Tony didn't --
He didn't wake up one morning and think, wow, you know what?
I have an OCD.
Because that's not how it works. How is that ever how something works?
It didn't creep up on him, either. It was a very subtle sort of middle ground. Something shifted, in his head.
And after, it was just easier to have things...
And that's all it was at first. Maybe after he first got back from Afghanistan. He'd always liked things orderly, because he's an engineer, and having things strewn around the room was never very cohesive.
But after that cave, with it's dirt, and the mess, and the constant, the constant damn disorganisation --
(That's a point Tony would like to pick up -- disorganisation. He fucking hates it. Everything has a place. Everything. It's not possible to work without one.)
He just kinda revelled in the chance to have everything perfectly in place. Neat, and tidy. One two three. Order.
It's like the mental equivalent of a breath of fresh air, or water after exercise, or, he doesn't know, stretching. And after Afghanistan, that's really all it was. Just him, trying to be...
Orderly. Get order back into his life. Make everything nice and neat and perfect, so he knew exactly where everything was going to go, and why it was there, and nothing was ever lost, and he could breathe.
See, when he started talking like that. That's when he got strange looks.
And it was okay. Everyone has their little neuroses. Tony liked things tidy. What's wrong with that?
At the time, his life was broken into bite-sized manageable chunks. His friends were the people he'd known for years. He trusted them, and there were only three, which was perfect. Anymore and they become difficult to handle.
He wasn't CEO, he was head of R&D, and that's a job he loves. All he has to worry about is making things, and that's good.
He was Iron Man, and there were good intervals of time dedicated to building his suits, but that was okay. He was doing great things for the world.
Then, New York happened.
Things got difficult.
It was fucking stupid.
It was a fucking stupid reason to dump someone. And it was unnecessary, and cruel, and just --
Tony can't sleep at night, anymore. That was bad enough. It leaves him irritable. He needs eight hours, or the day won't be a good day. Eight hours sleep, or it'll be awful. He'll be tired, and everything will be a struggle. No one gets it, but whatever.
Pepper wasn't --
Well, she tried.
Tony just needs order, understand? And Pepper, one second she wants to re-do Malibu, the next she's moving them out to New York, and she wants Tony flying all over the place for work, and Tony tries to explain that he can't do that, and she thinks he's being lazy. 'You do it all the time' she says.
Tony just doesn't want --
He needs eight hours sleep, to make the day okay. And she was disrupting it.
That wasn't what he thought, exactly, when he called it off. There were other reasons, too. They're different personalities, she deserves better, Tony wants to devote his life to saving people, she can't quite keep up, or understand it.
But for some reason, when he finally dug up the courage to call it off, the only thing he could say was --
"I need sleep."
Pepper blinks at him. "What the fuck is that supposed to mean?"
"Eight hours, Pep, sweetie. I need eight hours. And you're not, I can't get eight hours with you. We're all the place. We're just not -- we're just not orderly, you know? We don't make sense."
Pepper stares at him. 'What -- what are you talking about?"
"We need to," Tony had slide his fingers together "gel. To fit perfectly. And we're not doing that. You know it, I know it."
"And what, we need, we need to see other people?"
"I want you to be happy."
She had left, in the end. Two months later, she was back. She kisses him on both cheeks and sighs. "Here we go again, Mr Stark."
So Tony ends up living in the tower he built to house his company, which is okay, or would be, if it wasn't for the five other superheroes occupying the space with him.
It's not that he doesn't like them; at first, he just doesn't have much time for them. No offence. He's a busy man.
But time winds on, and eventually, they have to talk. And they're nice enough. All pretty strange, but, you know, Tony's a fine one to talk.
They keep, kinda just, getting in his space?
No that's not fair. What Tony means, exactly, is that, he likes things to be, you know, ordered, and -- did he mention that, by the way, order? He likes things ordered -- and these people, they're spies, and, and assassins, and Gods, and one of them literally smashes things when he's angry, it's just a bit --
It's a bit much, is what Tony's trying to say. A little bit too claustrophobic. He alternates between his floor and his workshop and that suits him fine.
But he is a human being. And as much fun as it is having the same three friends for your entire life, he does like to branch out, a little. He's a sociable creature, really.
So he spends a night on the main floor, where they eat. And it goes well. There's no pressure, no crazy antics, nothing that makes his skin itch. They're all perfectly pleasant, even Natasha, who blatantly hates him.
It's okay. He starts doing it more often. Dare he say it, they become friends.
And therein lies the problem.
Tony frowns. "Where's my mug?"
Steve looks up from his paper. "What?"
"My mug. It's -- my mug."
"Yes, you said that."
Tony bites down a twinge of irritation. "It's always here."
"Check the dishwasher."
"It won't be in the dishwasher, it's always here."
"Maybe someone used it, and put it in the dishwasher."
Tony opens the stupid fucking dishwasher, and slams it shut again. "Empty."
Steve shrugs. "Maybe someone's using your mug. In other news, the world continues to turn."
"Funny." Tony mutters, antsy. It's not that someone's used his mug, exactly, it's just that he puts it there for a reason, and, and, and it's just his for fuck's sake, that's why.
Tony turns, and then spins back again. "Who do you think it was?" He asks.
Steve looks up, vaguely irritated. "What?"
"My mug." Tony says, scratching his forearm. "Who do you think's using it?"
Steve shakes his head. "I don't know. Anyone. Someone probably took it and left it somewhere. The cleaner will pick it up."
The cleaner will pick up his mug and she'll probably put it in the wrong damn spot. It has to hang on the second mug-hook, it always hangs there, waiting. And she'll probably put it anywhere, stupid cow.
"But it's my mug."
"Tony," Steve says, looking up again. "Use a different one."
It's not that, Tony doesn't even want damn coffee. He just wants to know that his mug's going to go back in the right spot.
"Maybe I should look for it." Tony says, thoughtfully.
Steve rolls his eyes, exasperated. "What does it matter, Tony? Leave it alone, it's just a piece of ceramic."
Which is true. That's totally true. Tony stands there, back to the counter, and taps his fingers onto the granite tabletop.
"I'm going to work up here today." He says.
"Sure." Steve answers.
That's fine. He can easily do his work here, and then he'll be able to make sure the mug goes back in the right damn place.
He works there for most of the day, boring shit, planning permission for a new set of sub-offices in New Mexico. But the whole day, his mug does not return.
It's Steve who finds him at about ten pm, searching the net, and eating cereal for dinner. "You're still here?" He asks, surprised.
Tony looks up. "What? Oh, yeah. No," he points at the screen "did you know that sitting a certain way gives you cancer?"
"Everything gives you cancer." Steve says, opening the fridge. "That's what -- oh."
Tony looks up. "Something wrong?"
Steve frowns, holding up the mug. "Isn't this yours?"
Relief floods Tony's body. "What was that doing in there?"
Steve peers into the fridge, makes a face. "Probably a mistake."
"Yeah well it's a stupid fucking mistake. I've been looking for this all day."
Tony takes the mug to the sink and cleans it thoroughly. He rinses it clear, and then takes it to the rack. Hangs it on the second hook.
"Perfect." He says, shifting it slightly.
Steve raises an eyebrow, but he doesn't say anything. Life goes on, and they forget the mug incident.
One night, Tony can't sleep.
And that's a fucking problem in itself, because he needs eight hours sleep. It's just bad, if he can't. If he doesn't get sleep.
And it's worse because there are nightmares, waiting for him. Always.
So he stares at the ceiling for awhile and tries to count away the mounting panic. And when the clock strikes three in the morning, he sits up.
He can't do this. The only way he'll get eight hours now is if he wakes up at eleven -- wait, no, that's working off the assumption he gets to sleep straight away, which won't happen. And he has work to do, he doesn't have time to lie in, and besides, that makes his routine all messy anyway.
So he sits up. Rubs at his eyes.
Times like this --
Well. It would just be nice to have someone by him, really.
Tony sighs, eyes groggy, and swings his legs out of the warm duvet. Pads along the carpet to the bathroom.
The lights are too bright, and he has to blink to clear his eyes. He splashes the cold water over his face.
