For all that Steve is honourable and kind and empathetic, he really knows how to hit where it hurts. Maybe his relative virtue even makes it worse, Tony thinks, because for some reason Steve's words are still rattling around in his head, even after they had resolved their differences. Somehow, Steve had managed to point out everything that is wrong with Tony without even trying, and probably without realizing it.
So after the final battle against Loki and his army, after Tony nearly threw away everything for them, after the Avengers split and went their separate way (for now), Tony goes for a drive. He doesn't answer Pepper when she asks where he's going, and he lets Bruce into one of the Stark labs, and he gets in his car and drives.
He's gone for a week. He doesn't answer his phone and he doesn't stop, except for gas and for food. He wears hoodies and shades and doesn't allow himself to be recognized. When he comes home, he's quiet and maybe a little sad, because he couldn't escape himself, couldn't escape Steve's words, and he worried Pepper, so he just feels more selfish than ever. He wonders what he's doing, and then remembers that he's done everything wrong so far, so why should he try to break the pattern now?
The direct hurt from Steve's sharp tongue fades eventually, but Tony doesn't get much better. He's still a bit quiet, and bit withdrawn. Tony's as brilliant as ever, but he doesn't have much drive anymore, and he doesn't know why.
Pepper call it depression, and asks him what happened. He ignores her completely.
Eventually, she gets tired of being ignored. She tries to get help first, calls Rhodey and tries to get Tony to see a doctor. He refuses, again and again, until she's had enough.
“I can't keep doing this, Tony,” is what she says to him. “I don't know what happened to you, whether this has anything to do with that week you were gone, or if it was before that, but you've changed. I clearly can't help you with this.”
He looks at her and smiles. It looks as empty as his soul feels. “I'm okay, Pepper. I'll try to do better.”
She takes it at face value, because Pepper doesn't want to think about what that could mean.
Tony does try harder. He hadn't realized how much of a recluse he had become until suddenly he was dealing with the press again, fighting the occasional idiot as Iron Man, returning to his life, really. He does a couple jobs for Nick Fury, invents some things, changes the world again and again the smallest possible ways. It still feels like failure, because he can't ever make up for what's in his past, and they all seen the footage. No one's ever going to forget who he was, no matter who he is now.
Tony feels sick to realize how much he's allowed Steve to get to him, to realize that he's become weak. But maybe he was always weak, and Steve was just exactly the right person to see that and call him out.
And he thinks that maybe Pepper had sort of figured it out too, because she's growing distant from him. He thinks that if he tries he could pull her back, but the truth is he isn't sure if he wants too. Tony loves Pepper, a lot, but she could do so much better. So when she comes to him and tells him that she can't watch him slip away any more, he lets her go. She tells him that when he's ready to be himself again, when hes done giving up on everything, she'll be happy to come back, to try again. He's just not sure why she isn't happy to have escaped him.
By the time the Avengers reassemble, Tony has mostly buried Steve's words. He's mostly buried everything, honestly, except for his public face, the smiling Mr. Stark, and Iron Man. He's pretty sure that Steve said what he did in the heat of the moment anyways, it shouldn't matter at all.
So the team gets back together, this time to fight Hydra. They've resurfaced, and it sucks, and everyone gives everything they've got. They win, in the end, and everything is a bit more friendly for it. The Avengers decide to stay together this time, and Tony offers Stark Tower. He's not sure why he's doing it, but he's not sure why he does anything these days. Everyone seems grateful though, so he lets himself feel good about it.
And then, one day, Steve comes to see him while he's tinkering with something in his lab. “Hey,” the soldier says, hovering in the doorway.
Tony waves him in, and doesn't say anything. Steve tries again. “Er, you missed lunch,” he says.
“Oh,” says Tony, and doesn't look at Steve. Tony knows he missed lunch, he hasn't eaten all day. It's been a few days since he's slept, too, but that's pretty normal.
