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Tony is fine with water. Really, truly, honestly. He can drink, bathe, shower, everything. There is no problem. He's fine.


Tony is fine and Clint is an asshole.


It was supposed to be a completely normal evening. After all, what do you have a pool for if you don't use it? Tony has off-handedly mentioned the swimming pool in one of the Tower's lower levels to the team, which has, long story short, led to this.


Steve is somewhere back in the deeper water with Natasha and Clint. The three of them haven't taken long to end up there, practising whatever spies and soldiers practise in the water. Bruce has laid down somewhere beside the pool with a book, in swimming trunks but completely dry. Thor is swimming laps. Tony has settled near the shallow end of the pool, just watching the others for now while the water reaches up to his chest, but not higher; he isn't going to join in and actually swim, but he can stand here and look at them doing it. Because he is that fine with water. Yes.


After a while, Clint disentangles himself from the two he has been wrestling with before and swims over towards Tony with smooth, long strokes until he's close enough to stand and approach the inventor.


“Heya there,” he greets, wiping some water off his face. “What's up with you standing here all on your own?”


“Aw, Clint,” Tony responds teasingly, “I didn't know you cared.”


The archer rolls his eyes. “Caring is an overstatement.” He makes an inviting gesture towards the deep end of the pool, where Natasha is somehow clinging to Steve's back while he tries to throw her off. “We don't bite.”


“I'm fine here,” the inventor replies with a dismissive wave. “Go play with the kids.” He isn't going to be a spoilsport and completely refuse to participate in the team's exploitation of the fact that they have a pool now, but that doesn't mean he has to overdo it.


“What is it, can't swim, old man?” Clint asks with a raised eyebrow, his arms folded over his chest. The posture shows their wiry muscles off exceptionally nicely; not that Tony would mention that.


Instead, he scoffs: “Old man? Watch your mouth, I'm only, like, one year older than you.”


“Still, that's older,” Clint retorts while stepping closer, slowed down by the water. “So are you coming or are you gonna stand there all day?”


“I'm pretty fine just standing here, actually,” Tony insists with a tight-lipped smile. “It's a nice place to stand, really. Gives you a great view over everybody. No commotion. No splashy-stuff. Just the right thing for an old man like me.”


The archer snorts as he comes to stand next to Tony, silent for a moment; then, suddenly, he's at the engineer's back and has gripped him in a Full Nelson, slinging his arms underneath Tony's armpits and interlocking his hands behind the inventor's head as he announces cheerfully: “Time to get you a little wet!”


“Clint, no!” Tony yelps, heart leaping into his throat in shock and he's about to say more, but his head is already being pressed underwater. He flails and struggles against the archer's hold while he tries to remind himself that it's okay, it's just Clint, he wouldn't actually...


But he is and Tony can't breathe, he is being held down and suddenly, the water feels a lot more icy than before, he could swear that he tastes oil and sand in the back of his throat, mingling with the biting, burning taste of chlorine. His movements are sluggish, he tries to kick out, raise his head, do something, for fuck's sake, but the burning in his lungs only grows worse with each passing second and Clint isn't letting go; he is trapped, he's being pushed underwater by someone far stronger than himself, he's


back in the cave, can't tell up from down, sweat and blood and dirty water mingling in his mouth and making him choke and sputter, the weight of the magnet heavy in his chest, still painful with the wound not even remotely healed yet, knowing that there's no chance of escaping yet still fighting against the hold on him because while his mind accepts that he is helpless, his body doesn't and he is making it worse and –


– air. Air, he can breathe, he is out of the water and breathing, choking on the liquid that has gotten into his mouth because he hasn't remembered to spit it out before greedily gasping for air. But he is breathing again, which means that they are going to start making demands again anytime now or put him back under...


“ alright there, Tony?” He coughs up more water and shakes his head vigorously, droplets of water flying into every direction. “Hey, are you...”


“No,” Tony wheezes out. “Still not doing it. Never going to. Shove it up your –“


“Tony, where are you right now? Look at me!” Someone is gripping his face, holding him still, and it takes him a moment to realize that his eyes are wide open, there's sensory input from them that he plainly ignored up until now. Blinking and still trying to pull away, he realizes that it's Clint standing in front of him, his eyebrows drawn together and concern evident in his eyes.


Clint. Clint is not a terrorist. This is not a cave, not Afghanistan, but still...


“Get the hell off, Barton,” Tony snarls and twists out of the archer's grip. He knows he's not thinking clearly, but he can't do anything about it now while he backs away, painfully slowly because of all of the fucking water around him, he needs to get out of here now before this gets even worse.


“Tony, are you having –“


“No!” the inventor interrupted. “I'm fine, now back the fuck off!” Finally, he feels the edge of the pool in his back and pulls himself out of the water with shaking arms. It's not just them, his whole body is trembling like a leaf.


He can feel the eyes of the whole team on him now and it's horribly quiet without the splashing of water, now that nobody is moving anymore, with no talking or snickering. The only sound seems to be his own ragged, uneven breathing, echoing from the walls and growing in volume until it feels loud enough to deafen him while he staggers to his feet and takes small steps backwards towards the exit, dangerously swaying.


It's Clint who speaks up again, voice low and careful like he's trying to soothe a cornered animal: “It's obviously not fine, you –“


“Now why could that be?!” Tony yells over him, his tone bordering on hysterical. The cold metal of the door handle hits his back and he grips it to wrench it open without looking before he casts one last glance around the room.


Bruce has risen from his chair, apparently with the intent to step closer towards Tony, but hasn't actually dared to approach him. Thor seems startled, almost disbelieving. Natasha has a hand on Steve's chest to keep him from moving, her own green eyes fixed on the inventor with that piercing, calculating stare of hers. Clint, closer to the pool's edge than any of the others, looks like he's at a complete loss, torn between backing off like Tony told him to and coming closer again.


Drawing another shuddering breath, Tony slips through the door and hurries towards the changing rooms, not quite running, but not far from it either. Behind him, he can hear the voices of his teammates rise, echoing from the walls and flowing together in a bizarre kind of white noise, all except from Clint's that is loud enough to carry a distinct “Tony!” towards the engineer.


Tony bursts through the door of the men's changing room and heads for the one on the other side, knowing that the elevator is behind it, and tries to tell himself that he's not running away, there's no reason to – anyway, the calls of his name behind him, the adrenaline and the still not-quite-faded panic making his heart race, together with the sound of hurried footsteps give him the feeling of being on the run from something, someone, and he all but leaps into the elevator that JARVIS has already opened for him, jamming his index finger on the button for the penthouse over and over again until the metal doors finally slide shut.


“No-one gets in before I'm out,” he manages to say before his legs give out under him and he slides down one of the walls of the elevator. Some SI-employee walking in on him like this would be the icing on the cake. Trying to calm his shallow, erratic breathing, he puts his head between his knees as he pulls them towards his chest. He hasn't bothered with drying down, so his whole body, especially his hair, is still dripping wet and leaves a growing, dark patch on the thin carpet that covers the elevator's floor.


He doesn't even notice when the quiet mechanical whir of it dies down and leaves him in complete silence. His thoughts are elsewhere, somewhere between not again leave me in peace and pull yourself together, this is not Afghanistan, you're fine. He doesn't get up. He has no reason to, after all. He's just going to sit here until he's okay. It always worked so far.


The team. The team knows. He has to do something, he can't just leave it at that, they know an without having to wait for it, he realizes that there are going to be questions. They're going to deem him unfit for his work as Iron Man at best, and at worst they're going to force him to visit some sort of SHIELD shrink who will try to pry things from that he never intended to talk about. The thought makes his heart rate elevate again and he can hear his own breathing going faster when he has just calmed down a minute ago.


The sound of footsteps and heavy breathing serves as something to pull him out of his spiralling thoughts and forces himself to resist the urge to curl up tighter in the corner of the elevator and instead looks up just as Clint stumbles into view and leans against the open door of the elevator, taking a deep breath before he wheezes out: “Tony.” The inventor just stares at him with too-wide eyes. There's a towel slung over Clint's shoulder, but it doesn't look like he even attempted to dry himself. He's still wet and now rakes a hand through his short hair, making it stand up in a spiky mess. “Jesus, Tony.”


“What are you doing here?” Tony asks slowly and suddenly becomes self-conscious about the picture he undoubtedly makes, curled up in the corner of the elevator with his knees close to his chest and his arms slung around them, dripping strands of hair clinging to his face and a faint tremor in his limbs.


With a duh-expression, Clint responds: “Looking for you, obviously.”


Since neither of them has directly addressed the topic at hand yet, Tony decides to keep it that way and remarks: “Well, you found me. Obviously. Why do you sound like you just ran like twenty flights of stairs?”


“Because I just ran like twenty flights of stairs,” the archer deadpans, still out of breath, and pulls the towel off his shoulder to hold it out to Tony. “For some reason, JARVIS wouldn't get the elevator.” After a second, he notices his mistake and puts it down on the floor instead.


Warily, the inventor crouches forward to reach for it, not looking away from Clint, and slings it around his neck so he can begin to dry his hair while he asks: “And why would you do that?”


Clint's eyebrows shoot up and he repeats: “Why would I do that?” He sits back on his haunches so Tony finally doesn't have to look up at him anymore. “Take a wild guess, would you? I was worried, you genius.”


