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Hold My Breath (To Forget)

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They’d all been busy lately.

Steve was traveling around the country--appearing for grand openings, bill passings, rallies, and news media opportunities everywhere. He wasn’t enjoying it (in fact, part of him was secretly hoping for some disaster that would make Fury agree to keeping the waving microphones out of his face), but there was little choice in the matter. He was the public face of the Avengers.  

Bruce was halfway across the world, working on new gamma radiation research in Germany with several prestigious scientists. Unlike Steve, he’d been happy to get away from everyone for a little while. He’d spent most of his recent life living alone, and sometimes (all the time) everyone could be a little overwhelming. Especially if Stark and Barton were involved.

Thor was back on Asgard for the next two months. There was important business to attend to back home, and no one could begrudge him that. Before he left, however, he’d packed an entire cupboard full of Pop Tarts into a duffel bag. Nobody really wanted to begrudge him that either.

Which left Tony, Natasha, and Clint alone in Stark Tower. Except Natasha and Clint had been undercover in Afghanistan, or Uzbekistan, or somethingastan for two weeks now, and Tony had the giant tower all to himself for the first time in almost a year.

While there had been a brief second of panic after Barton and Romanov had flown away in the Quinjet (what would he do if his Not-Breathing started again?), it was quickly replaced with the realization that he could actually get work done. No one was going to be barging into the lab demanding that he fix their bow and arrows, or eat, or take a break, or make something cool and exciting, or eat, or sleep, or be social. Or eat. (There were only so many different flavors of Pop Tarts he could try in one day).

It was just like old times and after 72 straight hours of work a brand new Iron Man suit was glistening in front of him. By the end of the second week, he’d upgraded Steve, Natasha, and Barton’s suits, worked out a possible formula for fabric that would stretch far enough for a giant green man (and snap back into place when he shrunk again), and was busy creating a quiver that could hold more than two dozen arrows.

For the first time in a long time, Tony realized he was tired, and caught himself rubbing at the arc reactor. His throat was kind of scratchy, and the lab was cold, making his nose run. Sniffing, Tony put down the quiver and cleared his throat. “I’m gonna take a break, Jarvis. Hold all my calls, would you?”

“Certainly, Sir.” Jarvis paused. “Might I suggest you eat something? You’ve not taken sustenance for almost 18 hours.”

Sure he had. He’d had a cup of coffee a half-an-hour ago.

“I don’t believe that coffee counts.”

Tony grinned, breath leaving in a huff that ended in a cough as he tried to clear his throat again. (There’s a brief moment where he almost panics, knowing what that short breath might mean). “You know me too well, Jarvis. Order me take-out. Your choice where.”

“Sir, are you feeling quite alright?”

“I’m good,” Tony waved the wrench he was holding in the air. No reason to worry Jarvis. “Just gonna clean up before I head upstairs. Have the delivery guy come up, would you?”

“Of course, Sir.”

Tony spent another thirty seconds looking at his mess, before deciding that he was too tired to put anything away. Not that he generally cleaned up. “Dummy, don’t touch. I’ll deal with the mess later.”

Dummy whirred indignantly, though over the fact that he wasn’t allowed to clean, or because he doubted Tony would ever pick it up, Tony wasn’t sure.

“I mean it. No touchy.”

Something that sounded suspiciously like a raspberry followed him out of the lab. He’d need to fix Dummy’s voice box.

He may have fallen asleep in the elevator. Tony did remember closing his eyes and leaning back against the wall. After that it was just Jarvis. “Sir, I would suggest you disembark now.”

“Thanks, J,” he mumbled, stumble-stepping towards the couch. “Can you give the delivery guy my credit card number and have him leave it by the door? Think I’m gonna close my eyes for a minute.”

There was definitely protest to that idea, but Tony wasn’t listening. He was heading like a homing missile towards his afghan. The one Natasha had given him. Couple of hours of sleep and he’d be right as rain.

Right as rain.

“Damn,” Tony grumbled as sunlight cut across the room and into his eyes. The smell of cold Chinese hit his nose, wafting from three rooms over. His throat was full of tiny razor blades, and his nose was stuffed up, and he was pretty sure that Barton had run him over with the Quinjet while he was sleeping.

“Sir, you appear to be running a fever.”

He didn’t feel like he was running a fever. He felt like he was in the middle of the Arctic.

Tony moved to sit, certain that being vertical could only help. The world tilted, and his breath caught in his throat as every muscle protested. His heart was beating erratically, a flutter thump behind his noisy lungs.

