Lying on the couch, with the serum burning through his veins, Tony had promised the entire team that he wasn’t going to die.
It was too bad, because he was pretty sure that he was going to have to break that promise.
It wasn’t the serum that was going to kill him. In fact, it had saved his life. The thing had set his body on fire for what felt like hours, but in the end, it had repaired the most recent damage to his heart. He’d survived, and was a little better off for it.
But here, alone, in the dark…
Something creaks, a door maybe, and a thin strand of light separates the room.
In and out. Don’t let them see. In and out…
“Get up, Stark.” The boot is hard in his side, jolts his whole body and makes him lose the careful control he has over his breaths. Air catches and freezes deep inside, and he can’t get up, can’t even move, because his last lungful has decided to get stuck somewhere and it won’t come out it won’t…
Another sharp kick jars it loose, and a harsh cough follows. There’s blood in his mouth, the metallic taste is familiar, and it could be nothing, but it could be bad.
As a hand grasps the back of his shirt and pulls him up, Tony remembers his promise, and puts one foot in front of the other.
The lights are bright in the hallway, brighter still in the room they shove him into.
“What do you want?” he manages to ask, and he’s rather proud of himself. He got those words out around the vise wrapping tight, squeezing his lungs. Did it despite the thump-thump-skip-thuthump-thump-skip-skip--thump that was playing out in his chest. “What do you want me to build?”
Tall dark and psychotic laughs, feet propped up on his desk, leaning back in his rolling chair and managing not to fall down. Bastard.
“Build? Put you in a room with tools? I’m not nearly as stupid as those terrorist morons. The last thing I need you doing is creating your own way out.”
Everyone knows that there’s a no ransom policy at Stark Industries. No one is dumb enough to kidnap him for the money, so Tony's not exactly sure what they want. There’s dark spots dancing in front of his eyes, and he’s pretty sure at least one rib broke during the crash, and his entire left side feels like the microwave must have after Clint accidentally heated his oatmeal with the spoon still in the bowl.
Everything is fuzzy and he’s having trouble keeping the wheeze down so they can’t hear it (because he can’t let them know, they can‘t know about the Not Breathing), and he doesn’t understand why he’s here.
And Steve’s probably pissed (and moving on to worried) because this was their first real Not Date, just the two of them and dinner, and even if they weren’t going to call it a date (because Steve courted and Tony just slept with people and they needed to find some sort of in between, so they were going on a Not Date), it kind of was, because Steve had told the rest of the team that they weren’t allowed to go to dinner with them…and oh God, what if Steve was dead? He was in the car, wasn’t he?
He can’t remember.
The man behind the desk is staring at him, and his stomach is doing flip flops, because, oh please no, and then Tony realizes that he isn’t staring at him.
He's staring at the arc reactor.
“I designed the weapons myself. They’re ready to go. I just need a power source. Marco here tried stealing some a little while back, but apparently you’ve got some state of the art security system.”
Jarvis would not be happy about being called a security system. But that thought is secondary to the more important ones (Not-Breathing, Steve, Not-Breathing, Steve…), and the fact that he’s a little put off by the salivating look the man is directing at the blue glow.
“So, I figured if we couldn’t go in and get one, we’d just wait for one to come out.”
Tony’s pretty sure he’s shaking now, his eyes barely able to stay open, and his head hurts on top of everything else. A thin zipper races up his chest with the next exhale and he tries to hold his Not Breath in. Can’t let them hear.
“Of course, we still need you alive, because we’ll need you to help us with the designing of more reactors once we’re done testing.” The man stands and stretches. “After that,” he shrugs. “We’ll see.”
There isn’t going to be an after that. His nebulizer is at home, shoved under the couch where he’d kicked it last week. But it isn’t even the Not Breathing that is going to be a problem.
His problem is going to be the Not Beating.
Tony’s heart is doing some sort of skippy dance, something fast and slow, sometimes a two-step, sometimes more. It is worse than it was when he had pneumonia, when the giant robot had managed to point out the difficulty of having an arc reactor sitting on your heart. He’s pretty sure it has to do with the crash (there was fire, and squealing, and this high pitched, nails on a chalkboard sound), but Tony isn’t a doctor. Maybe he’s just stressed.
He doubts it.
Part of him wishes that Jarvis was here to berate him with numbers, and percentages, and threats to call Mr. Rogers. Most of him hopes that Mr. Rogers wasn’t in the car with him. (Even though he’s sure he was).
“Marco, lets show Mr. Stark where he’ll be staying from now on.”
Marco’s hand on his shoulder dissuades him from doing anything stupid (like attempting to escape, or kicking him in the balls, or attempting to escape) and the Not Breathing dissuades him from the rest. He wouldn’t make it more than five feet right now without passing out or killing himself. And he’d promised them that he wouldn’t die.
So he stumbles down the hall behind the man he’d officially dubbed Psycho, and does his best to stay upright.
It is kind of a relief when they don’t bring him back to that dark room (because, honestly, he’d built a giant night-light into his chest, did that tell anyone what he thought about dark caves, and water boarding, and car batteries, and fucking experiments that revolved around his insides), but the one they bring him to isn’t much better.
