This is life:
Wake up. Roll over. Stare at the ceiling.
Sometimes, you think the ceiling is staring back, but you're not sure. You don't really want to know.
Sometimes you get up. Sometimes, when everything is just right underneath your skin and in your head, you get up and do something unimportant. You make coffee. You read the newspaper and see what they're saying about Peter these days. You make phone calls and drink coffee and watch the sun as it breaks free of the skyscrapers that hug it close, too close.
Sometimes, you go flying.
Other times, when the sunlight pressing against you through the floor-to-ceiling window feels too heavy and your head is buzzing and your skin is itching, you don't move for hours. No one interrupts you, because you're an eccentric billionaire and a crazy inventor and you keep odd hours. You need all the sleep you can get, and no one wants to wake you. You're not sleeping. You wish that someone would barge in, demanding your attention, that an alarm will go off, and you'll be needed.
You like being needed. It makes breathing easier.
But even as you want someone to distract you from your own head and body and thoughts and failures, you don't want anyone to see you. Because then they would see, somehow, the black tar that you can feel just below the surface. They would realize. They would know.
So, sometimes you don't get out of bed right away. Sometimes you wait until the hum subsides and you can pretend to function again. It works.
You hold yourself together as best you can, going through the motions, and sometimes it works. Sometimes, it doesn't feel like acting; it feels like living. Proverbial duct tape. Fixes everything.
Sometimes, you have to get out of bed anyway, even though you don't want to move, don't want to think, don't want to breathe. But, the world doesn't wait for Tony Stark to feel good about himself. If anything, it waits for the opposite, because apparently the universe hates you almost as much as you hate yourself. Maybe it's a sign. It feels like a sign.
Everything feels like a harbinger of doom. You're not sure if you feel that way because you like playing superhero or if there is another reason. It's another thing you don't want to know.
There's a lot you wish you didn't know.
Sometimes, you wish that someone would notice. Most of the time you don't. Or, you tell yourself you don't. You don't believe yourself. You rarely do.
You're kind of a nice guy. People say that, at galas and press conferences and charity events. You give money to orphanages. You help little old ladies cross the street. You don't punch members of the paparazzi in the face when they flash their cameras in your eyes. You smile at photo ops and give huge tips to the waitstaff of the random restaurant you've just thrown a Stark tantrum in. You may be a jackass, but you make up for it in money.
You're a nice guy. Sort of. Under the flash and shine and mask of Tony Stark.
Pepper bought you a shirt once. It was custom made, a gag gift of sorts. The kind of thing you could never get away with in public, because Tony Stark doesn't wear trashy tees with cheesy slogans splashed across the front. (Sometimes, you wish that you could be anyone but Tony Stark, but then you would lose a lot of what makes you Iron Man, and it just wouldn't be worth it. Couldn't be worth it. Iron Man is the only part of you that makes sense.) You wear it under your designer suits, though. Whenever you're feeling particularly unsettled in a way that you can't describe. It's a reminder.
On the surface it says I'd rather be inventing.
What it really says is Someone cares.
You've worn it everyday for two weeks.
Three weeks in, you don't get out of bed at all. You just lay there. When someone bangs on your door, you use Extremis to lock them out. The banging continues for a while – almost an hour – but it eventually stops. You answer emails and review memos without bothering to move. You can't explain it to yourself, and that scares you. You don't like things that can't be explained, controlled.
You feel like if you move, even a little, everything will shatter and break and crumble. Everything about you will fall apart.
The banging returns. It's Steve. You know it's Steve. You can feel him, looming behind the door. You can almost hear him debating with himself over whether just breaking the thing down would be worth it.
“Tony,” he says. “Tony, please. We're worried.”
You close your eyes. You don't answer, and eventually he goes away.
You're not sure why that hurts. It's what you wanted, wasn't it? You open your eyes again and stare at the ceiling; you try not to think about it staring back.
You get up the next morning, and no one asks what happened. You make coffee, and read the newspaper, and watch the sun rise over New York, sending light dancing across the metal that juts into the sky. Maybe you'll go flying later, after you've reassured Pepper that you're okay and still breathing. Everything's normal. If you tell yourself this enough, it'll be true. Magical thinking.
Steve watches you with worried eyes, and that's normal too. And if Steve stares a little longer than he usually does, and if he glaces away too fast when you catch him, well. That's expected. You finish your coffee and pass the comics section to Peter, who smiles at you in a rather subdued, timid manner. Not like Peter at all.
You go down to your workshop. Machines don't psychoanalyze, unless they're programmed to do so. Machines have off buttons and kill switches.
You get the alert after just two hours. Someone's attacking the city – you don't catch who, because you're already calling your armor and booking it to catch up with the rest of the team. Your reactions are a split second too slow – you make a note to run another full diagnostic on the Iron Man suit when you have the chance – but you don't stop. You can't afford to.
The team needs you. And being needed makes breathing easier.
