I prefer the sound of the ocean
Unspeakable pain. Bedridden and possibly delirious.
Just one time: you remember too well waking up in a cold wet place, someone's hand in your chest, without anesthesia, without any drugs, only an old bottle of chloroform put under your nose saving you from going insane although you're not always sure it worked.
Pain is very mild, barely noticeable.
You take three months to actually go to a professional and tell them you have this problem. It is admitting to a weakness and you're embarrassed,rightfully, a voice at the back of your head whispers. You're such a boy. A sissy. A loser.
A real man doesn't show his pain.
It takes you twelve weeks and four days since the day you stepped out of the plane, back in America, inhaling the strange-scented air. Breathing hurts now. It keeps hurting and it never stops and you think you are going insane, so you finally put your pride aside and talk to a doctor. He stares at the device in your chest with pure horror on his face.
The doctor talks a lot and you're given a prescription and buy the drugs as soon as possible and half an hour after you've fervently swallowed the pill with a messy gulp of water, the pain starts to fade away. It takes it fifteen more minutes to go away almost completely; there is a constant awareness of a slight discomfort at the back of your head, but your pain tolerance is extraordinary by now so it's almost a pleasant feeling.
You smile a lot more that day and no one understands why.
Moderately strong pain that interferes with normal daily activities. Difficulty concentrating.
Sex happens a few times before you give up. The decision is difficult and depressing and necessary. It – it's not worth it. It's just not worth it. Your body moves, it's not guarded or delicate, it's too uncontrollable and prone to change for you to risk. Your chest hurts, your back hurts, everything inside hurts for hours, days, after a short few moments of pleasure. It's difficult to breathe and you feel the burning for too long, distracting you from everything else.
It's difficult because it's been a constant through all your life; it was one of the words you've been defining yourself with: playboy. And even if it's the easiest one to drop, you have no idea what to substitute it with.
You choose not to tell anyone. Just one more thing you choose not to tell.
That's one of the things that keeps coming up and you are embarrassed. You've always avoided relationships, but now you don't even phantom about having one – a real one. Complete.
It's strange, realizing that maybe you would like one, but Afghanistan took that away from you, too.
Intense pain. Physical activity is severely limited. Conversing requires great effort.
Sometimes it happens suddenly, triggered by a tiny movement that should have been the most natural of all.
This time you end up sitting on the chair by your workbench, head resting on the top, the coldness of the marble makes it better for a few moments. Hands clutched to your chest but not really, arms wrapped protectively around your stomach as you can't even touch your chest. Back hunched because it makes the feeling one percent less painful and you'd be willing to do almost everything for another one percent. You could move to the sofa at least, find a more comfortable position or something. At least try.
You don't because the ten meters that are between you and the tempting softness are doable but it would cost you more than it's worth.
'I'm okay here,' you rasp out, barely managing the words between ragged breaths. It can't work, the attempt at persuasion, even on yourself. It's just pathetic. This is my home and I am safe here and the pain will fade, it will pass, just a few more minutes, it will pass, it will, it always does, you continue the monologue inside your head. Words melt into one long fuzzy sentence, the imagined sounds of vowels and consonants mixing.
You don't let yourself think about what would happen if the pain didn't stop. It's the equal of losing your mind.
It takes you fifteen minutes to muster up the courage to move your arm to find the pills that are always nearby, take one of them and put it into your mouth, followed by a rapid gulp of cold coffee. It does the job, you manage to swallow, but it just makes the nausea worse.
Another ten minutes before the medicine kicks in and you are able to move. The first thing you do is drag yourself, almost too slowly, to the bathroom and throw up. It should make you hurt more but the medicine is strong enough to block out almost all pain a human could imagine. Which is very close to what are you nightmares about.
Pain is noticeable and distracting, however, you can get used to it and adapt.
The palladium poisoning makes it worse and even with the new reactor in your chest, your body seems to hate what is embedded in the middle of it – forcibly. You take more pills, but you're quickly approaching a level too close to too much, too close to addiction and to danger. The last few months have been enough danger and almost-deaths for a lifetime, so you don't pop more and more medicine into your mouth. Instead, you grit your teeth and smile.
'Are you okay, Tony?' Pepper asks you a few times, when you are moving just a bit slower than normally. It helps a bit and usually no one notices, but Pepper knows you too well.
'Yeah, peachy,' you reply each time, grinning at her with half-fake cheer. Your smile is radiant and persuasive and conquers the world.
The ache is noticeable and constant but you adapt. You build your new life around it, as if it were a corner stone. It is, in a way. You'd say it's hidden between the foundations of Stark Tower that has your name on it. It's among the foundations of the big arc reactor. It's the foundation of a friendship, too, because it's this question that Steve asks you:
'Are you in pain, Tony?'
It's out of blue, one morning when you are drinking your shake and Steve is eating his usual gigantic breakfast. It doesn't take him long to figure you out; he's been living in the tower for less than a week.
You deny. He doesn't believe you. You smile some more and he still doesn't believe.
'Is there something I can do?' he asks finally and you accept that you can't fool him.
'No,' your reply truthfully, looking away.
Steve believes this one.
