Tony raises his head to wipe away at the sweat dripping down his forehead. He gives the mirror to his side a passing glance, not bothering to focus on his reflection before turning his attention back to the tech at hand.
He’s working on repairing the damaged suit from the battle in Siberia. That battle had left his armour damaged, had left… had left him damaged.
A shudder goes through his body, and he sits back up, straightening his back. The suit is beyond repair––if he didn’t know better, Tony would have almost thought that Steve had particularly targeted the area that he had hit to shut down the armour like this. Tony can’t simply replace the reactor; the damage extends to the fried wires running through the entire system.
It’s a piece of garbage, a piece of trash that he can’t fix. But Tony can’t find in him to put it away. He’s not sure why; looking at the broken suit knocks the air out of his lungs every damn time.
His hand moves up to his chest absently, hovering over his arc reactor. It had received some damage during the fight as well, albeit not directly. The shield had managed to penetrate the suit’s reactor, but not the one embedded within Tony’s chest; instead, it had grazed it, dimming the light but not quite stopping it.
Tony could not bring himself to fix it after he had been found and taken home. He knows that he needs to––or should need to, anyway, in order to stay alive. Rhodes asked him about it a few times, and Tony had insisted that it was fine, that it had not been damaged.
Because, if he’s being honest, he’s not sure that he wants to fix it.
Everyone’s life will come to an end, and that’s a lesson Tony had learned long ago. His, too, will eventually have to come to an end. So why does he keep pushing it away? Okay, so maybe after Afghanistan he’d thought that he'd remained alive for a purpose. He’d followed through. He’d shut down the weapons manufacturing. He’d joined the Avengers, he’d flown a nuke into space.
Fine, but why did he make it out of that wormhole?
Nothing had gone right since. Everything he’d done had caused much more damage than good, if any. First, he’d given his address to a goddamn terrorist, who managed to get Pepper into the whole ordeal. Then he’d created Ultron. Then he’d decided that he could be smart enough to play Ross––that after signing the Accords, he could change the rules.
Clearly, none of that had worked out.
When his eyes fall to the mirror this time, he allows them to settle for a bit, studying the image in his reflection.
He’s changed. A lot.
Whether to the better or worse, he doesn’t really know.
And he’s lost… he’s lost a lot.
He’s lost his family––not just his parents, but Jarvis, Aunt Peggy… whose death no one had informed him of. Whose funeral had had not been invited to, whose burial he had not helped with. Aunt Peggy, who practically raised him with Jarvis…
He’s lost the only woman he’s ever loved, Pepper. She avoids him, nowadays. Tells him they’re on a break, but he knows it’s a break up. He can’t blame her.
He’s lost Rhodey––okay, so Rhodey tries to pretend that everything is okay, but it’s not. Rhodes is paralyzed, and it’s because of Tony. Sure, the braces Tony has built may help Rhodey avoid a wheelchair at times, but Tony knows that they will never fix the problem. He can’t even look Rhodey in the eyes, nowadays, without guilt churning in his stomach.
And he’s lost his… friends? Team? At some point, Tony had nearly considered them family. But then Ultron happened, and… Well, he was no longer part of said family.
Now he’s broken up the team.
His chest aches, and Tony’s jaw clenches at the surge of pain. It gets hard to breathe often times now, and that worsens especially when the pain spikes. He shakes his head, pushing himself to stand up, and drags himself over to the couch that is a few steps away from where he has been working.
He crashes onto the couch, burying his face into one of the cushions, and curls his legs up against his chest. It’s getting harder to do anything without getting so exhausted. He can barely walk. Going up a flight of stairs is impossible––he would run out of breath, which would spike the pain in his chest, which would in turn make it harder to breathe, and so on. An endless cycle of pain.
It’s also getting harder to work on his projects, with his hands getting so shaky; he cannot work with precision on technology and machines anymore.
A part of him tells him to get up and fix the goddamn arc reactor, to prolong his life enough to keep Stark Industries up and running smoothly, to work on pardoning the fugitive Avengers, to…
God, there are so many things to do.
If he just allows his arc reactor to burn itself out, to… to end… then he won’t have to worry about any of those things.
But then it feels almost selfish to do that. To let other people down because he’s too scared to deal with his never-ending responsibilities, because he’s so tired..
“But like,” he whispers to Dummy, who’s decided to come stand next to the couch Tony’s lying on. “It’s not like if I fix the reactor everything will suddenly become okay. I had a heart attack after everything with Ultron, remember? Pepper and Rhodey forced me to stay at the hospital. I was on the verge of another one when Ross said that he wanted Steve killed on sight if necessary, just for the sake of the Accords… My heart isn’t doing so well, Dummy. I don’t think it’s just the reactor that’s killing it.”