You thought that maybe fighting a supervillain or two would snap you out of your latest funk. You were wrong. You return to the Tower, sweaty and bone tired. You want to go back to your room and crawl back into bed, not move for a week, but you don't think that Steve would put up with that. You're pretty sure that you've used up all of your Get Out of Steve's Worry Zone cards for a month, at the very least.
Instead you make yourself another caffeine fix and try to ignore the way your hands are shaking. It's not too noticeable, just tiny tremors, but they still make your coffee splash against the sides of the mug. No one is around, so you let yourself sink, let yourself drop slowly to the floor. You sit on the tiles of the kitchen and let your head fall back against the cabinets.
The floor is cool against your grease-stained jeans, the pair that you prefer to wear in the workshop. Everything is quiet, still. You let your eyes close, and eventually, your hands stop trembling and your mind sinks into a smooth plane where everything is nice and neat and nonthreatening and manageable. You heave yourself up, place your mug in the sink, and wander carefully to your bedroom.
The door closes behind you, and suddenly, it's just too claustrophobic. The air is too stuffy, the room is too small, the lights are too bright. You almost reconsider changing, but you've been depending on the I'd rather be inventing shirt too much. You strip it off and fold it carefully, placing it in its otherwise empty drawer.
You put on a suit and head to the elevator. You might as well remind your employees what you look like in person. They shouldn't have to rely on press releases and Fox news for images of their boss. Besides, Fox always uses the worse photos of you that they can find, and no one should be remembered looking like he has at his worst.
This is what it's like inside your head:
Your thoughts are flighty, hot, messy. They tumble and jerk, like a washing machine out of sync. They burn as they crisscross the channel of your sanity, and slowly the dam crumbles more and more. They're too slow and too fast at the same time, a paradox too hard to untangle without getting singed. It's impossible to keep up with, and while ideas spring from it like weeds after a summer rain, you just can't keep up. They fly past you, zoom away like planes, and there's no way to catch them, no way to control them.
Inside your head, it's loud and turbulent and bright, too bright. You feel achey and wired, like you could sleep for a week and spend every night for a month pacing back and forth.
Underlying this is the smooth workings of Extremis, flat and orderly. It hovers under the chaos, a safety net of code and data and numbers, just waiting for you to tap.
It's just too easy to fall into a pattern.
You stop trying to sleep. You just toss and turn anyway, and it's a waste of time to just sit still and not do anything. You invent three new devices before breakfast, and by the time you get back up to the Avengers, everyone else has gone. Again. You drink more coffee and stare out of the window. You go over blueprints in your head and make arrangements for someone to deliver flowers to Pepper. You've been putting more on her than you usually do, and you want to make it up to her. You tell the Human Resources people – and you wonder if calling them 'Human Resources' is still PC or if you need to look into renaming it Talent Placement or something – to hire another undersecretary for her. When in doubt, delegate.
Not sleeping means not dreaming, and not dreaming means no nightmares that he wakes up pretending he doesn't remember. Not sleeping means not having to make the choice about whether or not to get out of bed in the morning.
No sleep also means no rest, which means that your already erratic behavior is going to get worse. You're spiraling, but you're not sure what to do about it, so you do nothing. At least you're not drinking.
It's stupid. The guys you're fighting are amateurs, and barely powered amateurs at that. And yet, one of them tosses you right out of the sky because you were too distracted to notice him.
When it's over, Steve yells at you a lot, and you take it without protest. You screwed up, again, and there's no excuse. You haven't slept in four days, and there are deep bruises under your eyes. Your hands are shaking again, and you ball them into fists to hide it.
Steve takes you off of active duty for a week. You tell yourself you're angry, when all you really feel is nothing.
Steve sits next to you on the couch. You're typing on your laptop, fingers flying over the keys. You don't really need to – you can do it faster in your head, actually – but you like the connection it gives you. It grounds you. Steve doesn't say anything, and you don't say anything, and it should be awkward but isn't. He has a book, which he props up in his lap. You type, and he reads, and it's sickeningly domestic.
Eventually, he pauses. He puts his book down and stretches, reaching for the ceiling with closed fists, and you can hear his spine crackle, like listening to bubble wrapping being popped the next room over. When he comes down, his arm finds its way across the back of the couch. It's so dorky, and it's so obvious that he's trying to be smooth – you can't help it.
You laugh and laugh and laugh, and it feels like it's being dragged out of you. Like you're purging. It hurts and feels good and, really, it's a relief. Tension drains out of you as you try to catch your breath, but the look on Steve's face – confused and earnest, with just a spark of a shit-eating smirk, the bastard – sets you right off again.
Steve's arm slides down further, until it's resting against your shoulders, and you can feel his body heat soaking into your shirt collar. You smile. He smiles. It's sickeningly sweet, and you don't want it to end.
You go to bed at ten that night and sleep until ten the next morning. You wake up feeling rested and normal, and you don't have to fight to move. You feel normal for the rest of the week, and you pray that the worst has passed. After your suspension is up, you rejoin the team in the field, and no one mentions the Month Tony Stark Lost His Mind (Again), and you're fine with that.
It doesn't last. It never does.