“Sir, would you like me to call Mr. Rogers?”

The idea of Steve bringing him chicken soup was momentarily appealing. Except…he could do this. He hadn’t had trouble Not Breathing in months. His panic attacks had pretty much disappeared. He did not need his hand held for a stupid cold. Because that was all it was. A stupid cold. (The words of a doctor he’d seen after Afghanistan pass through his head: permanent damage and carefully monitor and matter of time sounds so much worse than stupid cold).

“No, Jarvis, I’m good.”

“Sir, a search of my databases in no way correlates the word ‘good’ with ‘fever, aches, sore throat and a running nose’.”

“Guess I need to upgrade you then, J, because I’m a-o-kay.”

And really, once he was down in his lab with the thermostat turned up to 90 degrees, he didn’t feel so cold. Moving around helped with the aches (not at all), and if he continued swallowing convulsively, his throat didn’t hurt nearly as much.

Really, he was just fine.

At some point Tony realized that he’d dragged Natasha’s afghan with him into the lab, and that it was wrapped securely around his shoulders. That…and his chest was really tight.

“Shit.”

“Sir?”

“Nothing, J, m‘good,” Tony mumbled. He pulled the blanket a little bit closer and walked himself backwards towards the couch. There was a brief second where he debated about using his nebulizer, just to loosen the vise, get rid of a little of the ache, but it had been so long since he’d had to do this alone.

Something about facing the Not Breathing (if that was what this was) by himself suddenly seemed…daunting. There was no Steve to watch movies with, no Barton to talk his ear off, no Bruce to share interesting discoveries about the natural world, no Thor to yell at the “Tie-Wearing-Barrel-Throwing-Primate” as he played his video games, no Natasha to put away his nebulizer when he fell asleep with the mask on and tuck the afghan in tight around him so he didn’t wake up cold.

So he ignores Dummy’s whirs of concern, lets his gaze slide over the nebulizer, and palms an inhaler that he has on the coffee table in front of the couch. (Not that he’ll need it--his lungs are fine and his chest doesn’t hurt and he isn’t a little bit dizzy, thank you very much). Swallowing past the razors in his throat, Tony thinks briefly about calling someone (anyone), but they’re off busy doing superhero things, and he’s really, really okay.

“Jarvis,” Tony coughs a little, freezing as his breath catches and willing his heart to slow.

“Yes, Sir?”

“Put on a movie?” It comes out as a question, shaky and insecure, and Tony wishes briefly that the AI would override his programming and call Steve anyway (and if he gets worse, the AI most likely would).

“Of course, Sir.” Jarvis doesn’t ask him what he’d like to watch. The projector screen rolls down from the ceiling. He falls asleep watching Superman rescuing Lois and dreams of his own red, white, and blue superhero. His may not fly, but Tony was pretty sure that his spandex covered superman was way better than the one on the screen.

He wakes up to a blaring alarm and red flashing lights.

Tony hopes its something simple (like a mutant cat stuck in a tree), because his limbs are heavy and his arc reactor is heavier.

The suit does the majority of the work on the way there, which is fine because Tony can’t really think past the pounding of his head. It turns out that there’s a giant robot with laser eyes tossing around cars and punching buildings and attempting to stomp on people in Manhattan.

Fifteen minutes of the run around and Tony knows he needs to end this. The repulsors aren’t doing any real damage to whatever alloy the robot is made from. He’s already been caught twice by the laser eyes and shorted out his left boot. Wobbling through the air is not the time for his chest to decide to loosen up, but a whiff of smoke from a burning car and everything is shot to hell.

The coughs are harsh, and he can’t catch his breath, but underneath it all he can hear the wheeze (Wheeze? It’s a goddamn freight train.) that’s rattling his chest, ripping through his limbs, shaking him worse than the metallic hand wrapped around his waist.

He can hear Steve in his head, ordering him to back out of the fight, can imagine Clint standing over him as he puffed on the inhaler that one of them would have carried with them, can feel Natasha’s hand resting on his back as she carefully aims her gun.

Once, when he was really bad (not this bad, he’s pretty sure he’s spiraling past not breathing, missed the station for Not Breathing, and was going to hit CAN’T FUCKING BREATHE pretty soon), Thor had flown him back to the Tower and hooked up his neb and pounded on his back with one large hand as he coughed up the mucus that lived in his lungs.

The Hulk would have ripped him out of this stupid robot’s hand by now, and really, he was not a battering ram!

“Sir, your oxygen level is rapidly dropping.”

