Rated for some strong language and a lot of violence. See the tags for more specific warnings. Also, I've tried to do my homework, but I am not a doctor.

I don't own these characters or the universe they live in - I'm just borrowing them for a while. I promise to return them in approximately the same condition I found them. No, really. The scars will fade.


This time, when they drag Stark back in and toss him on the floor, he doesn't get back up.

For the first few minutes, this is normal. Yinsen knows very well what Raza's goons are doing to Stark in that other room, and the man is not made of iron. When they haul him back and dump him, he's strung out on shock and pain and terror, and he barely knows where he is. The first time, when Yinsen had tried to go immediately to his aid, Stark had lashed out blindly and nearly broken his glasses. Since then, they both know to give him several minutes to collect himself. When he gathers the strength for a sarcastic remark, however weak and thin, Yinsen knows that he's present again; he takes that as the signal to go to his patient, give him a towel, and help him onto a cot. It never takes more than a few minutes.

This has been more than a few minutes. When Yinsen realizes how long Stark's gone without a quip, he turns to frown at him. The other man is still huddled on his knees by the door, dripping wet and shivering violently. However vicious the implications, this is normal.

The waxy, gray pallor of his skin is not.

Yinsen's frown deepens, and he goes to Stark, drops down beside him. Stark is looking up at him, panting thinly for breath. His hands lie limp at his sides; he evidently doesn't have the strength to lift them. He's tracking Yinsen, though, and his pupils are equal. This isn't confusion, or shock.

The doctor reaches for the pulse in his wrist, and there's the answer. Stark's heart is hammering, a faltering flutter as fast as a bird's. His breathing's too fast and too shallow; there's a liquid wheeze under it, water from the dunkings. Within a dozen more racing, uneven beats, Yinsen knows: this will not last. Stark's heart is giving out as he watches.

What did they do to him this time?

There's no time to speculate-he has to act immediately. Cardioversion with a car battery and half a dose of atropine won't be a pleasant business, but he's damned if he'll let Stark die now.

Yinsen surges to his feet and pounds on the metal door.

- o -

Tony can't feel his fingers or toes. Breathing doesn't seem to be doing very much, either. Worst of all, he can feel his heart beating: each labored thud rattles his ribs and makes his whole chest burn. He can feel every one of the still-raw shrapnel wounds, and the electromagnet weighs down his core like furnace-hot stone.

Above and behind him, the surgeon who saved him is arguing with someone in Dari. Tony only catches a few words over his own wet panting: heart, water, now, bad. The argument ends, the door booms hollowly shut, and a thin hand lands on his shoulder. "Stark. Keep breathing. They're bringing my kit."

He tries to nod. His head might have moved; he isn't sure. Any more effort and he'd have grayed out again.

Two hands now, on his shoulder and his back; they're pulling his wet shirt over his head, pushing him down to lie on the floor. The cold stone does not help anything, but—yeah, his head's a little clearer, lying down like this. When the doctor looms over him, grabbing his wrist with one hand and urging him with the other to tilt his head back, he can actually make out the details of the guy's face.

Things still blur together a bit. The doctor's lilting accent ordering him to cough—bad idea, they both find, with his lungs still soaked and screaming from the hours-long struggle for air. Fingers pressing deep into the pulse point under his jaw, just on one side—which, weirdly, seems to help a little. Above all, the slow grayness creeping in at the edges of his vision, and the agonized lurch of his heartbeat.

Metal goes boom somewhere; he feels it more than hears it. Sharp pinch in the back of his hand. He's rolled onto his side.

The doc's touching the electromagnet housing. Tony knows-he can feel the back of the thing where it's sunk against his sternum, aching invasive pressure where nothing should be allowed to go. (The touch is sickening, wrong, almost as bad as the thunder of his heartbeat.) More than that, he can just about see the doctor's hands, and they're doing something to the battery leads.

"I'm going to disconnect you for a moment. Just a few seconds. You shouldn't feel that, but the next part is going to hurt."

Tony doesn't have the time or strength to say no, what the fuck?, but he does manage a hitching gasp—

And in one quick movement, the doctor pulls one of the leads off the magnet, wedges the butt of a steel forceps between the other lead and the magnet's metal housing, and taps the bare wire on the center of Tony's back.

Lightning strikes. Tony convulses. The electricity sears through him, his muscles wrenching as if to rip free of his bones, and his vision goes white.

He's pretty sure he loses some time, after that.

- o -

Stark spasms once when Yinsen shocks him, eyes huge and dark, and then loses consciousness. There isn't time to worry about it. Instead, Yinsen pulls back the wire and presses the stethoscope from his kit against the man's chest, just beside the silent magnet, to listen hard for the heartbeat.

It's stable. The rhythm is steady and blessedly normal.

Yinsen breathes a prayer of thanks, even as he pulls the forceps away and twists the loose wire back into place. The magnet hums into life. Stark doesn't stir then, nor when Yinsen brings the thin, scratchy towel from their basin and tosses it over him, nor when the doctor turns back to his kit for rubber gloves and antiseptic. When he touches the small round burn on Stark's back, though, even the cool gel doesn't stifle the groan of protest.

"Back with me, Stark?"

Glassy brown eyes open to slits. "...th'hell wuzzat?"

"Cardioversion." Yinsen covers the burn with ointment, then tapes a square of gauze over it. "You were having an episode of ventricular tachycardia. I used an electric shock to reestablish your normal heart rhythm."

Stark grunts in what might be assent and lets his eyes fall shut again. For a moment it's quiet, just the distant drip of water and the hum of the car battery and the steady pulse against Yinsen's fingertips.

" 'm gonna need y'r help w'this one," Stark rasps.

"Yes, you are." Yinsen looks down at him with a grim, tight smile. "Your heart is failing, Stark. There's been some arrhythmia since your initial surgery, from the trauma and the electromagnet, but this is much worse."

"Tell me about it." Stark attempts a chuckle. It comes out as more of a pained cough. "What can...?"

"What can I do? Not much." Yinsen stands, running a hand roughly back over his scalp. "I don't even have the tools for proper diagnosis here. They gave me what I needed to keep you alive—"

" 's gonna kill me again, isn'it?—"

"And how much will they care, if you still refuse to build for them? You need a pacemaker, Stark." Yinsen hasn't sugarcoated anything else about the man's condition. Why start now? If the news elicits a flinch, why, it damned well should. "You need a pacemaker, if not an ICD, and I need the tools to implant one. I don't think they will give me very much to work with."

Stark is silent at that, just watching him, and Yinsen sees something dark sink behind the other's eyes.

- o -

The next time they take him, Tony breaks.

- o -
- o - o -
- o -

[TBC]


I blame Tumblr for this. No, really. There were these two posts - loving-that-officey-feel DOT tumblr DOT com/post/17895251794 and loving-that-officey-feel DOT tumblr DOT com/post/12870614841/ . I read them a few weeks or so ago, and suddenly PLOTBUNNIES EVERYWHERE.

To summarize those posts, loving-that-officey-feel thought over the medical implications of Tony's arc. She considered the hell he must have gone through to put it there and then immediately tear his way out of that cave. Hello, new headcanon. I was instantly inspired. (If "we only hurt the ones we love", I must be head-over-heels for Tony Stark. Like that's a surprise. Dammit.)

This fic will explore that headcanon and its consequences, following Tony and Yinsen through the spaces between what the movie shows us of Afghanistan.