Tony doesn't like not seeing what's around him, but he doesn't want to feel Clint's eyes on him for just a few seconds and scrubs the towel over his face, using the brief moment to compose himself before he pulls it away again and glances up at the archer. “Okay then,” he says. “I'm fine.”


A breathless laugh slips past the other's lips, followed by “and what is your definition of fine, exactly?” When Tony doesn't answer, he nods like his point has just been proven. “See.”


“I. Am. Fine,” Tony insists, stressing each word individually as though that makes him any more convincing.


“Excuse me, are you currently sitting in your elevator in swimming trunks or are you not?” Clint demands.


“That could be normal for me,” the inventor responds, sass coming in as his last line of defence. “After all, I'm an eccentric genius billionaire. Who knows what I do in my spare time.” Admittedly, not his best comeback as of yet, but it's something.


“Are we seriously playing this game now?” Tony huffs and crosses his arms over his chest in a gesture that is meant to look stubborn, but probably comes off more as defensive. “Tony, you're obviously not fine.”


“And this is your idea of helping?” he snaps, one hand clenching around the towel.


“So you admit that you do need help,” Clint replies, completely ignoring the question.


Tony groans and puts his head back between his knees. “Fuck you, Barton.”


There's a moment of silence and then a sigh from the archer before he clears his throat and quietly begins: “Look, Tony, I'm sorry. Honestly. I didn't know –“


“That's because you're not supposed to know,” Tony interrupts without raising his head.


“Yeah. Right.” Clint pauses. “About that. Why the hell not?”


“'cause there's no reason for you to know,” the inventor responds sharply. “I'm fine,” he talks over the archer's upcoming protest, “I'm fine and I can deal with it on my own. This was harmless. The worst thing it did was disable the elevator for a while, that's no fucking big deal, and I'm coping, okay? It's none of your damn business, for Christ's sake, just leave it alone!” His voice has begun to grow louder at some point during the sentence until he's almost shouting. He tries to ignore the shaking of his voice and hopes that Clint doesn't catch it or, at the very least, will not mention it.


“You're fine? You're coping?” the archer repeats and sounds angry now, which just isn't fair since this is his fault. “Which part of this exactly is no big deal, huh?”


“It's getting better!” Tony yells. “When I first came back from there, it would set me off if someone mentioned 'waterboarding' in a conversation.” He can hear Clint recoiling at the term. “I don't need your help, and I especially don't need your pity, this is my fucking problem and I don't see where you're involved in it!”


“I'm involved in it when I'm setting off a panic attack because I don't know about your triggers, or, for that matter, the fact that there are triggers for you!” Clint shouts back with equal volume. Tony flinches, pressing back into the corner and pulling his knees closer to his chest. He hears Clint exhaling slowly as if to compose himself. Then, the archer says with forced calmness: “Okay. This is not the moment to talk about this, so I'll leave it alone until you're ready to talk.”


“How incredibly gracious of you,” the inventor mutters sarcastically.


But,” Clint continues, “I'm not leaving until you're out of the elevator.”


Tony heaves a long sigh, but he has wanted to get up anyway, so he scrubs the towel over his hair one last time before he blindly reaches for the railing on the cabin's side to pull himself up. He sways more than he would have liked and the movement causes a wave of dizziness along with a faint feeling of nausea, but all in all, it's far from the worst panic attack that he's had so far. When he sees Clint reaching out to steady him, however, his arm is raised defensively and he's pressed firmly against the wall before he can think about it and he can't help but notice the archer's guilty flinch.


Gritting his teeth, he forces himself to relax as Clint takes a step back and to the side to allow Tony to pass. The inventor would love to steady himself on the wall while he walks towards his bedroom, but he is still too proud, too stubborn for that. He keeps insisting that he's fine, he will have to play the part.


The agent's steps are soundless, but it doesn't surprise Tony that he's still behind him when he opens the bedroom door and throws a glance over his shoulder. A small part of him wants to ask are you going to stay here?, but what comes out is a biting “am I at least allowed to go to bed alone, mum?”


He can see Clint clenching his jaw, but the archer steps back and nods silently, apparently out of arguments to stay any longer.


With a nod and a strange feeling that almost resembles disappointment, Tony returns the nod and slips into the bedroom. Without looking back towards the door, he makes a beeline for the bed, pulling the wet swimming trunks off on the way and leaving them on the floor as he dries himself off as far as is really necessary and then collapses forward onto the mattress. With cold, shaking fingers, he pulls the covers over himself and proceeds to stare at the wall, aware that sleep won't come but too exhausted to actually do anything now.


He'll have to talk to them. Had he been alone with Clint, he might have been able to convince the archer to keep Tony's little... problem to himself, but now the whole team has seen everything. Curling in on himself with the blanket tangled around him, Tony tries to ignore the shaking of his hands. They can't really do anything to him. They know. So what? It doesn't change anything.


Clutching the blanket to his chest and trying to breathe around the reactor, he tries to ignore the spike of pain that every inhale causes at the edges of the metal casing. It spreads out over his chest like tiny tendrils of fire and makes him want to stop breathing altogether. He's rarely this aware of the reactor anymore; but after the running and the hyperventilation from before, it feels like the skin and flesh around it has been chafed raw.


But he can deal. He has had to learn to and he won't forget it now just because the others know that he's got issues. They're not magically going to get worse because of that.


Tony is fine. Honestly. The others just don't see it.


Chapter Text

Contrary to his expectations, Tony does fall asleep at some point. It doesn't last long, though, because he jerks awake in the middle of the night, the taste of oil and sand in the back of his throat and his whole body shaking. Curling up underneath the blanked, he forces himself to take deep breaths until his breathing has a sort of rhythm again while JARVIS evenly informs him of the time and the weather, knowing that the routine calms his master more than ill-placed attempts of conversation or questions.


Half past ten in the night. Well, it's not that bad.


Tiredly, he rubs a hand over his face, wiping away some of the unpleasantly cold sweat on his forehead. The few hours of sleep haven't been helpful in the least; if anything, he feels more exhausted now than he has before going to bed.


Slightly swaying on his feet, he gets out of the bed and makes a beeline towards his wardrobe. Like hell is he going back to sleep now. He pulls out sweatpants and a random band-shirt and somehow, being dressed gives him the feeling of being a little less vulnerable.


With a contemplating look, he glances towards the bath that's connected to the bedroom. He probably should take a shower, seeing how he got out of the pool without having one and is probably still covered in chlorine, but after an attack, even if it's a relatively harmless one like this afternoon's, he's skittish and over-sensitive for hours and sometimes even days when it comes to his triggers. Water in his face sure isn't going to help the matter.


Instead, he decides that he needs to busy his mind somehow. Warily, he opens the door of the bedroom, some part of his mind fearing that Clint might still be lingering out there. I'll leave it alone until you're ready to talk. Yeah, and of course, Clint would know when Tony is ready. Sounds about right.


After a short glance around the dark room, Tony exhales in relief and steps out into the penthouse. He tries not to think about how paranoid he must have looked, not daring to exit his own bedroom without making sure he's alone. Then again, living with spies and assassins, he has every right to be paranoid.


He briefly considers pouring himself a drink, but not having his thoughts together would make keeping it together even harder, so he discards that idea, too, and heads straight for the elevator (somebody was in here in the time he has been dozing, it's all dry and looks like new) that takes him to the lab. Tinkering has always done the trick for him – at least sort of. He's going to have to make it work.


It takes him about an hour to really get into it, but once his mind is onto it and he has had a few cups of coffee, he actually manages to get a few things done on the suit (and if he double-checks every joint to make sure that no water can get in, well, he's just cautious) and the constant shaking of his hands finally subsides.


The peace lasts until JARVIS dims his music to a less deafening volume to inform him that “agent Barton requests access to the workshop, sir”.


Tony feels the tension return like somebody has flipped a switch and replies curtly: “Well, fuck agent Barton.”


“Always at your service, sir, but I am afraid that I lack the required physical –“


“My god, I didn't need that image in my head! What happened to the times when you were just an innocent bundle of wires and circuits? Stop sassing me early in the morning, Jay, or I'll set you up on a date with Siri.”


“You would not.”


“Try me.” JARVIS doesn't reply to that and Tony smirks to himself. Unfortunately, Clint's persistent knocking on the glass door is horribly off-beat, making it hard to ignore, so Tony sighs and spins around in his chair to face the door as he orders: “And open the door or he's gonna use the vents again.”


As soon as the glass door slides open, Clint grimaces at the wave of noise washing over him and comments, barely audible over the music: “Yeah, if I hadn't been half-deaf before, I'd be now. JARVIS, could you turn that down a notch or two?” Immediately, the music quietens and shifts into the background. “Thanks, buddy.”


The inventor glares at the ceiling and threatens darkly: “Sweetheart, you and I are going to have a serious talk about that dinner date.” Clint blinks at him. “Not you, Cupid, I was talking to JARVIS.”


“That's even weirder,” the archer remarks, carefully sidestepping bits and pieces of suits and other things as he saunters over to Tony. The engineer sees him take in the mess of half-finished circuits, untouched chlorophyll-shakes (Dummy never stopped making those) and empty coffee cups littering the table Tony has been working on. It's a brief glimpse into his agent mode; seeing, analysing, judging. Usually, it fascinates Tony, but then again, it's not usually trained on him. Right now, he hates it. Before he can say anything to break the moment, though, it's gone and Clint – back in civil mode – asks with a crooked smile: “So, are you actually able to survive on coffee alone or are you planning to starve yourself to death in here?”


