Prayers to Sweet Destruction
solamen miseris socios habuisse doloris
That's the thing about PTSD: it creeps up on you. It's the friend who pierces your back as you turn away, and the lover who doesn't leave a note. The silent assassin; you never see it coming. That is, until you're sitting in your car with the doors locked, waiting for the fumes to suffocate everything you once were, and waiting for the guilt to intoxicate your blood supply. It's smarter than you. It claims even the strongest of men. PTSD will hold your hand, lull you into the comfort of normality, and before you realise it, it has twisted you into its deathly grip, still whispering those sweet words into your ears.
The first time Tony Stark had felt his friend beside him, was as he was staring into the stars.
His eyes had shone, wide against the brilliance of a new universe as he soared through Loki's portal, the burden of his metal suit suddenly disappearing in weightlessness he had only ever dreamed about as JARVIS crackled into nothing. His mind had often sought to understand the world through technology, and this newly discovered freedom from comprehension was a relief that he didn't think he had ever craved. He loved his home, of course, but he feared nothing more than himself; his ability to desensitize, and his ability to remember his ghosts. His ability to see the destruction he had caused, and his ability to be the martyr of the bloodshed in humanity. And it wasn't until then, until he had left everything he had ever built behind, that he realised that the wire that the Captain wanted him to lie on wasn't waiting for his sacrifice.
It was already wrapped around his neck.
Tony had always wanted to reach the stars, but he never thought he would dance amongst them. The missile had been swallowed in a deafening silence, and him? Somehow, he felt more at home than ever before. Time was still, but he hadn't fallen into a vacuum of life, or humanity. No, it was more than that.
It was a void.
The stars regarded him with gentle smiles, willing him forwards. His eyes marvelled at what he believed was his last glimpse of something he once thought unattainable, his throat drying. His eyes glistened with the recognition of everything he once achieved, and things he had left untouched by the future. He couldn't feel himself slipping away: the rapid drain of oxygen wasn't painful, and the fading light in his vision was a tender beckoning to something better.
His body was suspended in a pull of nothingness, and his limbs drifted without restraint; and just for a second, freedom wasn't so far away. His friend didn't need to say anything, because for the first time Tony could see it. It wasn't a guiding light, or a familiar smiling face. It was silent.
He just wanted it to be silent.
The darkness teetering at the edge of his vision wasn't a threat, it was a promise, and as his body tumbled into it, he felt a comfort that he never thought possible. That he never knew existed. It consumed him, and before his eyes the stars began to fade away. It was only then, as he felt the tenacious arms of gravity winding him back into the light, that he realised why his friend was really there. It was because he wished only to stay in the dark.
Through his last breath, Tony Stark smiled.
They grow in number by the day. His audience never leaves. New faces, new scars. But the same eyes.
Their eyes are always the same.
The first time Tony Stark felt his friend's pain, was as his knuckles became drenched in another's blood.
Tony Stark was not a soldier. He was a catalyst for destruction, and invited death upon the innocent before they had a chance to appreciate his snarky comments and dry humour. He didn't have to look into their eyes to know that. He didn't want to be a soldier. Soldiers had a reason to fight, and strived for a better tomorrow. He didn't deserve that. He didn't think he ever had.
He cast a glance to his silent audience, his eyes dark against their emptiness.
"Stark," His eyes tore away from their unending gaze to rest on the Captain, whose eyes were narrowed with a focused curiosity. His hands were bound by boxing gloves, tightened in a steady stance as his feet lightly sprung on the spot. Tony took a moment to remember where he was, and clarity grappled him once more as he stared to his own gloved hands and the ropes of a boxing ring surrounding them. The gym was quiet; it always was at such an obscene hour in the morning. But the two men stood in their regular positions, hands poised for attack and defence. The Captain was always training, always sparring; Tony just liked to feel the hit "Head in the game?"
He didn't reply. His eyes stared forward, and he clenched his fists with a quirk of an eyebrow.