The man in the lab coat (because a lab coat makes everything seem kosher) already has lots of things laid out on trays and there’s one of those dentist looking chairs with straps, and that’s not good, because even though it isn’t a dark cave they’re going to be mucking around with his insides and the Not Breathing is roaring through him, or maybe there is a train in his ears, and then there’s nothing.
Tony’s curled on the corner of the couch, afghan wrapped around his shoulders and mug of hot chocolate in his hands. Bruce had even drizzled chocolate syrup over the mountain of whipped cream, despite the fact that Bruce's mug only had some sort of smelly herbal concoction that the man claimed was ‘tea’. Tony was pretty sure that ’tea’ was code for ’something that tastes like shit’. Steve had tried to get Tony to drink it once in place of coffee. It didn’t end well.
While Tony had been recovering from the pneumonia, he’d been far from fighting form, and the serum had taken what little stamina he’d regained and drained it right back out of him. It would be several more weeks before he was back to being Iron Man, and another two months before the crash, but for right now, he was exhausted and content to curl up on the couch. (Especially since Jarvis had locked him out of his own lab. Traitor.)
“I thought you said this was a nature documentary.” Bruce’s voice was resigned, as if he hadn’t really expected for Tony to put on a documentary. But hey, sick guy gets to choose what’s on the boob tube, and this is what he wanted. “It’s Planet of the Apes.”
Tony huffs out a laugh and doesn’t even wince at the cough it causes, because it isn’t lingering or lasting, barely worth registering, and nudges Bruce’s thigh with his foot.
“It is a nature documentary, of sorts.” Tony then dazzles Bruce with a moving argument about the study of futuristic primates that wouldn’t exist except for the fact that they went forward and then backwards in time and screwed it all up, and the ability to actually see basic human instincts and the study of evolution and…
“Okay, okay,” Bruce is smiling behind those little frowny wrinkles on his forehead. He holds up a hand in surrender and takes a sip of his tea. “I assume that Jaws, Jurassic Park, and Godzilla are also nature documentaries.”
Tony’s busy licking whipped cream off his top lip (and maybe he should start putting this stuff on coffee), so he just hums in response.
“And when you want to watch a historical documentary?”
“Totally Star Wars.”
“Just because it starts out by saying ‘A long, long time ago,’ does not make it a historical documentary. It’s science fiction.”
“Fiction, documentary. Toe-may-toe, Toe-mah-toe.” He draws the words out just to be irritating. “I’ve heard it both ways.”
He puts his mug down on the end table and wedges himself deeper into the couch, making sure he’s kicking Bruce’s thigh and wiggling his toes to dig them between Banner‘s leg and the cushion. The scientist needs the reassurance--there had been a brief moment after he’d administered the serum that he’d thought that Tony was dead and that he had killed him. Being overly annoying was the best way for Tony to assure Bruce that he is still alive.
Besides, he’d promised them all he wouldn’t die, and he didn’t plan on doing it. (His breath almost catches at that thought, because, who is he kidding, it probably really is as inevitable as Dr. Jones says it is--and superheros don’t have the longest lifespan anyway. Unless they’re Steve.)
He takes to jiggling his feet, but Bruce doesn’t complain, even as he’s bouncing up and down, and that’s kind of aggravating, which leads him to flat out kick Bruce before he realizes that the other man is sound asleep. Who falls asleep during Planet of the Apes?
Sighing, Tony gives up and presses himself in deeper, wondering if the couch might be able to open up and swallow him, and deciding that maybe he should give into the tugging exhaustion. Just as his eyes finally blink closed for the last time, Tony sees the tiny grin at the corner of Bruce’s mouth and realizes that he was faking the whole time. Jerk.
He doesn’t wake up to the smell of cold hot chocolate and the sound of a dvd stuck on the title screen.
He’s strapped down tight, and his limbs are all pulled at weird angles, everything hurts and he really can’t Not Breathe with that big metal cuff around his chest and pressing into his (definitely) broken rib.
This isn’t fair, because Tony had been doing so much better, and was eating three square meals a day (and yes, coffee counted as two of them), and was sleeping (usually because someone had dragged him to bed, but hey) and his heart wasn’t making any funny noises, and his Not Breathing had stayed just that.
And now he feels like he got plowed into by a bus (an SUV, it was an SUV), and his heart his making lots of funny noises, and his Not Breathing is wet, and bubbly, and really NOT Good. And he still can’t remember if Steve was there.
“Ahh, good, vou are avake,” and why do all crazy scientists in white lab coats have accents? Was it a job requirement or something? “Not zat I need vou to be.”
He jabs a needle into Tony’s right arm, probably because it’s less swollen and bruised than the other one. Tony jerks anyway, the fog eating at his brain never saw the doctor coming at him, and sets off a chain reaction. His arm (and this has to be broken too) and chest both send off electric sparks of pain, his heartbeat stutters and stops for just one, long, terrifying second, and he draws in a deep breath that sets off a wracking cough that spirals out of control.
The mask that settles over his nose and mouth is almost a relief, but it is just oxygen, and not Albuterol. They don’t know. They don’t know about the Not Breathing.