“I was worried,” says Steve. He kind of sounds like he's telling the truth, which is a bit surprising. Tony looks up.
“You were? I mean- That's nice Steve, what are you doing here?”
Now Steve looks a bit surprised too. “Of course I was. I just wanted to make sure you were okay. You're a member of the team, I-”
“I can still fight,” Tony assures him. “I can go longer than this.”
For some reason, Steve doesn't look very assured. “It's not about if you can fight. It's your wellfare.”
Tony shrugs. “I don't really care all that much. Just so long as I can function.”
Steve sighs and drops it, finally. He's like a mule, Tony thinks. Stubborn. “Well,” says Steve. “I guess I'll go.” He's looking a bit awkward.
“Alright,” says Tony, and turns back to his work.
And then there's another fight, and another, and then Tony does something stupid and reckless and risks his life and Steve is so angry and Tony doesn't understand why. He's lived, though he was a bit banged up, and he's managed to pull it off, maybe even saving all of them.
“Why would you do that!” Steve is yelling. “It was a stupid risk, you could have been killed!”
And suddenly, Tony is angry too. Something wells up inside, a hurt that he'd long buried, and he spits back, “I get that I'm not the guy to make the sacrifice play, Steve. But that doesn't mean that I can't do it when it means saving the rest to you! Your opinion of me doesn't decide my actions!”
Steve takes the words like a slap, and his mouth snaps shut. Tony takes the opportunity, and continues. “I'm not the most selfless member of this team. I'm not even the best fighter, or the strongest, and Banner can probably rival me when it comes to smarts. I know that you don't like me, that I don't stand up to your friends from the war, or even my dad. So can you please just respect it when I try to be the better man and give of myself to help you!”
Steve finds his tongue, and says, “Tony, I don't think that about you. I know that you fight for other people, I think that you're valuable. I was just-”
“Just what?” snaps Tony.
“Concerned. Upset. I don't know, Tony, but I wasn't angry because I thought that it aught to be someone else's job to sacrifice themselves for the team.”
Tony laughs, and it's bitter and angry. “Get out,” he says, and doesn't say anything else to Steve, doesn't even look at him, until he does.
Steve tries to talk to Tony a few more times, tries to apologize, to get him to listen. Tony doesn't really want to hear it. Steve didn't do anything wrong, Tony sees that now, and it wasn't the right thing to do to yell at him. Steve is the team leader, he has every right to lecture Tony for doing something that could have failed and weakened the team.
Tony doesn't want Steve to be more angry at him than he is, so he shuts himself up in his workshop, talks to JARVIS and ignores everyone else. He locks out the rest of the Avengers, eats very little and sleeps even less. He invents things; a new set of arrows for Clint, a new style of body armour for Steve, a new type of sheath for Natasha that will tuck into her clothes even better. Nothing for himself. Sometimes he lies on the cot he keeps in the workshop and wonders why he can't do anything but hurt people and make them angry. Why no one has ever wanted to stay. Why he has all this genius, all this wealth, and isn't able to just be a good person for once.
He wishes that he had a way out of his own head.
Steve breaks into the workshop on the ninth day. He plucks Tony from his seat at a worktable and physically carries him back to Steve's own rooms. He shoves him into the ensuite bathroom and pretty much orders him to take a shower. Tony does as he says, and then changes into the clothes that materialized on the counter while he was washing. There's a stretchy t-shirt and a pair of sweat pants, both far too large for him, probably Steve's. When he comes out into the room, Steve is reclined on the bed, drawing something.
“Er,” says Tony. “I'm just going to go back to my room.”
“No.” The denial surprises Tony and he starts. “You're staying here,” Steve continues, “where I can keep an eye on you. You're going to sleep, and when you wake up you're going to eat. And then we're going to talk.”