Tony rolls his eyes and responds in all seriousness: “No, sometimes I drink the blood of nosy archers, too, when they get lost in my evil lair.”


“Kinky,” Clint replies drily. “What I was trying to say was that lunch is ready.”


“Lunch?” the inventor repeats. “But it's – wait, it's not morning anymore, is it.”


“Lo and behold, the resident genius strikes again!” comes the amused response. “No, it's half past one and Bruce made Indian. So?”


Tony stares at his computer screens for a moment and raises a hand to say: “Just three more lines of code, I gotta finish this.” Out of the corner of his eye, he sees the other nod, but Clint doesn't leave, like he thinks Tony won't follow if he goes now. Admittedly, the chance for that isn't too small; their banter has put the engineer at ease again, but he's still not keen on meeting with the team right now. There's no escaping it, though, so he quickly finishes what he's been doing and then rises from his seat.


Apparently, he was a little too fast with that, because his vision briefly greys out and he he grips at the edge of the table tightly to keep his balance. In front of Clint. Fucking awesome. As soon as he's sure that he won't fall over, he lets go and straightens himself. He can feel the archer's questioning gaze on him and meets it with a blinding smile, not believing for a second that the other is going to buy the charade.


Thankfully, Clint doesn't comment and they enter the elevator in silence. It reminds Tony unpleasantly of the last time he was in here with Clint and he has to shove his hands into his pockets to keep himself from fidgeting. Still, he's glad that the agent doesn't choose this moment to start and pry. Admittedly, he won't ever be ready for that, so every second of not talking is something to be relieved about.


He refuses to think of that as pathetic.


When they get to the kitchen, everybody stops in their conversations to stare at him. Way to go, guys. Could you make this any more awkward? He greets them with ridiculously exaggerated cheer and hopes that the sarcasm doesn't come out too strongly. True to Clint's word, Bruce made Indian, and since Tony hasn't eaten anything since the lunch of the day before, he forces some forkfuls of the food down, mainly because he's hyper-aware of all eyes being on him. Yeah, he could really do without that unpleasant silence, thanks, and it's not helping his appetite, either.


After a few minutes, Bruce takes pity on him and dares to break the silence: “So, how's that new targeting system of yours coming along?” With the tense atmosphere and everything, even his quiet voice sounds terribly loud.


“Not much progress so far,” Tony admits. If the rest wants to be broody and silent, let them be broody and silent. Not his problem. “I'm working on something to either get more of JARVIS into the suit or improving the connection between suit and Tower because piloting that thing is a lot more difficult when that connection is cut. Last time, Doom managed to get JARVIS offline and I really don't need another time of that.”


They keep talking and that seems to break the ice, because Natasha leans over to Clint to murmur something in his ear and Thor loudly asks Steve to hand him the water. It's still not the same as usual, but Tony has less difficulties eating now that the attention isn't fully focussed on him, constricting his throat like a hand closing around it, and manages to finish his serving.


A few minutes of chattering later, Clint stands up from the table to fetch something from the fridge. Tony takes that as his cue to leave – he's not the first to get up from the table, at least – and gets up to bid his goodbye: “Well then, I've got work waiting to be done, so if you'll excuse me...”


“Actually,” Natasha cuts in, “would you mind staying for a moment longer?”


He freezes, hands on the edge of the table, and casts a quick look around the room. Natasha meets his gaze head-on; Steve looks slightly uncomfortable, but determined, same goes for Thor, both are glancing up at him but avoiding his eyes when he looks at them directly; Bruce picks at the remnants of his food guiltily, eyes downcast; Clint's rummaging behind him has stilled. With a short pang of betrayal, Tony realises that they've planned this. Fucking amazing.


“I think I would,” he replies slowly, backing away towards the exit with a little hand-wave. His escape is less than subtle, but then again, the team hasn't been exactly inconspicuous either. “See you around for dinner, I guess.”


Quietly, Bruce pipes up: “I really think you should stay here, Tony.”


“Et tu, Brutus?” the inventor asks sourly. He's planned to tell Bruce about the attacks, he really has, and he was close sometimes when something triggered an attack in the lab while they worked together, but in the end, he has always managed to hide them from his friend, fleeing the room before they could really begin. He would have told Bruce eventually. Just not like this.


He takes another step backwards and his back hits something solid. Startling, he spins around to face Clint who has moved to block the exit, an almost apologetic expression on his face.


“Seriously?” Tony snarls. “Come on, guys, what the fuck?”


“You said you'd talk to me when you're ready,” the archer replies quietly.


Tony clenches his fists, gritting his jaw as he tries to stare Clint down. With the calmest voice he can muster, slightly shaking with suppressed fury (and nothing else, thank you very much), he responds: “No, your words were, and I quote, I'll leave it alone until you're ready to talk. Well, news flash, I'm not, and especially not if you stage a fucking interrogation with the whole team!”


“It's not an interrogation,” Clint says defensively.


“Yeah?” the inventor snorts. “Then what do you call this? Breakfast talk?”


“Look, Tony,” Clint sighs, raising a hand.


Before he can think about it, Tony feels himself flinching violently and takes a few steps backwards as he snaps: “You don't get to touch me!” The archer looks like he has been slapped, his hand hovering in the air before him before he lets it fall back to his side.


Tony takes a deep breath, glancing sideways at the team to see their response to his reaction, his overreaction, and quickly averts his gaze again. The first one he has looked towards is Bruce, and all he saw was the physicist staring into his tea, shoulders drawn up in a personification of guilt.


He draws a shaky breath and decides that he might as well get this over with. Turning his back to the team (which gives him an extreme sense of discomfort), he makes his way towards the cupboards and fetches himself a new mug, purely for the reason that this way, the kitchen counter is between him and the others like a protective barrier. Pretending that his hands aren't shaking, he starts the coffee machine up to give himself something to do.


While the water boils, he turns towards the group and crosses his arms in front of his chest, leaning against the marble counter behind himself. “Well then, what do you want?”


“First of all,” Natasha begins, resting her forearms on the table to lean forward, “why didn't you tell us?”


Great. Having privacy is a fucking crime now, huh? “Why would I?”


Now Steve chimes in, sounding offended like Tony has insulted him personally: “Because we're a team!”


“So what?” the inventor snaps. He's getting too aggressive too fast, but he can't help the defensive edge to his voice. “We've known each other for, I don't know, two months? Three? It's not like I know about your problems or your personal life, I'm surprised that I'm even on first-name-basis with all of you, so there's seriously no justification for you trapping me in my own kitchen and demanding information about my problems!”


“It's for your own good!” Steve responds defensively and Tony huffs a laugh full of incredulity.


“Excuse me? I think I am the oldest person in this room, Steve, sleeping in ice doesn't count. I know what's good for me, okay? I don't need you to mother hen me, I'm fine on my own.”


“But 'on your own' is not what a team is for!”


“Well, what a fucking pity!” Tony shoots back. Continuing to avoid having to look at the others, he pulls a mug from the cupboard and sets it under the coffee machine as he keeps talking. “I'm getting along fine, I don't see where it's a problem.” He does, of course. Where's the use in a hero who freaks out over a bit of water?


Except that's not quite true. After all, this has never happened on a mission before, he can deal with water when he's in the suit, and Clint tried to fucking drown him yesterday. He had a right to panic, okay?


Bruce speaks up, not as sharply as Steve before him, but in his quiet, gentle way: “It's not a problem, Tony, but we're worried about you. We don't want to put pressure on you, we want to help.”


“Well, this is not helping!” Tony responds heatedly, glaring in the general direction of the team. “This is putting me under pressure, I don't see where it's necessary or making anything better. Just leave it alone, I'm functional, isn't that enough for you?”


Clint chimes in once again: “It's not about you being functional, none of us doubt that you are. But you're not a machine, Tony. It's about you being fine, and I think that's more important than simply functioning.”


“Nobody wanted to know what you think,” the inventor bites out, turning around with a new mug of steaming hot coffee in his shaking hands. This is too much, feeling all of their eyes on him, like predators searching for weaknesses in their next meal, he can't stand it. “Just fucking drop it, alright?” He's steeping low enough to revert back to hurtful comments. If he pisses them off, they'll leave him alone, right?


“Yeah, not gonna happen,” Clint says sharply, stepping closer to the counter and supporting his forearms on it while he leans forward to Tony on the other side. “I don't think you get the idea of this. At the risk of repeating myself and the others, we're not doing this to spite or mock you. We're doing this because we worry about you, we –”


“I didn't ask you to worry, why can't you just leave it alone?” Tony interrupts loudly, gripping the scalding hot cup tightly between his unsteady hands. “It doesn't do anything. I don't need any of this, don't you get it, I don't need you or your concern!”


“That's it, I'm not listening to you bitching at me,” Clint yells and ignores Natasha's warningly spoken “Clint” from behind him, “just because you're too emotionally damaged to get that there are people genuinely caring about y–“


“I am not damaged!” Tony shouts over him. He nearly drops his mug as steaming hot coffee swaps over the rim onto his hands.


“That's not what I said,” he hears Clint say while he puts the damned thing down with a string of curses.


“Yeah, it's exactly what you said,” he shoots back, wiping his hands on his sweatpants to get the too-fucking-hot-coffee off of them. He tries to pretend that he doesn't feel as shaky and fragile as his voice just sounded like.