“I believe that vour rib vas broken. It may cause difficulty breazing.” The scientist continues. “If vou just relax, zis vill be much, how do vou say, easier?” He’s hooking up bags of things to the I.V. port in Tony’s arm, and he doesn’t want that stuff there, but right now he’s just trying to breathe in and out, in and out.
Whatever is dripping through the line feels ice cold in his veins, and he’s shivering. Tony wants his blanket. He wants his couch. He wants Jarvis putting on movies without asking because he can’t catch his breath.
“Vou vill be getting fluid and nutrients intravenously for as long as ve need vou.”
That was reassuring.
“I vould set your arm,” Lab Coat giggled, actually giggled, “but vhat vould be ze point?”
The cough is slowing, and the wheeze is a kind of comfort, something familiar in this new, screwed up world. Tony closes his eyes briefly, determined to get the Not Breathing totally under his control.
They shoot open when he feels icy hands on his stomach. The doctor is undoing the buttons on his shirt, the one that Clint had helped him pick out for his Not Date with Steve. His shivers deepen and his breath catches again, and it has nothing to do with the cold.
It gets difficult around the metal chest band, but Lab Coat has scissors to cut (cut!) around it, exposing something that he hadn’t even shown his team.
Lab Coat drops the scissors on a tray and his ruined shirt on the floor. In seconds, his hand is tracing the large, raised scars that decorate Tony’s chest, swirling frozen fingers over the mountain of shiny tissue around the arc reactor. Attempting to pull away just makes everything hurt worse, and the pounding behind Tony’s eyes grow.
Tony doesn’t like the way that Lab Coat is looking at him. It’s a feral look, one that makes him think that Lab Coat’s wiring isn’t quite right and that he’s probably going to be in real trouble (like he wasn‘t already).
Tony wants to scream, “Don’t touch!”, wants to lash out and hit him, but there isn’t enough air, and he’s strapped down so tight that he can’t even wiggle his little toe.
Instead he closes his eyes and prays that Steve wasn’t in the car.
“Amazing,” Lab Coat whispers reverently, “Truly amazing.” He raps his knuckles on the reactor, and Tony can’t help but flinch. “A true vork of art.”
He moves away then and Tony thinks maybe he’ll get a reprieve. When Lab Coat returns with electrodes, he knows that he is wrong. Two attached to the reactor, the other ends to something that looked like a small power cell, or battery.
“For now, ve vill leave zat in zere,” his fingers linger across Tony’s chest as he caresses the edges of the reactor. “Later, I vill take it out for short periods. I have studied zis tirelessly, yes? Vou can live for a short vile vithout it. It vill cause damage, yes, I know, but ve just need vou alive. Not vell.” He laughs at his own joke before moving over to the intercom system. “Ve are ready for ze first test.”
“Great,” he recognizes Psycho’s voice over the intercom. “Keep me updated on the progress.”
Lab Coat flicks a switch and a low humming fills the room. At first there is nothing and then there is a pulse. Tony can’t help the strangled sound as his breath is torn away. Simultaneously, the power cell begins to light. Another pulse, deeper pain, and brighter light. He realizes, dimly, that the arc reactor flickers briefly with each pulse, thinks that the pain must be the shrapnel attempting to move through the wall of scar tissue, and then after that he looses himself to the ebb and flow of sharp pain, the strange staccato beat of his heart, and the gasp-wheeze-whistle-cough that is his breathing.
When Lab Coat finally turns it off, he’s left a shaking mess, with snot running from his nose, and blood splatters on the inside of his mask where he’s sure he coughed it up (and maybe that rib nicked something now), and he’s barely Not Breathing. He feels like he’s drawing air through a straw, and there’s dark spots dancing through his vision, and oh God, it hurts.
“Very impressive,” Lab Coat holds up the glowing power cell. “Only zirty seconds to charge.”
Only thirty seconds? It had to have been at least 15 minutes, or an hour.
His last thought before he gives into the floating sensation (lack of oxygen to the brain, he recognized that well enough now) is I promised.
Thor is standing on the opposite end of the couch, literally jumping up and down with joy. Tony’s pretty sure that this particular piece of furniture is going to turn into a catapult any second now, and that he is going to be the projectile.
“Did you see the Mighty Bowser felled by my roundhouse kick!?”
Damn Barton for ever introducing Thor to Super Smash Brothers.
“Next I shall play as the princess that changes into the mighty warrior!”
“Zelda,” Tony growled. He had plans today. He was supposed to be down in the lab. But Jarvis had apparently locked him out.
Sir, you have not slept in over 48 hours. I cannot, in good conscience, allow you to continue working until you have rested.
Pointing out that Jarvis didn’t have a conscience only resulted in Steve getting called. Which resulted in him being parked on the couch while Steve was at a S.H.I.E.L.D. meeting with strict orders not to move. And Thor as his babysitter just in case.
His Not Breathing wasn’t even bothering him. He felt great! So what if his eyes were a little gritty and he yawned every once and awhile? That did not mean that he was tired, he was not tired at all…
Thor wasn’t bouncing anymore. And he was under his blanket.
And there was drool. On his face. He could feel it dried and cracked and still a little sticky. Yuck.