Tony doesn't like the way Steve says “talk” but he doesn't really have a choice. He's nothing without his suit, he'd never be able to get away from Steve. So he listens. He crawls onto the bed next to Steve and curls up next to him, careful not to touch. He doesn't draw the covers over himself, even though he's a bit chilly. He just curls into a ball, back to Steve. Tony is sharply aware of Steve's gaze on his back, but he doesn't react to it other than to shudder slightly and close his eyes. All of a sudden, he becomes aware of how tired he is, and lets Morpheus take him.
When he wakes, Steve is gone, and someone has drawn the covers over him. He's in the same position he fell asleep in, and Tony realizes that he must of been truly exhausted to have slept without nightmares. Before he can rise from the bed and sneak back to his workshop, Steve walks though the door, a sandwich in one hand and a glass of juice in the other. “You're awake,” he says.
Tony nods, and sits up. He takes the food when Steve offers it, and eats without tasting it. He's not sure if he would have thrown up if he had registered the food or not, but he thinks that it would have been likely. When he's done, he looks back at Steve, who's watching him again.
“So, talking?” Tony says. “I can do that, we can do that, I mean, I'd much rather not, but-”
“I'm sorry,” says Steve. “For what I said to you. And for getting angry.”
Tony shrugs. “You didn't do anything wrong. I was being stupid.”
“No,” Steve says, “you weren't. I mean, yeah, you were, but you were also being noble and selfless and a real hero, okay? I shouldn't have gotten angry at you, I had no right.”
“Whatever,” says Tony, and doesn't believe him at all. Almost getting himself killed was more selfish than anything. “Just don't apologize to me, if anything I should-” He cuts himself off. Tony doesn't know how to say sorry, though maybe he should learn. It might help a bit.
“Damnit, Tony,” says Steve. “I do need to apologize. Both for this, and for what I said to you- about you- when we first met. You're a good man.”
Tony laughs in his face, and Steve looks a bit offended. “What?” he asks.
“I'm not a good man,” Tony says. “I have a lot of money and some cool tech, but you were right when you said that there are men out there with nothing who are worth ten of me.”
“I don't think I was,” Steve says. “And I have a hard time believing that you did believe me.”
“Yeah, well.” Tony looks away, and knots his hands in Steve's blanket. It's royal blue, warm, soft, and comfortable.
“And I didn't mean to hurt you,” Steve continues. “I was angry, you were just brushing off the danger in the situation, and you weren't exactly nice to me, either.”
“I know I wasn't. I'm always like that,” Tony says. “I don't think I'm capable of being a decent human being, never mind a hero.” Tony doesn't know why he's being so honest, but he's not really feeling up to putting on the face of Tony Stark, Genius Billionaire Playboy Philanthropist. Right now he just kind of wants to be Tony. Hopefully Steve doesn't mind.
“You-” Steve chokes on whatever he's going to say, and he bows his head, buries his face in his hands. “You're a good man, Tony,” he says. “I've learned about you since we met. About the way you stop bad people from using your weapons to hurt innocents. About your philanthropic work. About you getting kidnapped and crawling out of the darkness as Iron Man, as a hero.”
“That's not me,” Tony whispers. “That's Tony Stark, that's Iron Man. That's not just Tony.”
“You're more than just Tony,” Steve says.
Tony shrugs, and drags himself out of bed. It feels like too much effort. “I have a meeting, I think.”
Steve just watches him go. Tony ignores his gaze once again, and wonders what exactly Steve thinks he's seeing when he calls Tony a hero.
The next person that Tony talks to is Bruce. He's waiting for him in his lab when he gets back there, peering at the device Tony had been working on. “This is good,” he says, when he turns around and sees Tony entering the lab.
Tony shrugs. “Just an experiment. What's up, Bruce?” He ignores the fact that he's still wearing Steve's clothes. Bruce doesn't seem to care much either.
“Just wanted to make sure you were okay. I've shut myself away in my lab as a coping mechanism before, and it's not healthy.”
“I'm fine,” Tony says. “Cap's already told me off for not taking care of myself, or whatever.”