Looks up, at the mirror. At his cheeks, his eyes, his nose. Tilts his jaw from side to side, and inspects his beard.
Back in the bedroom, he searches his draws for something warm to wear, a hoody, or something.
But you know what?
His draws are fucking messy.
Which is a grievous oversight, really. The thought that they've been like this, all this time, and Tony never noticed, and they've just been all over the place while he's been going about his daily business, like this, it's just --
He bites down panic. It's okay, this is fixable. He carefully unhooks the drawer from the cabinet and levers it to the floor, tips his clothes out in a scramble.
He carefully folds each of them, one by one, and places them into the drawer.
It's like scratching a mosquito bite, and Tony feels himself relax.
But then he notices on one side he's got a blue by a green and on another there's a blue by a blue. Surely all the blues should be on one side? And then the green on another? The colours should be grouped together.
So he takes them all out, and starts again. He doesn't just move the folded clothes around, because then they might get creased, or like, less folded, so he just does it all from scratch.
And when it's finished, he can breathe.
He does socks next, then underwear, hoodies, jeans.
And then, the walk in wardrobe calls to him.
Tony thinks, later that week, or he realises, that he's not acting like he used to.
And he gets that, intellectually. But right now, his... compulsions aren't hurting him. And they're good. And they keep things safe, and in order. So there's no need to change.
Maybe the reason he doesn't realise it's become such a problem is that he never really addresses it on a major scale. The biggest order-session he's had was that night in his bedroom. He's never really set aside a day to just fix things like he did then.
So his workshop is tidied piece by piece. He doesn't really notice he's doing it, until he does, and then it's hard to stop.
The desk in the centre's computer must be directly in the middle, the pencils have to be set side by side, and chair pressed against the desk when not working and one foot away when he is. When making food in the small kitchenette, use anti-bacterial spray once, twice, three times, until you're sure it's clean. Stack plates first, then large bowls, then small ones. When eating, the fork must be on the left, the knife on the right.
Little itsy bitsy things that make him breathe easy.
One morning, Tony slumps up the main floor, exhausted and red-eyed after a night of terrors (although he did get eight hours, so it's okay, the day will be okay.)
Steve, Clint and Natasha are sitting around the main table in various states of undress. When they greet him, Tony grunts.
His mug is on it's usual hook, and that's another point on his good-day tally board, because it's always better when things make sense. He goes for a bowl, for cereal, for milk, and blinks when he reaches the fridge.
"What is this." He asks, more of a statement, really, but still.
Clint looks up. "What is what?"
Tony turns to look at him, and then back at the fridge. "Why is everything... everywhere."
Steve sighs. "What are you talking about, Tony?"
"Why is it a mess?" Tony makes a disgusted face, runs a finger through split milk. "Oh my god, how old is this?"
"Not your fridge, not your problem."
Except it is his problem.
"How do you live like this?" Tony asks, incredulous.
"Sim's sick." Natasha says, not looking up from her phone "I told Steve to get a replacement."
Steve waves a hand. "And I figured that I wouldn't." He says lazily, yawning.
Tony slams the fridge door so hard the bottles rattle. "Fine." He snaps. "Fine. Leave it, leave it as, as a fucking mess. Who cares, right?"
"Oh, calm down." Clint says, sounding vaguely hungover. "Wait till you see the dishes."
Tony frowns, and makes his way to the dishwasher. Opens it, and an actual bug flies out, as well as some plates. Dirty, with yesterdays, the days before, the days before thats, dishes, crusted with food and stinking.
Tony shakes his head. "No," he says "no I absolutely fucking refuse to live like this."
He shoves the plug into the sink, lets it fill up with warm soapy water, and begins transferring the plates to the counter.
"Do you want help?" Steve asks, half-heartedly.
Tony curses in response, and Steve makes a face.
"Relax, Stark," Clint says "they're just plates."
They're not just plates. They're not. They can't be, they can't be like that, all over the place. It's disorganised. It can't be disorganised if Tony's there, it can't. He needs to know that these plates are going to be in proper places and everything, or something bad will happen.
He stays there for the best part of the morning, washing and cleaning and clearing the fridge. He relaxes, some, enough that he's able to talk to Steve without wanting to poke his eyes out with a mousse covered fork.
He feels better, by the end.
"Tony," Clint asks, one evening. "Pass that pen?"
Tony's scribbling on the table, trying to get down schematics for what he thinks will revolutionise the home media industry. He's in mid-flow.
He looks up. "I'm using it."
"You're using the pencil." Clint says, just looking at his crossword. "Not the pen, I can see you."
Clint frowns and scribble violently on the page. "Yeah," he says, looking up. "It's gone. Pass the pen, would you?"
Tony straightens, slightly. "I'm using it, now."
Clint stares at him. "I literally just need to write this word."
"Yeah but," Tony smiles weakly "it's my pen."
Clint blinks. "Haha," he says sardonically "very funny. Could you just pass it here?"
Tony picks it up, and starts to write. "I'm using it."
Clint stares. "Are you being serious?"
"Yeah," Tony croaks "it's my pen, I'm just -- "
"Tony, it's a fucking ballpoint. Come on, don't make me get up."
Tony feels the back of his neck prickle. He wants to hand Clint the pen, he really -- well, actually, no, he doesn't, but he can't quite tell Clint that.
"It's my pen." Tony says again "It's just -- it's mine."
"One word, Tony!"
"Use something else."
"Fine. Give me the pencil."
"Something that isn't mine."
Clint squints at him. "What's wrong with you? These things cost a dollar a pack."
"Yeah but," Tony says, staring intently at his page "it's mine, you know? Uh," he scratches the back of his head, feels the tips of his ears burn "I just, no."
What's wrong with him?
What is --
What is actually wrong with him?
Clint glares at him for a little while longer. And then stands. "Ass." He mutters, and stalks off, in search of a pen.
The feeling of relief doesn't come, this time. Tony sits there for a while, unable to remember what he was doing, feeling hot in his palms, the back of his neck, his cheeks. It's just a pen. That's all. Just a fucking pen.
But if Clint took it, he might --
It's just, it's Tony's, and it needs to be his. It needs to be his. It needs to be his.
He stands, and re-organises the cabinets until the embarrassment fades enough to let him breathe again.
Steve knocks on the door. Or not really. It's more like he waves awkwardly from behind the glass of Tony's workshop.
Tony looks up. Debates.
"Come in." He says, spinning in his chair.
Steve steps over the threshold, the imaginary line between safe and unsafe, and looks around. "It's big." He notes.
"You're never been down here."
"Always seemed like your space."
"That's because it is."
Steve considers, picks up pen with a bobble on the end and flicks it.
"Anyway," Steve says, looking back to Tony. "We're going out, and Jarvis said you were on 'do not disturb'. Wanna come?"
Tony checks his watch. It's nearly seven now. If he wants to get eight hours sleep and still be up for six tomorrow he'll need to be in bed by ten at least. Plus getting ready time, which means two minutes brushing teeth and fixing his pyjamas so he's wearing them properly. It shouldn't take too long, but he likes giving himself a time margin just in case he fucks up the buttons and has to do them again until it's safe.
Tony sighs. "I can't." He says. "I'm," he gestures to the screen "working."
Steve makes a sympathetic face. "Do you ever stop?"
Tony chuckles. "Not really."
Steve looks around, puts his hands in his pockets. "You know, I never realised you were such a neat freak."
"It's a good working atmosphere."
"I don't doubt it," Steve says "it's just weird, you know. Knowing you."
Tony frowns. "What's that supposed to mean?"
Steve waves a hand. "You know. You've got that whole mad scientist vibe. You feel all over the place."
Tony stares, and feels his stomach sink. "I'm all over the place."
Steve grins. "Bruce called it your Einstein aesthetic. You know, greasy hair, coffee breath. When you go on a work bender and don't come up for a few centuries." Steve throws Tony's stress ball into the air with one deft movement and catches it again.
"Don't." Tony says, sharply.
Steve blinks. "Sorry?"
"I meant, the ball. Uh," Tony stands, jerky. "Don't knock anything over."
"Oh," Steve says, slightly confused. "Okay? Here you go, then."
