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Phantom Moments Between Each Breath

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Tony gets used to people never noticing. He gets used to people asking. There is a difference.

It’s hard to ignore the hardware in his chest. Harder still to pretend it’s not the physical manifestation of everything that’s gone wrong in his life. The soft blue glow shines through clothes no matter how many layers he wears to hide it but you can’t hide mistakes, not the big ones. Not when they’re splashed across too many headlines for weeks on end.

After Afghanistan, when it was all debriefs and press conferences and Obadiah and oh god I need a drink I need a fucking drink, in his darker moments, Tony thinks the cave might’ve been easier. Just him and the earth and Yinsen there to teach him how to live with the metal in his chest.

“I had to carve out bone,” he remembers Yinsen saying. “Move muscle where it shouldn’t go. It is the best I could do, given the circumstances.”

Circumstances being what they are, with Yinsen dead and Tony’s heart beating way off rhythm, he’ll take what he can get. Doesn’t mean it’s easy.

The arc reactor is a conversation piece that everyone thinks they have the right to talk about. Like it’s some fucking piece of artwork when it’s a constant reminder of darkness and drowning and things Tony can’t escape.

“Does it hurt?” a reporter asks during the press junket mayhem after he says I am Iron Man out loud and in his thoughts like it’s a goddamn mantra.

Tony flashes his trademark smirk in the face of all the camera flashes and says, “Not anymore.”

In his mind he hears Yinsen’s voice over the din of the jostling reporters, the older man’s soft accent fading with every day Tony puts behind him. “Take a deep breath, Tony. You need to learn how to breathe again.”

Because there’s a weight on his lungs that wasn’t there before and his heart keeps pace to the electric hum that vibrates against ribs. People see the glow of the arc reactor, they never see the scars.

Afterwards, in the limo with Pepper by his side, he taps out a rhythm against the metal in his chest. Takes him seven city blocks to figure out he’s tapping out his old heart beat.

“What’s wrong?” Pepper asks quietly.

She’s got sharper eyes now, ever since he walked off the plane at the Air Force base. Pepper is no longer looking out for just his company but his sanity as well, even if they both pretend otherwise. She stuck her hand into his chest, made him a fake heart to replace the one he’d created with Yinsen. Neither feels like they fit.

Tony fights the urge to hunch his shoulders against the ache in his torso from cramped muscles not used to a new permanent position. He thinks he can feel the sting of shrapnel fighting to cut through his flesh. “Nothing’s wrong, Pep. I’m Iron Man, how could anything be wrong?”

He goes home and hides in his lab while Pepper does damage control because she’s better at it than he is. Always will be. He thinks he owes her a promotion, at the bare minimum a bonus. On the way down to the lab, Tony uses his phone to wire Pepper a quarter of a million dollars because it makes him feel better.

He enters a space that smells like metal and oil and nothing close to earth but everything’s relative. Tony snaps his fingers at the screens surrounding him, bringing up everything that matters. “JARVIS, wake up. We’ve got work to do.”

“Good afternoon, sir. Do you wish to pick up where we previously left off?” the AI says through nearest speaker.

“Yeah, sounds good. Start up the music, will you? You know what I like to hear.”

It’s easier to fix his armor than it is to fix anything else.

The palladium poisoning creeps up on him. It’s been building since Afghanistan, slowly mapping out death on his skin in ugly patterns. Tony knows it’s a probability he can’t win against. The numbers aren’t in his favor, never have been. Fury finds a temporary solution but not a cure. It takes the dead to make Tony live again. Maybe one day he’ll be grateful but three months on and the side-effects still aren’t gone as his body slowly purges the metal; a low-grade, near-constant headache and nausea that hits at the worst time. At least he doesn’t need any organ transplants.

“Tony, you can’t keep ignoring Fury forever,” Pepper says one morning in exasperation. “And you can’t keep rerouting his calls to my phone. I was in a board meeting yesterday.”

“Sure I can. Fury likes talking to you way more than he likes talking to me. Pass me that wrench, would you?” Tony says, half-buried in a prototype jet engine he’s been working on for a week. It’s nearly finished.

Pepper lets out an annoyed huff. “Tony.”

He waves a hand at her without looking. “Wrench, please.”

She hands him his phone instead with Fury on the other line. “Talk to him or I will schedule you in meetings for an entire week right upstairs in your home office.”

“I have a home office?”

Pepper levels him a stern look. “Tony.”

“You know, this feels like blackmail. Pepper, when did you get so good at blackmail?”

“I learned from the best,” she says before turning around and leaving the lab.

Tony talks to Fury, which is how he finds himself at SHIELD’s headquarters the following day for a crash course introduction to the five other people who make up the Avengers Initiative. First impressions do not go over well with anyone.

Big man in a suit of armor. Take it away, what are you?

The words run through Tony’s head later, much later, after they’ve stopped Loki and saved the world and nearly got themselves killed once or twice. There’s city damage and civilian deaths and twenty-four hour news coverage that comes with saving the world. Public opinion and government scrutiny make a killer couple. No one ever said this job would be all glory all the time.