Bruce gives him a knowing look, but doesn't actually say anything. Instead he says, “We only do it because we care.”
Tony just looks as Bruce. There's something to be envied about the man, some element of control, which would seem strange what with the whole 'giant green rage monster thing'. But it doesn't. Bruce can deal with the Hulk, can control him. Unfortunately, Tony can't control himself in the same way. Can't restrain his demons, keep them from tearing at everything he loves. Tony's darkness destroys everything he touches, but not in so obvious a way as the Hulk does.
Bruce looks back at Tony, and then he leaves. Tony's glad for that, because it means that now he can lock himself up again.
Tony doesn't really know how to live with other people. Especially really, really good people. In the past, the limit of the people he had lived with was Pepper and his parents, and neither of those really counted because Pepper was Pepper and his parent were... his parents. So it's a bit strange to suddenly have five other people living in the Tower. Thor seemed to be in every room at once sometimes, and Natasha never seemed to be anywhere (but she left knifes sticking out of the walls, like breadcrumbs to help her get around or something). Clint was always perching on stuff, like the cabinets in the kitchen and the punching bags in the gym. Bruce spent most of his time in the labs, but when he wasn't there, he was in the kitchen, cooking something or other. He was an amazing chef, too, and often the smell of his cooking would lure Tony from his workshop, causing Tony to wonder if he did it on purpose. And Steve. Steve was something else entirely.
Tony doesn't know how to deal with Steve, because Steve is amazing and too perfect to be real and he looks at Tony like he was sorry, like he cared, and Tony doesn't know how to deal with that at all. The last person who had looked at him like that (not fond exasperation, not worry, caring) had been his mother, for god's sake. And Steve looks at Tony and sees Howard. Or at least, Tony's pretty sure that's what he sees, because what other explanation is there for the affection in Steve's gaze whenever it falls upon Tony?
The Avengers are only peripherally aware that Tony has a drinking problem. They know that he's had some trouble with alcohol in the past, that he used to be wild. They don't know that he still drinks far, far too much, but that now he keeps to himself when he does it. He doesn't want to hurt anyone. And he gets far too honest when he's drunk.
So when Steve finds him once, drunk and miserable, sitting on the couch in the largest den, staring at the walls like he doesn't know his own house, it's a bit distressing.
“Tony?” Steve asks carefully, stepping into the room on quiet feet.
Tony doesn't look up, but he says, “Oh.”
“Are you okay?” says Steve, moving to sit down on the couch next to Tony. There's a mostly empty bottle of something in Tony's hand, and Steve pries it away gently, ignoring the soft sound of distress that comes from Tony.
Tony shakes his head, and faintly remembers that this is why he shouldn't get drunk. He tends to tells people things he should keep to himself and keep to himself things he should tell people.
“What's wrong?” God damn you, Steve, Tony think. Stop caring and leave me alone. It'll be better for you that way.
“Nothing in my life is right,” Tony slurs. “And I'm sorry that I ruin everything and that I'm selfish and stupid and that I'm not good enough for any of you.”
“You great,” Steve says, and he sounds a bit choked up. “You're just fine, better than us in some was, even.”
“No, no,” says Tony, and he wishes hat he could hut up, but at this point, who even cares? “You don't need me.”
“Of course we need you,” Steve says, and he sounds kind of like he actually means it, which is obviously bullshit.
“Fuck off,” Tony mumbles. “And give me back that bottle.”
“No,” says Steve, and now he sounds offended. That's about right, Tony thinks, that's normal.
“Please?” Tony tries again.
“No.” This time Steve sound less offended and more firm, and he grips the bottle tighter. “Tony, I won't let you drink yourself to death.”
“Not to death,” Tony says. “Just until I can sleep and forget and not dream.”
Steve isn't getting it. “Steve, you have no reason to stop me. Give me the bottle and leave me in peace.”
“Tony, no,” Steve's voice is mostly sad. “I won't watch you do this to yourself.”
