Tony doesn’t look in the mirror very often anymore. It’s not that he’s worried about getting old (forty, grey hairs, oh god) or that he doesn’t care about general hygiene. It’s more about the subtle blue glow hidden beneath his shirt, and no matter how many layers he wears, he can still feel it sitting heavy in his chest, pulsing away with every beat of his ill heart. And when he isn’t bogging himself down with four plus shirts, the light is that much stronger, that much brighter, and it’s forever stamped on his body. When he walks by a mirror, or even the shiny metallic surface of the Iron Man suit, and catches sight of his arc reactor, he has to press his palms to his eyes, has to push the memories and trauma as far back in his mind as possible. He can feel it creeping closer though, twisting through the calculations in his head and infecting the numbers so they’re tinged grey. He doesn’t want to think about it anymore.
It’s all he thinks about.
He catches himself at the strangest moments changing his behaviour. On countless mornings, he’ll be staring into his coffee cup, before modifying it to a fifty three degree angle so the liquid won’t catch his reflection. He’ll be working in the lab, fingers moving over shiny metal, and he’ll shift his body seven point two percent so the image is that of the garage and not himself. He’s taken to going clothed into the washroom, waiting for the room to fill with steam before he jumps into the shower. And even then, when the water touches his skin, he has to take a moment before he can even wash his hair, images of ice cold water and electrical circuit failure leaving him gasping and weak.
It’s strange, however, when he becomes part of a team. He accidentally offers to house the Avengers during the first week of meetings, after baiting Fury. He forgets, sometimes, to modify his behaviour, but it all comes back after he finishes dealing with the latest disaster. He fixes the microwave four times in the first month the Avengers move into the mansion, replaces six beds, repairs two walls and the foyer before he can even get around to detailing the mansion for his own needs. When he’s done playing babysitter to the Hulk, he starts taking down the mirrors and replacing them with oil paintings. He fights with Jarvis over the windows until they no longer show his reflection when he walks up to them. Jarvis whirs angrily at him, spouting statistics and possibilities for his sudden need to hide.
The others don’t notice the difference, but then, no one has ever noticed. Tony has perfected his personas, taught himself how to hide the pain, how to mask the insecurities. His behaviour has changed, yes, but it has been stabilized by a simple formula he’s constantly tweaking, something so subtle that he knows he’s getting away with it. He rambles and talks, pushing back the memories until they’re buried under an ever shifting algebraic equation.
He knows the math. He’s always known the math. It doesn’t mean he enjoys it.
The kitchen is his least favourite place to be. The fridge is too shiny and the counters too laminated. He can see the distorted glow whenever he reaches for the fridge and comes at the handle from different angles until he finds the one that doesn’t show the reactor. He’s caught, one morning, by Steve.
“Tony? What are you doing?” Steve asks, startling him badly enough that his trajectory moves and he can see that damn shine.
Tony steps back, rubbing at the arc reactor and hating himself for it. “Nothing, nothing, Cap. How’s it going? You’re up early.”
Steve frowns, shifting his weight, and Tony takes in the long line of his shoulders, the way the white t-shirt pulls over his chest, and the low slung sweatpants clinging to his hips. Steve’s hair is mussed and shaggy, brushing against his forehead in a way that makes Tony want to push it back. Dog tags hang down from his neck and Tony has a ridiculous urge to tangle his fingers in them and listen to the music of their alloys clinking together. His mind formulates a musical score for him to play by and he plasters on a smile when Steve pushes further into the kitchen.
“Well, no, it’s not that early. I’m always up by six. Better question, what are you doing here? We usually can’t get you downstairs until well after noon.” Steve moves toward him, that foreign worry still plain on his face. “Wait, did you spend all night in the shop again?”
