom, no demands, no nothing.”
“You should have left me. Two months? I could have been--”
“Oh no, no, no, no.” Rhodey points a finger at him. “You do not get to do that.”
“Do what? Follow the protocols I put into place myself, after that snafu in China?”
“We weren’t leaving you to die in Afghanistan,” Rhodey says, like he’d have had any choice in the matter, like he isn’t a colonel in the United States Air Force and could do whatever he wanted.
“You should have left me to die,” Tony snaps back, and it just sucks all his energy, leaves him with weak joints and something that trembles low and deep inside. “Doesn’t matter. I was never one to believe in fate, you know that? Mom was the religious one, always thought everything had a reason, but I took after dear old Pop – fate is what you make of it, what you build with your own hands, all that bullshit.”
It’s all just tumbling out of him, and he wishes he could stop himself except he’s pretty sure that one of the shots Cute Rodriguez gave him was sodium pentothal because he can’t actually make his tongue stop moving. He laughs out loud, hates the sound of his voice, the way it cracks and hurts inside his chest under the reactor, the way it comes out. He isn’t doing this, he isn’t doing this here, but apparently he is. “I have no idea how to fix this. What the fuck have I done, Rhodey.”
Rhodey gives him the respect of not calling him out on his tiny emotional breakdown -- epic bro-dom, seriously. It takes Tony longer than he’d like to admit to get a hold of himself, but he’s missing half of his chest and there’s a hunk of metal permanently stuck inside of him, and he decides that he deserves some well-earned breaking-down.
“When can we go home?” he finally asks, scratching his wrist over his eyes.
“Minimum, three weeks,” Rhodey says, with a note of gentleness in his voice that’s a little humiliating, or maybe humiliating because Tony’s so grateful for it. “Med flight will take us into Walter Reed, where you’ll get another two weeks or so of respiratory therapy, some rehabilitation stuff for your arm.”
“I don’t need rehab, cancel that.”
“And then,” Rhodey continues, like he hasn’t even spoken, “you can go home. There’s a team already waiting for you once you get there.”
“I don’t need rehab,” Tony argues. “What, I’m invalided now and no one trusts my word on this?”
“Try and lift your arm.”
“I am lifting it, look how I’m lifting it, I’m – holy shit.”
“Yeah,” Rhodey replies, and helps him lower it. “Impact injury, seen it lots of times, made worse by the muscle damage in your chest. What I can’t figure out,” he continues, “is how you got so many impact injuries to begin with.”
Tony says, “I’m tired. I’m going to sleep.”
“I’ll bet you are,” Rhodey replies, but he’s smiling when he leans back in his chair. “You know how we found you? Big ass explosion at a known terror-cell compound. We saw that shit go up like the Fourth of July, and I turned to the general and told her, ma’am, that’s got Tony Stark written all over it.”
“Sleeping,” Tony says, eyes closed. “Shhh.”
He cracks open one eye. “Hey. Thanks. You know.”
“You owe me so big. Two months of my life looking for you, twenty years scared off of it when we rolled you in with a fucking glow-worm in your chest. Uncool, man.”
“You should be,” Rhodey replies, and takes a sip of his coffee. “I didn’t think Pepper was ever going to stop crying. You’re not allowed to leave the country ever again.”
“Pepper,” he says, because – Pepper. “And the bots? Jarvis alright?”
“Everyone’s fine,” Rhodey says. “You’re the only one who’s not, so get fine so we can get out of here. I hate Germany.”
“That’s not nice, why would you say that? Germany is the birthplace of beer and busty women, what’s to hate about beer and busty women?”
“Good night, Tony.”
“And brotchen, with wiener schnitzel. Are you kidding me right now? Big tits and sausage, that’s what Germany is, we are in paradise,” Tony says.
Rhodey doesn’t smother him with a pillow, but it’s a near thing.
Later that night, when Tony closes his eyes, he decides he’s going to shake the goddamn world apart. Dad had it all wrong, but that’s okay, because Tony’s going to make it right again.