He puts the ball back on the table. Tony stares.
"Where was it before?" He asks, before he can stop himself.
"...On the desk?"
"Yeah, but where exactly?"
Steve stares. "I don't know."
"Well then you shouldn't take other people's things, should you?" Tony snaps. "For fucks sake, how's it supposed to work now?"
Just like that, the safety bubble has burst. Tony feels mounting panic.
"Get out," he says, pushing Steve away. "For fucks -- just get out."
Steve blinks, and stumbles. "Alright, alright, I'm going."
"You've fucking ruined everything." Tony spits. "You've -- "
Tony makes a noise of wordless frustration and pushes Steve towards the door. Steve stops, and shakes his head. "You're strange, Stark."
Tony searches for something to throw after him, but can't, because that would mean moving something. "Fuck you!" He says weakly, to Steve's retreating back.
Is it true? Is he messy? Is that what he looks like? Why would Steve think he was messy if he wasn't? God, he's right. Greasy hair, coffee breath, dirty clothes, what was he thinking. He's been trying to fix everything around him when he should have started with himself.
He rushes to the bathroom and inspects his face. His hair needs a trim. There's stubble on his cheeks. He tries to sniff his breath -- it's probably disgusting.
See, this is it. This is the solution. He needs to sort himself out, he's barely under control, with the nightmares and everything. Nightmares aren't -- they're not orderly, you know? They change every night, and Tony can't get them under control.
He takes a razor, and carefully goes over the lines of his beard. Inspects.
Is the left side too wonky? Maybe just --
Ah, shit. Okay, that's definitely not in proportion. Just narrow it down a bit --
Right. Fine. Well that's not going to work, clearly. He could just take the whole bottom off, rock a moustache?
Holy shit, definitely not. Nope. No way. Well, he's done fucked up now, hasn't he. Beards take time to grow, and he's certainly not going to magic one over night.
He just shaves the rest of it off. It was dirty, anyway. And it's impossible to get it neat.
Tony stares at himself in the mirror. He hasn't seen himself without his goatee since he was twenty-three.
He blinks. Runs a hand over his smooth cheeks.
Maybe something's wrong, with him. Maybe this isn't so normal. Maybe --
Oh God, look at those nails. He needs to sort those out, now.
Tony doesn't notice it at first, but things are going missing.
At first, he assumes he's just misplacing, or forgetting. He'll leave his mug on the counter, and when he goes back for it, it's gone. He'll put his computer directly parallel to the coffee table and when he comes back it's diagonal. The strangest of all, and probably the most upsetting, is his bed, because he spends a lot of time making it in the mornings, the sheet has to be stretched tight, if there's wrinkle it has to be done again, and then two more times more just to make sure, and he can't go to the bathroom to get ready until he's done the bed or it will be a Bad Day, so when he gets back and the bed's all messy again he thinks maybe he's going mad or that he just forgot and it makes him want to fucking cry because then he's got to do the whole thing again and it means the whole routine's messed up and now he's going to have a Bad Day.
He doesn't figure it out until one day, he opens his sock draw.
Tony is very proud of his sock draw, not that he'd, you know, ever admit it. It's the one thing that's okay, the one thing that is safe in his room. Because the socks always fold perfectly, and there's really only one type of sock, so it's not like shirts which have to be arranged by shape and colour, they can just be done by colour.
So where was he? That's right. Sock drawer. He really loves his sock drawer, okay?
And one day, when he goes to pick out a pair, he stops.
All his socks are everywhere. Not just like they've fallen out of place, because that does happen from time to time, and Tony can deal. But like someone has systematically gone through and ruined them, ruined them, ruined them, because some socks have been un-bunched completely and some have been put together in the wrong pairs, there's a blue and a black and a grey and a brown and --
That's when it clicks.
Tony stands there, breathing, trying to keep down sick, or just, just think calmly. Hold on, hold on, hold on. Socks first, they're the most important thing.
Fuck, the whole day's ruined. It's awful. Oh God, of fuck, what's he going to do? He's not thinking properly, look at this, he's not even sorting the socks correctly, he's putting them all in stupid order, this is just --
Clint. He fucking knows it was Clint. This is him trying to be funny, isn't it? Because Tony didn't give him the pencil. Well fuck him. Fuck all of them. This isn't funny. This isn't fucking funny. How's he supposed to do anything now? How the hell can they expect him to do anything?
Tony stops short of tearing out his hair and thinks logically. It's a bad day, but he can fix it. Start over.
So he takes off his clothes, and puts on his pyjamas. Button up once, and then down, button up, and down, up, and down, his fingers stinging where he cut his nails to the quick.
Then, into bed. Out of bed. Into bed, out of bed. Into bed, out of bed. Three times, perfect.
He lies down. Eight hours obviously isn't feasible right now -- eight minutes. Eight minutes perfectly still, like he's sleeping.
Fuck, he opened his eyes. Okay, go again, counting down from 480.
Then he's awake. Get out of bed, feet have to be perfectly square, he thinks he manages it but he should do it again just in case. So when he gets out, he starts to fix the bed, which takes a good twenty minutes but is worth it to feel the stinging relief that he got it right.
Two minutes exactly brushing his teeth, washing his face, other things. He gets stuck on the hands, because there are a lot of germs on the hands, but he makes it out in under fifteen minutes which could be a record if he bothered to keep count.
So, pyjamas. It's always easier to undo them than put them on. It's choosing clothes that's difficult, but thankfully he's already done that this morning. Socks he manages. Shoes he ties once, but it doesn't feel right, the loops just aren't symmetrical, so he goes again.
He stands, breathes. Okay. Okay. Now, now it can be a good day. Now he can find Clint. And it only took him an extra --
Tony checks his watch. Two hours. Well, okay. Some things can't be helped.
"Clint," Tony says "hey, Clint."
Clint looks up, mouth full of cereal. He swallows, and grins. "Tony." He says.
He and Natasha share a look. Smirk, slightly.
"My socks." Tony blurts. "You, you touched my socks."
Clint shrugs. "I don't know," he says "did I?"
Natasha snorts, slightly.
Tony looks at her, and then back to Clint. "Just, just don't touch my stuff."
"I didn't touch your stuff."
"Fine. But lets say, hypothetically, you did. Don't. It's shitty."
"You know what else is shitty?"
"Presumably not giving you a pen?"
"Clint, I can buy you pens. A million pens. But you can't touch mine."
"Right," Clint says, now sounding vaguely irritated "because you're very poor, and pens are very special to you."
"It's not like that." Tony snaps. "It's just -- you don't get to go rifling through my drawers. Or messing up my bed. Or stealing my cup. It's not cool. Stop. I'm sick of it."
"Don't get your panties in a bunch, Tony, we're just kidding around."
Tony feels the agitation. "Yeah, but." He rubs his eyes. "It's not funny."
"Great. We get it. Let it go."
"But you can't."
"Okay, Tony." Clint says again, this time genuinely annoyed. "I won't touch your fucking socks, how does that sound?"
"Thank you." Tony says. "Okay? There we go. Problem solved."
"Yeah," Clint says, sipping his coffee. "Whatever."
Tony tries to go without it, one evening. Without his little routine.
And that's when he realises he can't. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the moment it clicks in his head, and he goes:
You know what? I have an OCD.
The stuff online says it's best to get help straight away, but the thing is, Tony can't just walk up to a doctor and say hey, 'I have obsessive compulsive disorder and I think the world is going to end if I don't turn the light switch on and off ten times before I go to sleep do you have anything for that, maybe?'
He can't do that. And he can't have anyone know. Definitely not. No one must know that this is what he's like. That this is what he's become. It's manageable, as long as he keeps it to himself. As long as he wakes up at six and sets two hours aside for routine and then goes to bed at eight and sets an hour aside for routine and is definitely sleeping by ten then it's okay.
But the best laid plans of mice and men.
It's the mess that does it. The mess, on the main floor? Where the team seems to treat the place like a goddamned cesspit?
Well, Tony can't work knowing that there's a mess up there. He just fucking can't. So those nights, when he can't sleep, he goes up there, and he cleans.