Excruciating pain. Unable to converse. Crying out and/or moaning uncontrollably.
It happens a few times and it's when the others learn something is seriously wrong because you are not able to hide it. You are in the suit, fighting, doing your job, saving the world. Paying back.
You would like to fool yourself that it takes a lot; maybe sometimes it's difficult to make you even twitch in pain, but when someone hits the reactor in a specific way or the suit is dented in certain places, it is much too easy.
For a moment that is too long you are breathless, sucking in, terrified of moving even a millimeter; when you finally inhale a wave of pain spreads from your chest to the tips of your fingers within a second and you shiver, it only makes things worse. It's an excruciating pain coming in waves as you breathe in, breath out, breathe in, almost managing to wonder which of your internal organs is hurt this time – that is until you need to draw a breath again and the pain starts anew. There is a voice in your head, voice pouring straight into your ear, with a panicked notch, but you can't make words escape your mouth because you are too numb and it requires the air moving from your lungs up to your vocal chords and you can't manage the waste.
Then some time later, you can't tell how many milliseconds or eons have passed, someone is next to you and the voice is much more real and all around you. You can't respond. You can't move. An involuntary moan escapes your lips and they at least are sure you are alive. You are not sure you are anything else than alive.
Moderate pain. If you are deeply involved in an activity, it can be ignored for a period of time, but is still distracting.
The Avengers come back from a series of fights in the Midwest, having spent over a month travelling from place to place, methodically getting rid of the villains that were proliferating endlessly until the central base was raided and destroyed. You have been okay for the first couple of weeks, but then it got worse; it gets strenuous to fight every day and you are not superhuman. You go on, you always go on, you never complain, but you are slower and hide the grimace. After so much time of no rest you come back to New York with the pain dully present, stronger than normally, but it'll still be some time before you can lay your hand on pain medicine.
'I have missed being in the city,' Steve says as soon as you drive close enough to see all the panorama of the city. It's bathed in blue and red tones of the dusk. 'It is like nothing has changed since the last time I was here, if I close my eyes… The cars and the background murmur of people talking, it's all the same. It's comforting.'
You find your comfort and when you don't –
'I prefer the sound of the sea,' you say. Steve looks at your sharply, but you don't offer and explanation, you don't have to; he smiles knowingly.
The sea is as opposite from the desert as possible.
(Your only wish is to be possible to go to your house by the sea, not caring if there are pain meds in every room in case you needed them; to lay on the beach and enjoy the calmness, not caring if the sun will make the metal in your chest so hot it will burn the scarred tissue around; to swim in the ocean, its soft waves encompassing you soothingly, not caring if one wrong move might cause you to drown.
It has been your dream, a house by the sea, doing what you want in life, and it's become a twisted heartbreaking reality.)
But you are back in the city and it's not a matter of choice, the world doesn't care what you'd prefer. You are not allowed to rest, you are the power that makes the world move, you are the impulse that the humanity needs to go on.
It's not so bad, you tell yourself. Silently. Just this project and I will take a few days off. Just this mission and I will go to Malibu and do nothing. Just a few more days to get this finished, just a few more galas to attend, a few more people to argue with, a few breaths to take.
In the end, even if you have a moment of time for yourself, you spend it in the workshop, eyes trained on the blue glow of holograms and endless information on the screens, hands always moving as you create, fix, tear apart. If you focus on whatever you are doing hard enough you can practically forget.
Minor pain. Annoying and may have occasional stronger twinges.
Whoever is around you has to learn the rules. You don't explain them and if they ask, you raise your eyebrow perfectly and let them think whatever they want, that it's your issues, it's your narcissism, it's your eccentricity; anything goes. You keep smiling but you don't back off.
No hugs. No back-patting.
(Of course you can do both and sometimes you let it happen, but it's not pleasant and more times than not you have to stop yourself from letting a pained grimace flicker through your face. There is no need to make yourself exposed to possibilities. A small friendly gesture but it can be painful and humiliating and you hate it.)
You don't like to be handled things or sit between people.
(You let them think that you've got a peeve or that you're playing a game pretending to be like Hughes or that you don't like to be touched bylesser people. It's ridiculous, but you don't comment the rumors. They whisper, behind your back but not quietly enough, that you act as if you were a god, as if you were allowed to do everything you want because you have the money. You stay silent and give them the looks they love. You don't tell them you are afraid of sudden movement or an unfamiliar unbalanced weight. You don't tell them you are afraid they would move too fast, not carefully enough and it would make your chest and back and everything hurt even more than it does.)
Physical activity only when you want.
(Running is okay, most of the time. Light boxing too, if you are feeling very good or if you are high on the good meds. Your teammates take a long time to stop trying to drag you out to train with them without the suit. You know that it's Steve who first notices something is wrong, which is surprising, but he is almost your friend by then. He asks – you lie – it's like a bonding ritual. But during the next training no one makes you do more than you want.)
You decide what and when you eat.
(This one is tough. You've never been a good eater and at least Pepper knows this, you don't have to explain things any further. The reactor made your esophagus move to an unnatural place and it hurts to swallow big bites and hard things. You avoid that as much as you can, living off smoothies of all kinds, supplements and things that and be easily turned into a mush inside your mouth without chewing for ages. Balls and galas, there are buffets and you love that. Business lunches are the toughest, but you manage and you keep smile. You always do. That's what they expect.)