So that was what the little black spots were from. He thought it was from the numerous concussions he was currently collecting.

“And your heartbeat appears to be erratic.”

There was no way that Tony could reply to that, what little oxygen he was gasping in was being used to keep him conscious.

Suddenly he slipped from the robot’s hand, and Tony took the opportunity to repulse (with one boot) out of its reach. A length of telephone wire lay on the ground.

“Sir, you must return immediately.”

“Can’t…J…” He’s diving for the wire. “Gotta…save…the world…” Or lower Manhattan. Same difference.

The black spots were getting wider, but he just needed to pull off a Luke Skywalker…

Just a giant AT-AT walker.

Barton would get the reference. Steve would be confused. Natasha would roll her eyes at the boys immaturity as Thor laughed at the “great-fun” to be had. Bruce would just be green and angry. Tony could use a little green and angry. He was probably just pale and shaky.

Somehow, his fingers closed around the thick, black wire. Staying far away from the sparking end, Tony flew between the robot’s legs in a figure eight pattern. It was difficult with only one boot, nearly impossible to do while holding his breath (because if he took a breath, the earth-shattering cough to follow would surely bring him down), but sometime between Jarvis quoting oxygen levels (72% and rapidly dropping) and his vision actually whiting out, there was a resounding crash.

When his vision cleared, Tony was kneeling on the ground, leaning heavily on his hands, robot splayed in front of him.

He let go of the breath he’d been holding, but there was not a resounding cough, just a weak gasp and whistle. The spots were growing again, and Jarvis’ voice was a steady hum in his ear, though it seemed to be getting higher with panic (could the AI panic?), and he could taste the Albuterol that Jarvis was surely pumping through his suit, but it was too little, too late, and then there was Not Breathing, Not Breathing and nothing.

Tony wakes up in his suit.

He’s laying in the middle of the tower, and he knows without a doubt that Jarvis put him there.

“Sir, if you do not respond in 2.5 seconds I am calling the paramedics.”

“M’good,” he wheezes, but it comes out as a groan instead.

His chest is tight again, his opportunity to cough out the mucus his lungs are drowning in is gone, and he knows now that it is bad. It’s worse than it has been in a long, long time.

Tony will admit that he’s gotten a little complacent in managing the Not Breathing himself. At some point he had started trusting the team to have his back, and it turned out that they were better at reading the signs of an upcoming Not Breathing episode than he was.

But they weren’t here.

It wasn’t their fault. Bruce and Steve both assumed that Natasha and Clint were there. Natasha and Clint were on a top secret mission for who knows how long and weren’t allowed to check in. Thor wasn’t due back for another few weeks. Usually Steve would have checked in by now, but Tony had hacked into the S.H.I.E.L.D. database and saw the man’s schedule. He was lucky if he’d had time to use the bathroom in the past couple of weeks. Tony couldn’t bother him with this.

Except he really wanted to.

“Sir, if you don’t get off the floor, I will be requesting medical assistance.”

And it wasn’t like he actually listened to Jarvis. He didn’t listen anyone. That’s why it took an entire team of superheroes to bully him into taking care of himself. They made him eat, and sleep, and do all the things that kept him from Not Breathing.

“Sir, I’m calling Mr. Rogers.”

“No,” it comes out a whisper, not enough room left in his lungs for the necessary air. Pain spikes through his chest, radiates through his limbs, and ends where it tingles in his fingers and toes. Definitely not enough oxygen. “Call…call Pepper. Tell her I’m…I’m heading to Malibu.” There’s a high-pitched whistle echoing inside his helmet, and his headache intensifies.

“Have…my jet…ready…and…”

“Sir?” Jarvis asks when he trails off for too long. Whistle-rattle, whistle-rattle… He coughs weakly and a metallic flavor touches his tongue. It’s hard to taste with his nose stuffed up. Harder, still, to draw in precious air.

Tony’s afraid to take off the suit, because he knows that Jarvis is pumping oxygen and steroids through it. He’s more afraid of putting on the nebulizer mask, and admitting to himself that he can’t do this alone. (Or that this might not be a cold and Not Breathing, but something different, something worse).

“Coffee,” he mumbles.

“Brewing. Miss Potts is aware of your impending arrival. She’d like to speak with you. I told her that was not possible.” Jarvis seems to hesitate. “I asked her to have your specialist waiting at the house.”