“Friend Tony, you should rest more,” and Jesus, who knew that Thor could be so quiet? He was spending too much time with Barton. “Jarvis, the talking ceiling, said forty-five minutes is not adequate ‘rest time’. He said that the last time you ignored your need to rest, that you became grievously ill. That must not happen again.”
“Not gonna die,” Tony mumbles, squinting up at the demi-god. “You all done playing?”
“I did not want to wake you.”
He could probably peer around to see, but his eyes were really heavy, and maybe (just this once), Jarvis was right about the whole resting thing.
“I am watching the Iron Chef. However, he does not have a suit such as yours. Can we perhaps try to make dishes from ostrich eggs as well?”
“I don’t cook,” Tony murmurs.
“Perhaps you would like to try with me?”
Tony squints one eye open, thinks longingly about his lab, and takes in Thor’s sincerity. He knows that the demi-god is the one that tucked him in, that turned off his beloved video game so that Tony could sleep.
“Sure. Soon as I wake up from my nap…but no ostrich eggs,” he yawns.
After he wakes up for real, Tony decides that the only other oven Thor will ever be allowed to touch is an Easy-Bake one. They‘re much less expensive to replace.
But he can breathe, and he can laugh without having to catch his breath, and Thor is smiling, and everything is okay.
Because he isn’t going to die.
He isn’t going to die.
There’s no Lab Coat when he wakes up this time (because he just fell asleep, he did not pass out), and the air circulating through the sterile room is colder than before. The mask is still in place, and it is probably the only reason he can Not Breathe, but he can taste the blood bubbling in the back of his throat, and now his chest actually hurts worse than the rest of him. And that was something--it brings back memories of Yinsen and dark caves, and he’s drowning in the ice cold water and his own lungs.
He panics (and he should have been over this by now, he liked water, he did, he liked nice, long, warm, showers and…well, that’s about it), and his Not Breathing betrays him, the wheeze pulls too deep and rips out too hard and he’s coughing, and coughing, and coughing, and an alarm is blaring, and the water is being forced out (because he can‘t help but breathe it in every time they force him under), one hard hack at a time, but he can’t breathe, he can’t Not Breathe, he can just cough and cough and cough. (Logically he knows there must be air, because if there wasn’t, he couldn’t keep coughing--but those little black spots are back and Jarvis isn’t there to tell him that he has oxygen, that he’s alright, and Steve, Steve is probably dead).
Even with the blurring vision he can still see the electrodes, knows that he isn’t in that cave, but it doesn’t matter anymore because he can’t stop, he can’t catch his breath, he can’t fucking Not Breathe.
There’s a hand on his forehead, holding him still, and he thinks that maybe he’s sick again and Natasha is checking for a fever (she likes to do that when he’s sleeping, but more often than not, he’s really awake, and he thinks she must know that too) but the hand is too large, too rough, and the voice isn’t one he recognizes.
“Vou must relax.”
He does, but not because of the hand, or the voice, but because his body is finally giving out, and he can’t bring in the air needed to make the great, wracking coughs, and he’s reduced to a high-pitched whistle.
Lab Coat takes the oxygen mask off, and its red, red, red, as red as his suit, and that can’t be good.
“Hmm…” the bloody mask is secured back over his face, and its all Tony can taste and smell. “Vour rib has definitely punctured somezing.”
That was very observant of him. The problem was, Tony wasn’t sure if it was his rib, or shrapnel, or just his very scarred lungs that had been injured in the crash. He doesn’t respond, doesn’t even move, just lets the pig in a Lab Coat pet his arc reactor and listens to the thin whistle from deep within and tells himself, I promised, I promised, I promised…
He doesn’t want to fall asleep with someone else’s hands on him, touching him where he won’t let anyone else (because even if he won’t admit it, the scar tissue is full of phantom pain, and the thought of them touching it, being a part of it, is too much for him to handle…and they know that, they know without him saying anything, so they touch his hands, and his face, and his legs, but they leave that glowing circle alone). He doesn’t want to give in to the swirling colors, and the heavy pounding through his head, his arm, his chest, but all he can think is I promised…
Tony hadn’t realized that anything was wrong until he hit the top of the stairs, and even then, it was just a twinge, a heavy band squeezing slowly across his chest. It wasn’t bad, was barely there. He could handle it.
He made it through the board meeting, dull headache eating at his brain (one that he should have realized by now meant that he wasn’t getting quite enough oxygen), didn’t even fall asleep, stood up quickly to dash out of there (he had managed to redesign Clint’s bow in a series of sketches on the back of the meeting’s minutes--it would take a good hour to upload all the plans before he could begin the tinkering and tests that he wanted to do now) and was forced to grab onto the table’s edge as his knees buckled and vision blurred.
But he hadn’t even been wheezing. (And that was the problem, wasn’t it?)
He ignores the concerned voices around him, focuses on taking slow breaths in and out. In and out. Hears Steve tell him that babies do it all the time. Tony Stark can whip this in the ass.
Tony doesn’t move or open his eyes until he feels the small hand on the back of his neck. It squeezes gently and he can’t help but relax.
His fingers are pried from their death grip on his desk, and his inhaler is pressed into his hand. He probably needs to find a way to attach that to his body, it seemed that he forgets to take it everywhere.
