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Brought Me Up Tough (But I Was A Gentle Human)

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They get to Tony just in time. He’s barely conscious, his body hanging limp from the ropes tied around his wrist, his hands a sickening purple in colour. That was going to be a bitch to feel the blood flowing back into. (Later, Tony screams about an almost unbearable sensation, a pressure that feels like his hands are being ripped apart, weeks after being rescued.)

Steve doesn’t remember much after cutting Tony down, and the feel of his body, definitely lighter and bonier, as it dropped into his arms. He only remembers sitting on the quinjet, his hands itching to hold Tony, to clutch him to his chest so that no one could ever take him away again. He wasn’t allowed to. On-site medics ordered him to keep Tony as still as possible, as they didn’t know the extent of his injuries. So Tony instead laid on a gurney, looking smaller than Steve could ever have thought was possible.

Steve was pretty sure he didn’t take his eyes off Tony for one second the entire flight home.

Tony stayed in the hospital for two weeks.

He slept at the compound for another two days straight, weeks of exhaustion and pain finally causing his systems to crash. They check up on him every day. Each taking a seat next to Tony’s bed. Grasping his hand. Brushing the hair away from his face. Speaking to him in low murmurs, even having JARVIS recite the days’ weather and time.

Steve never leaves the room.

Tony wakes on the third day at the compound and he screams. An endless, drawn out sound that makes Steve want to claw his ears off. That sound shouldn’t be coming from Tony.

They have to sedate him.

On the fourth day, Tony wakes silently. But Steve can see his entire body tense up in pain and fear.

“Tony, it’s okay” Steve’s voice cracks as Tony flinches from the sound. His entire body flinging backwards into the wall. Eventually wild eyes settle on Steve, and later Steve thinks he might have cried when he notices the way Tony relaxes ever so slightly.

Tony hyperventilates when Steve leaves the room to go to the bathroom. He re-entered to find Tony grasping the blankets with white knuckles, stuttering breaths wheezing in through pale lips. His eyes were wide with unseeing fear, entire body trembling.

It takes Steve fifteen minutes to calm Tony down.

They bring in a glass of water for Tony. Steve’s the only one that notices the remaining colour in his face drain, his shoulder shooting up to nearly  his ears.

Tony sees it and he opens his mouth to speak (to say he doesn’t want it) and-

- and then there’s water rushing into his mouth, forcing its way down his throat and filling up his lungs. He can’t breathe, he can’t breathe and he’s choking and its not stopping, he’s dying, he’s dying he’s-

“-out of here now! What’re you thinking?” comes Steve’s voice, loud and saturated with panic. Tony’s choking, his lungs feel like they’re collapsing on themselves, oxygen cut off from entering. He brings his hands to scratch at his throat uselessly, panic clouding his mind, the only clear thought he has being to breathe. But he can’t, he’s drowning, the water is filling his lungs, and the arc reactor is sparking, malfunctioning, he’s dying and he can’t-

“-ny please, look at me”

There are calloused hands framing his face, warm and trembling.

Tony focuses glassy eyes on the face in front of him. Steve hasn’t shaved. His beard starting to grow past stubble and into unruly patches across his jaw. How many days has it been? Steve hasn’t been sleeping either, dark circles under his eyes looking like bruises. His hair is glistening with grease, sticking up at all angles.

“There we go,” Steve rasps, voice raw and shaky.

Steve,” Tony whimpers, falling into him, like a puppet with it’s strings cut. It’s the first words Tonys said since he woke screaming.

Steve holds him until they both fall asleep.

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Two weeks later, and everything’s fine. Tony acts as if nothing ever happened. And that’s what worries Steve. Two weeks later and he still feels something gripping his gut like a vice, never wavering.

Every time he sees Tony walking up from the workshop and into the kitchen to make coffee, something lurches within him. Tony looks normal. He sports grease wiped across some part of his body or slicking his hair up in spikes. Usually the sight would amuse Steve, under normal circumstances.

Usually Steve would be able to catch Tony on one of these kitchen escapades and proceed to coerce him into eating actual food, or to watch a movie or four.

Now, the only thing that sets this Tony apart from the Tony from before, is the fact that he hasn’t had a single conversation with Steve besides a few clipped words directed vaguely at him. The reason being, as much as it pains Steve to think about, that Tony has been avoiding Steve.

Tony won’t speak about what happened whilst he was gone. Steve learned this early on. Any time anyone began to ask questions about what had occurred while he was in captivity, Tonys eyes would seem to glaze over, unfocusing from the interrogator and usually on a spot behind said person. Steve could always pinpoint the exact second this seemed to occur, and would just wait until the person questioning would notice the fact that their words seemed to go in one ear and out the other, and stop speaking.