You get kidnapped – fucking kidnapped, because apparently that's the shit that gets bad guys off – and it's almost embarrassing. They pump drugs into you, some kind of unfamiliar cocktail that makes the world tilt on its own and causes you to throw up, again and again. You can't seem to access Extremis, and you don't know if that was intentional or if you're just doing it wrong because you can't think straight.
They strap you down and yell at you, but they're not as good at it as Steve. You may or may not have told them that.
They hit you, and you laugh. It's not at all like how you laughed at Steve's out of touch antics. This time your laugh is hard and rough and wild, singing up like a rising missile before falling back down and crashing in a fiery storm. They hit you harder, but it doesn't stop you.
They want you to talk, so you do, and it's not your fault if it isn't on the topic they want. They want insider information, who's doing what in the government, where are the softest targets, what would leave the biggest scar on the American psyche. Instead you tell them how to mix your favorite alcoholic drinks, the ones that you can no longer allow yourself to have, how to fix the engine of a '67 Impala, how to pick up a gorgeous woman without saying a word. They get more and more frustrated, and they pump you full of more drugs, and everything slowly starts to slide sideways.
The Avengers come for you after an unknown amount of time. You would check – you usually have unlimited access to the internet from your brain, so – but you still haven't managed to figure out where the hell your Extremis connections went. Steve is the one who busts down the door. Steve will always be the guy who busts down the door.
He tries to unbuckle the straps, but they're soaked in blood and slick with it. Steve growls and takes a knife off of one of the unconscious torturers. He's careful when he cuts through the leather, but you probably wouldn't have noticed if he'd sliced through you too. Once you're free, he picks you up just as carefully. It hurts, but that's not important. What's important is that he's touching you, holding you, and you don't have to hold back cries of pain. There's no shame with Steve.
You close your eyes and curl against the mantle of Captain America.
This is waking up after over a week of in and out:
You claw your way back to consciousness again. You breathe in. Out. In. Out. You open your eyes and squint against the bright lights of the private hospital room you've been placed in. You reach for Extremis, half-hoping, half-dreading that it will be there.
The connections are working, and information floods your mind.
...Stark Industries fell another ten points yesterday as rumors spread that...
...Jon Stewart responded allegations today about his coverage of Tony...
...the President was unavailable to comment about the Department of Defense's contracts with Stark Industries...
...refused to answer questions about the condition that Mr. Stark is in, citing doctor-patient confidentiality...
You shut down Extremis with a silent groan. Why does everything have to fall apart after you get knocked down? Oh, right, because the universe hates you, almost as much as you hate yourself.
You fade back into sleep, barely cognizant of the worried voices murmuring around you.
When you wake up, you are immediately aware that someone is holding your hand. Well, not so much as holding it as resting theirs on top of yours, but it's close enough. You open your eyes, and Steve is there, looking back at you. You smile. He smiles back. You close your eyes and sleep.
When you wake up again, there's no one beside you. The TV in the corner is on; you can see New York burning on its tiny, flat screen. You sit up, ignoring the way your ribs and back flare with aches. You reach for your armor, because you have to do something, you can't just let Steve's city burn, but a nurse scrambles in before you can yank out the IV. She tells you that Captain America gave her strict orders not to let you leave; you try to bribe her anyway, but unfortunately, she's too honorable to back down from a promise made to Captain goddamn America. She threatens you with restraints and sedatives, and you try to get up anyway, and in the end it doesn't matter because you collapse the moment you try to stand on your own.
She calls the orderlies, and they get you back into your expensive hospital bed. You tell her that you're not going anywhere, but she puts you in restraints anyway. The more time you spend here, the more they learn. Soon they won't fall for your bullshit at all. It's a scary thought.
You're trapped in a private hospital wing with no windows, forced to watch the city spin into chaos on a shaky video feed.
You direct your armor from afar, but it's not the same, and it's not enough. You could do more if you were there. If you could just get into your armor, you could compensate for your weakness. It's worked before. But you can't risk the time it would take to have the Iron Man armor leave the fight, break into the hospital, and get back. You're needed right now, and there's nothing else you can do.
This is going home:
You walk into Stark Tower with Steve at your side. Breathe in. Breathe out.
This is falling and being caught; this is life:
Wake up. Roll over. Stare at the ceiling.
Sometimes, you don't want to get up. Sometimes, not all is right as rain beneath your skin or in your head, and you don't want to move. You don't want to breathe. You don't even want to blink. You wear the I'd rather be inventing shirt to bed as often as you can get away with it. You lay there for as long as you can stand to, with the buzzing in your head that has nothing to do with Extremis. Sometimes, you just want the world to stop. Let you breathe. Let you think.
Sometimes, you reach for him.
Sometimes, he reaches for you.
Sometimes, you meet in the middle.
Steve holds you and doesn't talk. There is no need for talk, no need to sully the air with syllables that only have the meanings we give them. You hold on to each other and ride out the wave in silence, until the buzzing, oily feeling fades, and all that's left is each other.
Breathe in. Breathe out. This is flying.