“Antoshka.” There’s a reprimand and greeting in the word, but it is full of warmth that most people wouldn’t hear. Clint had pouted for a full day when Tony had gotten his own Russian name (pointing out that it was just Anthony in Russian did not appease him) and when she’d called Clint her little cyka, he’d preened for the rest of the day until Thor had pointed out that the All Speak had informed him that Clint’s new name meant female dog.
She drags him home and deposits him on the couch and he wakes up to find her reclining in front of him. Her curls are brushing up against his fingers, and she doesn’t say anything as he begins to absentmindedly twirl one.
Eventually, she closes the book, marking her place with what appears to be half of a receipt (the only distinguishable item on it is cookie dough ice cream, and hey, he knows better than to ask), and turns around to level him with a stern look.
“You promised, Tony.”
“I didn’t realize,” he defends weakly, but, c’mon, he’d known as soon as he’d hit the top of those stairs and she knows it.
“Well, you certainly managed to panic several of your investors. Jarvis was able to convince them that you had a wild night.”
“He implied that I was hung over, didn’t he?”
“I implied nothing, Sir.”
Natasha is pulling his nebulizer out from under the couch, measuring and snapping and hooking up the tubes.
“I simply said that you had been up late the night before and perhaps had not slept as much as one should.”
“I don’t want Jarvis calling me again to say that you’re attempting to take a swan dive, Stark,” she grouses, passing him the mouthpiece.
“So next time I should face plant in front of Fury?”
He probably deserved to get smacked.
Tony lets himself sink into the comforting buzz of the nebulizer, lets his chest loosen in slow degrees, and tries not to smile when her hand presses against his forehead and brushes through his hair. “I promise, Nat,” he whispers just before he falls back into the warm, welcoming embrace of sleep. “I’m not going to die.”
But when he wakes up the memory is just a dream at the edges of his consciousness, and his promise is fading with every stuttered breath.
“It doesn’t matter,” Psycho is saying. “He dies and we get the reactor.”
“It is not an infinite power source,” Lab Coat replies, “ve need ze knowledge to build more, larger reactors.”
“So you reverse engineer it. You’re the goddamn scientist. Having him here is a risk anyway!” Psycho straightens his polyester suit, and huffs out an angry breath.
“I do not completely understand how it vorks! No vone does! It is too,” Lab Coat’s voice is high and breathy as he gestures widely with his hands, searching for a word out of his reach.
“Figure it out. We are not stopping now.”
Tony can see a large, glowing power cell, easily four times the size of the last one. The electrodes are attached to his chest and it is no wonder he hurts so damn much. They must have run it again when he was unconscious. But he can’t tell the aches and pains from each other anymore, because his entire body is thrumming with it, and he’s exhausted.
“No,” Lab Coat insists. “I cannot in good conscious run it again, so soon.”
“I don’t pay you for your conscious, you idiot.” There’s a pause. “Fine. One hour. One hour or I rip that thing out his chest myself.”
Psycho storms away and Lab Coat turns on him. He’s injecting things into his I.V. that sting and burn, but are nothing like the serum Bruce gave him. Tony tries to pull away, but realizes that they probably don’t even need to tie him down anymore. There’s blood on his arm, and his forehead, and coating that mask, and everything is swollen and pulsing and he just can’t move.
“I am very sorry, my friend,” Lab Coat pats his chest and rubs what Tony assumes is supposed to be a soothing hand up and down his thigh. But it lingers too long and the look in Lab Coat’s eyes is something that twists his insides and makes him sick. “It looks as if vou vill not be here very long. Pity. A mind is a terrible, terrible thing to vaste. I vould have liked very much to study vours.”
And Tony would have liked very much to watch the Hulk smash Lab Coat. Looked like neither of them would be getting their wish. So he ignored the roving hand, and grating voice, he ignored the stutter-step of his heart and the sandpaper feeling in his lungs and he dreamed.
He dreamed of a green blur catching him as he fell from the sky, and cradling him as he hit the ground.
He dreamed of Dummy trying, and failing, to cover him up with a grease stained blanket and Jarvis shutting the blinds and rolling down the projector screen.
He dreamed of Steve breaking into his lab while he was asleep and waking up to Star Wars and warm arms and Not Breathing and realizing that he was maybe a little bit in love.
He dreamed of Thor’s booming voice and large, strong hands that wield a hammer and could pound the mucus out of his lungs with one strong smack.
He dreamed of Natasha, angry and worried as he lay on a hospital bed, struggling to breathe, and Clint cursing him out when his body seized, demanding that he live.
He dreamed of Bruce, and his smelly tea and warm smiles.
And then Clint was standing over him, telling him to stay down, and just breathe, he could take care of the giant, mutant rabbit hopping down 32nd street.
“Damn it, I told you to stay down,” Clint hisses when Tony shoves him out of the way of a very large, very unlucky, rabbit’s foot.
Tony sneezes and wheezes and coughs and grins inside his suit, because yeah, Clint can’t say thank you. Which is cool, because Tony doesn’t know how to say it either.
Hulk is running around, growling, “Hug fuzzy bunny!”, and everyone is trying to figure out what exactly they should do, because it isn’t really the rabbit’s fault that it was on the bad end of a science experiment, and it turns out that Tony is allergic to rabbit fur which is why he’s currently Not Breathing so spectacularly.