He thinks the group just assumes that Tony hired a new cleaner or something. Tidying is the only alternative to sleeping that doesn't make his skin crawl. It's the feeling of putting wrong to right that he loves, really. The feeling that he's just, he can manage it. That it's under control.
Where was he? Right. Cleaning. So on this night, in particular, he's sorting out the fridge. It's about 2 am, and he's humming a discordant tune. Average night for him, really.
He doesn't hear Steve coming. "Tony?"
Tony jerks, spins, and hits his head on a shelf in the fridge. Steve winces at Tony pulls out, turning.
"Steve," he says "hi. Hi, no. I was. Eating."
Steve frowns. "Well yeah." He says "What else would you -- "
His eyes drift to the cleaning detergents and cloths in a bowl of water by Tony's feet. "Oh."
"I can explain." Tony blurts, although he really can't.
"Were you... cleaning?"
Tony swallows. "I was," he stares at the detergent, and tries to think of the best way to explain it. "Yes."
"Yes." Steve says slowly. "It's two o'clock and you were... cleaning."
"Has to be done." Tony says, weakly.
Steve stares at him.
"What about you?" Tony says, dusting down his hands. "You were just..."
"Yeah." Steve croaks, and he moves forward, going to the fridge. "Can I...?"
"Oh," Tony says, not moving. "Oh. I mean, I'm in the middle of cleaning, so."
"I just want a beer."
"It's too early."
"I can't get drunk, just give me one, Tony."
"But I've stacked them all now." Tony says, weakly. "It'll take, it'll be ages if you -- "
He's doing it again, Tony realises. He smiles nervously and moves out the way, lets Steve take his beer, hears the click and crush as it's opened.
His fingers twitch. He needs to fix that, but not in front of Steve. It can wait.
"So," Steve says, wiping his mouth. "Cleaning."
"It," Tony closes his eyes, resigned. "Look, it just... it calms me down."
Steve holds out his hands. "Hey I'm not judging."
"I like things to be orderly."
"Not a bad thing."
Tony snorts. Steve has no idea.
"I don't see you so much anymore." Steve says, sipping.
"Yeah, well," Tony sighs "busy."
Tony stares at the can on the table. "Are you," he starts "are you gonna finish that, or."
"Oh," Steve says "oh no, here. Take it."
Tony smiles, and throws it in the trash. Sprays anti-bacterial spray on the counter and wipes it clean.
"Bit extreme, really." Steve says.
Tony's ears go red. "I know." He says. "I know that."
They stand in silence.
"Well then." Steve says eventually. "I'll just be off."
"Yeah," Tony says quickly "I'll see you."
"Get some sleep tonight, Tony."
Tony nods, and salutes. Steve smiles.
And then he gets on his knees and rearranges the beer cans until the pink light streams through the windows.
Tony has this routine.
And he knows it's sick, and fucked up. He fucking knows that.
But there's no way of --
He wakes up at either six, seven or eight depending on what time he went to bed at the night before. It has to be eight hours sleep, or it'll be a Bad Day.
If he wants to keep it Good, there are things he needs to do, and they need to be perfect. It needs to be perfect, and safe, and in control. So he'll wake up, and get out of bed. Then climb back in, and do it again, until he feels he's got it right.
Making the bed is always a challenge. No creases allowed, corners tucked into the mattress. He'll do this five or six times, however many it takes to make it perfect.
See, Tony knows this is irrational, and he knows it's fucked up. For a long time, Tony called is stress cleaning, but now it's something else.
The urge to just --
Be in control. Be safe. Safe, safe, safe.
So he makes the bed, and then he takes off his pyjamas. The buttons give him so much fucking grief, because they have to slide out perfectly or he has to start again.
Washing his hands. Over and over until it's perfect.
Zipping his fly over and over.
Putting on socks over and over.
He's in control.
The irony is, he really isn't.
So eventually, it evens out. He finds a middle ground. The most simplistic thing, the best way he can think of, to manage what he's doing, is to make it all come down to numbers.
He chooses five, because it feels like a full number, and it doubles to ten, which is easily timsed and divided and just a good number all together.
Everything must be done five times. And then it's okay. Then he can start his day.
Even sleeping evens out to five hours, which is a relief. It's so much easier to just have some free time on his hands.
At night, it's the same little routine, except for some reason he makes himself do the whole thing five times, not just individually. Does that make sense? Like, instead of washing his hands five times, he'll put on pyjamas and brush his teeth and wash his hands and then climb into bed and then out again, four more times.
There's no sense to it. There's absolutely no logic to what he's doing. And he knows that, okay? He fucking knows it.
He tried to stop. To only do up his pyjamas once. And the numbers just screamed at him until he finally had to stop. He couldn't do anything because he knew that if he didn't do the routine it's just, something bad will happen. And the bad thing is that his mind will be torn for the rest of the day. He won't be able to think. In a constant state of panic, because he only put his socks on once in the morning.
The days are okay. There are little things he thinks he manages to pass off as tics or whatever. It's a bit obvious when he and Natasha go for a meeting and he has to go back home twice to check that everything in his room is neat before leaving. But he thinks he fools her enough by pretending that he's forgotten something. But you know. Can never be too careful.
Look, Tony's not stupid, he's not deluding himself. Obviously there's a problem, somewhere, in his head. He thinks it started, or got worse, after New York, because he just, he just wanted control. That's all. He needed everything neat and tidy and controlled, perfect for him, and most importantly, safe.
But it's easier to go along with it. With the routine. Even though it's fucked up and he's broken. It doesn't matter. Safety in the routine.
And so it goes on like this for a while. Life by bouts of five.
Somedays, Tony feels like he can't breathe at all.
Eventually, Steve finds out.
"Don't you just wanna," Clint mimes swiping the stuff off the desk.
"Don't." Steve warns.
"But doesn't it get under your skin? God, how does he do this?" Clint trails his fingers over the desktop, rubs it, checking for dust. "Where does he find the time?"
Steve suspects that Tony spends the nights he can't sleep fixing it, but he doesn't say that. Solidarity, and all. "He's an engineer, they like things tidy."
"Not fucking likely. He's just a neat freak." Clint pauses, and opens a draw. "I really just want to -- "
"Don't." Steve says sharply. "Come on, Clint. He doesn't like."
"I'm only messing about."
"Yeah well he doesn't know that."
"I'm sure he does."
Steve shakes his head. "You know," he says, and then stops. "Never mind."
"What?" Clint says "What is it?"
"Oh well that's not fair."
"Forget I said anything, it's fine. Just -- "
"What are you doing down here?" A voice says, sharp across the floor.
"Delivery." Steve says, gesturing the large box "We figured we couldn't just let the guy down here - - what are you doing?"
Tony looks up from where he's measuring the papers and pencils on his desk, shifting them apart. "Nothing."
"Are you... measuring how far apart they are?" Clint says, incredulous.
"No." Tony says defensively, subtly tweaking a pencil. "How long have you been down here for? What have you touched?"
"Nothing." Steve assures him. "Nothing. Although, wait, Clint touched the draw."
Tony's face is stricken. "Oh for fuck's sake," he hisses, pushing Clint out the way "what did I fucking say about touching my stuff?"
"I opened a draw, Tony. I didn't steal your gold."
"That's not the point." Tony snaps, delicately inching the draw open. "You could have disrupted something. You can't, you can't touch it or -- oh, fuck off."
Clint makes a face, shakes his head familiarly. "You're a lunatic, Stark. I'm going, Steve?"
"I'm just gonna," Steve jerks his head, tells him to get going "stay here for a second."
They're left alone.
"You didn't come last night." Tony mutters, sorting the paper in the draw. "I was waiting."
"I didn't have a nightmare."
"Yeah, well." Tony slams it shut. "Fine."
"Are you... angry, that I didn't have a nightmare?"
"No." Tony says tersely. "I wasn't -- I mean, I waited." He says, as if that's an explanation. "Got the whole kitchen done."
"Maybe you should spend your free time doing something more productive."
"I don't need to clean when I talk to you."
"Then what are you doing now?" Steve says, indicating to the wipe in Tony's hand that he's drawing over the surface of the desk.
"Yeah well I'm pissed off with you now."