The archer sighs and responds, quieter but no less sharply: “It's not what I meant.”


“Of course not,” Tony scoffs. He needs to get out of here, now. They can talk about helping and caring as much as they want, right now, they're making everything worse. His heart is pounding fast enough to make him feel dizzy, adrenaline and upcoming panic are making his hands shake, he wishes he wouldn't have had breakfast.


Not waiting for Clint's or anyone else's reply, he steps out from behind the counter and heads for the exit, the elevator just a few steps down the hall. But of course, of fucking course, Clint steps to the side so he's blocking his way, and from the corner of his eye, Tony can see Steve getting up from the table like he's ready to come after Tony if he takes one more step away from them.


The inventor doesn't care. He can't stay here. Glaring up at the slightly taller man, he hisses: “If you don't let me out now, I swear I'm going to kick you all out of the goddamn tower. Step. The fuck. Aside. Clint.”


He doesn't even sound half as confident and angry as he wants to, but something in his voice must be convinving because he can practically see Clint swallowing down his next words. Taking a slow breath, the archer steps aside and Tony doesn't spare him another glance as he makes his way down the corridor as fast as possible without running. He ignores Steve's protests behind him, hears Clint say something and the Captain shutting up, but doesn't really care anymore.


Tony forgoes the elevator for the staircase. He needs to do something with the adrenaline in his system and he can't do with confined spaces right now, especially not when the elevator reminds him of the day before. No, he needs- he just needs-


He has no idea what he needs. His mind is racing with all kinds of thoughts, what do I do now, why are they doing this, could that have gone any worse, why is Clint such an ass, didn't I trust Clint?, you don't even know Clint properly, of course you can't trust him, but he's part of the team, isn't he, yeah, and see where the team brought you, and shut up shut up shut up, just let me stop thinking, please, at the same time, it comes up with blankness when he wants an answer for something, blankness or more questions, and god please just let me stop thinking.


By the time he arrives at his penthouse floor, he's out of breath and possibly shaking even harder than before. This time, he doesn't bother with logic and clear thinking. He heads straight for the bar while telling JARVIS to put the penthouse on lock-down and, despite the clear sunlight streaming in from the windows, grabs a decanter full of scotch.


Of course, because it seems to be the official let's-fuck-over-Tony-Stark-week that no-one bothered to tell him about, it slips from his trembling fingers and bursts into myriads of shards on the grey marble floor, amber liquid dark on the surface as it slowly spreads through the gaps between the tiles. Tony watches the sunlight catch in the glass shards, colourfully reflecting every ray of light that hits them.


Okay, got the message. Not drinking. He has to force himself to move instead of just dropping to his knees where he stands. With slow, measured steps, he treads through the mess he's made, the alcohol stinging in his nose. It's pretty much impossible to get away from the bar without stepping into one of the shards and with a wry twist to his mouth Tony regrets that he's not out of it enough to ignore the pain of the little cuts on his bare feet.


On his way to the couch, he leaves a trail of red footprints.


He must look pathetic, shaking and dropping bottles, unable to muster the energy to clean his mess up, instead collapsing onto the sofa and pulling his knees up to his chest. With a groan, he digs the heels of his hands into his eyes. They know, they know, what am I supposed to do...


The penthouse feels ten degrees colder than before and his shivering only intensifies. He knows what to do in these situations, he's not an idiot, he did his research, of course he did, but he can't form a coherent thought right now. Instead of slowing his breathing, he feels it speeding up even more. He has no idea what he's doing here, every thought of working through this reasonably is gone from his mind because fuck, they know and they're not going to let it go, and what the hell is he supposed to do now?


Breathe, breathe, Tony, breathe, slowly, in and out, breathe, just like that, “...breathe, come on, you've got it. There you go. Just breathe, it's okay, and please don't claw your eyes out, seriously, that looks painful, stop it.” Someone is pulling on his wrist, not forcefully, but Tony still recoils and feels the touch withdraw. “Shit, I'm sorry. Okay, no touchy.”


Tony draws another shaky breath, less shallow than the previous ones, and drops his hands from his face. Clint is right, he's been pressing onto his eyes hard enough to make him see greyish-blue spots for a moment, and –




“What the hell are you doing here?” he manages to get out, blinking up at the archer who is kneeling in front of the couch. Instinctively, he presses himself back against the cushions because even though they're not touching, Clint is too close to be comfortable right now.


Apparently picking up on Tony's body language, the archer backs away a bit as he answers hesitantly: “I came to check up on you.” Which could be a completely reasonable explanation for his presence, except that...


“The penthouse is on lock-down,” Tony rasps, wrapping his arms around his chest. He's still cold and his voice is trembling just as violently as the rest of his body. Jesus Christ, he's pathetic.


With a sheepish smile, Clint glances up at the ceiling and replies: “Air vents.”


Tony isn't sure if he hates Clint's presence right now or if he is grateful for his intervention. Not deciding yet, he remarks: “You're a creepy, stalking bastard. I'm gonna set traps up there, just you wait.” He hates that his privacy has been invaded like this again, like they didn't just yell at each other in the kitchen – but thanks to Clint, he can breathe again and for now, that's enough to bring him into the inventor's good graces. Temporarily.


The archer huffs, but doesn't respond as he gets up from the floor to walk around the couch. Tony panics for a second, but reminds himself that it doesn't make sense, being alone is what he wants, after all.


That thought doesn't help half as much as he thought it would.


However, he doesn't have the time to work himself up again before Clint is back with a fluffy blanket that he got from god-knows-where. Well, Tony has all sorts of stuff stacked up here, probably blankets, too, then. The archer tucks the blanket around Tony and then sits down on the couch some inches away from him.


“Tony, I think you should –“


Seriously, Clint?” the inventor interrupts, curling himself up more tightly underneath the blanket. Why can't they leave him alone for a goddamn hour? “We just had this, can we not start this again? I don't want to talk about it, I'm not going to, neither to you nor to anybody else, is that so hard to...”


“Hey, hey, Tony, stop it, that's not what I was trying to say,” Clint cuts him off. “Let me finish, Jesus. I was going to say that you should let the Doc take a look at your feet.”


Tony grimaces. “Wonderful, I did a great job ignoring that so far, thanks for reminding me.” As if on cue, the pain from the cuts in his feet flares up again and Tony swallows uncomfortably. He wants Clint gone more with every bit of his mind that returns to him while he shivers the last waves of the panic attack out. Just because you're too emotionally damaged... He's not damaged. He doesn't have to listen to that kind of talk from Clint or anyone else for that matter., and he definitely doesn't want the agent to see him like this. “I'm going to talk to Bruce. Later,” he states, intent on ending this meeting before Clint can assume he's fine now and resume the conversation from the kitchen. “I think I'll get some sleep now.” Ha, as if he'd be able to find a minute of rest now that doesn't end with a nightmare.


“You should really let Bruce check that over,” Clint insists. “I mean, I could remove the shards, too, but I think I'd be a lot less gentle than him. When I learned it, it was to make it go fast, not painless, so... you probably don't want me to do that.”


“I don't want anyone to do that,” Tony protests. “I'm fine.”


“You've got a bunch of glass shards in your feet, Tony,” comes the dry reply. “Your and my definition of fine are still not on the same level.”


“Are we really doing this again?” the inventor demands, trying to sound sharp or at least annoyed, but it comes out as quiet and resigned. He has to force his breathing to even, still teetering on the edge of a new wave of panic with the constant fear that one wrong word could send him tumbling down again.


“No, no, I...” He can feel Clint shift on the couch beside him as the archer sighs softly. “I'm sorry, okay? That was a dick move, with the team and the kitchen and everything. I didn't... I didn't think about how pressuring that had to be. I usually don't believe in the whole talking-makes-it-all-better-shtick either, I have honestly no idea why I thought that would be a good way to solve this.”


“There's nothing to solve here,” Tony murmurs stubbornly.


He can imagine Clint's frown without having to look up at him. “That's...”


“Clint, please,” the inventor whispered. “Stop it, okay? Just stop.” His breathing has just returned to a normal level, his heartbeat dropping from its frantic pulse, and he's afraid that the other will start it all over again. He's barely slept anyway and the fight with the team, together with the anxiety episode, have exhausted him more than he would have thought possible. He wants to curl up a little tighter with the blanket around him and just go to sleep, but he knows that he can't that the nightmares undoubtedly expecting him are so much worse than being tired and worn-out.


“Wanna make a deal?” Clint asks above him. “You let Bruce take care of your feet and I shut the hell up.” His hand finds its way into Tony's hair and the inventor tenses briefly, but gradually relaxes again when Clint carefully pushes a few strands of hair back and cards his fingers through them softly. The careful, simple touch feels surprisingly good, but Tony is glad that Clint doesn't do more now; he's not sure whether he'd be able to handle that just now.


Okay, so maybe Tony doesn't want him to leave. Not immediately. That's alright, isn't it? It's not some sign of defeat. It's completely okay to like the idea of Clint staying where he is for a little while longer.


“Fine,” he huffs quietly. “Since it's the best I'm gonna get from you. But only if you really shut up.”


“Shutting up right now,” the archer replies with a smile that's audible in his voice.


Despite his dread just moments before, Tony finds himself closing his eyes as he slowly stops freezing under the blanket and the shivers recede. He's really damn exhausted from a shitty night and a shittier morning, he'll be allowed to rest his eyes for a second. Especially now that Clint is blessedly silent apart from the soft question to JARVIS to send Bruce up into the penthouse.