Ahh. The specialist that Pepper had hired after he returned from Afghanistan as a mess of batteries and wires. The one who told him that it was only a matter of time before he died of the Not Breathing. Only a matter of time before his body could no longer clear the fluid from his mangled lungs. A matter of time before the shrapnel slipped and irreparably damaged something. And if that didn’t happen first, it was only a matter of time before the arc reactor literally broke his heart.

The specialist he had never let Steve meet, because he didn’t want him to know the truth. Steve Rogers thought he could save the world, could save Tony. And for a little while, Steve had made things better, and Tony had forgotten.

He shouldn’t have forgotten.

“Thanks, J,” he whispers, ignoring the dampness on his cheeks as his helmet releases with a hiss.

One pot of black coffee later and Tony finds himself able to move (even though they are old man, slow, aching movements) and calls a driver to take him to the airport.

Instead of falling back on his old habit of talking to hide the whistle-wheeze (and who’s he kidding, he isn’t even doing that right now), Tony practices holding his breath the entire way to the airport. It hurts worse when he tries to breathe, and Tony imagines what a relief it will be to take his last shaking breath (no more pain), no more Not Breathing, gasping, flailing, struggle.

The nebulizer is packed and sitting on the seat beside him and he hears everyone telling him to take it out, put it on, and just breathe, but it would make the tight pain turn into large gasps, and he can’t do that right now, can’t Not Breathe like that, because there isn’t anyone to make sure he catches his breath, no one to make sure that the coughing stops, no one to hold him close or tuck him in, or pound on his back and scream at him to just Breathe, dammit!

So he cradles the nebulizer in his lap the entire flight and tries not to think of all the people he wants to call, who he wants to sit with him and hold his hand. He’s done this alone before and he can do it again.

Except when he gets off the plane and Pepper is standing there, he can’t.

Tony,” it’s a harsh whisper, surprise and concern all mixed into one. And good grief, he’d been dying before and she hadn’t noticed. How bad must he look? Stupid cold.

Except, he’s shaking and trying his best to Not Breathe.

The concern changes over to anger in a heartbeat. They may have broken up a long time ago, but some feelings didn’t change. “He promised me he’d take care of you.”

It doesn’t take a genius (which he is) to figure out who the ‘He’ in Pepper’s sentence is.

“He doesn’t know,” Tony replies quietly, realizing suddenly how tired he is.

Tony sees the understanding, remembers why he loves Pepper so much when she doesn’t ask questions, doesn’t make accusations, doesn’t ask why he never told her about the Not Breathing.

“Come on, Tony, let’s get you home.”

An hour later he’s curled on a couch that he hasn’t sat on in over a year, Natasha’s afghan abandoned on the floor as the doctor pressed a stethoscope to his back.

He’s reminded again why he hates doctors as the man talks around him like he’s not there. But it would waste too much oxygen to make his normal snide remarks, and that, more than anything, is what is putting that little frown line on Pepper’s forehead.

“His fever is at 102. His lungs are filled with fluid. It looks like it may have started as a virus, but with Mr. Stark’s compromised lungs, it rapidly turned into pneumonia. He really needs to be in a hospital.”

Not dying then. Not yet. Just more Not Breathing.

“I’m also concerned about the amount of bruising Mr. Stark appears to have.”

“Giant robot,” Tony mumbles, eyes slipping closed as he slides down the couch. He sneezes suddenly and its downhill from there.

The vise closes tight, all air forced from his lungs. He can’t cough, can’t move, can’t, can’t…

“Tony! Tony!” Pepper’s kneeling in front of him and the doctor is tugging.

He can’t Not Breathe, can’t do anything…

The doctor has him upright, and he slumps forward, Pepper catching him and still screaming his name. There’s a fist pounding his back and something tears free in his chest.

Pepper moves just in time to avoid getting splattered with rust colored mucus.

And then Tony is Not Breathing, great big Not Breaths that tear at his chest and are the most wonderful thing he’s ever felt, despite the coughing that follows them.

Arms are levering him backwards and for a second he imagines Steve is behind him. Tony can’t keep his eyes open, and barely registers the mask being secured over his face. Small hands are pulling the afghan up around him, and he’s too tired to gather it up under his nose like he wants to.

“Sir,” Jarvis interrupts. “Would you like me to put on a movie?”

He doesn’t open his eyes, doesn’t even nod, but hears the television flick on anyway. Tony doesn’t have to be looking to know that Pepper has realized that this isn’t something new.

“As I was saying, Mr. Stark should be in the hospital.”