"So you are angry."
"You should've," Tony looks down "you should've come. I couldn't sleep."
"I'm not at your beck and call."
"It was, you've been coming every night for the past three weeks."
"I got used it. You were supposed to be there. You had to be there."
"I didn't have to be anywhere."
"You," Tony makes a frustrated sound. "That's the routine, Steve. You messed it up. I didn't sleep at all, I can't -- "
"Well go take a nap."
Tony snorts. "Yeah, sure."
"Well I'm sorry, but I can't help that I slept through the night. Fuck, I thought you'd be happy for me."
"I am. Happy. For you. That's not what I meant." Tony mumbles squeezing his eyes shut tight. "It just -- never mind."
Steve steps closer. "Tony, what's going on with you?"
"It seems like something."
"And I'm saying it's nothing. It's under control."
Steve pauses. "Fine." He says slowly.
Tony smiles. "See?" He says. "Everything's fine."
That night, Steve goes to find Tony. He wants to make sure that, if he can't sleep through the night, Tony will still be waiting for him, which is maybe stupid, and petty, and childish, but they're both grown men and they can both acknowledge that it's good for them to have contact.
And it's been nice, having Tony, waiting for him. Familiar. He can understand why Tony was maybe upset that he didn't come. He would be, too, if he woke up and Tony wasn't there.
Tony's floor is empty. Or, not really. But the entire living room is spotless, tidy. Steve wonders if he even uses it. He moves down the corridor to where he knows Tony's bedroom is situated, the door hanging open.
He's about to knock, when something catches his attention. Tony is climbing out of bed.
Maybe he noticed, and he's coming to open the door. Steve steps back slightly, to let him through.
But Tony doesn't come any closer. Instead, he unbuttons his pyjamas, goes to his closet, and puts on the clothes he was wearing earlier. Then, he takes them off again, puts on his pyjamas, and climbs back into bed. Reaches over to the lamp and switches it on, off, on, off, on, off, on, off, on, off.
And then again.
Steve stares as Tony finally sighs, climbing into bed for the final time. "Jarvis," he says "how long?"
"I regret to inform you that your final time was 15 minutes, 2 seconds."
Tony makes a sound of physical distress. "Oh, God."
"I'm sorry, Sir."
"Okay," Tony sighs "fine. Here we go again."
"Tony?" Steve blurts.
Tony stares. "Steve," he says slowly "are you -- "
"I was wondering if you were going to be in the kitchen tonight I hope I didn't make you angry earlier and also I wasn't spying on you, I barely saw -- "
"It wasn't -- "
Tony hangs his head. Curls close, over himself.
"Tony," Steve says weakly "it's, it's okay? I don't think, I understand. Everyone has to cope somehow, and that's just, this is how you do it."
"Don't," Tony bites out, voice raw. "Don't pretend."
"It's not," Steve hovers closer to the bed, hand stretching to pat the air around Tony "I'm not. Pretending, I mean."
Tony shakes his head and digs his fingers into his hair. "I can't make it stop."
Tony shakes his head again. "No," he says "you don't understand, I've tried. But you can't, I can't. If I don't do it, something bad will happen. It'll be bad. All of it, everything. I can't explain it, don't ask, I've tried."
"Am I, uh." Steve steps back. "Am I getting in the way?"
Tony looks up, although his doesn't meet his eye, and nods.
"It's okay." Steve says. "I can leave. I can -- "
"Yeah," Steve says quietly "okay."
He sits on the bed. Tony stands.
"Jarvis," he croaks "start the clock."
And then again. Pyjamas off, clothes on, clothes off, pyjamas on, light on off, on off, on off, on off, on off, and then into bed.
This repeats. Steve watches, and Tony's hands shake. When he climbs into bed for the last time, he holds his breath.
"14 minutes, 46 seconds Sir."
Tony breathes a sigh of relief. "Oh thank God."
"It needs to be under fifteen?"
"Five times three is fifteen. It just, it seemed right."
Steve nods. "So," he starts "uh."
"I'm sorry." Tony blurts. "For just, for being an ass."
"It's not your fault."
"I need control."
"Are you getting help?"
Tony looks at him, and then shakes his head.
"You need help."
"I know that." Tony snaps.
"I can," Steve swallows "I can do that."
"Help. If it's, what you need."
"How can you -- "
"If you feel a... compulsion." Steve says carefully. "Just talk to me."
"That's not how it works, Steve."
"No. That's not how it works. You don't -- "
Tony checks his watch. Grits his teeth, and throws open the covers.
"It's too late." Tony mutters. "It's not -- I won't get five hours, now."
"Why would you need -- "
"Because it's good for you, why else?" Tony snaps. "If I don't get to sleep within the time limits, I go to the kitchen." Tony starts to furiously make his bed. "Where you're supposed to be. But you weren't, last night, so I didn't sleep. And now I can't sleep tonight, either." He fluffs pillows, smooths down sheets. "So now, I'm not going to sleep for forty-eight hours. Thank you, Steve."
Steve takes his wrist and tugs. "It doesn't have to be like this."
Tony stares. "Get off me."
"Then pull away."
Tony's eyes narrow, and he twists out Steve's grasp. "You're not helping. You've just ruined everything. Now I can't fucking sleep again, and it's your fault. I don't know why you're acting like the fucking messiah."
"I'm not -- "
"Get out." Tony says, looking down. "Just, leave me alone. Please."
Steve stares at him for a long time. And then he turns, and leaves.
Tony doesn't talk to Steve for a while, after that. He watches him, closely, for signs of his compulsions, but either Tony's clued onto him or is making an effort to stop because he doesn't see much of it.
You see, Tony has this, it's his thing, and he has, he knows he's got a lot of stupid things, stupid things, stupid things, stupid things, stupid things, but it's important that everything is done in groups of five, five, five, five, five.
And, Steve, fucking Steve, Steve, Steve -- stop -- Steve, he keeps getting in the way. Tony can't do it in front of him because he knows, and the last thing Tony wants is Steve going to, to a doctor or something. But the fact is, it's getting worse.
Tony has to think it, now. He has to think perfectly. The words have to sound perfect in his head, head, head, head, head. And if they don't he repeats them until he gets them right, right, right, right, right.
And it's taking up time. Too much time. He gets calls from Pepper, and Rhodey, and his secretaries and his colleagues and they all ask him where he's gone, but the truth is he can't go anywhere now because he can't leave the house until everything is perfect, perfect, perfect, perfect, perfect --
He got that wrong, fuck, he got that wrong. Wait, stop, go again.
And it's taking up time. Too much time. He gets calls from Pepper, and Rhodey, and his secretaries and his colleagues and they all ask him where he's gone, but the truth is he can't go anywhere now because he can't leave the house until everything is perfect.
So he says that he's working on something big, and the deadline comes and goes. People are getting angry. They don't know what he's doing in here, alone. And everything is building up, up -- never mind, everything is building up and he can't deal with it, it feels like he's drowning because there's a not enough time and everything is scattered, crazy, all over the place --
Deep breath in.
It's hard to concentrate on anything at all for long periods of time. He can physically feel himself unravelling. He doesn't know how to stop, and he doesn't know how to tell someone that something's wrong, because what he's doing is so irrational, so, so, so, so, so banal he can't --
Who could understand this? Who could listen to what he's doing and not think he's just crazy? Out of his mind?
Was he broken so badly in space? Did it shatter him so fully?
Tony tries to make a concentrated effort to stop. Sometimes it works. Most times he ends up riddled with anxiety. Example; one day, when entering his workshop, he purposely does not turn his light on five times. And he knows that nothing is going to happen. Nothing at all.
But he can't work. He can't. He sits there, breathing harsh, trying to find a way around it. Digs his hands into his eye, tries to just push the thought of it from his head.
It doesn't work. He caves. Stands, and flicks the lights on and off and on and off and on and off and on and off and on and off until he can breathe.
And, once he's finished his work, the cycle starts again.
So he's the kitchen when it happens. Tony has a cupboard, now, because he couldn't share with the others. He has a whole kitchen, but they have meetings sometimes in the mornings so it's just convenient to keep some things down here instead. He drew the line at actually labelling it with his name, but he wanted to. He wanted everyone to just get that it was his safe space in this kitchen, and no one could touch anything inside it.