Sometimes, you just disappear for the world.
(When it's too much to bear.)
You almost don't remember.
Sometimes when you do it seems like nothing but a dream.
Severe pain that dominates your senses and significantly limits your ability to perform normal daily activities. Interferes with sleep.
Most of the time you just work yourself to exhaustion, with an exception of some weeks that are uncommonly good. It doesn't make much sense from the logical point of view because most people would give up work at this point, giving in to what is almost a disability. You just laugh when he hear that from your doctor, for the first and the last time.
At this point you should be able to do little, but you don't care about labels. You stay up and build things with your own hands and when your arms and chest hurt too much, you write codes and run calculations and do everything that keeps your brain occupied until you are almost delirious with exhaustion. If someone sees you at night you claim insomnia. They usually know it from personal experience and leave you alone.
Then, before you collapse, you go to sleep and stay in the blissful states for long hours, for once not needing to care if you lay on your back or your side, if it will hurt or not; you are just too tired to think at all. Even the medicine doesn't let you sleep that well.
If you wake up sore in the morning, and you usually do, you take a break and stay in. Dummy can bring you smoothies, you trust him and JARVIS to collaborate and come up with something not poisonous.
It's difficult to make yourself get out of the bed. You are high on the good meds and as long as you don't move you can pretend everything is okay. Getting up equals changing position, equals the reactor moving with every step you take, with every reach of your arms, with every movement of your shoulder and hips. You are good in the bed, it's your safe nest, it's the perfect place and everything outside seems hostile and tiring and cruel.
Sometimes, you stay in bed for days. You know depression is logical and common, but you refuse the label. You tell yourself you are just tired and – disappointed.
One time someone quotes you somebody else: depression is merely anger without enthusiasm. You refuse to believe because it's too true.
Other times, when you force yourself out of your room, you look like shit and you can't even be bothered to look in the mirror. It's been okay before, but now there are people around who see you like this and frown in worry and concern. Your newest friend ask you this:
'You sad or you slept?'
You laugh. It's a perfect summary of the latest episode of your life when you were both. You slept because you were sad and when you weren't sleep, you were sad, nanana, the song goes on.
'Slept,' you murmur ignoring the vibrations that the low sound causes in your body.
'You are an amazing liar, aren't you?' Steve asks you.
'It's my second-greatest talent.'
'After being annoying?' he jokes and you almost scoff, but remember that it's not going to end well.
'After not dying,' you say and his face grows serious immediately. He believes you because your voice is genuine enough.
It isn't truth, of course. Your greatest talent is lying.
Moderately strong pain. It can't be ignored for more than a few minutes, but with effort you still can manage to work or participate in some social activities.
There is something you need to be congratulated on: you start with a first class ticket to alcoholism but end up superhero.
You still drink. (The first thing that you did when you are back home, after the cheeseburgers and the press conference, is let Pepper handle all the mess you've just created and go to the mansion by yourself and drink yourself almost to unconsciousness, what in your weakened state was embarrassingly easy. Then, when you get the pain meds, you stop for a few weeks. Only that the pills make you sloppy, sluggish, sleepy, and you can't always afford that. You still trust them when the pain more than you can take for a longer period of time, but whenever you can manage, you turn to alcohol because it's easier. It makes you happy and creative and makes the pain dim, not go away, never go away, but dim.)
Drinking, you discover, is also a great diversion tactic. People tend to focus on the effect and not the cause.
But you have it under control, you cannot let yourself slip. The whole world observes you and the whole world relies on you and you can't let them down, no matter what.
Some days, you find yourself feeling strange without the fake smile plastered on your face. You go to places and do things, always, always, but it takes so much effort. You endure the seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, years; the numbers are burnt inside your head.
There are bad days and good days, but even the good ones are laced with dull ache.
It's difficult and it gets more difficult but you grit your teeth and go on. You are Iron Man and you are stronger than an average person. Not better, certainly not. Just stronger. A lesser man would accept the way things are – but not you. You keep defying the laws of the universe.
When you have the armor wrapped around your body you can pretend you are more than human. You don't need the alcohol – you don't need anyone or anything. You can fly and you have super-strength. With JARVIS' help you destroy aliens and do your job at being a good guy. You can forget that you are hurting. You see the stars of another galaxy. You can do things no one else can. And it all comes from the innocent-looking device embedded in your chest, glowing a soft enchanting light that people love to look at. The miracle-worker. The god in you. Inside the suit the arc reactor is keeping you alive more than it is killing you.
It comes with a price and you have no choice but to pay it. Sometimes the price is so high that you wish you were dead, but – it passes.
You can put the fake smile on again.
The numbers refer to a chronic pain scale. You can find the whole thing on my tumblr (concreteandsun, full link on profile page and add this /post/46431573482 argh the silly no-link rules!)
Title from a poem by Dino Campana Fabbricare, fabbricare, fabbricare.
Thank you for reading. As always, I love all your feedback!