Exhale.

There was a split second, in the instant between the exhale and the inhale, where Tony didn't hurt. Where he forgot that there was a hole in his chest with metal shoved in to keep it from ever healing. That the hole was made in a cave with sharp instruments and no anesthetic, and that the skin pulled with every inhale and exhale and slight huff of breath.

Most of the time it was background noise, easily ignored when he was working, or sparring, or fighting aliens.

But sometimes, it was impossible to ignore, and the medications he'd been prescribed ages ago looked more and more appealing, like when he couldn't sleep.

The pain in his chest and the dark of his room and the pressing anxiety of addiction if he decided to take the medication would snowball in his mind, and he'd only end up working himself into a panic attack, just worsening the pain when he hyperventilated.

He thought about how nice it would be to just drug the pain away, but he'd tried that for a short bit, after... Well, after Obie and that clusterfuck. The pain was immense, and life was suffocating, and it was nice to dull both of them for a while.

But then he started dying and quickly snapped out of that, because sure it hurt, but he could live in pain and fix it, or he could die hazy.

(And he'd always pick pain over the haze, at the end of the day. But it was so exhausting...)

But fuck, sometimes the drugs were just so appealing, and he had to take one just to sleep. He figured as long as it was only one, he was doing okay.

(The bottle said one to two, but he wasn't going to let himself go that far. Couldn't.)

But that was only when it was the worst.

Most of the time he just... savoured the moment in between breaths and wished he could live there. Freedom from pain would be nice, just for a little while longer.

Sometimes he found himself holding his breath to stay there, but it always backfired, because it was always inevitably followed by more breathing which only hurt more.

It was a terrible cycle.

(He briefly entertained obtaining oxygen through his skin somehow, like some animals, but quickly dismissed it as he realized it would be both ridiculous and nearly impossible.)

But he savoured every second of nothingness, when he didn't hurt, and still had hope that maybe, this time it won't hurt.

Of course, it still did.

Sometimes he wondered what it would be like to just... stop. No more breathing. No more pain. It would be nice. One day...

Inhale.