The only thing he knows is that the kidnapper had gotten away, and no clear motive was identified. This was the only thing Tony seemed to react to. If the slight widening of his eyes counted as a reaction. Steve tried to get more out of him. Softly spoken words gently prodding at the subject. Each attempt was met with silence, and on a few terrifying occasions, anger.

On one such occasion, Steve had been lying in bed with Tony. The genius’ back pressed up against Steves chest. It was concerning how many knobs of Tonys spine he could still feel digging into his sternum. He elected not to bring it up, focusing instead on how much better he was compared to when they first-

-no, Steve wasn’t going to replay that memory again.

He instead had busied himself on determining if Tony was still awake. He focused on the intakes of Tonys breath that expanded his ribcage slightly against his own chest. The breaths stuttered slightly with each inhale, from what Steve couldn’t tell. He pushed the thought that Tony was still in pain out of his mind, Tony had said he had healed. He looked healed. All he knew right now was that Tony was awake, his breaths not coming in deep intervals like they would be were he asleep.

“Tony?” He experimented, voice barely above a whisper, just in case. Tony had immediately stilled against him, muscles rigid. Steve regretted it almost instantly, but there was no going back. “Tony, baby, please,” He knew Tony knew what he was asking, and he knew he was guilt-tripping Tony with the desperation he had let seep into his voice. He waited. He could feel Tony shift minutely against him, seemingly deciding on what to do. Steve thought that if Tony were to roll out of his arms he might not have been able to stop himself from following despite promising himself to let Tony have his space.

“What?” Tony answered, and Steve could hear what sounded like anger lacing the word. He knew he should have taken that as a warning sign, to back off, let Tony rest. But he started speaking again anyways.

“Please, talk to me. What happened there? Do you remember any of it?” Steve tried to keep it short, one question, maybe none at all, but the words were slipping off his tongue before he could stop them.

Tony twisted around in his grip to look him in the eye, face twisted into a scowl that made Steves breath falter in his throat. Tony had his hands placed between their chests, and Steve could feel himself being pushed away slightly, farther from Tony. He tried to not let the hurt show on his face.

“No,” Tony growled through clenched teeth. Steve didn’t know if that meant he didn’t remember anything, or he did, but he wished he didn’t.

“Tony, plea-“

“Steve, goddamnit! I said no!” Steve could swear he heard the shout echo off the walls as he was stunned silent by Tonys outburst. Something inside him shattered at the thought that that was the first time since their fight on the helicarrier that Tony had risen his voice at him. The first time since the helicarrier that Tony had furious fire blazing in his eyes because of Steve. Towards Steve. Tonys chest was heaving now, his breaths coming in short bursts of air, and Steve tried to ignore the feeling of Tonys hands trembling between them.

“Just leave it be for christ’s sake,” Tony hissed, the words dripping with malice. He then proceeded to turn away from Steve again, but this time he left a sizeable gap in between their bodies, and Steve was already missing the heat Tonys body gave off, goosebumps rising to his skin - but not just because of the cold.

Then there was silence. The air thick with tension, almost feeling like it was going to choke Steve out. He didn’t know what to do. Something weighed heavy on his chest as he lay there, feeling more helpless than he ever thought he could when it came to Tony.

Usually he knew how to help him. Make him feel better, take his mind off something. He always had answers. But now, Steves eyes stung with hurt and frustration, but not at Tony. His next words toppled out of his mouth without warning.

“S.H.E.I.L.D’s working on apprehending your kidnapper,”

In an instant he knew those were the wrong choice of words. It was like the warning signs before a tsunami, except instead of the tide rolling back, Tonys entire body drew forward, almost curling in on himself. And then he exploded.

“FUCK!” The word ripped itself from Tonys throat, raw with anger and exasperation and a million other things Steve couldn’t place. Tony then sat up on the bed, and gave one last glare at Steve, who could only lie there staring at him, all the blood rushing to his ears. Tony tore himself from the bed and out of the room, slamming the door behind him on the way out, leaving Steve alone, drenched in silence. Drowning in it.

The moisture that was collecting in Steves eyes was finally released as tears strolled down his cheeks. Hot and humiliating. Steve didn’t know how to help Tony. This wasn’t a time when he could just curl around Tony and wait it out; no matter in whatever ‘it’ happened to be at the time. This was something much bigger, much deeper. And he didn’t understand how he was supposed to help.

Steve felt like he was going to be sick.

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Tony felt like he was going to be sick.

He knows he’s being unfair to Steve. He can see the way Steve looks at him. The way Steve… looks. His already fair skin drained to a deathly pale, dark bags under his eyes that add years onto his complexion, as if 100 years weighing on his shoulders wasn’t enough.