If Pepper wants to put him in the hospital, Tony isn’t going to fight it. He’s realized sometime in the past few hours that he is actually incapable of doing this alone. That the reason why his Not Breathing was so bad before was because Tony Stark was really good at inventing things and really bad at taking care of himself. (Because maybe, maybe, he didn’t deserve it).

“No,” Pepper says firmly.

“I’m worried that some of the shrapnel may have dislodged…”

“No.” Pepper says again.

A small grin pulls at his lips and he lets the comforting whistle-wheeze lull him to sleep.

Tony drifts in and out, pieces of conversation floating through his exhausted mind.

“He hasn’t eaten in three days, Miss Potts…”

His sleep isn’t deep enough to let him dream, the harsh sound of his breathing and the mask rubbing his face constantly drawing him back to consciousness.

“Where are the rest of the Avengers, Jarvis?”

The mist is warm on his face, but his lips are cracked and dry, and everything hurts.

“Mr. Stark has asked that I not call Mr. Rogers.”

He remembers the last time he had pneumonia, laying in a hospital bed hooked to wires and tubes. This feels the same. And different.

“How long, Jarvis? How long has he had this trouble breathing?”

Forever and ever and ever.

At some point, Tony wakes up and Pepper helps him stumble up to bed. There’s things waiting up there. Medications and IV tubes and wires. Hospital at home. Except this wasn’t really home. But it was better than a hospital.

The next days are a blur. The Not Breathing is getting worse.

The oxygen mask only comes off when he attempts to eat, but the medications are making him nauseous and nothing is staying down. Pepper finally comes to him and presses a cool hand across his forehead. The Not Breathing makes it hard to focus over the headache and the chills and the aches all over. Tony wants to go home. But that’s not what Pepper is thinking.

“I want to take you to the hospital, Tony,” she says gently. “Dr. Jones thinks that some of the shrapnel may have been dislodged when you were fighting that robot. He thinks that may be causing part of the problem.”

Did he tell you what he told me years ago, Pep?  Tony wants to ask. Did he tell you that no matter what, it was only a matter of time?  It takes too much effort to summon the words, however. Instead, he just closes his eyes and nods and wonders how it got this bad, this fast.

Tony’s Before and After are different now. There’s Before the Avengers found out (and the Not Breathing was bad, so, so bad) and After. After was good. After was great. After was occasional episodes that he never had to deal with alone. After was him healthier than he’d been his entire life because someone was always looking out for him. And no one had looked after him like that Before, mostly because Tony didn’t trust them too.

But even Before it had never gotten this bad, this fast.

It had been steady Before, constant. This was sudden and, and…in, and out. That’s all he had to focus on. In and out. It had been a long time since he’d closed his eyes and just focused on Not Breathing. (And not of the feel of Steve’s warm hand rubbing circles on his back, or Clint’s socked feet digging under his thigh, or Natasha’s curls resting on his hand as she reclined on the floor in front of him, or Bruce’s steady breathing, or Thor’s undeniable, bouncing energy that shook the couch every time he played a video game). And dear God, he didn’t think he could do it alone anymore.

So when Pepper says hospital, Tony can’t do anything but nod.

He isn’t much help in getting to the car. Tony’s pretty sure Pepper twists an ankle helping him get down the stairs (Steve would have just hauled him up and over his shoulder), and he crashes into the wall when a coughing fit takes over.

Tony’s left standing and shaking and sweating as he pants his way through the fit, and holds his breath in hopes that it will somehow lessen the ache. It doesn’t, but eventually he’s left with just a zipper in his chest and manages to make it the rest of the way to the car without causing any irreparable damage to the CEO of his company.

There’s a wheelchair at the hospital, so he doesn’t have to walk anymore, and that’s a good thing, because his legs went numb in the car and his head is swimming.
Tests pass by in a blur, because there’s only one thing that Tony is doing right now and it goes in and out. He’s not listening when the doctor discusses surgery with Pepper. In and out. Tony knows he should (because its his damn arc reactor that they’re going to be working around and no one except him and maybe Bruce really knows how it works), but Not Breathing is enough for him right now.

“Tony, the doctor says some of the shrapnel shifted. He wants to go in and remove it.”

In and out. In…Tony expels the words with his fragile breath. “Is it cutting into something?” He recognizes that it’s the first time he’s made an effort to discuss the Not Breathing with Pepper, sees the relief in her eyes.

“No.”

In and out. Tony shakes his head. If Bruce was here to look at the films, and if he thought Tony needed it…but no. There were too many risks, too many complications. The surgeon could just as easily knick a lung or sever a piece of his reactor. His mind was sliding away too easily right now, and Tony wondered what exactly they had running through his IV. The pain was dull, but so was everything else.

