Behind the mask, Tony frowned.
And at the end of the day, there was shawarma.
They kind of split up after that, everyone going their own way. It was really hot out by then, and Tony wiped the sweat off his forehead as he gave Banner a cheery little wave. He really hoped Bruce would agree to come by the Tower later – and maybe even stick around.
He turned around, and there was Captain America himself, Steve Rogers in the flesh, super soldier and living legend and all that. "What's up, Cap?"
"Listen," Steve said. "I know we got off on the wrong foot and I—"
Oh. Oh no. Tony did not want to hear this. He shook his head, then grimaced as pain throbbed in his chest.
Well damn. This was just great.
"Stark. Tony Stark!"
He ignored the person calling his name in order to focus on Steve Rogers. Who was looking at him right now with some concern. "Are you all right?"
"Yeah," Tony said. "It's just…really hot." But he noticed that though he was standing there sweating, Steve looked as calm and unruffled as ever. "Aren't you hot?"
Steve shook his head. "Not really."
Another pain stabbed his chest, and Tony couldn't help gasping out loud.
Now Steve looked downright worried. "Stark?"
"Fine," he said. His chest felt like it was on fire. "I'm fine."
People were starting to notice. And whoever was calling his name would not stop. Irritated, he looked around, and that was when the pain in his chest decided to double in intensity.
Alarmed, he clutched at the arc reactor. He turned away, thinking he would maybe take refuge back inside the shawarma restaurant – but it had vanished. In its place was a blank gray wall, lumpy like stone.
"Tony?" Steve took hold of his arm.
Pain and heat rolled over him like a wave, dragging him down with them. His knees buckled, and only Steve's sudden diving grab kept him from falling onto the pavement.
"Tony," Steve said.
"Tony Stark," someone said.
New York began to disappear around him. More of those gray walls replaced the buildings. The sun dimmed, then went out completely; the only light now came from a flickering fire.
Tony knew then. He knew just what this was.
"Steve." He reached out and gripped Steve's arms. Maybe if he anchored himself firmly enough, he could fend it off. Maybe he could stay here.
What's happening?" Steve still looked and felt solid enough, but he would not be for much longer.
"I don't want to go," Tony breathed. "Steve, I don't want to!"
"Then don't go," Steve said. "Hold on to me, Tony. Hold on."
"I'm trying," he said, but it was already too late. Steve was gone.
And Tony woke up.
He was in Afghanistan, in some shitty little cave, alternately freezing to death and burning up with fever. There was no such thing as Iron Man or the Avengers. There was only himself, Tony Stark.
And he was dying.
Or maybe not, maybe it only felt that way because of the terrible pain he could not escape, even in a fever-induced hallucination. Maybe it only felt that way because he couldn't breathe with that thing in his chest, huge parts of him just scooped out and thrown in the dirt, what was left so compressed and tortured that he would almost rather have died than endure this pain.
He looked up and there was the man who had done this to him, the one who had saved his life, the one who was trying so hard to bring him back from the brink. In his fevered dream, this man had died when they attempted to escape. Don't waste your life.
But there would be no escapes, no suit of armor, no daring heroism. There was only this cave. This nightmare.
"Stark." The voice patiently said his name, over and over, until he looked up. "You must try to stay focused. You have a very high fever. You have been delirious." When Tony just stared blankly at him, he added, not unkindly, "Hallucinating."
Oh yeah. He had been hallucinating all right. Vividly. Flying in a suit of red and gold armor. Being a hero. Making friends with Captain America.
"Yeah," he muttered. He could feel the fever burning in him, a sick, dry heat that made every bone in his body ache. The cave was hazy about him, sort of wavering in place.
"Stay focused," the man repeated. His name was Yinsen, Tony suddenly remembered. "Listen to the sound of my voice."
Everything hurt, but most of the pain was centered on his chest. He could feel the empty space inside him where bone and tissue had been carved out. The intrusive presence of the electromagnet was a constant source of pain, a solid, heavy object inside him, making it difficult to breathe.
"It hurts." And oh God, was that really him, the great Tony Stark, whimpering like a wounded child? He hadn't meant it to come out that way.
"I know," Yinsen said sorrowfully. "I am sorry for that."
"Is it always going to hurt like this?" If this was what he had to look forward to the rest of his life, he would almost rather have died there on the sand.
"I don't know," Yinsen said. He smiled a little. "I haven't exactly done this before. But I would think…no. Your body just needs to accept the device, and heal around it."