But every time he looks at Steve, all he can think about is screaming for him until his voice gives out and thinking he’s going to cough up blood. All he can think about is sitting alone, in the dark, the cold air compressing his body from all sides, suffocating him. All he can think about is how Steve wasn’t there.

Logically, he knows Steve was probably trying his hardest day and night to get to him, but Tony still can’t squash down the boiling rage bubbling in his gut. He remembers his captors endless taunts, echoing in his head, over and over.

Rogers isn’t coming.

No one is coming.

No one is even looking.

You’re all alone, Stark.

 

As usual.

 

He hates himself for it, the way he's treating Steve, he knows it was unnecessary and wrong, but he couldn’t stop the sharp words that slipped out of his mouth at Steves careful questions. His cautious attempts at comfort. Afterwards, when Tony’s alone, he can feel the guilt eat his insides, tearing at his stomach and rising to his throat like bile. Why is he doing this to Steve? To himself?

Steve was only trying to help. That’s all he’s ever been doing, since the day he met Tony. Tony knows this, and he knows that Steve tries to help so many people at the same time, that he never leaves any energy to help himself. So the fact that Tony is acting like this only makes his shame worse, heating the tips of his ears as he replays the last conversation he had with Steve in their bed.

Steve had only been trying to help, and Tony shut him out, just like he always did to everyone else, before.

He pushed Rhodey away in his MIT days. When Tonys drinking turned from a few too many at the bar to unconscious in an alleyway, piss soaking his leg, skin clammy from alcohol poisoning. Rhodey tried to make Tony go to rehab.

Needless to say, he didn’t go.

He pushed Pepper away when she warned him that one day, Iron Man was going to kill him. Whether that be when the palladium was poisoning him, or just the chances he took of death every time he flew out to save a world that could never be safe. Not really.

So he knew it was only a matter of time before he started pushing Steve away too, for one reason or another.

After his explosion, he retreated to his workshop, the only place that had ever felt safe to him since Afghanistan. Except now, after being taken, it doesn’t give him the same sense of security that it once did. The walls seem closer now, the floor colder, the bots lifeless. He doesn’t know what was happening to him.

He finds himself seated on the floor, next to the sofa that acts as his bed most nights. He can’t bring himself to sit on it yet though, let alone sleep on it. Every time he tries, his heart leaps to his throat as the soft material gives under his weight, and he feels as if it’s going to swallow him whole, and decides that the floor, hard and unforgiving, is more comfortable than being suffocated.

He pulls his phone out from his back pocket, and tries to find something to distract himself from the way his heart feels as if its being twisted within his chest. It was so much easier to just stay angry. It was a familiar and easy thing to feel. But now, Tony can’t even navigate through anything in his jumbled up brain.

He tries to lose himself in swiping through his phone, but his fingers keep shaking with small tremors that only provoke the migraine that wedged itself behind his eyes about 2 days ago as the screen shakes in front of him. His fingers haven’t stopped trembling since he woke up. Albeit they've improved drastically from being unable to hold his own water cup, they still prove to be an issue, especially when he tries to distract himself by working on something. Usually he can use Steve as a distraction.

But not now.

He can’t stop thinking about him. His voice when he tried to ask if he remembered anything. The way it trembled as he begged Tony to talk to him, and most painfully, the quiet whimper that Steve tried to swallow down after Tony yelled at him. He should probably go and apologize. But after that he knows what Steve would be expecting. What he deserves that Tony can’t give him just yet. What he tried to get from Tony earlier, before Tony had stormed out of the room, leaving Steve behind.

He’s just not sure if he’s ready to go back there yet. Back to that room, back to what he doesn’t even know. He didn’t know what they wanted, and he didn’t know where he was. What more could he possibly tell Steve? How they tortured him? How they held his head underwater until he saw stars? What they forced his body to endure for far longer than the human body should? How they were relentless, cruel and calculating in their actions? They wanted to make sure that while the marks weren’t physically permanent on his body, they were at least in his mind.

He remembers the sounds of the guards’ laugh as they splashed his water in his face. How they watched him cough and splutter for breath. How they mocked his cries, wailing back at him before kicking him in the ribs to shut him up. The sound of his sobs ending abruptly as they slammed the door shut again, leaving him alone, and in the dark, wondering if he deserved this.

That was only some of what he could remember. He knows there’s more, but the days (was it only days?) wore on to a blur, and Tony could only watch himself like a film as he was dragged out of the room and into another, and back into his own, the cycle repeating.

Before that cycle was broken. By Steve.

Steve.

Suddenly, that’s all Tony wants. To be in Steve’s arms. To feel safe, and know that he’s being protected. From himself and from the world.