Tony is still far from being fine, but to his own surprise, Clint's presence is more calming than he would have expected if he doesn't think about the fact that nobody is supposed to see him this way. He can and definitely will get upset about that later, but right now, he gives his best to calm down before he gets upset again. Once a day should be enough. Clint's hand in his hair is soothing, he's not completely freezing anymore, and he knows that the archer won't speak up again right now. He's okay or as close as he can get in such a small amount of time after what happened during lunch.


With everything else, he can deal later.


Chapter Text

He doesn't get to stay calm for long.


After a few minutes, Tony hears the elevator doors sliding open and all the tension that had slowly bee draining from his body returns in a second. Clint's fingers in his hair still minutely and then resume their motion as he greets: “Hey, Bruce.”


There's a response that sounds like a muffled curse and Tony remembers the state his penthouse is in. Scotch spilled on the floor, glass shards, bloody footprints. Right.


“Why's he here?” the inventor demands in a hushed voice. He pulls his knees back up to his chest and catches himself turning his face into Clint's thigh. Clint, who has been the threat just a few minutes ago and has somehow become his anchor instead of something to run away from. Huh.


“Look at your feet and ask again,” the archer murmurs back, equally quietly.


“Fuck you,” Tony mutters. “Son of a bitch.”


“You're a lot less intimidating with your head in my lap, you know?” Clint remarks with an amused tone to his voice.


“I can still hate you from down here,” the inventor grouses and then looks up at Bruce, who has rounded the couch by now and is staring down at the two with an expression that looks like he can't quite decide whether he should be concerned or amused. Apparently, the odds are leaning towards concerned. “By the way, JARVIS, you're a fucking traitor.” There's no way Bruce got into the penthouse if he didn't either use the air vents or was permitted access by JARVIS. And Bruce just doesn't do air vents.


“I was programmed to assure your health and safety, sir,” the AI responded dutifully.


“You and Siri, six o'clock sharp. Wear a suit.” Trying to keep up the slightly-annoyed-but-not-really-bothered-look, he turns his head up to look at Bruce. “Hi, by the way.” Maybe, if he's annoying enough, Bruce won't notice the way he tries to disappear into the couch.


“Hi,” the doctor replies, and yeah, he's not convinced. Not in the least. But, and Tony does give him credit for that, he doesn't pry. He just glances down at the inventor's feet and asks: “Mind if I check that over? Because really, it doesn't look too healthy.”


Tony huffs and jokes weakly: “No shit, Sherlock. Wait, no, you'd be doctor Watson, I totally am Sherlock. Whatever. Do your thing.” He doesn't like this one bit, nevertheless he knows that he'll have to give in at least a bit or they're not going to leave him alone again. Fuck this, I already let Clint stay here, how much ground am I supposed to give? But he already agreed, he can't back out anymore, and it's just some shards, right? He's had worse. He's had torture, he's had, like, his breast bone cut out and replaced with a metal casing, he...


...yeah, this is so not helping right now.


Tony keeps his gaze trained out of the window. It's just after lunch time, annoyingly warm and bright outside, and he tries to focus on the skyscrapers outside instead of the sound of Bruce setting down the first-aid-kit on the floor next to him because that sound suddenly reminds him too much of Yinsen, where is that even coming from, and for heaven's sake, not again, I've just been through this.


He forces himself to take deep breaths. Out of experience, he's learned pretty fast that his anxiety attacks come in waves rather than in one big rush; sometimes, like now, they return when he's nearly sure that he is over them, like a wave rolling up onto the shore and drawing him back into the ocean, and isn't that a beautiful metaphor, he's drowning again, for god's sake.


But then there's something warm at his back and at first, Tony tries to evade the arm that has been wrapped around his chest, but then he feels the arm actually give way and the knowledge that he's being held, but not restrained, allows him to slump back into the touch and grasp tightly onto the forearm of... Clint? Is it Clint? The voice sounds like Clint's. Breathe. You're here. It's okay. Count to four.


Right. Counting. He's read about that. He can do that. Wordlessly, he goes through the routine in his head. Inhale, one, two, no, too fucking fast, again, one, two, god dammit, one, two, three, alright, getting there... How was this supposed to work again? Accept that you're panicking. Don't deny it. You're panicking, but you're not in danger. It's not real. Well, great, he knows that, but what the fuck was step two? He's not thinking straight, how's he supposed to remember that shit?


He has squeezed his eyes shut, but forces himself to gradually relax, to not let the panic overtake him. Fuck the five steps, he can do this on his own. He just needs to breathe, it's gonna go away. It takes longer than he would like to admit, but at some point, he's breathing calmly enough to muster up the courage to blink slowly.


Somehow, Clint has pulled him up and against his chest. One of his arms is wrapped around Tony's waist, the other draped across his chest, and the inventor notices with a hint of shame that he has been digging his fingernails into the archer's forearm hard enough to draw blood.


“Sorry,” he mutters, his voice sounding raw and vulnerable. “I didn't mean to freak out, I just...”


“It's fine,” Clint cuts him off, slowly loosening his hold. “But you might want to cut your fingernails next time.” His tone is light, joking, trying to loosen up the tense atmosphere that Tony's attack has left behind. Still, the inventor can't help but go slightly defensive.


“They're not that long,” he protests weakly, leaning his head back against Clint's shoulder. He isn't usually one for cuddling – not because he doesn't like it, quite the opposite, but because he has a harder time trusting people enough to let them touch him than he had before Afghanistan. If he's the one initiating the touch, it's okay, it means he's in control, but he easily feels assaulted when it's coming from someone else.


This is okay, though. Well, as okay as he can be when he is coming down from an anxiety attack in front of another, no, two other persons. Right. There's two of them, aren't there.


With his pulse still racing, Tony tears his gaze away from the ceiling and down to Bruce. The doctor is still kneeling in front of the couch, but has backed off to give Tony and Clint some space while the archer calmed him down.


“Now,” Tony begins slowly, “that was awkward.”


“No, no, it's fine,” Bruce assures hastily. “I mean, it's not like, uh...”


The inventor huffs a laugh and waves his friend off tiredly. “'s okay, never mind. You were here for... something.” He's not quite back yet, not completely calmed down, but he doubts that he is actually going to calm down completely in the next few hours, so he might as well get this the hell over with and then go to sleep. Or, well, knowing himself, not actually go to sleep, but tell his teammates that he did so they would leave him alone.


Maybe he could even convince Clint to stay here and... do stuff? Something? The archer is usually fun to spend time with and Tony needs a suitable distraction anyway. He's not quite trusting himself to handle sensitive equipment in the lab just yet and he won't force himself to try; contrary to popular belief, he does know his limits. He doesn't always respect them, but he knows them.


“Are you sure, Tony?” Bruce asks carefully.


The engineer shrugs, purposefully trying to seem carefree. “Well, I wouldn't want you to have come up here for nothing, would I? Also, I'm not the doctor here, but I'll make a wild guess and say that keeping the shards in isn't a good idea.”


“Point,” the physicist admits reluctantly and repositions himself so he's sitting in front of Tony's feet. Taking a look at the cushions, he remarks: “You may want to replace this couch, by the way.”


“Oh dear,” Tony murmurs, leaning back against Clint's chest and closing his eyes so he doesn't have to see Bruce getting ready to pull the glass splinters out of his feet. “Sorry,” he murmurs, not sure if he has said it before. “I'm not – medical equipment has never set me off before, I have no idea where that just came from. I- I'm just wired the wrong way today, I s'pose, and this was – I don't know, that was too much, I couldn't –”


“Hey, Tony,” Clint interrupts him. “Calm down. No need to apologise. It's okay, we get it. I think we both do.” Tony swallows and nods slowly, clamping his mouth shut before he has the chance to say anything too stupid. The archer behind him shifts a little and adjusts his grip so Tony rests sort of comfortably against his chest. “I've got you.”


The inventor just nods and breathes in and out consciously while he gradually relaxes against the other man. Once he's allowed himself that, he feels some of the tension that he had unconsciously been holding draining from his shoulders. It's been ages since he's let someone hold him like that, and look at that, Stark, you're being pathetic again.


He sighs quietly, trying to ignore the quiet clattering of Bruce's tools. The pain isn't the problem, he has had much worse than that, it's the fear that it might set him off again that freaks him out.


“Maths,” Clint murmurs in his ear and Tony very nearly jumps.


“What?” Confused, he blinks up at the archer, craning his neck to get a look at the archer. He feels the shrug rather than seeing it.


“Try doing maths. That usually helps me, even though I'm not really any good at it.”


Tony only just bites back the question of why Clint would know something like that, because it's unnecessary, really. He could have figured sooner; he isn't the only one on the team who was dealing with aliens and other... things on a regular basis, and although he's had the manners not to dig around in their files, he knows that none of them has a past filled with unicorns and butterflies.


The thought of what Clint has just indirectly admitted to him actually manages to keep Tony busy for long enough that he hisses in surprise when the first shard comes out. He leans his head back against Clint's shoulder and begins to recite the prime numbers, starting with 97 because everything else would be too easy.


He's read about maths as a method against anxiety attacks before (because yes, he did his research, he's not an idiot), but all that is not particularly useful when he's too nervous to force himself to actually use the numberless countermeasures that he's stored away somewhere in his brain.