He registered the pain before he registered the compression of the glove hitting against his jaw. It shot through him, making him gasp as his arc jolted with an adrenaline surge and he stumbled away from Steve's jab. He could fight back, of course he could. But he didn't have anything to fight for, and he didn't have anything to defend. Another low jab pushed the air out of him as it landed in his stomach, the rush of exhalation forcing him to double over. His teeth clenched at the throbbing sensation. The small crowd to their left didn't speak, but he could imagine their whispers; the ghostly tune of their chuckles as he wrestled a smile away.
"Focus, Stark." The voice was low and authoritative. His eyes were closed as he remained bowed, his fists shaking. It was the natural human instinct; adrenaline seizing all muscles and contracting with a burst of energy. Fight or flight, they called it. But that's not who he was, not anymore; a man with a hollow chest is no human man. He remained silent against the reprimand, he didn't want to fight against the pain; the burning eyes of his audience would remind him that he earned every hit.
And he would fly, but never once thought that he deserved wings.
"Feeling sorry for yourself?" The chuckle was light, but tone heavy with taunting words "A true soldier thinks for the team, not for himself."
That's when Tony froze. And it wasn't because of the condescending tone, or the smallest of chuckles lacing his words. And it wasn't the amicable clap on the back that the Captain bestowed. No, it wasn't that. His teeth sunk into his lip to stop the shake of emotion betraying him. It was because of the new set of eyes in his audience. The true soldier. His hands began to tremble involuntarily as they retracted further into his stomach, his eyes closing, head shaking away the fresh burn against his back. Tony looked to the side of the ring, and there he was; his features contorted into that of anger, but an anger that was so empty that it couldn't be human. His choked breath caused him to stagger back, eyes wide against the proximity of the glare. And Tony wanted it to be human.
He just wanted it to be real.
Tony Stark wasn't a soldier.
For the first time, his audience reacted.
Phil Coulson smiled.
"You have no idea who I am!" His roar was suddenly vehement and uncontrollable as he turned to the stoic blonde, an accusing finger pointing to a frowning face "Who are you to tell me who I'm supposed to be?" A sudden rage occupied his features as he pushed the taller man back, the unexpected momentum of his force causing him to land on the ground with a low thud and a sharp intake of breath.
And suddenly he was over the Captain, tearing off his gloves with rabid teeth and connecting a fist to his face with a sickening crack that resonated around the room. The soldier drew his hand back and instinctively struck at Tony's nose, causing a grunt of pain from him. But Tony couldn't see, couldn't think. It wasn't who he wanted to be, not anymore. He wasn't a man, and he wasn't a soldier. He was nothing. He wanted to be like them. He wanted to be nothing. And as the blood began to trickle from both their faces, they found a desperate animalistic darkness within each other; Steve desperately fought to protect his best friend whilst Tony tried to destroy him, the blonde's efforts emerging futile as the empty suit of armour pounded him into the ground.
"Tony," He groaned, confusion overcoming him as he stopped fighting against Tony's hold, his eyes shining at his friend. The look that had consumed the man above him was foreign, and startling. It was dark; unfocused and blind as he continued to beat into Steve's submissive figure. Steve had never felt fear as much as he had in that look; it haunted him. It wasn't Tony. Not anymore. He couldn't fight back, he didn't want to. "Enough!"
"Is this what you want?" His face was so close, voice roaring with such an unrecognisable contempt that Steve knew it wasn't for himself, Tony's breath hot as it entered his bloodied nostrils like the darkest of fires "Do you want to see me fight?" His left fist cracked against the Captain's jaw and dizziness washed over him "Am I soldier now?" His right fist found an already broken nose, "Is that what you wanted?" and that's when Steve saw it, through blotted vision and a copper tinge on his tongue; in that moment Tony was not holding him. He wasn't seething, hands stained, at his best friend underneath him, who was broken in an attempt to understand the man who had hidden behind the armour for so long. No, it wasn't him. Tony was wrestling his own demons. He was grappling someone else. His eyes burnt with an anger that pierced right through him; Steve could see it, because he could feel the burn channelling into him. Tony was not seeing his friend, his Captain, and the traitor tears escaping from his eyes were falling onto another man. His hand was tense, about to connect with the bloody man beneath him, when he realised.