“I don’t really want to have to kill it,” Steve is saying over the comm, because even though he can hear Tony’s very loud Not Breathing, he knows that Clint is nearby and that Tony will be fine (because he promised not to die).
Tony can briefly see the headline splashed across the six o’clock news screen: Captain America Kills Bunny Rabbit. Children everywhere would be devastated. He runs a couple of quick calculations, and figures that the rabbit should shrink down to normal size in the next fifteen minutes. They just have to corral it until then.
Turns out that corralling a giant rabbit is easier said than done. Jarvis informs him that rabbits can jump five feet in the air. Mutant rabbits can apparently jump well over 50.
They end up chasing the rabbit around the same four streets, trying to scare it into abandoned alleyways. Well, all except for Hulk, who is trying to actually catch the rabbit so he can squeeze it.
By the end of it, Tony is totally out of breath, and he sprawls in the middle of the street as the little brown fiend jumps back and forth over him.
Clint picks up the squirming rabbit with one hand, and hauls Tony up with the other. “You guys got clean up? Stark and I are going to bring this thing back to the Tower, see if he can figure out what they shot it up with.”
Nobody needs the excuse, they can all hear how shitty his wheezing-gasp-sneeze is, but Fury might be listening and it is always better to be safe than sorry.
The suit is strong enough to hold both them and the rabbit, and Tony doesn’t even have to say anything before Jarvis has them blasting up and homewards, the little sneak. One of these days he really is going to fix that programming.
“Don’t put that rabbit in my lab,” Tony mumbles as he collapses on the couch. “Eat all my wires and things.” He recalls letting one loose in Howard’s lab once by accident. He was six and a little clumsy and his mother was out of town. Howard had parked him in a spinning chair (and come on who didn’t know that was a bad idea?) and he’d spun, and spun, and spun until he fell over and the rabbit’s cage (precariously balanced on the top of Howard’s desk) had toppled with him. It had chewed clean through half the innards of his dad’s latest rocket before he’d managed to catch it and put it back. Tony couldn’t sit for a week afterwards, and he hadn’t been able to look his father in the eye again.
“Nah. I was going to put it in Bruce’s room. Since he appears to love fuzzy bunnies so much.”
Which is how they end up with a resident rabbit.
Bruce comes out to gripe and moan later about the ‘rodent’ in his room, but is generally good natured about the teasing. There’s video footage on the six o’clock news, and it isn’t Steve killing the rabbit, but Hulk trying to pet it.
Tony only half sees it. He’s in a Benadryl induced coma, anti-histamines and Albuterol eating at his brain.
It doesn’t matter, because Clint is perched on the arm of the couch beside him, and it turns out that the archer’s thigh is actually much more comfortable than he thought it was.
He closes his eyes to Thor doing his best Hulk chasing a mutant bunny impression (and even Natasha is smirking from her corner of the room), falls asleep to the sound of Steve berating them for picking on Bruce (even though Tony can hear the wobble in his voice that says he’s trying not to laugh), and wakes up to screaming.
His body is bucking against the metal bindings, and he knows they have to be tearing into his skin, but he can’t care, not when it feels so much like the seizure he’d had before. But Clint isn’t there swearing and Steve isn’t telling him to breathe (because he’s pretty sure that Steve is dead, he’s dead) in and out. In and out. In and out.
There’s tears welling at the corners of his eyes, and he wants them to go away, wants his body to stop betraying him. He wants to be strong and not scream and not show them that it hurts, that he hurts, that he wants to go home.
He can see sharp bursts of light and darkness, his arc reactor bursting to life and dying in intervals. Just like him. Every time he thinks he’s going to live, he just dies a little more. I promised. I promised. I promised.
But God, Almighty, Jesus, Christ, it hurts. It hurts and Steve’s dead and he doesn’t want to live without Steve. He doesn’t want to live without Steve.
The realization hits him like a train wreck. He knows that he still has the rest of the team, that they’re still there, but they’re nothing without Captain America, he’s nothing without Steve, and he doesn’t want to live without him.
It’s only then that he recognizes what he’s doing. Holding his breath. Letting go as his body twitched on a live wire.
You promised, Thor’s eyes, dark and pleading, float through his mind.
“Vou are killing him!!! Stop!”
You promised, Natasha’s eyes hold a promise of her own. She’s going to dig him up, just so she can kill him again.
“Vou must stop now!”
You promised, but Bruce just looks resigned.
It’ll be okay.
There’s a crash and a bang and Lab Coat is yelling, and he’s on fire.
You promised, Clint looks disappointed. Who's gonna make me new toys now?
I’ll miss you too.
The whirring machine has stopped, but Psycho is leaning over him, even as his body continues to spasm. His hand reaches down to the reactor, but he doesn’t caress it like Lab Coat. Instead he just rips it out.
There’s the sound of wires snapping, and Tony thinks that he should scream. Instead he just lets out the breath that he’s been holding, a small puff that escapes in a soft sigh. His chest is suddenly cold and empty, and he knows what that means.