This, though, this helps; Clint's hold is grounding, but not tight enough to restrict his breathing or make him feel trapped. Tony can deal with this. This is a good thing.


The idea takes a bit to get used to.




He very politely declines Clint's offer to carry him to bed (“oh, don't you fucking dare, I'm not doing bridal style”) and tries his best to conceal the pain that walking causes. Judging by the fact that Clint grabs his arm after a few steps and slings it over his shoulder to take at least some of Tony's weight, he can't have done a very convincing job.


The archer deposits him in his bed and goes so far as pulling the blankets up around Tony. The inventor isn't sure whether he should feel belittled or cared for, but whatever it ends up to be, he doesn't dare to ask Clint to stay.


After all, he's a grown man. He can get by on his own. He doesn't need babysitting.




The exhaustion actually allows him to sleep for some hours, although it's not nearly long enough to make him feel rested. Still, he can't go back to sleep when he sees a missile detonating above him every time he closes his eyes, its glow swallowed by a vast, endless sea of blackness.


He pushes his sweat-damped hair away from his forehead and grits his teeth as his feet make contact with the ground because holy mother of god, that hurts. By the time he's in the elevator, there are tears in his eyes and he leans heavily with his arms on the railing to take some weight off his soles.


Collapsing into one of his spinning chairs in the workshop might be one of the most relieving things he felt today and without even knowing what he wants to do, he starts up his computers and watches as the room gets illuminated by the soft blue light of the holographic displays. Working has always... well, maybe not soothed him, but distracted. That has to suffice for now.


With a stifled yawn, he glances at the clock in one corner of the screen. It's not even 6pm yet; he has gone to sleep about an hour after lunch, which meant about four hours of rest before he's been jolted awake again.


In other words: his sleeping pattern is as messed up as it gets and he can't really make it worse.


Dummy nudges him with a claw and Tony pats the little bot's head absently while he stares up at the ceiling, an idea forming in his head. Glancing down at the Dummy, he says: “Hey, you know what, little one? You and I, we're gonna do something. Because we both agree that crawling around in vents is unacceptable, don't we?” The bot whirs at him and Tony tuts, appalled. “You traitor, shut up. I like Clint too, doesn't mean he gets to do that. Let's make a deal, you can use your fire extinguisher, yeah? You love your fire extinguisher.”


Another whir, more contented this time, seals the deal and Tony grins to himself as he gets to work. He needs something to take his mind off things, especially now that the nightmares seem to become worse than ever – maybe it was the pressure of the team poking and prodding at stuff they had no business with. He used to be in better condition than this, but in the past days, he just stumbles from one fucked-up situation into the next and he just can't seem to catch a break. It makes sleeping peacefully even harder than he's used to.


Still, he knows that to get by, he can't sit around and wallow in self-pity. He's tried that and didn't like the outcome at all.


So he gets to work, despite his aching feet, and manages to stay busy for a while, even loses track of time while he does so. He doesn't have windows in the workshop, for obvious security reasons, so he can't really tell the time, but it doesn't matter right now, because he's actually having fun, despite the insistent buzzing in his head that comes from sleep deprivation and makes him more clumsy than usual. He's had worse, though, and the headache is made bearable with ungodly amounts of coffee (well, not really, but what can he do).


When he drops a wench for the third time that evening, a message lights up one of the screens and he suppresses a grin as he subtly waves Dummy closer. With feigned concentration, he leans over his workbench and pretends to fiddle with some parts while he listens closely.


He's got to give Clint some credit: even without having music on, he barely hears a thing. There's just a quiet clinking of metal that could have come from any of his bots and wouldn't have made him even glance up, and then the very soft sound of feet hitting the ground.


Then, of course, there's the hiss of the fire extinguisher and a startled, comically high-pitched yelp, and that sort of gives it away. Tony drops the parts he's picked up and spins around in his chair and doubles over with laughter when he sees Clint, sputtering indignantly and wiping fire extinguisher foam off his face and flinging it at Dummy with an absolutely betrayed look on his face.


He shakes himself like a wet dog, sending bits of foam flying from his head and clothing, and now Tony has his arms raised defensively, still laughing and even more so when Clint speaks up.


“What was that for?” he demands with a definitely whining tone to his voice.


Tony, trying to speak between his giggles, responds gleefully: “I call it my HEWS, short for Hawk Early Warning System. Dummy is glad to help. I'm thinking of writing a book and calling it How To Train Your Hawk, what do you think? Chapter one, teach him to knock.”


Clint is biting his lip and looks like he really wants to stay serious, but the inventor can see the grin tugging on the corners of his mouth as he replies: “You are such a child sometimes, d'you know that?”


“So I've heard,” Tony says cheerfully while he gets his breath back, still grinning like a maniac. “And you need to learn how to use doors, like a human being, so I think we're a perfect match.”


Raking a hand through his hair that comes away covered in foam, Clint grimaces. “So you'll keep sending Dummy after me when I use the vents? Not. Fair.” He glares at the little bot, who is still wielding the fire extinguisher threateningly. “You're a traitor. Don't look at me like that.”


“He doesn't have eyes,” Tony remarks drily.


“He's still giving me that Look,” the archer insists, capitalisation clear in his voice. “Stop it. And put that thing away or I'll have to put an EMP arrow into you.”


“Don't touch my baby,” the engineer warns, grinning as he watches how Clint tries to free himself of the foam clinging to him. “I need him to clean this whole mess up.” Dummy turns towards him, his whir sounding appalled. “Right, I didn't say that, did I? At least you won't get bored – put that down or I'll dismantle you!” He covers his face with his arms and cries out, scandalised, when Dummy sprays him, too. “You sneaky little double agent!” he accuses as soon as the attack lets up. “That's it, you're being donated to the city college first thing tomorrow, you insolent brat.”


The fire extinguisher falls to the ground with a loud clang and Dummy's whir sounds like a whine this time, almost drowned out by Clint's delighted cackling. Tony ignores them both and points a finger at the bot, trying to look serious instead of letting himself be infected by the laughing archer.


“You. Butterfingers. Clean-up. I don't want any complaints, are we clear?” Dummy wheels away, pouting, and Tony turns to Clint, crossing his arms and then grimacing at the feeling of foam sticking to him. Great. “And what did you come for, taking me to bed?”


“Well, when you say it like that, it just sounds bad,” the archer replies drily. “I was thinking dinner first.”


“Look at that, a real gentleman,” Tony joins in as he tries to get rid of the worst of the mess. “You're paying.”


“I'm cooking,” Clint corrects.


Tony grimaces exaggeratedly. “I think I just thought better of it, let's just skip to the bed part of the whole deal.”


“Rude.” But the archer is grinning, so it can't be that bad. “And there I was trying to court you in the classical way. Cap would've approved.”


“You bet he would.” He runs his fingers through his hair and glances up when Clint doesn't reply immediately. He finds the archer watching him with a thoughtful, sort of fond smile that turns into a look like he's been caught with his hand in the cookie jar when he meets Tony's gaze. The inventor raises his eyebrows as he asks: “And what are you looking at?”


Clint opens his mouth to return something undoubtedly not-serious and sassy, then thinks better of it and closes it again, shrugging his shoulders vaguely. “Nothing much. Just... nice to see you smile.”


“You just had to go and make it sappy,” Tony replies on autopilot. “We were having a moment here.” This is weird, having Clint care. It's not like he's grumpy all the time, is it? Seeing him laugh really shouldn't be a rarity.


Then again, seeing the press laugh and the blinding publicity smile might be different from the actual thing. Clint has keen eyes, it would probably not be out of character for him to notice.


He refuses to think about that more closely right now. He's in a good mood, he plans to stay that way for a bit. Clapping his hands together (with a grimace at the wet sound of the foam), he says: “Alright, resistance is futile, I suppose, plus I'm hungry. Dinner? I missed dinner, didn't I? I'm pretty sure I missed dinner.”


“You did,” Clint confirms with a smile. “But there's leftovers, and if that calms you, Bruce was the one who cooked. Again. We probably should start paying him at some point.”


“He's getting free lodgings,” Tony points out. “And labs. I think he can cope.” He maybe still hasn't quite forgiven Bruce for joining in on the team's intervention – and Clint not either, he reminds himself, but he feels too tired to hold an actual grudge right now, a dull, fuzzy headache nestled somewhere behind his forehead. That's probably the after-effect of days on end where he only caught brief hours of sleep before avoiding it for too long. “But yeah, food probably... sounds good. Go on, treat me to dinner, then.”


Clint beams at him and adjusts his imaginary bow tie before he extends an arm towards Tony in playfully exaggerated courtesy. “Shall we?”


“We shall,” Tony agrees, and yes, he absolutely sees that Clint is only doing that because his feet still hurt as hell, but he doesn't feel like calling him out on it right now. “Also, a bow tie? Really?”


“Shut up, bow ties are cool,” the archer responds without missing a beat.


“Nerd,” Tony mutters under his breath as he leans against the other man for support while they make their way towards the elevator.


He can see Clint nodding from the corner of his eye. “Forever and always,” he confirms solemnly.




Later that evening (night), he helps Tony up into the penthouse, staring out of the window and filling the silence with a rant over the last Doctor Who episode he's watched while Tony strips down to his boxers, slightly resigned because he knows that he probably won't be able to sleep for very long, however, he's also aware that he needs it. Pepper has... something assigned for him the next day, and he won't be able to avoid that forever, either; unfortunately, his brief four-hour-naps, because he doesn't seem to manage to sleep any longer, usually leave him feeling more tired and exhausted than before.


