Title: Fifteen Minutes

Rating: PG -13

Disclaimer: Everything you recognize from any other source either doesn't belong to me or is a purely coincidental occurrence. Anything that you've never seen probably belongs to me. I write for enjoyment and no copyright infringement is intended.

Author's Notes: Just a little something I'd started a while back, was unsure about and gave up on, and then decided to dust off and finally post now as a result of the new movie's release. And oh hello: it's the fic of a thousand cliches. Angsty, fragmented, chaotic, stream-of-consciousness-y, and oh yes, do me a favor and just go with the blatant melodrama and the dei ex machina popping up everywhere; they're like weeds, I'm telling you.


Fifteen Minutes

He doesn't even notice the sear, the sting in his limbs, the way his skin peels back, raw at the joints and in the creases; he doesn't feel the blood, just the burn of the dust still thick -- suffocating -- in the air, clinging to what moisture still beads from his breath, obscuring the image, the outline of her against the rubble, making it hard to follow the creep of blood from the wounds at her hairline, her forearm, her clavicle; making his hand press firmer, more determined against the rips in her flesh, feeling her heartbeat through the blood he tries to staunch, to stay. He breathes, and it burns; and it's the only thing he knows.

And maybe it had been foolish, maybe it'd been pompous, thoughtless arrogance -- at the best, naiveté -- to pretend that they were safe. That nothing could touch him, so long as she walked at his side, and he could see the stretch of her shoulders like milk against the dark, the fray, the world; it has been a pipe dream, to think that steel and stone, that glass and iron and the modest force of human will would save them, in the end.

That it ever could.

They'd been dancing; it had taken him forever to convince her, and while the dip, the stretch of her spine was covered, the lines of her shoulder blades sharp against the drape of the cut, he'd never been more entranced by her; never felt a woman's skin beneath his palms with such weight, such tenderness before.

When the walls caved in, he'd taken the chance of spinning her, dipping her low; his chest already caved, hovering over her, his arms already clasped close at the small of her back -- shielding her from the wrack, the shiver of the first blast -- and he only lets her fall because he follows. When the floors condense, collapse, when it all comes tumbling down, it takes a moment for him to come to, for the smoke to clear, and his ears ring -- he can't hear, and he can't see if she's blinking up at him, can't notice if she's calling for help, for him. He runs his hands along her frame, doesn't pay the open wounds sliced broad from his knuckles to his wrists any mind, and he barely even notes the softness of her, the gentle curves of her body as he searches -- blissfully, blessedly in vain -- for where she might be bleeding, broken. When he feels her breath against his neck, it's him, and him alone, who can distinguish sweat from blood, from tears as they mingle, pull in trails along his cheeks. He keeps a hand below the hollow of her throat, the broad stretch of his fingertips, the heel of his palm safe over the beat of her heart, and it's an oath, a curse -- relief and gratitude, a fucking sob -- but it trembles in his chest before it spills from his lips, before he closes his eyes and sucks thick air in through the clench of his jaw, the heat and the cool mingling, harsh in the gaps between his teeth before he opens his eyes and looks around: sees -- refuses to believe.

Everything's rose-colored, tinted with violence and rage; the sparks that fly, that singe in the corners, start little fires in the piles of dross, of the wreckage that light up in the dark -- it all crackles, and it muffles the moans, the cries, the screams. Things start making sense -- gaps start closing, mortar in the cracks -- slowly, languid, as if the world could hold steady, stable on a whim; as if he couldn't feel the way everything around them, every standing structure, every balance of wreckage was merely hanging, barely holding: souls left in the balance.

As if they had all the time in the world to wait, to die.

He turns, and he can see the goddamned door through the blur, the halo of the flames, the places where friction and C-fucking-4 brought the world crashing down on their heads, left the ground to open and swallow them whole. He can see it: retractable titanium plating, mostly for show, now closed, locked, shutting the world away -- gapless and ruthless and unforgiving as all hell, and he can see the mechanisms, the gears: lifeless, thoughtless, keeping the threat from coming through.