Tony bites his lip. “Possibly. I mean, no. Well, yes, mainly because Clint wants a new rendition of his bow and Natasha was asking for a possible blade that has better retractable qualifications, and then your armour needs to be tweaked because your helmet looks like a bucket and it’s bugging me. I mean, could you imagine the laughter we’re going to get if Captain America goes into battle wearing a blue bucket on his head? No, so new helmet, bow, blades; Thor won’t let me have his hammer so there’s nothing I can do to help him, but he promised me a look-see sometime tomorrow – well, today – evening.”
Steve stops in front of him, a smile tugging at his lips and Tony knows that another thirteen degrees upwards and it will be a full blown grin. Steve shakes his head. “Tony, you’re babbling again.”
There’s a flicker of white in Steve’s already ridiculous blue eyes and Tony realizes it’s his reflection, the reactor. He flinches, pulls back, adjusts how close he is to Steve to remove the ghastly light from being reflected on Steve’s face. But no matter how far back he moves, Steve mirrors his movements, eyes narrowing as he searches Tony’s face. Tony fidgets, knows he has a twenty two percent possibility of getting by Steve and fleeing, of running down to his workshop. He adjusts the number when he takes in Steve’s pointed focus and catches his hip against the counter.
Steve reaches past him, eyes never leaving Tony’s, and opens the fridge. His arm brushes against the reactor beneath his top and Tony practically climbs onto the counter, disgust and fear and no, no, I can’t die here, god, please, I don’t want to die here, Obi why would you do this, I thought you cared, help me, please! There’s a rattle in his chest and screaming in his ears. He realizes he’s being gently shaken, Steve’s face swimming into view. His fingers are digging so tight into Tony’s shoulders that he’s sure he’ll bruise.
“Cap, Cap, Steve. I’m all right,” Tony says, pushing the smile forward and the memories back. He hates himself a little more for it.
“You’re lying.” Steve gentles his hold and runs his hands up and down Tony’s arms. Tony doesn’t know what to do with that. “Why do you always lie about that?”
“I’m not lying.” He is.
Steve narrows his eyes and then carefully, carefully, presses his index finger to Tony’s chest, to the center of the arc reactor. Tony reacts, mind howling out a thirty five degree angle, fifteen pounds of force, possibility of bones breaking ninety two percent. His fist snaps harshly against Steve’s wrist, sending him back and away, and Tony’s breath is hiccupping in his chest, so loud.
“Fuck, fuck, I’m sorry, are you okay? Don’t do that, don’t ever do that again, all right? I’m sorry, I’m so sorry,” Tony rambles, reaching out for Steve and faltering at the last second, not wanting to cause more undue pain. Steve blinks at him, cradling his wrist to his chest in surprise.
“So you aren’t okay then,” Steve says and Tony wants to punch him, because, really? Tony may have just broken his wrist, it was a definite possibility, and Steve is still concerned about him and his stupid reactions to the arc reactor and how is he real.
Steve snorts. “I could be a figment of your imagination, which would just be awkward all around.”
It takes Tony a few seconds to realize he’d spoken out loud and he silently chastises himself. He then takes a step forward, reaching out again. Steve allows him to take hold of his arm, peer at the quickly swelling wrist, and sighs when Tony drags him over to the counter.
“Are we going to talk about this?”
“What?” Tony looks up at him, hesitating at the piercing glare Steve is giving him. “I’d much rather not, no.”
“We had that conversation about saying my name to get me to do things, right? That was a thing? Because right now, it’s really not going to work and instead I would just like to set your wrist so it heals correctly and then go hide in my lab until this all goes away.”
Steve breathes out harshly and tugs his wrist away. He shifts it around, rotating his hand and Tony hears himself make a noise, numbers flashing behind his eyes at the possible nerve damage Steve could be doing right then with a broken wrist and Steve just shakes his head at him.
“It’s sprained. It’ll be fine.” Steve taps the side of it and raises an eyebrow at Tony. “So, we’re going to talk about this instead.”
“No, we’re not.”