And they did. Mostly, they just didn't care. Tony's a bit eccentric, he wants his own cupboard, well, let's indulge him.
It means that they kinda think the whole thing's a bit of a joke.
It's simple. He opens up his cupboard to get, something stupid, a cereal bowl.
All gone. Nothing there. Tony frowns, hitches onto his toes to check it hasn't just been pushed to the back.
Nope. It's all just disappeared.
He hears a snigger behind him.
His jaw tightens.
Maybe he slams the door with more force than is necessary, but he smiles when he turns. "It April Fools Day or something?" He says, staring at Natasha.
Tony laughs. "Funny." He says. "You're really funny." He looks at Steve. "Did you know about this?"
Steve shakes his head, looking from Natasha to Clint and then back to Tony.
Tony nods. Smirks. "Yeah," he says "I'm glad you all find it so hilarious. So," he grabs Clint's mug and throws it at the ground "fucking hilarious."
Natasha's eyes tighten. "It was a joke, Stark." She says. "Pick that up or you'll hurt yourself."
Tony bites into his lip so hard he draws blood. "You've ruined it, you fucking -- why would you do that?"
Clint sighs. "Look man, it was a joke. Clearly you got up on the wrong side of the bed this morning, okay? We're sorry. We'll put your stuff back."
"You can't do that." He snaps "You'll get it wrong. Tell me where it is."
Clint side-eyes Natasha and they both look like they're trying to bite back laughs. "Uh, well." She says "That might take awhile."
Tony rests his hands on the table. "What have you done?"
Clint shrugs. "You know, they're just everywhere I guess. You might need to check a few floors -- maybe a few potted plants, too. We kinda -- "
Tony is strong, but he's not Steve, so when he tries to flip the table he just ends up pushing it pretty far. But it does knock a lot of the stuff on it the to the ground, which is satisfying.
Steve holds him back, stops him from trying to pummel Clint and Natasha, as if he really could, anyway. He presses him against the fridge and Tony slaps his hands against his shoulders, tries to push him away, to get free, to just, just, just --
"Easy, Tony." Steve says "They didn't know. They don't know, they don't understand."
"I don't care." Tony whispers, and he knows how petulant it sounds "Tell them not to touch my stuff. They don't listen to me, I've fucking told them I've told them before, I can't." Tony sucks in a breath, head hitting the refrigerator "How am I going to fix this? Steve there's no time. There's no way for me to fix this, I won't get it like it was before, I won't -- "
"I can help." Steve murmurs.
Tony tries to rip free again. "No." He says, louder. "No, you won't. You can't, none of you can. You know that. You fucking idiots, you fucking -- why didn't you listen? I told you not to touch my stuff, do you think it's a game? Do you think this is just all one big fucking laugh?"
Clint moves forward, maybe to calm him down, or try and figure out why he's so angry, but Natasha holds out a hand, holds him back. "I see." She says "Does it bother you when we touch your things?"
"You know it does!"
"No," she says, slowly. "We didn't. Not like this, Tony."
The pressure on his shoulders loosen and Steve lets him slip. He stands, wobbles slightly, supporting himself. Presses the back of his hand to his head and blinks, dazed. "Just," he says, not meeting anyones eye "just tell me where they are."
"There's a lot -- "
"Just do it." He snaps. "Clearly I can't rely on you to, to fix things properly, so just write it down. Here," he shoves a napkin and pen into Natasha's hands "and don't touch the mess. I'll fix that. Don't -- did you just hear me? Put that down."
Clint carefully places the plate back on the counter, hold up his hands. "Okay." He says softly.
Tony swallows. "Go." He says. "All of you. Leave the note there. Have you put all of it? Make, make sure -- " his voice cracks "make sure you put, put what it is and where you put it, exactly."
"Don't worry." Natasha says evenly. "It's all there."
Tony knows he just made a fucking fool of himself. Natasha smiles when she leaves the note on the table, not maliciously, just soft, gentle. Tony can't look them in the eyes. He stands there, and waits for them to leave.
Steve stops at the door. "I can -- "
He sighs. Looks at Tony, and leaves.
Natasha finds Tony on the 57th floor, crawling between some ferns on the balcony in an attempt to reach his favourite mug.
She clears her throat, but he doesn't look up until he stands, wiping his hand off on his pants. "What do you want." He says, trying to brush past.
She stops him with a gentle hand on his arm. "We had no idea." She says, in a low voice.
"Did Steve tell you?"
"No. He told us to figure it out."
Tony nods. He holds up his mug, gives it a little wave. "Well, I found it."
He tries for a smile, too. It falls flat.
Natasha purses her lips. "I thought I was being kinda funny."
"It wasn't your fault." He murmurs.
"Yeah it was. I didn't know; doesn't mean it's not my fault." She pauses. "Are you sure you don't need help?"
"I prefer to do it on my own."
"Easier to control?"
Natasha nods. "And, what about in general. With your head." She taps her temples. "You need help there?"
"Probably. But," he laughs, slightly, looks down "I prefer to do that on my own, too."
Natasha looks at the mug in his hand. "I'm not even sure why we thought it would be so funny." She says, frowning. "I don't know."
Tony flattens his hair to his head, clears his throat. "I, I need to go."
"Right." Natasha says "Of course. Uh." She steps aside, gesturing to the door. He gives her another tight smile and hurries away, looking at the floor, making sure each foot is placed neatly in front of the other.
Back in the kitchen, Tony makes sure he orders his cupboard first. It's the most important. He sets to work on the shattered ceramic and mess of the counters.
He doesn't worry when he's doing this. He knows that he's fixing things. So his mind goes blessedly quiet, for awhile. Tony has almost forgotten what it's like to act without constantly second guessing yourself.
He is aware, about half way through, that Steve is watching him. He keeps a respectful distance, lets Tony do what he needs to do.
Eventually, Tony looks up.
"What do you want?" He croaks.
"Are you done?"
Tony looks around and resists the urge to wipe down the counters one more time. "I'm done." He says.
Steve nods. "Can I... come over there?"
"Couch." Tony says, walking past him without meeting his eyes.
"They're all worried about you, now." Steve says, sitting not next to him, but about one cushion away. "They think -- they're concerned."
"What do you want me to do about that."
"I'm offering to help."
"With what? The cleaning?" Tony laughs, bitter.
"I don't -- "
"Well, you do." Steve says mildly. "You do need help, that much is clear. I know a good psychiatrist. He didn't let me down."
Tony smoothes his hands against his pants, tries to spread his palms evenly against the grain. He swallows. "Yeah." He says.
"Yeah? Yeah, you'll get help?"
"Yeah, I need it. I need help."
"Well that's an easy problem to fix. There's nothing stopping you."
Tony closes his eyes, frowns. "Why are you helping me?" He murmurs.
"I worry about you." Steve offers.
"I like you."
"When I can't sleep -- " Steve pauses "when I can't sleep, you know what to say."
"Do I really."
"To make it seem okay again. To... give me a better perspective. You do that, for me."
"Well I'm glad I can be of such service."
Steve makes his lips press together sympathetically. "I'll give you my doctor's number."
"You do that."
A few days later, and Tony is smoking on the balcony overlooking the city. He tries to clear his head, block his thoughts, calm down. The doctor isn't going to judge him. Or at least, if he does, it's his job to keep it to himself.
He rearranges the chairs so that they press against the wall. That way at least he knows they're straight. Unlike him. Haha. Oh look, he made a funny.
He stubs out his cigarette on the glass railing and wonders how many it would take to give him some kind of poisoning. Steve is the one who knocks on the door, smiles. "He's here." He says "You can come in? Or do you want to sit out here?"
Tony runs his hands through his hair, smoothes down his clothes. Clears his throat. "Inside, inside is fine." He says, fingers twitching. He taps out a beat, one, two, three, four, five. Tugs down his sweater.
"It'll be fine." Steve murmurs to his back, pushing him forward slightly. "He's a nice guy."