Like a prosthesis, Tony thought. It was a terrifying, but apt, analogy. Part of himself was missing now. This device was taking its place. The problem was that unlike an artificial hand, the electromagnet wasn't serving as a replacement meant to perform the same function as that missing part of his body. It was there in addition, crowded into the confined space in his chest along with more vital organs that were suddenly under terrible pressure.
Just a fake arm, he told himself. Nothing more. But that was bad, it was frankly horrifying, and it was not the kind of thought he wanted following him down into his next descent into delirium.
Which was already happening. The cave was shimmering all around him.
"Stark, you must calm down," Yinsen said. Confusing at first, because he was just lying there the way he had been doing for however long it had been since the surgery, but then he heard himself, the ugly gasping noises he was making as he struggled to pull enough air into his lungs so he could properly panic and start hyperventilating for real.
"Stark." Yinsen sounded worried now, but God, God he couldn't breathe. Everything hurt and there was a burning hole in his chest and he was in a cave somewhere in the middle of the desert and all he wanted was for this to be over.
Yinsen continued to call his name, trying to anchor him.
That was the last thing he wanted. To stay here.
He closed his eyes and let himself go.
And at the end of the day, there was shawarma.
And after that, there was the Tower, just an A on the side of the building now, and four lost souls wandering the halls in addition to Pepper and himself. One night he heard Clint tell Bruce that this was the weirdest family he'd ever had, and that was saying something, given that he had lived in the circus.
And then there was Steve. Maddening, irritating, holier-than-thou, too noble for his own good. Beautiful, perfect, headstrong Steve.
Who met him halfway and then threw him the rest of the way.
Who knocked him into the wall so hard the first time they kissed that they were covered in plaster dust.
Who shouted his name over the comms with so much anger when he flew into harm's way, and held him so close afterward, shaking with the fear of losing him.
Who vowed never to let him go, even when the world around them dissolved into ash and flame and he fell screaming into the fire.
"Tony." The voice came to him from far away, muffled and indistinct. It had to cross miles of scorching desert to reach him. He wanted to respond, but every breath was a tortured struggle through the burning agony in his chest.
"Tony." The voice still lacked form, but it was now accompanied by something else. A touch. Cool, gentle, fingers pushing sweaty hair off his forehead.
Memory blazed, brighter than any fire, hotter than any fever. Only one person had ever touched him that way.
He whispered her name, forcing his cramped lungs to fill with enough air to be able to say it. "Mother."
The hand on his brow paused. Lifted. Cold air settled into the void where it had been. He tossed his head, seeking that touch again. Needing it. Craving it. Lost without it. "Madre, torna indietro." Pleading with her to come back in a language he hadn't spoken in years without counting, the language she had taught him.
The touch came again, not a hand, but something scratchy, wet and cool. It wiped away the sweat and tears – was he crying?
"Tony, you must rest." A male voice. Kind and compassionate, but not the one he wanted. Not familiar.
Or rather, familiar, but in a hateful way.
"No," he gasped. "No."
He opened his eyes, and he could barely see for the tears because oh yes he was crying, but it was enough. Gray stone walls and faltering light. Burning cold on his fevered skin.
The pain in his chest was enormous. Surely there couldn't be pain like this in all the universe. How was he supposed to endure this and stay sane?
He didn't want this to be real.
It couldn't be real.
It hurt so much.
Things like this did not happen to him. They happened to other people. Not him.
No and no and no.
He had to make it stop. Get it out. Put back the missing pieces of himself. If he could just do that. If he could make himself whole again.
Hands grabbed at his. There was blood on his fingers. Light reflected off a pair of glasses, frightened eyes behind the lenses. He tried again, clawing at his own skin, desperate to dig out the thing that kept him from being able to breathe, from getting enough air so that he could scream out his pain and rage and terror.
He wanted his mother.
Steve, where was Steve?
"You must stop!" commanded a voice. It was as firm as the hands that held him back from tearing at his chest.
And Tony stopped completely.
"I know," he said. It was evening and they were lying on the couch in Steve's studio; the shadows were growing long about them. He had been a good boy and taken the painkillers the doctor gave him, but that had been four hours ago. He was hurting again, but he refused to let on. "But it saved those people, didn't it?"
"Yes, but at what cost?" Steve said sadly. "Tony, I worry when you do these kinds of things. You take too many risks with your life."
"It's worth it, isn't it?" he replied.
"It won't be when I lose you," Steve said, and embraced him.
He couldn't help the little gasp of pain that escaped him. But as Steve made to let go, he wrapped both arms about him and held on tight. "You won't lose me," he said.
"Yes I will," Steve said. "I always do. You always go."
"I don't want to," Tony said. "I want to stay."
"Then stay with me," Steve urged. "Don't go this time."