Trapping them: sitting fucking ducks about to get their asses roasted.

The lights -- the power, of course, had been the first thing to go, had flickered and died like the breath in his throat when as he'd looked at the high, shimmering fold of his assistant's neckline where it met, gathered near the straps, mouth a little dry as the glow slipped from the room, and the moonlight stole the color from her skin, though not its warmth. He hadn't thought twice of it, before the first tremor came, the first heat of demolition he could feel through his jacket, through the cuffs of his shirt. He hadn't thought; only watched the play of beams, little shafts of light across her skin.

Now, though, it made sense.

Whoever'd done this, the bastards had been ruthless; shrewd -- they'd had to have known the set up, the system, known to trip the security system, lockdown the facility before detonating, before decimating the infrastructure, cutting the power before the emergency protocols could release the locks, give them even the slightest chance at escape. And apparently, he surmises as he stares, as he studies the build, the design of the entryway, the security mechanism that had been tripped, ponders the logistics: apparently, the overwhelming number of goddamn morons who aren't him don't seem to know what the words "manual override" mean.

He's pretty sure shit like this happens just to fucking spite him.

The word is subtle, faint, but he'd know it anywhere; Tony, and he looks, because the sound, the rasp of her voice tugs at the center of him, dives deep and grabs hold, and the jolt of it's not unlike the feel, the grab-and-ache that resonates when the arc leaves his chest. She looks at him, and he bleeds for her a little -- the glaze of her eyes and the ruby split in the soft pillow of her bottom lip; he runs a thumb across her mouth and wipes the drops away, leaves just the stain of red on pink behind. She watches, transfixed; he can't help but notice that her chest rises a little too slowly, with a little too much effort put into something that should be simple, painless. His throat clenches as she studies him, because he can see the conversation she's having, silently; can track the shift from askance to hesitance to fear, to despair, to resignation; acceptance. He can tell what she reads in him -- how well she knows him, and that alone's enough to make him hurt -- when she reaches out and clamps her fingers half-way around his own; when she squeezes them, and tears leak from the corners of her eyes, the trails collecting dust, rubble -- what rides on the wind.

He reads the trust in her eyes, and he can barely even think, even move to know that he's failed her, and still -- that look She'd trusted him, to keep her safe, to bring her home, and he couldn't, he didn't; and she's trusting him now -- he can see it -- to make sure it doesn't hurt any more than it has to; to make sure she leaves the world with grace, without agony.

No.

His fingers break through the gaps between hers, lacing their grasps together, and if the pressure of his grip on her is too tight, he thinks that sometimes, the space between is overrated. He squints against the burn of emotion, of desperation and desolation and all the bad things, the terrible things he's ever known; the threat of loss and absence, and fuck all; but no.

It's a last ditch effort, and he's grasping at straws; but if he can access the system -- power what's left of the grid from the base controls, just for a minute, and reset the security protocols -- he might be able to disable the overrides, and reinstate the emergency release mechanisms before the entire system overloads, before everything fries. And maybe -- just maybe -- everyone could get out before it was too late.

She could get out, before it was too late.

Patching through to the mainframe, though; it's not just a risk, it's goddamn suicide There'd be no time, no finesse -- and there was no suit this time to mediate the energy: he'd be running blind, and the energy -- the energy would need a conduit if he was going to make this work.

He can feel the shift, the way his entire sense of self tilts a little, and he swears the reactor glows brighter as his pulse races just a little faster, a little harder -- fucking painful, hollow, fierce. He tries to steady himself, but it's a moot point: his mind trails back to the dark moments, floating in the ether after he'd fought his mentor, his friend -- he'd felt the course, the rip of that power run through him, uncontrolled and unfiltered; it had almost killed him.

This time, it would be a sure thing.

And of course, just when he's starting to figure it all out; of course it'd come to this.

