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This Isn't a Nightmare

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Something cracked inside of Tony. It might have been his heart, breaking while Steve walked away.

For a long time after they left, he sat there, leaning against the wall, trying to steady his breath. His eyes were trained on the fallen shield in front of him until intense pain registered in his mind. When he diverted his gaze to his chest he inhaled sharply as he realized why. The arc reactor was shattered, leaving Tony’s suit without power. Where Steve had slammed the shield, sharp metal was digging into his chest, hungrily slicing his body. Blood seeped between the metal plates and bolts staining the suit an even darker crimson. Friday was unresponsive and Tony was slowly losing feeling in his left arm, rendering the possibility of taking off the suit unrealistic. He would have to remove it manually, and he was no condition to do so.

He was trapped in his own creation.

Waiting to die, he sat there, leaning against the wall, hoping that someone would come looking for him. Trying to keep from thinking that no one would.

It took him a while to realize that he was slowly rocking back and forth, perhaps to stay sane, perhaps just to keep warm. He hummed an old lullaby too, one his mother used to sing to him when he was very little. He did his best to imitate her voice, a sweet and delicate sound, but his notes came out cracked and hoarse, nothing like what he remembered. Eventually he stopped trying.

It is so damp and cold down here. Melting snow trickled from above the archway and flowed freely, mocking Tony’s confinement. When the sun dipped below the horizon, the shelter was thrown into a darkness so black that he could barely see his legs splayed out in front of him. The entire night was filled with the sound of his shallow breathing and the howls of wildlife. If Steve hadn’t destroyed the arc reactor, I would have some light down here — some measure of comfort. The bitter thought plagued him, he couldn’t help it: the darkness felt suffocating, like it was crawling into his very being and making a permanent home inside of him. The cold made his entire body tremble painfully.

In a restless haze he flitted in and out of dreams featuring Steve. Tormented by memories tainted with darkness, Tony’s mind forced him to remember how beautiful Steve’s laugh was only to have him relive the memory of the shield being slammed against his face and chest. He kept dreaming Steve was holding him, only to fight him off moments later. He wasn’t sure which phantom touch hurt more.

After the first few nightmares he woke up disoriented, wanting nothing more than for Steve to abandon Bucky and come save him. They’d both apologize and everything would be fine. But when he lost track of how many nightmares had come and gone, when the night had blurred into one cruel punishment, he woke with strangled cries, fearing Steve’s touch. He still heard Steve’s cruel laughter and felt the pain of deceit long after the dreams ended.

At some point Tony lost track of what his nightmares were about. He wasn’t sure if his eyes were closed or open, if the monsters he was seeing were in his head or in the shelter with him. What is happening to me? Hours passed and his fear mixed with anger.

When the next morning came, Tony was hyper-aware of the situation. He felt how his hair was matted with sweat and saw that the suit was caked with blood. Beneath the metal his fingers itched with the urge to scrub clean. Is it strange that all I can think about is how filthy I am? Tony thought how if Steve were there, he’d murmur something reassuring and hold him tightly until he was warm. He is the reason I am stranded here, sitting in my own misery, but he couldn’t have realized this would happen…right? Still, Tony couldn’t help but wonder if Steve was okay.

Each time the new day arrived, he was forced to relive the battle. Scorch marks, blood stains, crushed wall and rubble marked the scene before him. A fallen shield and scraps from a metal arm. What the hell did we do? The snow added a reflective sheen to everything around him, as if this were all some nightmare he couldn’t wake from. Is this all my fault? Heat and ice coursed through his veins and his muscles throbbed. He lay there on the unforgiving cement, trembling, disbelieving, his gaze once again fixed in horror on the sight of the shield lying only a few feet away. Too close. It’s too close to me. The more he stared at it the more he wished Steve had taken the weapon with him.

The smell of iron filled his nose and he yearned to wash away the blood caked on his face. He wasn’t sure if it was from his own wounds, Bucky’s or Steve’s. The thought made him nauseous. “I didn’t mean it,” he whispered, unsure of who he was talking to, his voice rough and hoarse from dehydration and silence. He tried and failed to drag himself away from his father’s creation, away from the shield and out into the open where someone could see him if they cared enough to look. This is all wrong.

But that was a lie. He knew it, even before he thought it. Do you see how I take after my father? I had attacked someone I was supposed to love, supposed to protect, out of anger. And I had relished every moment. “I didn’t mean it!” he shrieked again, trying to drown out his inner voice.  But his words only came out in a thin, hoarse jumble. “I just wanted to— fix—I just wanted—to make things right—I didn’t—I don’t—”

Tony had no idea how long he stayed there. All he knew was that eventually the blood loss and dehydration caught up to him and he drifted in and out of delirium. When he next came to, his lips were chapped and cracking painfully and his cheeks were stained with tears. He tasted salt mixed with the metallic tang of blood as he drifted back into unconsciousness.

Some hours later, he woke up and his eyes focused on a new addition to the battle scene: the ghost of his father, keeping him company. After that, every time Tony woke up from a feverish dream, he saw Howard standing in the corner, laughing at him. You tried to escape from me, he said,but I found you. And still, you’re a failure, still pathetic. You couldn’t even avenge your own mother. Tony told Howard he was glad he was murdered, glad that he was dead. Tony told him to go away. But Howard stayed.

It doesn’t matter anyway. I’m sure I’ll die soon too.Tony gave up fighting his father. He gave up on trying to live.

It’s been three days, or maybe it’s been four. Actually, Tony had no idea how long it’s been, and he couldn’t quite remember where he was exactly. Steve’s coming, I think? But he should be here already…No — that’s not right.

Something streaked across his vision. There was a flare of light, a soft flashing sound, and suddenly a figure appeared in front of him. What is it?—no, it’s a man, he thought. Who is this? This man was not an illusion—Tony could sense his reality, the solidity of his figure that his father in the corner did not have. Yet when he felt a rough pair of hands grab him, Tony’s eyes surged open in surprised panic and he struggled with what little strength he had left. This isn’t real. This is a nightmare.

It wasn’t a nightmare. It was real.

In one swift move his armor was split open and removed, and Tony was dragged up causing a burst of pain to shoot through his entire body as he was moved from the spot he had been frozen in for three days. Immediately Tony collapsed in on himself, too weak to hold himself up. But the man caught him and lifted Tony effortlessly into his arms. Tony tensed, overcome with terror and unsure of what to expect. But he was too weak to protest. His head leaned wearily against the other man’s chest, too tired to fight. Though his muscles burned in agony and his head was throbbing Tony tried one final attempt to escape the solid man’s grasp. His surge of energy resulted in nothing more than a slight wiggle —  his body too fragile to struggle.

The man brought his mouth close to Tony’s ear, his breath the first warmth Tony had felt in too long. “Stay still,” he whispered. “And hold on.”

“I can walk,” Tony found himself muttering, but his words slurred together and he was too exhausted to think clearly. Maybe hell has a delivery system, his exhausted mind tried to reason. As darkness descended upon him the last thing Tony noticed was the peculiar attire of the mysterious figure who had saved him.

He was wearing a cape.