“Tony, you’ve been progressively acting stranger since I met you. Last week you removed all the mirrors, all of them, including the one in my bathroom. I don’t even want to think about how you managed that without my knowing. And you always move your coffee after you’ve been staring down at it for more than thirty seconds. And! The fridge. When I came in here, you were trying to open it from different angles. I don’t know if it was something you’ve been working on or a new futuristic idea, but something is up with you and I think we should talk about it.” Steve crosses his arms and widens his stance, bringing Tony’s chances of escape below ten percent.
“That is the most you’ve ever said to me since you woke up, Cap. Good on you,” Tony deflects. Steve rolls his eyes.
“Stop it. What’s wrong?”
“Absolutely nothing, I told you already.”
“You are so stubborn about this. Just tell me.”
“Why do you even care?”
The words are out before Tony can grab them back. He flinches, looking down, and Steve blinks at him. “Wait, what?”
Might as well go all the way. “Why do you care?”
“Why wouldn’t I care?” Steve looks honestly confused. Tony wants to hit him again.
“You are ridiculous. And an illusion. I’m being punished, aren’t I?” Tony edges to the side, trying to be subtle, but Steve matches him move for move.
“For fuck’s sake. Okay, I don’t – I can’t –” Tony fights for the words. “The arc reactor. I don’t like that I can see the glow in some things. Like the fridge. Or my coffee. It’s – it doesn’t really – there are supposed to be words coming out here, honestly. Can I leave now?”
“Your arc reactor?” Steve looks down at his chest, fingers twitching on his arm. “It’s brilliant. Why don’t you like it?”
“It is not ‘brilliant’. It’s – you’ve read my file, right?” Tony asks, fidgeting. He can see the blue glow on Steve’s skin. Why hadn’t he turned on a light when he had entered the kitchen? “All about the reactor and my three month stint in Afghanistan?” Steve frowns at him and Tony looks away. “There was an accident, and a doctor named Yinsen saved my life with this thing. He created it to keep the shrapnel out of my heart. I perfected it once I came home, obviously, but – things – while I was there, it just – and really, it doesn’t look very water soluble but I managed to make it more so, but not before the whole – and then Obidiah wanted – and it has all these ridiculous scars around it, really not attractive, so I can’t just. God, can I just leave now? And hide?”
Steve blinks, taking a few moments to progress the words and Tony tries to edge around him again. Talking about it brings up memories and memories remind him of how much he hates being confined, being cornered. It reminds him of how helpless he had been, both in the cave and when Obidiah had pulled the reactor from his chest. It doesn’t help that the blue glow is catching and reflecting off Steve’s shirt and face.
He’s almost around Steve when the other man shifts again, hand catching lightly on Tony’s elbow. “Tony, you can’t spend all your time running from this. Did you get help when they found you? When you returned?” Tony just blinks at him and Steve continues, frustrated. “Did no one ask if you were all right?”
And right there, that is the problem. Tony freezes, words turning bitter on his tongue, and he wants to lie, wants to tell Steve that yes, he did get help, and yes, someone had asked if he was all right. But he’s lied so much tonight, pressed the truth back until it was folded in on itself, that he feels sickened.
Steve must see something on his face because he shakes Tony, gently. “Tony, are you all right?”
It hurts, so much, to hear those words, to have them whispered in the darkness of the kitchen. He can feel a pressure rising in his chest and centering round the arc reactor, can feel himself tearing apart at the edges. He bites at his lip, a quick calculation of possibilities rising behind his eyes, and decides to risk the odds. He breathes deep. “No.”
Steve’s face softens and he tugs at Tony until he’s facing Steve head on, fingers carefully folded around Tony’s arms. Everything is crashing down in his head and no matter how many times he rewrites the code, the wall has been dissolved. He smiles down at the floor, pressing his fingers against the reactor.
“No, I’m really not.”
Tony knows he won’t be all right, not for quite some time, but there, in the laminated and reflecting shine of the kitchen with Steve’s presence warm in front of him, he feels the beginning of perhaps becoming just a little bit fine.