He chews at the inside of his lip, narrows the scope of his gaze until it's her, only her. He can see himself, reflected in the dark of her pupils -- dilated, blown; she won't last long: his hair's clumped, plastered to his forehead in wisps and chunks, debris caught, smeared against his beard in greys and reds, tangled in his blood, and he looks a little crazy, maybe, his own gaze wide and frantic as he reaches for her, as he inhales deep and chokes on what surrounds him -- detritus and soot and death, until his lungs heave and shudder, burdened. Withered.

The split at the center of her lip's broken open again, blossoming anew with the color, the waning life of her -- and he's tired, lightheaded; he can't fucking breathe so he bends, breaks: presses her mouth to his own -- sucks her in and savors the hold, the fill; selfish. Selfish to the end.

She tastes like salt and dirt and copper, like the tang and the cut of the end of the world, and the arc in his chest can't cover, can't slow the way his heart thrums, steals his blood and scatters it, makes everything faint and fleeting and more real than anything, anything. She responds, only vaguely -- listless, but with her whole heart; he can feel it -- and his chest hurts, aches. He runs fingertips from her wrists, delicate up to the small lines, the freckles like stardust from her elbow to the tattered hem of her sleeve; his nailbeds crusted with soil and blood-clots, and he leaves lines against the cuts in her skin, the red of him mingling with the red of her, and he feels like this, if anything, is what defines him: all of him, none of him, everything he'd ever hoped to be -- the parts even he doesn't understand. When he swallows, and it's the lingering impression of her that trails down; when he breathes, and it's those precious puffs of her air that he sucks in the dregs of, savors close to the soul -- he is alive in that moment, with her in his arms.

All he's ever wanted, really; and true to form, it's coming apart, breaking and tumbling down on top of him, ready to smother, to destroy.

No less than he'd ever expected, really; the taste of it, perfect and fleeting, is more cruel than it's absence, really, than being denied for eternity -- and maybe that's the point, in the end; maybe that's what he deserves.

Her hands shake, shiver with the shock and the blood loss when she reaches out, cups his cheek, his chin, trails down until the crescents of her nails brush at the throbbing vein in his neck, until she touches the life left in him and clears things, makes them sharper -- more vivid; pressing, urgent. More stark.

Three gigajoules per second.

His heart for fifty lifetimes.

Something big for fifteen minutes.

He's selfish; goddamn but he's selfish. He made her come here, with him; he told her he needed her. He took, and never gave, because he doesn't think, sometimes; because sometimes he's a fucking coward, and sometimes, he doesn't know what he wants.

But he knows now. He gets it.

They could all be out, all be clear; they'd all be safe in fifteen minutes.

He's not entirely sure that there's even the slightest chance in hell that he'll last that long, but as long as she does -- as long as she makes it, he doesn't need to. Never did.

And it's funny, ironic -- fucking pathetic -- because he's wasted so much time thinking that all of this was about him. Some quest for redemption, some cosmic power play: him against the universe, no holds barred. He's changed everything, he's done everything -- he's fought like hell to become everything, thinking that maybe it would be enough to make a stand. A difference. That if he could save the world, maybe the scales'd be put to rights.

Truth is, though; none of it means anything if he can't save her.

It's not even a fucking question. He knows what he has to do.

So he straightens, springs from the knees and lets the world slow, lets it still as her touch slips from his skin -- the last time, like forever in an instant, the palm of her hand -- and he runs before he can see the confusion, the dread in her eyes, lest it feed his own: pulse racing to make up for the time he'll lose, the waste and the fear; he bites his tongue to taste the rush of every beat, savor the end.

He closes his eyes, to see her; and the thing that swells in between his shallow breaths is stronger, bigger than anything he's ever known.

And if that thing, that feeling, only ever gets its fifteen minutes in this world; if she's only ever sure of it, if she only ever knows for that snapshot, that speck of nothing in the sea -- well, it's enough.

It has to be.