But already the world was fading, the shadows consuming everything, the pain swallowing him whole.
"You are awake," Yinsen observed from the shadows. "I was not sure if you would live."
"You should have let me die," Tony said. His voice was an ugly rasp, like he had just gone on a three-day bender.
Yinsen poured some water into a tin mug. "Maybe so," he said mildly, "but they ordered me to keep you alive. So that is what I did."
Gratefully, Tony drank. The water was blissfully cool on his tongue. It hurt to lift his head enough to drink, hurt to swallow. Even that simple movement left him breathless and in need of air, pain shooting through his chest, fever pulsing thickly behind his eyes.
Yet he felt more lucid than he had in…days? Weeks, even?
"Do you always follow orders?" he asked.
"I do when they are pointing guns at me," Yinsen said, still in that same calm tone.
Tony gave him a look. He tried shifting about on the bed, hoping to find a position that was marginally less painful, then gave it up as a lost cause.
"Where do you go?" Yinsen asked. "In your delirium? I have seen this before. Men go places. Usually they do not appear to be happy places, but strangely enough, I have seen you smile many times."
He thought about Steve. The Avengers. But mostly Steve. Yes, he was sure he did smile. "I'm with someone."
"You are someone now," Yinsen said, apparently misunderstanding him. Which was probably just as well.
"A better someone," he said. "I get out of here."
"Now that I have not seen before," Yinsen said with a small smile.
Tony looked at him. "There's a first time for everything."
"Indeed there is," Yinsen said with a gesture at his chest.
He didn't want to think about that. He knew he wasn't going to die now, or be driven insane by the pain. That didn't make it any easier to bear, though.
"Your fever is starting to go down," Yinsen said, "but you need to rest. They know you are recovering. Soon they will be here. And you must be ready."
Fear shot through him, sharp and bright, almost worse than the pain. "Who?"
"You know who," Yinsen said. "You have seen them, even if you do not remember it. And you will see them again, most likely sooner than you wish."
He thought suddenly of the way Yinsen had died in his hallucination – and promised himself that it would not happen. Don't waste your life, Yinsen had said, and the Tony in his fevered dreams had kept that promise.
Now that he was fully lucid and awake, he had every intention of doing the exact same thing.
"You are in luck," Yinsen said. He held up a syringe. "They were very worried when you began hurting yourself. They even brought new drugs. I can give them to you now. They will help you sleep. You should wake up feeling much better – but I doubt you will remember any of this."
There didn't seem to be a downside in there. Tony held out a badly shaking hand. "Give it."
"Fortunately for you," Yinsen murmured, "I have steady hands."
The needle slid into his vein, a pinprick barely felt through the worse pain in his chest. "Sleep now," Yinsen said. "You will feel better when you wake, I promise you."
The drugs were very strong. Almost immediately he could feel them dragging him down – and he went willingly enough.
"Thank you," he breathed, and then he was gone.
It didn't hurt to pull the tube out, but it terrified him. What had happened to him? Where was he? How long had he been here? Long enough for someone to stick a feeding tube down his throat, but how long? And why did his chest hurt so badly?
He looked to one side and saw a table with a tin cup. He prayed it held water, or something else to drink. He reached out with one cold hand, but only succeeded in knocking it over and spilling water to the floor.
God, it was cold. And he was so thirsty.
He started to roll over, intending to pick the cup up, when he caught sight of another person. A man standing before a mirror, humming tunelessly to himself as he shaved.
Tony froze. For a moment he had a flash of memory, this man looking down at him, eyes dark with compassion and sorrow. Then it was gone, forgotten.
The shaving man did not even glance his way. Carefully, Tony reached for the cup – and drew up short as something pulled sharply and painfully at his chest.
"I wouldn't do that if I were you," said the man.
He rolled back over – and saw it. A car battery. Cables leading from it to…himself.
Utter terror washed over him. He slapped at his chest and the bandages there, fumbling with nearly-numb hands to pull them off, heedless of the frightened noises he was making. It hurt, but he cared nothing about the pain either. What was it, what was it, oh God what was it?
The bandages fell away. And Tony saw.
For a long while he lay there gasping and trembling, trying not to give in to the fear. When he tried to remember what had come before this, he recalled faces above him and incredible pain as someone cut into his chest, making him scream. He shuddered away from that memory and there was another. Other faces looking at him with respect and affection. One face in particular, with brilliant blue eyes and a kind smile.
Then the faces were gone, lost in the haze of memories he never, ever wanted to think about again.
Memory stirred. A dream nearly forgotten.
And behind the mask, Tony smiled.