“Okay, Tony,” Pepper says softly, eyes glistening in the fluorescent light. “Your fever is going down.”

“Sound like, Jarvis,” he manages to get out before giving into the clawing exhaustion.

Tony wakes up to the sound of a phone ringing. It sounds like his, the ring tone he’d programmed for a S.H.I.E.L.D. call. He’s trying to muster up the air to tell someone to answer it when Pepper does just that.

“Mr. Stark’s phone, this is Pepper Potts speaking.” There’s a pause, and Tony can hear her heels tapping as she walks away from his bed. Probably to keep from waking him up. Can’t tell if he’s awake or asleep when his lungs are this noisy.

“He’s currently unavailable.”

A wheeze catches suddenly in his lungs, and for a brief second he isn’t Not Breathing at all. The mask attached to his face does its job, though, and with a short barking cough he manages to expel the stale air that was trapped and bring fresh air in.

“I’m sorry, Director.” Pepper doesn’t sound sorry. She sounds kind of pissed. “No you may not speak with him.”

In and…it catches again, and this time Tony’s trying to push himself up, some primal part screaming if he could only get his head up higher, he could Not Breathe…

The phone clatters to the ground and Pepper is next to him, pushing the call button even as he feels everything fading.

“God damn, Tony,” Pepper snaps, and she slaps him hard on the back. “Breathe you stubborn bastard!”

He manages another gasp in, but it won’t come out and he’s suffocating in his own lungs, drowning from the inside out…

Pepper’s hand pounds harder this time, all the pent up rage from years of having to work with Tony Stark (at least, he assumes that’s where it comes from) and jars the pocket of carbon dioxide free.

A nurse appears just as he starts coughing, long, hard, ripping him apart coughing, that he’s certain is going to cause the arc reactor to fly out of his chest. He isn’t getting much air in, now, and the dizziness causes him to fall forward, Pepper’s hands holding him upright.

And as much as he appreciates what Pepper’s doing…he doesn’t want her there. But the people he does are off saving the world…and he can’t, won’t be that selfish. No matter how much he wants it.

“Lips and fingers are blue,” the nurse was saying into the phone beside him.

The coughs are still rattling through him, shaking the entire bed, probably the entire floor.

“We’re going to put him on oxygen with helium,” the nurse was saying. “It will help the air get around any blockage that there might be.”

He was right here, damn it. The team never talked around him.

The mask changed and he greedily sucked in the air. It seemed like hours before the coughs slowed, and as they quieted, he could hear his phone ringing from the tile floor. Pepper wasn’t moving to answer it, though.

“Let me call him,” she said gently, resting her cool palm on his forehead.

“No,” Tony whispered, eyes blinking closed. Eventually the hand moved and his phone stopped ringing, not long after that, exhaustion claimed him and Tony gave into the oblivion.

When he wakes up it isn’t to Pepper’s bright red hair, but Natasha’s darker curls. Her eyes are hard as she glares at him, flipping her pocket knife back and forth between her hands.

“What the hell were you thinking, Stark,” she hisses the second his eyes lock onto hers.

Tony tries to think of all the reasons why he didn’t call someone. She and Clint were unreachable and Bruce was overseas and Steve was stuck traveling the world to be S.H.I.E.L.D.’s poster boy and…and he was scared that if he called they might not come.

Because that would be worse than anything. Worse than Not Breathing. If he called for Steve, and he didn’t come…

Tony’s breath catches, a tiny hitch threatening to become stuck again, and Natasha’s eyes soften. And then she’s climbing over wires and pressing up next to him on the tiny little bed, arms threading under his chest tube (and when the hell was that put in?) and around him. Somehow his head lands on her shoulder and he can feel the deep rumbling in his chest bouncing off her side. His heartbeat seems strangely jerky and stilted next to hers.

“I sent Pepper home,” she says quietly, speaking into the top of his head where she’s managed to press her lips. “She looked exhausted. You’ve given her quite the scare. Clint is on his way. He was picking up Bruce first.”

She has to be uncomfortable with the way the mask is pressing into her and the wires and tubes are tangled and…

“Steve’s pretty pissed. Of course he’s beating himself up for not checking in. Says if he called this wouldn’t have happened.”

That was so not true. Tony was fully capable of screwing things up all on his own. Besides, a phone call wouldn’t have stopped the common cold. (Or this thing that was a part of his chest and tearing him up on the inside).

Tony vaguely realizes that some of the tightness has eased, and he’s really, really tired.