He’d had the symptoms back in the compound, when Ross was threatening to kill Steve if the stubborn man did not decide to give himself in. His left arm had grown numb, and the left corner of his lips had begun to tug down… and he’d asked Natasha whether it was normal…
But he’d downplayed it. He had to. Steve was getting hunted by the government with orders to kill him on sight. Tony couldn’t… he couldn’t afford to spend time in the hospital while his friends were in such a dire situation.
By some miracle, he hadn’t suffered an actual heart attack that day.
But he did suffer another heart attack just as Vision had reached him in Siberia. He’d spent the following week in the hospital, doctors and nurses tending to both his external and internal wounds that had resulted from the fight. His arm hadn’t done so well, either, given it had already been broken when Tony had decided to go out and help Steve (the bone ended up popping out of place, and several new fractures has formed).
Yeah, so Tony hadn’t actually bothered to speak during that time. He didn’t know what to say. He’d simply nodded when the doctors advised him to exercise, to keep a close eye on his heart (and reactor), to immediately contact someone if he felt any worrying symptoms…
“It’s a miracle that you’ve survived two heart attacks, Mr. Stark,” Tony’s doctor had told him. He had been his personal doctor for years. “Especially when… you have shrapnel lurking around it and you have… a magnet in your chest.”
Tony turns around to lie on his back, sprawling an arm across the back of the couch. He reflects on the doctor’s choice of words: a miracle.
Tony honestly feels like it’s more of a curse.
So what will replacing an arc reactor do, then? Prolong his life for a few added months? A year or two, at maximum? He’d been advised to avoid “stress” in order to deflect any more heart attacks.
His entire life is composed of stress. So clearly, that is not an option.
Tony enters the meeting room, immediately taking a seat at the long table. T’Challa, king of Wakanda, had asked to meet him here… and Tony immediately came.
“Your highness,” he breathes out in greeting. “You wanted to see me?”
T’Challa’s expression changes from a stoic to a surprised one, not failing to notice Tony's apparent exhaustion. “Yes, I did, Mr. Stark."
"Great. How can I help?"
"I wanted to discuss the possibility of working together to… pardon the fugitive Avengers. They were good people, and I’m sure they would consider a modified copy of the Accords if we can convince the other leaders to provide them with this chance.”
Tony chuckles, an action that causes a small jolt of pain to run through his chest. “Your highness,” he says politely, “I know you’re keeping them in Wakanda.”
T’Challa’s expression turns into a careful, neutral one. “Can I ask why you would say that? And if you are so sure, then why have you not spoken earlier? Why have you not told anyone else on the union?”
“Because, believe it or not, my goal isn’t to destroy the Avengers,” Tony answers. “They’re safe with you. I’m not going to ruin that. I trusted that when you felt it would be safe enough to speak up about them, then you would. And here you are. Something must have made you sure that they would consider a modified version of the Accords.”
T’Challa gives him a small smile, and relaxes back in his chair. “Indeed. Mr. Rogers has told me that he would consider a less imprisoning, for lack of a better word, version of the Accords. One that would allow your team to debate certain calls, providing input on whether or not you think it would be necessary, for example.”
“They’re not… my team.” Tony says, grimacing. He fumbles with the button on the jacket of his suit. “But I’m really happy to hear that. Steve and the team… they are good people. They always try to do the right thing––at least for the greater good. I believe in them, and I think the world should, too.”
Why are we not his team? Natasha wonders, listening to the conversation. The door to the conference room is half-opened, and despite her asking to join him, T’Challa had advised her to remain outside.
He hadn’t been certain that Tony would agree to help, and Natasha, too, had doubted him for a while. She feels ashamed now to have thought that Tony would refuse to help them; After all, he had gone out behind Ross’s back to help Steve in Siberia, hadn’t he?
And he had housed them. And he had funded them, and enhanced their weapons and suits, and paid for all the damage their fights inflicted.
She decides that this is a good time for her to step into the room. So she knocks on the door gently, bringing T’Challa’s speech to a halt, and pushes the door open.
She takes a step back, on instinct, when Tony flinches at the sight of her.
Her heart drops when he pushes himself to stand up, hands shaking slightly. He’s licking his lips, clenching his jaw, and Natasha knows him, she knows that he’s trying to cover up his panic. “Well, your Highness, you have other––other guests––just let me know what you’d like me to do and––”
“Tony,” she calls out, stepping closer to him. Her heart begins to thump harder against her chest, and she gives a soft gasp when Tony takes a step back, toppling over the chair and falling to the ground.
His breathing is laboured, and a frown is lacing his lips.
“Tony,” she repeats, crouching down next to him. He pushes himself up to lean onto his elbow, but he can’t quite sit up. “I came with King T’Challa. I’m here to see you.”
He seems genuinely confused. “What do you want? How did you even get in here?”