The inventor can feel Clint's eyes on him while he slips under the blankets, but the archer wouldn't be the first person to be fascinated by the reactor. It's something he's used to by now. Pepper used to feel uncomfortable whenever she saw it, although, to give her some credit, she had tried to hide it. Just... well. Tony isn't blind.


He jumps when Clint snaps his fingers in front of him and squints up at the archer in confusion, who regards him with his eyebrows raised as he asks carefully: “Are you alright?”


Tony nods reflexively. “Yeah, sure. Just... tired.” He's been awake for too long to come up with anything more creative, and he supposes that it's mostly the truth, anyway.


Not quite convinced, the other man nods and straightens, stifling a yawn himself. “Okay then,” he replies, “I think I'll go get some sleep myself now. G'night.”


Fluffing up his pillow before he curls up under the blanket, the inventor nods. “Yeah, night.”


Clint nods, looking just a little lost as he's standing in the quiet room as if there's something he still wants to say, but in the end, he just clears his throat and nods. “Yeah,” he murmurs quietly and takes a step back. “Yeah, I s'pose... night.” He seems frustrated with himself somehow and tears himself away, spinning on his heel to leave the room.


Tony supposes he's not really helping as he pipes up again: “Of course...” The archer stops in his tracks, glancing back over his shoulder questioningly, and Tony does resolutely not squirm under his gaze as he slowly continues: “ is an awfully long way down...” Clint turns around further, his eyebrows now raised in a clear expression of I live two floors beneath you, seriously, Tony?, but he doesn't say anything, so the engineer goes on, “and the bed really is large enough for like, five people. So...” He trails off, sincerely hoping that Clint isn't going to object because that would make this a lot more awkward than his almost-stammering already did.


Slowly, the archer raises a finger and points it at him. “I'm not sleeping in that bed with five other people.”


Tony huffs a laugh, some of his nervous tension dissolving, and points out: “Well, it'd be four other people, since I said five in total. Do your maths, Barton. Still, I suppose I could make an exception for you and leave it at just two.”


“Well then.” Clint takes a hesitant step back towards the bed as if he was waiting for Tony to reveal the whole thing to be a joke. “I'll spare myself the way down, then.”


Tony nodds. “Yup. Sounds like the sensible thing to do.”


By the time he can feel how the archer carefully slips underneath the blankets, Tony has already closed his eyes and is halfway gone into dream land (oh, he just can't wait). The other man is settled at a respectful distance, but still close enough to know he's there, and Tony finds that hearing the calm, slow breaths is surprisingly soothing while he's drifting off.


Chapter Text

As he has expected, Tony jerks awake at around four in the morning, fingers clenched around the blanket that feels like thin cotton wool under his fingers, he's sitting in a cave without a roof and where the sky should be is just nothing, just blackness, streaked with fire and coldness and death, and he can't –

“Breathe, Tony, breathe, shh, calm down, it's okay.”

Somebody is touching him, there are rough, calloused hands cupping his cheeks and turning his face away from the window, and then he's looking into a pair of stormy grey eyes, not a trace of tiredness in them.

“Tell me where you are,” the voice orders calmly, Clint, that's right, he asked Clint to stay, and – yes, right, there was a question.

Tony takes a short, shuddering breath, closes his eyes but opens them again immediately. “New York,” he replies slowly, uncertainly, the hint of a question in his tone. At the archer's affirming nod, he continues: “Stark Tower. My bedroom. Not the cave.”

“Not the cave,” Clint confirms, his thumbs slowly stroking over the inventor's cheekbones, dragging over tear tracks and wiping them away. Tony nods minutely, not wanting to dislodge the momentary comfort; still, one of Clint's hands falls away to rest at his shoulder and guide him back down onto the mattress gently.

“Can't sleep now,” he murmurs, betraying his words as his eyelids flutter shut and he settles into the cushions.

“Try,” the archer whispers. “And if it gets bad, I'll wake you and we do something else, alright?”

“Alright,” Tony responds quietly. He hears Clint shifting briefly and then feels the other's hands withdrawing; without thinking, he catches one of them and holds it in place briefly before he moves it to the mattress between them, not letting go.

The archer is quiet for a moment, then murmurs a careful “alright” and tugs the blanket back into place with his free hand before he settles down again and silence descends over the room once more.


The next time, Tony wakes up peacefully, slowly, like he hasn't in days now. He can feel sunlight on his skin, colouring the insides of his eyelids red, but JARVIS hasn't said anything yet, so he can't be late for anything. Those are the first things he becomes aware of; next is the warm body at his side, no, wrapped around him, really.

Slightly confused, he turns his head away from the window and opens his eyes to look down at Clint. While Tony is laying mostly on his back, the archer is pressed up against his side, his head resting on Tony's shoulder so all the inventor really sees is tousled blond hair, the other's arm draped over his chest and his legs tangled with the engineer's underneath the blanket. Tony bites his lip to suppress a laugh.

Clint Barton, aka Hawkeye, aka the last person known for casual touching if you don't count Natasha, is a sleepy cuddler. It really is more adorable than it has any right to be.

Then again, it looks like Tony himself had a part in this, too, since one of his arms is trapped underneath the archer and slung around his back, holding him in position. Oh, well. The inventor shifts a little, bending his arm up so he can reach the back of Clint's head and play with the short, surprisingly soft strands of hair there while he contemplates how to wake the archer.

Turns out, he doesn't need to. The thoughtless touch was enough; Clint stirs with a quiet, questioning sound, and then there's a startled, muffled curse.

Tony laughs quietly. “That's not usually how I'm greeted when someone wakes up in my bed.”

The archer props himself up on an elbow, rubbing the other hand over his face before he blinks down at Tony, looking mildly embarrassed. “Um,” he starts, apparently working on some sort of explanation or excuse while still half-asleep.

Before he can begin, Tony states quickly: “I don't mind.”

Clint turns his head to the side, and boy, he probably needs more coffee than Tony does in the mornings, since it takes a few seconds until he replies: “Oh, alright then.” With that, he resumes his position curled up against Tony's side, murmuring into the inventor's bare shoulder: “I should probably go and make coffee.”

“You read my mind,” Tony declares and then yawns. “Alright. Coffee.” Neither of them makes a move to get up and after a few seconds, he adds: “... soon. Ish.”

“Coffee, and soon-ish,” the archer agrees, and they lapse back into silence. Tony closes his eyes again, because he's not going to deny that this is pretty comfortable and it's been a long time since he's not been alone in bed – maybe even longer than it was since he last cuddled, and since Clint is not complaining, he doesn't know why he should.

It's surprising, actually, that he doesn't find himself bothered by the skin contact at all. He hasn't really attempted anything like a one-night-stand after Afghanistan – at first, he has been too busy sorting out his mess to even consider anything like it, then he has had Pepper, and after she had quit because he and his issues had become too much for her, there was a gap that he hasn't even attempted to fill for a long time.

Not that he wants Clint to fill that gap, Tony reminds himself with a minute shake of his head. That isn't where that thought was supposed to be going.

God, thinking about things like that is getting him more awake than he would like to be, and after a few minutes, the inventor finds himself squirming subtly. Clint notices, since it's probably hard to miss what with the way they're entangled with each other, and seems to take it as his hint to get up.

“I'll go fix up that coffee now,” he offers while he sits up with a yawn. Tony hums affirmatively, rolling onto his side, and wolf-whistles before he grins widely. Clint slept in the tee he has worn the day before, but apparently got rid of his jeans, so he's padding through the bedroom in just a shirt and boxers. At the whistle from Tony, he glances back over his shoulder, an eyebrow raised and a deadpan expression on his face. Drily, he asks: “Like what you see?”

Flirting is so ingrained in the inventor's routine that he doesn't even miss a beat before he responds: “There's still a little too much clothing in the way for me to judge that.”

Clint just snorts and shakes his head, used to Tony's habit of hitting on anything that moves. “You really need that coffee, don't you.”

“Absolutely,” the engineer agrees. “That was still true, though.”

Again, Clint huffs and shakes his head as he disappears into the kitchen, although Tony would swear that he saw just the slightest hint of a blush on his cheeks when he turned around. It's sort of endearing, really. While the archer is fun to be around, he's not much of the outgoing type – at least he wasn't when Tony met him, which was to be expected after the whole mind control shtick, he supposes. Lately, Clint has gradually become more open and trusting towards his surroundings which fills Tony with a strange sort of pride, having adopted the Avengers as a sort of pet project without really noticing that he's done it.

The inventor stretches, covers bunching around him, and yawns. He resolves to get out of bed but ends up sprawled out with his hands over his head, staring at the ceiling; he's more well-rested than he's been in some time and the temptation to just stay here and stay in the comfortable warmth of his bed is, admittedly, rather high.

Actually, now that he's starting to think about it, he really doesn't feel like facing the team just yet, even though he probably ought to get up and sort things out after he already hid away for a day. Sooner or later, he'll have to confront real life again, and it will probably be less unpleasant if he doesn't put it off for too long.

He sits up with a sigh and pushes a hand through his hair, immediately pulling it away with a disgruntled “ewww”.