“Go to sleep, Tony,” Natasha says softly.

And he does.

There’s an alarm blaring and Tony wonders if it is another giant robot.

Except…

The whole world seems to be shaking and moving and it hurts…

“Fever spiked and he’s seizing!”

“Tony, Tony, hey buddy…” That’s right, put the green guy in a room with a person having a seizure. Were they trying to make the poor man Hulk out? “Just take it easy, take it easy…”

He realized somewhere around the pain and not breathing that there were arms holding him down. Oh God, it was him, he was seizing…

“Respiration is up, oxygen level is dropping!”

“Fuck!” Clint snaps from somewhere near the bottom of the bed, he must be the person holding his legs. “Don’t you dare die, Stark!”

“Injecting into his IV…”

“Respiration is still rising…”

And then…

“Tony.”

There’s impossibly blue eyes above him.

“In and out, Tony. You can do it. Babies do it all the time.”

He wants to tell Steve that babies aren’t drowning in their own lungs, babies don’t have shrapnel poking holes through their chest, babies don’t have PTSD and aren’t afraid of standing water, or car batteries, or being left alone. Instead he just focuses on Not Breathing. In and out.

“Good. In and out.”

“We need to do exploratory surgery…”

“You need to back the hell off,” Natasha snaps from somewhere down near Clint.

He’s not shaking anymore and Steve is still standing above him, and his chest sounds like a jumbo jet trying to take off and Steve is still standing above him. He’s quite possibly dying and Steve is still standing above him.

He closes his eyes and opens them and Steve is still standing above him.

“You idiot,” Steve says fondly (at least that’s how Tony will remember it, because he wasn’t there to see Steve’s blind panic when he found out that Tony was in the hospital in Malibu of all places, wasn’t there to hear him screaming at Fury for separating them, wasn’t there to watch him wear a hole in the carpet in the airport terminal). He cards a hand through Tony’s hair, rests his thumb on Tony’s cheek. “Get some rest.”

He’ll wait until Tony’s sleeping to start enacting all the measures he’d thought of on his long flight to California. As soon as Tony starts doing better he’s taking him home, because he knows the man well enough to know that he isn’t going to do better here.

There’s going to be no world saving in the near future for anyone. He’d already had a message sent to Thor, and the demigod was probably on his way. They were going to hunker down and get through this, and then things were going to change. No one was getting left alone anymore. He was done playing Fury’s game.

And Tony…

“Don’t leave,” the figure on the bed exhales, those two words causing him to nearly lose a lung to his hacking.

Clint squeezes Tony’s ankles where he’s still grasping them. “Dude, you can’t get rid of me that easily. Besides, you promised me new weaponry when I left. I’m certainly not going anywhere until I get a chance to play with it.”

Tony huffs out a laugh, ignoring the spike of pain it causes. In and out. In and out…he falls asleep to Steve’s thumb stroking small circles on his cheek.

They take up rotation at the hospital and slowly Tony starts to get better. The antibiotics start kicking in, the rough coughing fits lessen. He’s still Not Breathing like a son-of-a-bitch, and everything still is tight and hurts, but the fever is down to a low grade, and he wants out.

Pepper knows what they’re planning on doing and stops by with the few things he’d brought. His nebulizer and afghan.

Natasha smiles when she sees the blanket, tucks it around him as he drifts in and out of sleep. When he wakes up again he’s wrapped securely in it and pressed up against a giant, snoring creature.

“Thor was worried,” Steve explains as he adjusts the mask that had slipped from Tony’s face. “He didn’t believe us when we said you were actually breathing.”

Tony takes it for what it is and goes back to sleep. This time, he wakes up on his couch.

Steve is absentmindedly petting his head as he watches the flickering television. Tony can’t hear anything, so the volume must be muted. Either that or he fried his ear drums. He’s exhausted, bone-numbingly tired, and there’s a steady wheeze, but its just that. No skipping, shuddering sounds. Lips press to the top of his head.

“God, I must stink,” he manages to get out.

Steve snorts behind him, and that makes the precious air he used worth it.

It’s another week before he’s sitting upright at the kitchen table, picking at a piece of toast. Steve’s got a constipated look on his face, the one that means he has something to talk about but isn’t sure exactly where he wants to begin.

Tony decides to make it easier on him. In and out. In and out. That’s all he does now. “You saw my medical file, didn’t you?”