“They’ve pardoned me, Tony,” Natasha explains, reaching out with a hand. “I… I came back and apologized, asking for a modified copy of the Accords. I was let off easy because I had already signed. Now we’re trying to get the others pardoned, too, and I just heard you speaking with T’Challa.”
“Ever the spy,” he grumbles, mustering all the strength he has to bring himself up to all fours, then up to his feet. It leaves him out of breath, but he refuses to accept Natasha’s offer to help.
I’m not the one who needs to watch their back.
She sighs, nodding. “I know. It’s going to be hard to trust me again, but… You and I want the same thing now, to pardon the rest of the team. The rest of our team. We need you on this team, we need your help––”
“You’ll never change,” he tells her, shaking his head lightly. “Look at you, you’re still as manipulative as you’ve been. You heard me tell T’Challa that it’s not my team, Romanov. I’ll help the king because he doesn’t deserve to get caught up in their offences. I’ll help them because they are powered people and they can help the world. But I won’t be a part of it, I’ll leave all that to you. And you––you’re not going to manipulate me like that, not again––”
“I’m not trying to manipulate you,” she defends, rising to stand up as well. Or… is she? That has always been one of her downfalls––she’d been raised and trained to manipulate others. Often she would do it without intending to, but…
“Sure, Natalie,” Tony says, running his hands down his jacket to straighten it out. “And your Highness––please send me the detailed amendments you would like me to suggest to Ross for the modified accords. I’ll try my best to work on them.”
He nods to T’Challa, who simply nods in return, and pushes past Natasha, their shoulders brushing in the process.
He almost makes it out of the room without incident.
But then his arc reactor gives out.
Natasha doesn’t understand why T’Challa suddenly stands up, or why he’s hurrying towards her, or why a loud thud sounds behind her.
Then she turns around, and she finds Tony on the ground. His face is pale, his eyes are widened, and his hand is frantically fumbling around his arc reactor.
Why is the light off? Shouldn’t––shouldn’t the reactor be glowing blue?
“Call the medics!” T’Challa orders, snapping her out of her trance. He crouches next to Tony, turning the man to his side, and begins to loosen the tie around the man’s neck.
Natasha gulps, nodding, and hurries out of the room to call for the medics.
The doctor shakes his head, crossing his arms. “His health is not a joke.”
“I’m sorry?” Natasha stammers, raising an eyebrow.
“His health is not a joke. His health is not something you and your team can just topple over like this.” He sounds angry. “Tony never used to come to the hospital, did you know that? Even after Afghanistan, he wasn’t in a bad enough shape, physically, for us to force him to sleep the night in the hospital. But ever since he’s joined your team, the incidents have been getting worse and worse and they’re always tied to you.”
Rhodey, who has been called to join them, nods aggressively.
Natasha shares a puzzled look with T’Challa, who gives her a disappointed glance.
“What incidents?” She asks finally.
“This is Tony’s third heart attack.” The doctor snaps. “His third heart attack in the past two years. He’d––he’d almost died from palladium poisoning before that, did you know? But he hadn’t told me, of course, and he hadn’t gotten bad enough for someone to force his ass to come and see me. But his heart is weak as it is with the shrapnel fighting its way to it, and the arc reactor is eating up the tissues surrounding it and––and it’s playing around with the electrolyte balance in his heart, it’s all over the place.”
Natasha did know about the palladium poisoning. But she hadn’t know about the heart attacks. “Heart attacks?”
“And what he does not need,” Rhodes adds, ignoring Natasha, “is a super soldier slamming his shield down into the arc reactor and weakening it, or hundreds of cars being thrown on top of him to keep his suit down, or the entire team to disappear only to leave the responsibility of their pardoning on his shoulders after having nearly killed him––”
“Just stop, okay? Stop. T’Challa asked Tony to help him? Well, Tony had already been working on those modified files. He’d been working on pardoning all of you. He’s been keeping Laura and the kids safe. Oh, and Scott’s daughter.”
T’cholla’s expression brightens. “He’s been.. doing all of this?”
“He has. Not because he loves all of you,” Rhodey says, “but because he’s Tony, and he’s always, always, trying to help others before himself.”
“So… his heart?” Natasha asks, not quite grasping the situation. Tony’s heart was… failing?
“He wasn’t joking when he said his left arm felt numb,” she realizes. “That day back at the compound… I didn’t… I didn’t it was…”
“You’re so surprised that Tony has heart problems, despite the fact that you were the one who watched him suffer through the palladium poisoning?” Rhodes challenges. “Please, Ms. Rushman.”
“Don’t call me that,” Natasha says, more out of reflex. Then, a soft, “please. I didn’t know. How bad is it?”
“It was bad.” The doctor admits. “But I’m waiting for news from the heart specialist to know more details about his current condition.”
Natasha shuts her eyes, focusing on breathing out a steady exhale.