"That's what you think." Tony shoots back, fixing a smile on his face. "Hi," he says "pleasure to meet you. I'm Tony, but you know that."
The man takes his hand, shakes. "Gary." He says, simply. "Steve said you were having trouble."
Tony laughs nervously, slides his palms down his pants. "Yeah. Yeah, I mean. It's not, it's not too bad. It's not a big deal, honestly, it's more just -- "
"Tony." Steve murmurs.
"I can't sleep." Tony blurts. "I do everything in fives. It's getting to be a problem."
Gary smiles, well worn and comfortable. "Well Tony, it's nothing I haven't seen before." He looks at Steve. "I assume you won't be staying?"
Steve squeezes Tony's shoulder, once. "Nah. I'm out. I'll see you later, yeah."
"Yeah." Tony swallows. "Later."
Gary smiles at him again and Tony gestures to the couch. "We -- is this okay, for you?"
"Is it okay for you?"
"Well then, let's sit, and see what I can do."
"And would you say it started, definitely, after New York. Because you mention post-Afghanistan -- "
"The, the compulsions -- the need to be compulsive started. The compulsions didn't start until, you remember when the President was captured? After that."
"And you broke up with your long-time partner not long after."
"Because of the compulsions?"
"Among other things."
Gary nods. "Understandable. Now, OCD can manifest for a variety of reasons. I would say, that with you, it's actually more of a symptom of PTSD, would you agree?"
"Would you say you feel depressed at all?"
"Depressed? Maybe... maybe as a result of what I'm doing. It worries me. I feel like I'm not living life. It's a circle. I can't stop what I'm doing, so that makes me worried, and when I'm worried I seek control, and I seek control by... ordering things."
"Order." The man nods "Again, it's very common Tony. And it's actually highly curable."
"Maybe. I think with you there's an underlying problem of anxiety that we need to tackle before I can call you cured. It's not that simple. But have you heard of CBT?"
"Cognitive behavioural therapy."
"That's right. I'm not saying it's easy, but you can essentially train yourself out what you're doing."
"I've tried that." Tony says "I'm doing it all the time. I'm always checking what I'm doing, but then the anxiety gets worse and I just -- I just have to."
"Relax," Gary says calmly "focus on your breathing."
"I am." Tony snaps "Don't tell me what to do." He pauses. "Sorry," he says "that was rude."
"Do you find yourself being angry often?"
"Most of the time."
"Everyone. Everything. Everything is stressful. Everything is... difficult."
"Is there anyone you aren't angry at?"
Tony looks away. "Steve."
"Steve? And why is that?"
"He's... too nice."
"You think so?"
"It's wrong to shout at him, he doesn't deserve it. He's never done anything wrong, to, to me. He always tries to help."
"You mentioned earlier that it sometimes gets on your nerves?"
"Yeah," Tony says "I mean, he makes me angry, but not angry, you know? Like, I snap at him. But I get over it pretty quick."
Gary is quiet for a moment. "And would you say, maybe, that the compulsions are less when he's with you?"
Tony has to think about it for a while. "No," he says carefully "but I would say the urge to try and stop them is higher."
"And are you currently feeling a compulsion right now, Tony?"
"Honestly? Uh, you. I don't like you sitting in here. On the couch. It's -- it's my couch. I don't like you inside. I should have made us sit outside when you asked."
"Why didn't you?"
"Didn't want to be inconvenient."
"Right," Gary says, clicking his fingers "that's what I want you to work on this week. If something makes you uncomfortable, say. Let people know. If not out and about, then in the tower. With your friends. You said they understood."
"For the most part."
"Then tell them. Don't make yourself feel like an inconvenience to anyone, because you're not."
Tony nods. "Right."
"Can I ask one more thing?"
"Once a day, at least, try and resist a compulsion."
"It's not that simple."
"I know. And there may be days where you can't. But I need you to try. And maybe you could see if you can work out what sort of mood you're in when you can resist? See what makes you most comfortable."
Tony pauses. "Fine." He says eventually.
"In which case," Gary says, standing. "I will see you next week. If you text me when you have a free slot in your schedule -- "
"Always." Tony says. "Just -- same time."
"Same time next week." Gary says "I'll see myself out."
Steve isn't home by the time the session's finished so Tony takes himself down to the workshop.
Or at least, he tries.
A foot in the door of his elevator, and Clint literally prises his way inside. "Tony," he says, slightly breathless "hey, man. How was it?"
Tony stares. "You just don't know when to quit, do you?"
"Let's say, for a second, our positions were reversed -- "
"And you were the man who carries anti-bacterial spray in his pocket, yeah."
"Right. Imagine our positions were reversed and you had done to me what I did to you. Wouldn't you feel really fucking uncomfortable?"
"And wouldn't you -- even though your apology has been accepted multiple times -- try and just make it up to me a little bit more?"
"Probably." Tony admits. "I'm irritating in that way. However, if you ever beat me in anything, it will be irritation levels, so congratulations."
"Did it really go okay today?"
Tony shrugs. "Couci-couça."
"I don't speak French."
The doors open and Tony steps out, Clint following. "So learn."
"Not all of us graduated high school, Tony."
"You are a trained assassin, high school has nothing to do with it."
Clint snorts. "Yeah, right." He starts moving down the corridor to the workshop. "You coming?"
"Ah," Tony looks back at the elevator "not yet."
"Not -- oh."
"Do you want me to go?"
No, Tony almost says it's fine.
Then he remembers what Gary said. Be inconvinient if you want to be. Don't stress about it.
"I... I would rather you left." Tony says. "No hard feelings." He adds, quickly. "I just, I just need to think."
"Hey, no problem." Clint says. "Can I just pop up first? You really need more elevators down here, man."
"I'm working on it."
Clint salutes, and then is gone.
Tony's fingers twitch.
He bites his lip.
And quickly strides into his workshop, tightening the door behind him.
It doesn't last. He ends up taken the elevator ten times after an hour of trying to avoid it. The good news is, by the time he's finished, Steve is back. And he sits in the chair Tony bought him specially so he wouldn't have to worry about him damaging his things.
And Steve is really in control of his body, which helps. He can just stop himself from falling over, Tony's seen it with his own eyes. He can catch things falling from desks. If anything, he's actually good to have around, like a nice paperweight.
"How was it?" He asks, crossing his arms.
Tony shrugs, looking at his screen. "It was okay."
"Do you feel... better?"
Tony blinks. "Praise Jesus, I'm cured."
Tony snorts, and watches Steve spin in his chair, round and round. "Could you stop that?"
Steve raises an eyebrow. "You shouldn't've have got one that spins."
"I dragged it up from my office."
"Yeah well that was a mistake, clearly."
"It's comfier than the others."
"In which case I take it back, thank you Tony."
Tony smiles. "What you got there?" He asks, nodding his head to Steve bag.
"Here?" Steve says "Oh. Here, I have a present for you."
Tony blinks. "For me?"
"Yeah. But I don't think I'm gonna give it to you yet."
"You insulted my spinning technique."
Steve shrugs, smirking. "If you say so."
Tony feels antsy. He taps his fingers on his desk. "Can I guess?"
"I don't roll that way."
"What, sex?" Tony says, and is he -- oh yes, he is definitely flirting.
"No," Steve says, looking at his nails. "Toys. I like to use my hands."
Tony swallows. "Is it something useful?"
"In a sense."
"Will I find it useful?"
"I don't think it's useful in a way you would define utility."
Steve smirks. "Guess again."
"Is it expensive?"
"It's the thought that counts."
Tony raises an eyebrow. "So you've got me a cheap toy, is what you're saying. Steve, I got enough of this from my dad, I think I'm good."
"Wait," Steve says, taking his bag. "Just -- it's kinda stupid."
"Yeah. No. I mean it actually really is. I -- shouldn't've." Steve rubs his eyes. "Oh, God. I've screwed up. What was I thinking?"
Tony blinks. "I'm sure you haven't."
Steve tries to smile but his face screws up all funny. "Promise not to laugh?"
Steve unzips his bag and drags out something brown. And fluffy.
"Steve -- "
Steve holds up the bear in front of his face, peeks around. "What do you think?"
"I like it's jumper."