“Bruce showed me,” Steve responds quietly. “He thought I already knew.” He runs a hand through his hair, down his face, squeezes it into a fist and grasps the back of his neck. And Tony understands that. The want and need to do something. The inability to do anything at all except maybe (if he’s lucky) breathe. In and out.

Tony doesn’t say anything. There isn’t anything to say. In and out. And besides, saying something might aggravate his Not Breathing. If he just holds his breath…

“If I’d known I wouldn’t have left,” Steve’s voice is broken. Just like Tony’s lungs. Tony’s lungs and his… “Why didn’t you tell me about the heart damage?”

The real reason why his Not Breathing is so much worse. There’s only so much a heart can take, and an arc reactor sitting on top of it, crushing it every time he gets thrown the wrong way in battle…

“I didn’t know for sure,” Tony whispers, ending with a wheeze. But I suspected. It’s left hanging in the air.

“When?” Steve asks.

When the medication stopped working, when the Albuterol just wasn’t enough anymore, when he got tired walking across his lab. Sometime in the past few months when you were gone, and they were gone, and he just didn’t want to know.

If he holds his breath, maybe it’ll stop now.

“Why?” Steve asks. “Why didn’t you tell me?”

Because you were gone. Tony wanted to snap, but his breath catches and he coughs. Because if I said something it would have been real. Because I didn’t want to see that broken look in your eyes.

He must see the answer on Tony’s face, because he doesn’t ask again. “Bruce said he’s looking into it. Has a few friends trying to see what they can do…I asked about a transplant, but he said the damage would only happen again to the new heart…”

“Does Fury know?” Tony manages to ask. In and out. In and out.

“No,” Steve says softly. “I’m not going to tell him.” Steve fidgets some more, and then clears is throat. “There’s some sort of serum that Bruce thinks might be able to repair the damage to your heart. He wants to run some more tests. He said it won’t help with your lung damage, because its too old, but…it’s something.”

Just normal Not Breathing? Yeah that would be something.

“He said the pneumonia made it worse…and he thinks that when that robot was using you as a baseball bat…” He’s rambling now, and Tony can’t help but smile fondly. “Bruce said he won’t try anything until the pneumonia is completely cleared up and…”

In and out. In and out. “Steve.”

If he holds his breath, holds it tight, it is almost like everything is normal, everything his fine, he can forget about the whistle-wheeze, the sharp pain, the sluggish beat of his heart.

“Does it hurt?” Steve asks finally.

“No.” Just when I breathe.

If Steve senses the lie, he doesn’t ask again.

It’s two weeks before Bruce comes back from visiting a colleague with the serum in hand. It’s another full week before Tony has recovered enough to make it down to his lab without losing a lung.

It takes another week before Bruce insists on trying the serum, despite Steve‘s hesitation. “If we wait too long, it won’t be able to repair the damage. The injury needs to be recent.”

Tony isn’t supposed to hear the conversation, but he’s pressed against the wall outside the kitchen, willing the zipper in his chest to stop moving long enough for him to eavesdrop.

“What if the damage isn’t recent enough,” Steve responds. “What if it doesn’t work?”

“Then we’ll explore other options,” Natasha reassures.

“I agree with Banner,” Thor booms, and if Tony didn’t know that there was a secret meeting in the kitchen before, he certainly would now.

“Keep it down,” Clint hisses. “Tony’s sleeping on the couch.”

Is not. The zipper moves suddenly and Tony catches his breath, holding it long enough to make it back to the couch where he can safely cough his head off.

Clint appears almost immediately, cup of water in hand. “Give…me…the damn serum,” Tony grinds out between coughs and Clint nods.

“Okay.”

That night, Tony sits quietly on the couch. He can’t bring himself to make a smart comment, not when they’re all staring at him. His arm slips out from underneath the afghan, held out towards Bruce.

Natasha is standing in the corner, staring at him, Clint leaning against the wall next to her. Thor is pacing the length of the room, cape spinning with every turn. And Steve is sitting next to him, hand resting on his thigh. In and out. In and out. The spikes of pain barely register over the warmth of Steve’s fingers.

“Are you sure about this?”

In and out. He knows Steve is worried that there might be some sort of reaction. That he might die here and now.

But he might live. Might live with just the Not Breathing and this…his family.

“Yeah,” Tony rasps. “I’m sure.”

Bruce swabs his arm and then there’s a prick. Steve is squeezing his leg as everyone watches the needle depress.

As something cold and burning rushes through his veins, Tony takes in everyone around him, wraps himself up in their love, and closes his eyes. Holding his breath, Tony focuses on what is here in this room with him, and forgets everything else.