Clint enters the room just then, eyebrows raised in a silent question, and Tony doesn't hesitate before he starts complaining: “Oh my god, Clint, we are disgusting! That's – yikes, how could we go to bed like that? That's just... that's gross. Ew.”

The archer chuckles, approaching the bed with two coffee mugs in his hands, and perches on the edge of the mattress as he hands Tony an Iron Man-themed one while replying: “You were tired, not to say dead on your feet, and I just sort of assumed that it wasn't the first time you slept with fire extinguisher foam in your hair since it didn't seem to bother you much. I've certainly had worse.”

“Ew,” Tony just repeats, taking a sip of his coffee. He glances up at Clint warily and remarks: “I don't take cream with my coffee.”

“Yes you do,” the agent replies, unperturbed. “When you think nobody's looking.”

Tony opens his mouth to protest, but decides against it in favour of taking another sip of the frankly fantastic coffee he's been served before he says: “So you know how I take my coffee, then?”

A small shrug is his reply and Clint pretends to be fascinated by the content of his own cup as he answers, almost sounding nonchalant: “Keen eyes. Just happened to be looking in the right moment. I know how Bruce likes his tea after a transformation, too, and how he drinks it when he wants to go to sleep. Or how Nat takes her cocoa when she's upset. It's as nice a way to use my memory as any other, don't you think?”

“S'pose,” Tony replies quietly, glancing over at Clint's own, plain black coffee. He's seen the archer drink it straight from the pot, not much of a secret to memorise to that. “Now, I guess taking you to shower with me would be stretching the boundaries of a platonic friendship?” he asks with a grin.

“S'pose,” Clint echoes his previous answer back at him, even though there's a mischievous sparkle to his eyes that Tony might have taken as a challenge at any other time. Right now, though, he really just wants to get this mess out of his hair and away from where it has dried on the rest of his body, so he nods and finishes his coffee with a few unhurried gulps.

The archer has downed his own, too, and holds his hand out for Tony's mug. The inventor hands it over with a quiet “thanks” and stretches again before he moves toward the edge of the bed. While getting up, he looks back at Clint, who is already heading back in the direction of the kitchen. Probably for more coffee.

“I guess you'll be heading off to your own shower, then,” he remarks in a way of saying goodbye and the archer pauses. “Pity. Good luck with the foam.”

Instead of raising to the bait and continuing the playful banter from before, Clint replies: “See you at breakfast?” There's a certain measure of carefully concealed trepidation in his tone, but the implication is clear. They still want to get him down with them, still want to get him to talk.

For a moment, that is enough to make Tony want to bristle and decline, snappishly, but it's the tone in Clint's voice when he asked that gives him pause. Unlike the other times, the unpleasant arguments from the days before, there is no order in that sentence. No urging. There is a certain expectancy, however, it's more the sort that is hoping for a yes, but still takes no for an answer. Tony can decline if he wants to. Clint won't reproach him with it.

“Probably,” he agrees after a few beats. “Depends on how hungry I am.” Translate to: depends on how my mood is once I'm done showering. Same thing.

Clint doesn't beam, because that is a very un-Clint-like thing to do, but he does give Tony an honest, content little smile (he'd almost go as far as calling it happy) as he nods. “Great.” He raises one of the empty mugs in a mock-toast as he walks out. “Later.”

“Later,” Tony echoes, and stands there for a second more before he, too, turns and half-walks, half-limps into the bathroom. Only there, when he catches his own reflection in the mirror, he is suddenly reminded that he hasn't been wearing a shirt the whole time. The arc reactor was on display from the moment he woke up, hell, Clint has practically slept on it. Still, he has been either too tired or too comfortable to notice. And Clint hasn't freaked out either. Huh.

He stares at his reflection some more, trying to figure out the implications of that. His mind doesn't really come up with any answer he would like, so he decides to blame the whole thing on his first good night's sleep in ages and go on with his day.

As predicted, getting the foam out of his hair is a bitch. Tony had almost forgotten how it was; since the first days of testing with the Mark II and Dummy on fire extinguisher duty, he hasn't really gotten sprayed.

He hasn't missed it a bit.

Still, the shower went the rest of the way in waking him up, and when he does get out clean and without any sticky substances coating his hair and skin (no comment please), he feels surprisingly motivated. Determined not to let the moment pass, he gets dressed in simple jeans and a shirt; after a short hesitation, he decides on plain socks, because he doesn't think he can take shoes just yet. Also, this is his own house. There's no real reason for him to wear shoes.

Before he can think better of it, he takes the elevator down to the common floor. Since they went to bed at a sort of reasonable time the day before, he and Clint were up way earlier than Tony is used to; he might even be in time for breakfast. He's not sure when that happened the last time.

Slightly apprehensive, he steps into the large kitchen they share. His eyes immediately find Clint, also freshly showered and dressed, and the archer gives him a smile that is a tad surprised, but still definitely genuine. He hasn't expected him to actually show up, then. Huh.

Natasha is the next to notice him, and Tony raises his chin self-consciously in a show of defiance. He won't let himself be scared of entering his own kitchen. Not even when it has Natasha Romanov in it.

There's a few seconds in which they silently hold each other's gazes, then she says: “Hi, Tony.”

A bit of the tension drains from his shoulders and he manages a smile that even feels halfway genuine. “Morning,” he replies and ignores the looks from the rest of the team as he walks over and sprawls into one of the kitchen chairs, next to the archer. Clint gives him another little grin and gets up for a coffee refill.

That leaves Tony on the table with Bruce, nursing a steaming cup of tea, Natasha buttering her toast and Thor, who has apparently claimed the first serving of Steve's pancakes for himself and is now beaming at Tony, trying to speak around a mouthful of food.

“Swallow and give it another try,” the inventor advises drily.

Thor chews some more, swallows and repeats: “It is a joy to have you joining us, Anthony.”

Tony raises his eyebrows, remembering the last time the team and he were in this room together. Everybody seems to be making an effort to act as normally as possible; Steve smiles at him from the stove, Bruce stares into his tea guiltily, and Natasha butters her toast with deliberate, slow movements.

A mug of coffee (with a dash of cream) is set onto the table beside him and Tony looks up to thank Clint, who smiles slightly sheepishly. Right. He hasn't had the most pleasant role in the argument either, and now that he's thinking about it, Tony should probably be angry at him – maybe more at him than anyone else, actually, because it has been Clint who pushed and wouldn't let up even when they started yelling at each other.

But then again, it's Clint who stayed with him through the night and made him eat and get his feet taken care of, so there is that. Getting pissed again now just seems like a lot of unnecessary effort.

Tony smiles and accepts the coffee cup. A moment later, Steve is next to him with a plate of pancakes (is Tony supposed to eat all of those?!) and one of his mother-hen-smiles, and Bruce pushes the syrup over in his direction. Tony can deal with that. It's when Natasha gets up to fetch the chocolate sprinkles that he chokes the first bite down that he has just started chewing on and leans back, fork clattering on the table.

“Okay, seriously. Could you stop being so ridiculously nice? It's weird.” He glares, or at least tries to, but it ends up petulant and maybe a little uncertain. “We're never that nice to each other. You're up to something, what the hell is it? I'm not having another scene like the one at lunch, I thought I made perfectly clear that –”

“That's not what this is!” Steve cuts in, halfway between appalled and reassuring. “Really. We just figured that, well, we might have gone about it the wrong way.”

Tony raises his eyebrows and leans forward. “You think?”

The Captain grimaces, but doesn't back down. “Yeah. We think. So, I suppose we sort of...”

“What he's trying to say is that we're sorry,” Bruce speaks up, raising his eyes from his tea. “We should have known that wasn't the right way to go about it, but we thought we were doing the right thing.”

“Because we are worried about you,” Steve adds on. “But you don't talk to us.”

“So you thought you'd make me,” Tony says drily. “Yeah, that seems like the most logical next step.”

“Tony.” The inventor purses his lips and looks over at Clint next to him, who mumbled his name like a quiet plea. “We're trying to apologise. None of us meant to make things worse and I know that we did and the cause doesn't justify the means, but we can't take it back now. It won't happen again, okay?”

Tony deflates a little. Maybe because different from the last time, none of them is giving him something he can fight and protest against. He's being agreed with where he expected to have to claw his way through this conversation and it quells his justified anger.

Yeah,” he sighs. It feels a little bit like defeat although it shouldn't, he knows that, rationally. “Okay. Apology accepted, and all that.” He casts a look around the silent kitchen. “Look, I don't really know what else to say to this. Can we just get back to eating?”

There's another few seconds that feel uncomfortably tense and quiet, and then there's the crunch of Natasha taking a bite out of her toast. The sound spurs the rest of them back into motion and noise begins to fill the room again – cutlery clinking, Steve moving around, a pan sizzling, honey being stirred into tea.

Tony pours syrup onto the topmost pancake of the stack in front of him and rolls it up, ignoring the fork next to his place as he leans back with the sweet treat in hand. When he looks over at Clint, the archer is watching him over the rim of his coffee cup. Tony raises his eyebrows at him.

Is that all you're gonna have for breakfast?” he asks. “I mean, it's not like I'd call myself a role model for a healthy diet, but seriously.” Under his breath, he adds: “Help me, if I eat all those pancakes I'll probably die of... something.”

Clint raises an eyebrow right back at him. However, he does lean over when Steve isn't looking and steals a pancake from the inventor's plate, so Tony counts this as a win.