"That's definitely the best part."
"Very couture. And what does it say? Don't wor -- oh! Oh you got me a don't worry bear."
"Is it... too much?"
Tony swallows. "No." He says, quickly. "No, it's -- it's, it's uh, very thoughtful."
"You hate it. God I'm sorry."
"No." Tony says and he takes it from Steve's hand, keeps it hovering over his desk. He ponders the arrangement.
"This can go." He decides, picking up a dictionary. "Do you want it? I've never actually used it. Um." He carefully places the bear down next to his computer. "What do you think."
Steve is looking at him strangely. "Is, it that alright? I mean, don't feel uncomfortable on my account. Don't move things -- "
"It's fine." Tony blurts. "I love it."
"Yeah," Tony says, a little breathless "the bear."
Steve smiles, now, content. "Good." He says "I hoped you would. Uh, I'm gonna -- is it okay if I stay down here? I want to draw."
Tony blinks. "That's fine," he says, words coming out in a hurry. "Do you want something to drink? I have -- I have things to drink."
"Good." Tony says, glowing internally although he's not sure why. "Great. Good."
Steve asks Tony out two weeks later.
Tony really, really likes him. And he really, really wants to go out with him.
But he can't. He can't go to a restaurant. Not with -- who knows what might happen. Something he can't control, most likely.
He really works himself into a state about it, worrying for days in advance. Eventually, he cancels.
Steve looks so confused. "Oh," he says "is -- is it me?"
"No." Tony says quickly. "No no, no, never you. Just -- I'm busy. With work. And other things. So."
So. Steve had arranged another date, and Tony blew him out again. And Steve tried for another day, and Tony was sick with an unexplained illness. He pre-books three weeks in advance, and on in the night in question, Tony is simply nowhere to be found.
Steve comes to him, after. "If you don't want to," he says "just say. It's okay, Tony. You don't need to pander to me, I get it. I won't force you."
Tony had tried to say something, but nothing would work. He tossed and turned all night, not knowing what to do. Steve avoided him during the day.
He does stupid things like reorder the bathroom and scrub the tiles with a toothbrush to get between the cracks. And he reaches a new low when he spends six hours -- six hours -- rearranging the books in the living room by series, and then author, and then title, and then colour.
One night, it's real bad, and he's stricken with it, dressing and undressing over and over and over and over --
"Tony?" Steve says, quietly. "Jarvis said -- "
Tony is crying, and he can't even stop when Steve takes his shoulders. He doesn't know what's wrong. There's something in his head and it's taking on a life of its own.
"Stop." Steve says, gently taking Tony's hands away from his buttons. "It's okay. Hold on, it's okay."
"I'm sorry." Tony blurts "I'm sorry. Please, please don't ignore me, don't fucking do that. I don't know how to explain, okay? I just don't know how to tell you what I'm thinking, and -- "
"I'm not angry." Steve says "How could I be angry? You've done nothing wrong. Don't cry, Tony, here. Put your shirt on."
Tony doesn't want to. The idea of moving makes him sick to the stomach, as if it will kick-start his compulsion all over again. He sucks in a breath.
"Sometimes I have these thoughts," he says, in a rush. "And I think things I can't control. And... it's the worst part. I can't even control my head anymore. I don't know what to do."
"What kind of thoughts, Tony."
"Have you ever -- are you ever standing on a road, and you think, what if I just stepped in front of a car? And you're not suicidal, not at all. You just wonder it. And then you forget about it and life moves on. I can't stop thinking about it. A thought, a though just crosses my mind, and I can't get it out. It burns my brain. And I don't want to kill myself, I don't, but I'll see someone with a knife and I'll think what if I did, what if I did, what if I did to a point where I don't even know anymore. Do I want to kill myself? I don't think so. I don't want to die. I don't -- "
"Can I touch you?"
Steve hand pushes back the hair on his brow. "It's obsessive." He says quietly. "I can... not understand, exactly. I can empathise, a little. I know."
"And I can't push the thoughts away," Tony breathes "it's maddening."
"There's nothing I can say." Steve murmurs. "I can't say anything that'll make it better. But I'm here."
"Even if you don't want to date, Tony, I love you. I still do."
"How could you love this."
Steve presses kisses to his hands. "Because you are not as bad as you think," Steve says "you're seeing yourself through a broken lens. I love you, and I love you easily."
"I thought I'd fucked up." Tony huffs, wiping his cheeks. "I, I, I thought you had grown tired of it. Of me."
"You did turn me down six times."
Tony swallows. "I don't -- I can't control things, out there. I was terrified. I didn't want to fuck it up. So I cancelled. So you wouldn't, you wouldn't know."
Steve is stroking his head thoughtfully. "Shall we do it know?"
"Did you hear anything I said or -- "
"Here. We can go upstairs. Watch a movie. Popcorn, maybe? Some drinks. It'll be fun. Let your hair down. Figuratively, obviously."
Tony swallows. And then swallows four more times, without even thinking, just to reach five.
"Yeah," he says quietly "I could do that."
The first time they kiss is like a bad joke. Steve knows, the second Tony draws away, exactly what the problem is.
Somehow, Tony doesn't think he minds going in again four more times.
Slowly, Tony is able leave the tower.
He stops counting his footsteps in fives.
When Steve moves into his bedroom, they nearly fall apart. Because for the first time, Steve is faced with the true weight of Tony's neuroses, and he's swept into them too. Steve has to cross the doorway into the room five times whenever he enters or exits and he does so with a grudging smile that makes Tony feel like the smallest, worst human being in the world, because he's forcing this on Steve, making him stoop down to his level.
One night, Steve refuses, point blank, to do it and Tony nearly falls apart. He masks it well, kissing Steve five times on each cheek before he turns out the light five times, but after Steve falls asleep he cries and cries and cries into his pillow because he doesn't know what he'll do if Steve doesn't want to do it with him, and he can see the tiredness in Steve's eyes when Tony kisses his cheek once, twice, three times, four times, five, how he smiles with little effort behind it and indulges him.
But it wakes Steve up, his shaking, and Steve turns on the light. Tony tries to hide it, but Steve sees the tears. And he kisses them away, five on each cheek, and apologises, says it was a rough day, and he was just tired, and he snapped, he's sorry, Tony, you don't need to worry, I won't leave, I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry.
Drips and drabs. One day, he realises that he's walked straight from the elevator to the workshop and he just forgot to go up again four times. It's such a freeing feeling he feels like he's floating. He calls Steve straight away, and they drink and talk until Tony sleeps.
It's disheartening when, the next day, Tony wakes up to find he's had nine hours sleep, and it was supposed to be five, five, five, and if not, ten, and there's nothing he can do to fix it. And he comes crashing down because he realises he's not miraculously cured.
But days go by. More and more often, he's able to have repeats of that day when he walked straight from the elevator. He feels like his leg is being freed from a steel trap.
Until he's taken. He's taken by HYDRA, and the don't have him long. Three days, maybe. It's all that was needed to set him back months in recovery.
The compulsions tighten to claustrophobic levels. Everything is ruled by five. Nothing is exempt. He's paralysed in a state of fear, of being unable to move left or right because he has to clap his hands five times first.
It's like building up from the bottom. He knows he can do it, he knows. He will. He can. One step at a time, please, just one step at a time. He will keep going forward.
When he and Steve fuck for the first time it's such an alien feeling that Tony's able to get through the whole thing without a single compulsion. No germ panic, no five time beat of Steve's balls against his fucking ass, nothing. Sex, then, becomes some kind of respite. One of the few times he can just forget. Let go.
And again. One day, Tony realises he feels no need to change out of his pajamas five times. Simple as. And the next night, the compulsion comes back with full force, but Tony holds onto the act that it did stop.
And the night after that and the night after that and the night after that and the night after that and the night after that --
things get better.
Tony goes to sleep at eleven, Steve curled by his side.
When he wakes up, the light filters through the windows. The white sheet crumples around his bare hips; warmth, love, peace.
Nothing is amiss. Tony can't quite place it. He yawns, rolls to the window, eyes dropping back into sleep.
Catches the clock, which reads 07:32.
Closes his eyes, and rests.