Tony Stark wasn't a soldier.
He didn't deserve to be one.
His fist unclenched slowly, and the room was consumed with their breathing, heavy on both the silence and their chests. The shadow lifted from Tony's eyes and he loosened his grip, standing up solemnly. His legs shook, but he didn't dare look down. He didn't want to see what he had caused. His Captain didn't move, bloodied and distant, eyes shining. He thought he knew what it was like to feel lost, but it wasn't until Tony's glassy stare regarded him quietly that he realised that even the best of men, not even Tony Stark, could ever quite be found.
And the soldier would heal quickly. But his wounds were nothing as deep as those embellishing his assailant. Neither spoke. Nothing needed to be said. Tony looked to his silent audience once last time, before sliding out of the ring, leaving Steve to an empty room.
Tony Stark is not depressed. No, depression is different. You can feel depression, its pull is inevitable, he doesn't doubt that, but you can see it coming. In the darkened eyes of a reflection, or the force of a smile on a person's features. You don't have to accept it to know it's there. But it most certainly is different: depression is the demon tickling a person's mind, crawling into their perception and mutilating everything that a person ever was. Depression is lonely, and those who fall victim to it feel alone. But PTSD is more sinister, and malicious in its smile: the demon is not preying on your mind, it is your mind. And it makes sure that you're never alone. There is always someone to turn to. It will always offer a reassuring touch and earnest eyes, as it welds to your body, and kisses your scars with poisonous lips.
In the darkened room, the engine purrs with an enticing voice, rhythmically beckoning him into his fate.
He is ready for this.
He has been ready for this for a long time.
The heat rises. The glass of the windshield begins to fog with a silent assassin.
Beside him, his friend smiles.
Tony wouldn't notice his friend until he stopped drinking.
The house would be silent, unmoving, and though he would stumble through the empty halls, guided by the dull light of his chest and the lonely thrum of his feet against cold marble, he would never feel entirely alone. It was as if they were always watching, always waiting for him to fall. They would never speak, but he always knew why they were there. Their stares would sear his back and he would hiss against the burn, reaching for another glass of scotch to numb them away; the burn of the liquid in his throat just as eroding as their accusing eyes. It never got rid of them, but he could ignore for a little while, whilst he forgot how to distinguish between them and his inebriated imagination.
He would swallow until he forgot what colour those eyes were, and was encompassed by lethargy's stupor once more.
He didn't sleep, but he was never awake.
He doesn't need help. Help is for those who aren't past the point of salvation.
Help is for those on the final straying thread of a lifeline, those who spare a last desperate glance to those they love, searching for a hand to pull them up.
He doesn't need it. He has his friends.
He doesn't want it.
The gas encircles him now, he can feel it; the gentle breeze on a summer's day. The scentless companion who soothes him without words and calms him into a stupor; unfeeling, unquestioning. He doesn't want the questioning glances and trepid conversations of life anymore. He just wants to remember what it felt like, that very first time. Looking into those stars, the senseless freedom, the attraction of oblivion.
His eyes slide closed, the smile quirking his lips so relaxed. So natural. His friend's hand rests against his own.
He's in here
The first time his friend spoke, Tony Stark understood what he had to do.
His hand shook as he stared into his unflinching reflection, fingers stiff as they traced the warm trail of blood running down his neck, staining his pale skin with its crimson lips. His hand had slipped. His fingertips touch the blood, coating them and spreading the consequence of his actions.
His hand always slipped.
Shaving often betrayed him; having to stare into his own reflection for an extended period of time may have been assumed of Tony Stark, but not of Tony. Because no matter how many times he would blink, he would always be able to see them. His audience would constantly burn his back with their relentless gaze, but it was different when he was shaving. Because he could see them doing it.