But the darkness is taking away the pain, and he knows it won’t be long, especially in this condition, before his heart just gives up now. Psycho is walking away, reactor held high, but Tony can see that it is blackened around the edges and smoking from the electrodes. It wouldn’t have lasted much longer anyway.
So he closes his eyes, and dreams. They can’t take that away from him.
This is his favorite, Tony decides.
It’s only a few days before the crash, and Tony is feeling great. He can hear Thor and Clint in the kitchen. They’re supposed to be making cookies, but he’s waiting for the impending explosion.
He and Bruce have just finished hooking up their newly redesigned sound system in the living room. “I guess this will come in handy the next time you want to watch a nature documentary.”
Tony just grins cheekily.
Natasha is knitting in the corner, and Tony knows better than to say anything about it. He can imagine the damage the super spy would inflict with the long, pointy needles. He’ll just keep his mouth shut.
“Umm…Thor, I think you’re supposed to crack the eggs first,” Steve’s voice drifts out from the kitchen.
“Fire her up, J!”
He’s working himself up to complaining about Jarvis’ choice in music (he was expecting Led Zeppelin, or AC/DC, or anything loud and irritating and sure to make Steve wince), when Steve’s head poked around the corner.
“So bye-bye Miss American Pie! Drove my Chevy to the levee but the levee was dry!”
Natasha’s eyebrows shot up and she shook her head at the sight of Captain America dancing his way into the living room.
“You don’t have a Chevy, Steve, you own a motorcycle,” but Tony can’t help grinning. Bruce is scrambling out of the way, and Steve’s strumming an air guitar as he slides across the carpet in socks.
“Well, I know that you’re in love with him,” and Tony is trying to fend off Steve’s hands as he grabs his arm and honest to God twirls him.
“’Cause I saw you dancing in the gym,” but Steve is a billion times stronger than him, and his arm is warm around Tony’s waist and he gives into the wild spinning.
They fall to the floor, Steve balanced carefully on top of Tony, red faced and laughing with tousled hair. Steve’s lips are mere centimeters from his, and for once, his breath is stolen away by something other than his own, crappy lungs.
Steve leans closer, and Tony closes his eyes, and then he’s whispering in Tony’s ear, “This’ll be the day that I die…”
This’ll be the day that I die…
Someone is shaking him, tearing him from the one thing he had left to hold onto.
Psycho is standing over him, arc reactor in hand. But its dark. No light inside. It looks like they’ve both given up. “Why isn’t it working!? What did you do to it!?”
Likelihood is that some connection was severed when it was ripped from his chest. Or a wire shorted from all their tender ministrations earlier. It didn’t matter anymore. So Tony closes his eyes, and lets go.
This’ll be the day that I die.
Clint had helped him pick out the shirt. Blue, Steve’s favorite color. No tie. Old, worn, comfortable jeans.
Natasha had stood in the doorframe as he primped. “You look fine, Tony,” she reassured.
But it was their first Not-Date, and he wanted it to be perfect.
His phone is ringing and its Steve.
“Hey, Tony, I’m running a little late. Why don’t you go ahead and I’ll meet you there.”
Clint and Natasha share a knowing looking, and Tony is instantly suspicious. But this is Captain America, Mr. Goody-Two-Shoes, and whatever Rogers is up to, it can’t be anything bad.
“Sure,” Tony agrees easily.
And then an SUV runs the red light, and his world is on fire. Smoke fills the car, and when he wakes up, it is filling his lungs.
Dark smoke fills the room, and Tony can barely see. It’s making him cough and gasp (and Steve isn’t dead, wasn’t in the car with him), and it’s forever and ever before he realizes that the bindings have been undone…probably so Psycho could try to shake him awake.
Lab Coat is laying face down on the ground, and Tony can see the bullet-hole in the white lab jacket, the red stain, from here.
He can’t find it in himself to be sorry.
There’s still a gaping hole in his chest (but he made a promise) and his reactor is sitting on the tray behind him, dark and cracked and burnt around the edges (but he made a promise and he’s going to keep it), left here to burn with the rest of the evidence. Psycho and Marco must have set the whole place on fire.
Tony reaches out, and trembling fingers close around the reactor. It takes all of his determination to smack it hard, off the tray, once, twice, and he breathes out (harsh and loud and so very him) relieved when the light flickers, and then stays.
It’s harder than it should be to twist the reactor back into place, his fingers pale and bloodless.
He rips the mask off, stands, collapses.
He’s crawling on the ground, under the smoke, determined (because Steve’s alive and he promised).
Tony doesn’t know how he finds the exit, but he recognizes the sounds of sirens in the distance and coughs and splutters and vomits onto the concrete. He needs to get further from the building. It could explode any second.
He’s clawing now, ripping his fingers to shreds, desperately pulling himself forward, inch by painful inch. His left arm isn’t working and everything hurts and he promised.
We all got up to dance, Don McLean taunts in his head, Oh, but we never got the chance.
Bye-Bye Miss American Pie…the sirens were louder now, closer, but his heart was off-beat and he couldn’t breathe. Drove my Chevy to the levee but the levee was dry.
“Oh my God, it’s Tony Stark! Mr. Stark, Mr. Stark, can you hear me?”