Suddenly all Tony wants is Steve. It’s a complete flip in his emotions, and he knows it’s probably unhealthy, and incredibly unfair to Steve. But he can’t think straight anymore, his entire mind is caught up on Steve. 

It’s like what they say about drowning. How your body instinctively holds it’s breath, despite the panic, the oxygen running out and lungs collapsing in on themselves. The pain almost unbearable, but then when you do take a breath, it’s almost like a relief; peaceful.

Except now Steve is the water. And Tony is the oxygen. He’s tried to push Steve away, avoid him for as long as possible, but all it did was cause himself to buckle.

Now Tony knows this is unhealthy, but he knows that in this moment, all he wants is to drown. 

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He knows Steve would die protecting him, and usually this drops a rock in his gut, but not now. Now, the thought is enough to quell some of his guilt, and quiet the voice in his head saying that he deserved to feel like this.

Now it’s enough to have him leaping off the floor, and flying into the elevator, biting his lip to keep from crying as he watches the numbers of the floors climb. And then he’s out of the elevator, and running back down the hall he’d just come from.

Steve barely has time to say anything before Tony is suddenly in his arms again, his body shaking with silent sobs.

Distantly Steve knows that this is only the beginning. Tony finally deciding to come to him for comfort isn’t going to immediately fix all this. They both still have a long road ahead of them. One with potholes and detours and twists and turns. Steve knows all this. But he can’t help the overwhelming feeling of relief and happiness as Tony drops into his arms.

He lets Tony burrow into him until he’s not sure where he ends and Tony begins.

As he melds himself into Steve, Tony can feel the familiar twisting in his gut of guilt and worry and a million other things he doesn’t want to decipher. Because if he did, it would only bring the problems to the forefront of his mind, instead of locked away somewhere he hopes he’ll forget. 

He’s cold. But this isn’t foreign. Its just usually he can push that feeling away too, but now the cup seems to be full, and things he tried to stack away overflow.

He’s shivering, he distantly acknowledges. Most times, he would bitch about it to Steve. He’s a complainer, everyone knows this. He always vows to stop, and yet, he only ever manages to realize what he’s doing when he’s done. Every time he's cold, it always just slips out, and he always regrets it.

He knows it bothers Steve, but he can never catch himself before it fumbles its way out of his lips. Tony knows why. Of course he does. Everyone knows Cap doesn’t have a good relationship with the cold. It's common knowledge. Hell, even the five year old kids playing four-square on the school pavement knows this. Everyone but the Captain himself seems to know. Whenever a particular bad snow storm hits the city, and Tony catches Steve frozen in his spot by the window, all the colour drained from his face, he always pretends nothing's wrong. Everyone knows better. But Tony must not care enough to remember and stop himself this time.

“It’s so fucking cold.”

“Yes, it is.”

It almost takes Tony by surprise. Almost.

He feels like crying, but he’s not sure exactly why. So instead he turns his face into Steves collarbone, pressing into it until his nose is uncomfortably bent. His eyes are stinging and something lodges itself in the back of his throat. He’s so fucking cold. The shivers almost seem to originate from his gut, rippling out to his fingertips, which he’s sure have turned purple. Reasonably, he knows JARVIS keeps all the rooms in the tower at perfect room temperature, but his brain keeps telling him that its too cold. He doesn’t know why.

He doesn’t know anything about a lot of things right now. But what he knows is this: he’s in Steves arms. He’s safe. Steve’s peppering kisses along his temple and ear. The soft sounds of Steves lips brushing against his ear unclenches some of the stiffness in his muscles. He’s still shivering.

No, wait. He’s not shivering. He’s shaking.

He’s crying.

“I don’t know,” Tony grits out, willing his voice to carry out, he doesn’t know if he can repeat himself without it giving way to - god forbid - a sob. He knows what Steve’s thinking.

It’s okay,” Steve hushes, his voice barely a whisper, wrapping warmly around his ear. His hands move to trace lightly around Tonys waist from where he’s facing Steve. At some point, Tonys left hand slipped underneath Steves body, and now grips the back of his shirt tightly. It’s falling asleep. He doesn’t care.

“I just- I don’t-“

Steve doesn’t say anything more, but he pulls Tony impossibly closer to him, Tonys face now angled upwards towards Steves throat. He can feel Tonys damp eyelashes sweep over his Adams apple. He wraps his arms fully around Tonys waist, clamping on to each other, effectively trapping Tony in all that is Steve.

It doesn’t make Tony feel any better, really. But it’s a start. And he has to start somewhere. So he’d rather it be safe, in Steves impossibley understanding embrace, rather than alone and hurt, guilt eating him alive in the workshop. It’s a start.