The razor had merely nicked him as his eyes strayed, but his gasp was stifled at the sudden intensity of their looks, the sudden smiles gracing their lips. And for some reason, his fingers seized, stoic in confusion. His eyes were wide, brows furrowed because he should have pulled the razor away. He should have wiped away the memory of those smiles with a gauze against his neck. But all he could do was press harder.
"Sir, do you require medical assistance?"
And all too abruptly his hands were shaking again, and he was blinking away their haunting faces and looking down, away from the mirror as the razor clattered against the side of the sink. JARVIS had paused, with a trepidation that Tony had suddenly wished he had removed from his AI. The blood was warm, spreading from his neck and now gently pooling against his shirt collar. He hit the tap on, and stared into the spin of the water as it cascaded into the sink, clear and purifying. His hand hovered near it, but he couldn't touch it. Someone was stopping him.
"Sir?" He wanted to call Pepper. Rogers. Rhodey. Natasha, even. He wanted to call someone. His mouth quavered open to reply, the throbbing in his neck now dominating his thoughts.
"Don't." The word was simple. It was quiet. But it was so close. And it wasn't him.
He lurched back from the sink with a heavy gasp, his eyes scanning the area frantically, his pain momentarily forgotten as his neck twisted to meet the eyes of his audience. They stared back. He looked into the mirror. And saw his friend. Yinsen said nothing more. Tony looked to the blood, flowing steadily onto his shirt now. He didn't apply any pressure.
He understood what they wanted.
"Leave it, JARVIS." He met their knowing eyes "I'm fine."
Tony, what are you doing?
It's too late now, his mind is no longer playing games with him, and he knows what he has to do. He knows now that his friends, Pepper's kind glances and Roger's friendly slaps on the back were nothing more than actions of puppeteers, and he was just a pawn in their game. His real friend, sitting next to him in the car, unwavering and immovable, is the only one left. The only one who knows him. The thrum of the engine grows quieter now, and through darkened vision he sees a silhouette through foggy glass. A hooded figure, lurking in the shadows. Waiting with bony hands, holding a scythe and a promise of no tomorrow. But he doesn't need to hide anymore. He doesn't need to hide from Tony to take him away. He is ready to leave.
Tony, get out of this car, you hear me?
A warning, and a distant thud of a fist against the glass. But his eyes are tired now, old. He's seen too much. His vision swims, fooling him into believing he isn't alone.
You get out of this car right now.
Steve, is he in there?
He is but I can't-
A gentle hum emanates from his friend beside him, soothing him away from any more mind games, and he feels his memories slip away, holding hands with his consciousness.
The voice is different now; weak, broken.
Don't do this.
It is kind of like him, those words; he has always been broken. And maybe he was never fixed by his friends; he was broken when they found him and he is still broken now, but just for a little while, they had fooled him into thinking that he could be fixed. They deceived him into thinking that he had been taped up, made a little less fragile. But his real friend was here now, smiling. Protecting him.
"It's okay" He knows his own voice, barely above a whisper, weightless and smiling "It's okay now."
The suffocation is beautiful. Peaceful. His eyes close.
Tony lets go, feels his smile relax. And breathes out.
And as Death, with his familiar hooded shadow, finally shatters the glass of the car and takes a hold of his limp body, dragging him out into the engulfing freedom of fresh air and realisation, Tony looks back into the passenger's seat with a contortioned mind and confused eyes, watching as his friend takes a final glance at him, and disappears from sight.
The cloud clears in his vision, as well as his mind, and he registers wide eyes and broken hearts of all those he loves surrounding him. His audience aren't silent anymore. They aren't there at all.
And for the first time in a long time, he can see.
PTSD didn't need to creep up on him. Tony Stark had welcomed it with open arms.
solamen miseris socios habuisse doloris
"It is a comfort to the wretched to have had companions in their misery."