Them good old boys were drinkin’ whiskey and rye…
“We need a MedEvac unit ASAP! We’re losing him!”
No, no, no…he promised. He promised.
And they were singin’ , “This’ll be the day that I die.”
“Mr. Stark, you need to hold on! We’ve got help en-route but you need to hold on!”
…day that I die…
His blood is boiling.
In the distance, far away, someone is whimpering.
“Shh, Tony. Just let go.”
But he promised, he promised, he promised. Tony tries to claw his way to the top, but he can’t, and he drowns in the darkness instead.
He’s floating his way back up. Tony can hear them, but he can’t see them, can’t let them know that he’s there.
“Do you think the serum will be enough?”
“Steve…the arc reactor is in bad shape…and I don’t know enough about it to fix it…plus we don‘t know what extended exposure to the serum might do.”
“I thought you put a replacement in.”
“I did…but it’s the wiring inside, not the reactor itself…whatever they did fried all of the connections and I can’t repair them without his help.”
“What are you saying, Bruce?”
“I’m saying that if it was anyone else, I’d count them out…” There’s a long pause. “But this is Tony.”
And I promised. I promised. He chants to himself before sinking again.
“It was stupid,” Steve’s whispering, and his hand is warm and wet where the man is clutching it to his face. “I just wanted to get you flowers. I had gotten stuck in a stupid S.H.I.E.L.D. meeting and I wanted to get you flowers. I should have been there. I should have been there.”
But they didn’t want Steve. They would have killed Steve.
He summons all his strength in one, deep, loud, Not-Breath, and squeezes Steve’s hand, forcing his gritty, gummy eyes open.
No ice chips are going to help him get his voice back. He’s broken it with all the screaming, and it’ll be days before he can do much more than grunt or croak again.
Tony pretends that Steve’s eyes aren’t swollen and red, manages to somehow communicate that Jarvis can get Bruce the reactor’s plans, and falls back to sleep in a tiny hospital bed.
But the drugs are good and Steve is there and it’s okay.
The next weeks remain hazy in Tony’s memory. He remembers Bruce stopping by and asking questions about different connections and wires and they determine that he’s going to need an entirely new unit in his chest.
Clint and Thor and Natasha are all in and out. Clint has set up a television at the end of the room and Natasha has a basket full of yarn and needles and books in numerous languages. Thor has discovered an Xbox and has brought Tony a wireless controller and an entire drugstore worth of AA batteries.
And Steve sleeps in a chair and doesn’t go home.
Tony doesn’t notice this at first because the drugs are good and the serum has taken a lot out of him as it slowly regenerates the damage from the crash and Lab Coat's tender loving care.
But eventually he can tell that the blonde hair hasn’t been washed and the circles under his eyes are nearly black and he thinks (a little vindictively) that Fury has got to be peeved that his star superhero is MIA. He doesn’t have the energy to fight when Steve insists on staying, refuses to go home, and eventually Thor actually has to pin him down and fly him back to the tower. It only lasts three hours before Steve is back, but he’s cleaner, and that makes Tony feel a little bit better.
“I’m not going anywhere,” he whispers nearly two weeks later, exhausted and sore and grateful for the cool, dry oxygen blowing in his face. “I did promise.”
And Steve sobs then, flat out sobs, and Tony feels like a total jerk.
“I shouldn’t have made you promise,” Steve whispers, and Tony realizes that Steve thinks that he’s still going to die anyway, but now it is going to be long and drawn out and painful.
“I’m still not going anywhere,” Tony blinks his eyes open, forces them to focus on Steve’s own. “Not without you.”
Eventually they start to wean him off the good stuff, and Bruce thinks he’s ready for the reactor swap.
So Tony’s surprised when he wakes up the night before to find flowers and soft music and the smell of mashed potatoes and meatloaf.
“We never did get that first date,” Steve replies to the questioning look on Tony’s face, propping the scientist up with pillows.
“Not-Date,” he grunts and Steve can’t help but laugh. “Is this American Pie?”
“EMT’s said you were singing it when they found you.” He smoothes the blankets and balances a tray of homemade food (because of course Steve made it himself) and looks decidedly nervous. “Why?”
Tony thinks about telling him that he doesn’t remember.
“I was dreaming,” he says softly, and lets his hand fall on top of Steve’s where it rests on Natasha’s afghan. (It had been the first thing they smuggled in for him, and it was far from the last).
“Was it a good dream?” Steve’s eyes are dark and damp, something desperate in them. Tony’s breath catches, but he isn’t wheezing, doesn’t need the oxygen or his Albuterol. His heart is thrumming, quick and fast, but he isn’t worried, not this time.
Steve’s leaning over him now, lips mere centimeters away. Tony could just reach forward, steal that first kiss…instead he moves a little closer, whispering quietly into Steve’s ear, “This’ll be the day that I die.”
Steve sobs out a laugh, forehead pressed to Tony’s, thumbs running restlessly over his shoulders. “God, Tony,” he mumbles, and Tony knows that Steve’s realized that it really is going to be okay.
They stay that way for a long time, Steve’s elbow in the mashed potatoes, Tony with a crick in his neck, just touching.
And Tony breathes.
This’ll be the day that I die.