“That's what Pepper said,” Tony mumbles, “she just left.”
“I won't.” It's his Cap voice this time, and Tony looks up and meets his eyes.
“Why are you doing this?” Tony asks, honestly bewildered.
“Because.” It's the Cap face, too. “We care about you. We want you to be happy, to be with us, not to drink until you can't even stay conscious. We need you, Tony. So stop being an idiot.”
“Tony can be an idiot all he wants,” Tony says. “You need Iron Man. But not Tony, no, never Tony. No one can deal with me. No one can want me.” Tony is cursing his drunken honesty, even as he watched Steve's mouth drop open. He looks surprised, like he hadn't already seen the fact that Tony is, at heart, not a good person, and then pointed it out to him quite succinctly.
“I had't realized,” Steve says, and Tony thinks, oh. He realizes all of a sudden that he had had hope that Steve would be different.
Tony cuts Steve off before he can say anything else. “I'm sorry I can't be my father for you, and I'm sorry I'm not Bucky Barnes. All I can be is Tony. I know I'm not good enough, and I hope that Iron Man will still be welcome among the Avengers.” He figures there won't be a problem with Iron Man. Tony does thinks that maybe he should move though, go live in an apartment in the city, rather than forcing them to deal with him 24/7.
Steve looks a little disgusted. “Tony, Tony, no. Tony, we want you here, we honestly do like you!”
Tony shrugs. “Whatever you say, Cap,” he says, and lists sideways. His head thumps against Steve's shoulder. “Sorry,” he mutters. His eyes drift shut. “I'm gonna sleep for a bit Cap. Thank you for lying to me.” Then he falls asleep in Steve's presence for the second time.
When Tony wakes, he's in Steve's bed again. He's still in his day clothes, which is probably a good sign, but he doesn't remember much of what he said (or did) to Steve the pervious night.
Steve himself is no where to be found, so Tony pries himself out of the bed and slips form the room. He returns to his own room and changes his clothes, then heads to the kitchen for a cup of coffee. Steve is there, making toast. He turns around when Tony enters the kitchen, and Tony considers turning and walking right back out again when he sees the devastated look on Steve's face.
“Tony,” Steve says.
“Is there coffee?” Tony replies, and ignores the way that Steve's face falls even further when he's brushed off. He does nod though, so Tony grabs a mug and pours a cup. He drinks it, pours another, then turns back to Steve.
“What's up?” Tony asks, trying to figure out why Steve is so upset. Tony thinks that he must have said something.
“It's just- Do you really believe everything that you told me last night?”
Tony raises an eyebrow. “To be honest, I don't remember much of last night. And depending on what it was, it could either have been way too honest or a terrible lie.”
Steve really needs to stop looking like a kicked puppy, Tony thinks. “You told me that you were worthless, that no one wants you, that you think that you're less than all of us.”
Oh, thinks Tony. Well. “That's- okay,” he says. “Too honest, then.”
“Jesus, Tony,” Steve says. "You can't honestly believe that.”
“Sure I can. Everyone else does. Even you, which you pointed out to me quite well not long after we met.”
“What?” Tony takes a sip of his coffee, watched as emotions play out over Cap's face. Finally his expression firms into determination.
“We're going to fix this, Tony. I can't- it's so wrong that you would think that of yourself, think that others think that of you. And it's wrong that you feel that you have to hide yourself away.” Steve looks like he's not going to give up on this, but Tony's going to try to shut him down anyways.
“I don't need help,” Tony says, waving his hand dismissively. “And you have no reason to try.”
“We're your team, Tony. Your friends.”
“Yeah, and? I think my opinion of myself is my business.”
Steve shakes his head. “I'll do it myself if I have to, Tony. I won't let you carry on this way.”
“Whatever, Cap,” Tony says, and starts to leave the kitchen. “Do what you want.”
Steve watches him go, and then asks JARVIS to find the rest of the Avengers. He's going to need some help with this.