Tony doesn’t think twice about ignoring the order to debrief and instead flies to his family’s New York mansion after the fight. The lab in Malibu is duplicated here and it’s seen a lot of use lately, ever since the Avengers were given the green light. Tony won’t work at SHIELD headquarters, and while the mansion above has never been home, the lab always will be.

The armor needs to be repaired and Tony can’t sleep, not yet. Adrenaline is hard to shake and he waits it out through the hours of intense work the armor requires. The arc reactor can slow down his racing heart but the process hurts more than it should, more than it used to. It keeps pace to a beat he wasn’t born with, one Tony thinks he will never be comfortable with.

“Sir, there is a Steve Rogers here to see you,” JARVIS says, interrupting his concentration some time after midnight and well before dawn.

Tony lifts his head and wipes sweat off his forehead. “What? Why?”

“I do not know his reason for coming. Would you like me to inquire?”

“Uh, no, it’s fine. Let him in, I guess.”

Tony doesn’t leave the lab. Steve finds him anyway. He’s out of uniform but there’s still dirt under his fingernails from the fight and dark circles under his blue eyes. The last forty-eight hours were hell and none of them got any sleep, too busy trying to keep themselves and so many others alive. Steve wears exhaustion better than most, but it’s still there. He might be the only super-soldier in existence but Steve is still human.

“Fury send you?” Tony asks.

“No, I came on my own. You weren’t at the debrief,” Steve says.

Tony shrugs. “Not my thing.”

“You weren’t at medical either.” Steve hesitates before continuing with, “I just wanted to make sure you were all right.”

Maybe it’s a soldier thing, some brotherhood bond that Tony will never understand that brought Steve here. He sees it in SHIELD agents all the time, the close-knit hive mind he thinks Fury requires in all his subordinates. Tony’s never been good at toeing any line but his own, and even then he tends to cross it because morals aren’t set in stone and the high ground isn’t something he sees too often. Tony’s lucky that way.

“Armor’s fine. Took a beating but nothing I can’t fix. You can let Fury know.”

“That’s not what I meant.”

Tony gives him a blank look. “Right. Because Fury didn’t send you here to give him an update on the damage the suit took. Usually he sends Coulson but honestly, most SHIELD agents are too taser-happy for my tastes. You didn’t bring a taser, did you?”

“Tony.” The exasperation in Steve’s voice is hard to miss. “You didn’t get checked out by medical. I just came by to make sure you’re okay. I don’t care about the armor.”

I care about the armor.”

Steve frowns. “I didn’t mean it like that.”

Tony waves a hand at him in a dismissing manner. “It’s three in the morning, Steve. Go home.”

“You’re favoring your ribs. You should’ve gone to medical.”

It takes Tony a few seconds before he realizes that he’s hunched over his work bench with its scattered tools and pieces of armor, his muscles cramped and aching. The glow from the arc reactor shines through the cut-out in the dirty white fabric of his tank top. It’s there for all the world, or at least Steve to see, and Tony refuses to give in to the urge to cover it up. To pretend it’s not there, keeping him alive.

“I’ve got work to do. Could you, I don’t know, go play nursemaid to someone else? Let Fury know I’ll be available next time he wants to throw us into the sandbox together but only if my schedule allows it.”

Tony turns his back on the other man and barely registers him leaving. Only when Steve is gone does Tony grip one of his shoulder and dig his fingers into knotted muscle. He thinks about Yinsen and the weight of a car battery hanging from one hand. The weight is much less now but the ache hasn’t left him, probably never will.

“Here,” a quiet voice says some time later, startling him. “Take this.”

Tony looks up to find Steve standing beside him with a glass of water and a couple of white pills in the palm of one hand.

“I said I was fine,” Tony snaps.

“You’re not fine. But I’ll pretend you are if you take the pills.”

It’s a statement of fact, not a question, and Tony doesn’t know what to say to that. Steve’s eyes drop from Tony’s face to his chest, to the arc reactor burning bright between them. His mouth twists with something that isn’t disgust or pity, and that surprises Tony.

“Fury briefed me on all of you before we met. I don’t like fighting alongside people without knowing more than just their names.”

“My file’s pretty thin.” Tony knows just how thin it is because he hacked it the day he found out it existed and deleted gigabytes of information. He still hacks it from time to time to delete any new updates he doesn’t agree with, just to piss Fury off.

“I know.” Steve sets the glass of water on the work table and holds out the pills. He points at the arc reactor with his free hand, more interested in it than the armor, which is a first. “You can’t ever take it out, can you? You can’t go back to what you were before you got it stuck in your chest.”

And Tony can’t tell if Steve is talking about Tony or himself between the lines of the words he’s speaking. If he’s talking about waking up in the future or waking up in a cave. Tony wonders, idly, how Steve is coping with a world that moved on without him. If it’s any different than when Tony learned how to breathe again because he had to.

Tony closes his eyes and says, “If I take your stupid pills, will you go away?”

“For a little while.”

Tony takes the pills and Steve leaves him alone to work in peace with his ghosts. Steve comes back in the morning, knocking on Tony’s door to drag him back to the living, and the ache in his chest has lessened from pain to a phantom memory.

Tony gets used to Steve noticing. He gets used to Steve asking. There is no difference between the two.