By the time the Avengers are a thing – a fully functioning (for the most part) team of the world’s best, rather than a suggestion hidden in a folder marked ‘top secret’ – Tony has it mostly under control. He hasn't had a panic attack in public in what feels like eternity, but is actually closer to a year; the time in that beachside restaurant with Rhodey seems light years away, a distant memory that's fine as long as he keeps it that. To him, that’s under control, even though Pepper would fight tooth and nail to prove him wrong. So it’s not all that surprising that for the first six months, no one knows this is a thing he has to deal with. Tony mostly keeps the anxiety away on his own terms; things like deep breathing exercises that he would not tell you he practiced if ever you asked, or keeping the obvious triggers at arm’s length, close enough so that he’s aware of their presence, but far enough away that they can’t hurt him.
He stays away from water, mostly, spends summer afternoons by the pool, but not in it. No one gives him any weird glances, no one spares him any second thoughts. It's one of the things he likes about the team – no matter how annoying their quirks are (Clint’s habit of perching on balcony railings and inducing cardiac arrest in passers-by included), they mostly let him do his thing. Mostly. Until ‘his thing’ turns into an obvious lack of self-preservation instinct, which is usually when Steve has to intervene. The point is, Tony keeps his anxieties at bay. He doesn’t swim, he keeps his bathroom door dead-bolted when he’s in the shower, and he definitely tries not to fall into any wormholes carrying nukes. That one’s a biggie.
New York was a thing to be feared, for a while, too, but Tony is better about it now, trains himself to look up at the skyscrapers and down at the people without seeing rubble and glass and blood. Avengers Tower is still the tower, albeit a little more crowded and a little less flashy, but it still is there, polished and renovated and gleaming in the sunlight. Sometimes, though, despite it all, he’ll look up at the sky at a certain angle, and he’ll feel it, in the center of his chest, right under the arc reactor. It’s a dull ache that he recognizes immediately, and he’ll have to look away and keep the stars out of his eyes, take deep breaths to keep from going under.
Of course, he’s also got Steve now, which is a nice reprieve from being alone for so long. What he’d had with Pepper had been good. It had been warm and welcoming and some days just like coming home, but it had been wrenched out of his hands so quickly that he didn’t realize it was happening until he was leaning up against the workshop wall with his bots around him and breathing like his lungs were full of broken glass. That was in the past, though, and now Tony spends a lot of time trying to be better, trying not to put her through the things he always puts her through. They’re bandaged wounds, now, delicate and sore, but they’re healing. Steve is something else. Always has been.
They’re more than a little new to this relationship thing when Tony stumbles into the kitchen one morning, ragged and pale and breathing a little harder than one should when they have just woken up. Clint and Natasha are in the communal kitchen making breakfast – Clint likes pancakes, and Tony’s got more counter space than he knows what to do with. Natasha is cutting up apples with a paring knife, her slender fingers working with such speed and precision that Tony can’t help but be a little nervous around her.
“Rough night?” She asks in quiet tones when she sees his face. He blinks a little and rubs his eyes.
“I’m fine,” he assures her, and he slips between her and Clint to get to the cupboard where the mugs are. He grabs his favorite, a white one that proclaims ‘for science!’ in black, and heads towards The Coffee. This is his morning tradition, and frankly he’s not quite sure why there isn’t a religious festival dedicated to caffeine at this point.
Natasha is skeptical, though, and she snatches the coffee pot out of his grasp. Tony fixes her with his most difficult to resist, hurt expression.
“I, frankly, am offended,” he starts, and Clint starts laughing because he knows this is going to go only one way, “To not take me at my most honored word, I can understand, because really, who can, but to take from me my caffeine, my livelihood? You’re a despicable human being, Romanov. Despicable.”
Tony says all of this with a straight face that says nothing of the fact that he spent the evening thrashing about in an empty bed, clutching the sheets in fisted hands, waking up with dried tear tracks staining his face. He’s good about those kinds of things. He keeps them to himself.
Natasha keeps her grip on the coffee pot and gives him a look. Beside her, Clint finishes flipping pancakes. He spins around and leans against the counter, arms behind him propping him up.
“Leave the poor bastard alone,” Clint teases, wiping his hands on a dish rag. He gives Tony his brightest grin as he tosses the towel at him, “Can’t you see he’s love sick? Like a little puppy, even. Steve hasn’t been gone that long, you know.”
Tony gives him his most well defined glare, the one that means he’s seriously considering draining the archer’s bank account and pinning it on the NSA. Clint eats that conspiracy shit up.
“Fuck off, Barton.”
“Ouch,” Clint says cheerfully. He turns back and piles pancakes onto plates, just as Tony snatches the coffee pot out of Natasha’s hand and scurries away to the other side of the kitchen. He fills his mug.
So there’s a hefty chance Clint is right. Steve’s been on a SHIELD mission for three days, which is hardly a long time, nor is it a new thing, for that matter. Steve goes on a lot of missions, and sometimes he’s away even longer – Tony is used to these absences, and he matches them with his own. Steve ends up aboard a warship in Somalia, and Tony finds freedom in Tokyo for a week, surprisingly engaged in and enthusiastic about Stark Industries business. It’s a fair trade-off, he figures.
Of course, there’s the times when he can’t escape anywhere, which would be fine, you know, if Tony didn’t have nights riddled with small but intense waves of anxiety. Those are the nights that he misses the warmth of Steve next to him, the touch of lips on the back of his neck, the hands that make their home along his spine.
He sips at his coffee absently, ignoring the ache in his chest. Tony rubs a hand along his eyes, breathing in deeply, like somehow that will make it all go away. It doesn’t.
Natasha drops an apple on the kitchen island in front of him, washed and bright red. Steve likes apples, Tony thinks, and diligently fights his way through a sharp burst of something that burns in his stomach, just under his ribcage; he thinks that maybe it feels a little bit like homesickness.
“Eat,” she says, and she’s not kidding. Tony can see that in her glare.
He frowns and puts down the coffee pot, dragging himself up onto the stool. His legs dangle from it, back and forth, kicking the counter in front of him.
“I want pancakes,” Tony says slowly, and he picks the apple up, turning it over and over in his hands as he inspects it, “This is not a pancake.”
Clint lets out a sharp, barking laugh and grins, “You are not wrong.”
“I watched you eat a whole pizza last night,” Natasha says, deadpan, “You don’t get to consume any more starch.”
He rolls his eyes and reaches for her paring knife. Tony slices the skin off in languid, slow strokes, letting it drop against the island counter. Clint plates more pancakes. Natasha hands him a bowl of apples. Sometimes, Tony thinks, it’s nice to have these people here, taking up space in his kitchen and ruining dishes he didn’t even know he owned. A hand slides over his eyes, another over his chest, blocking the light of the arc reactor, and then there’s a voice in his ear, low and heavy.
The reaction is instantaneous. Before Natasha or Clint can even open their mouths, Tony is out of his seat, arms jerking backward as he skitters across the kitchen floor. The stool clatters heavily behind him, landing on its side and making the floor shake. No one has ever seen him move that fast, all slender limbs and muscled arms, making a beeline for the closest corner he can find. Clint’s arms are tense, looking to make a break for his weapon if he has to. Natasha’s grabbed another knife from inside the drawer.
Here’s the situation: Tony is pushed into the corner, his back up and his knees a little bent. He’s got a knife clutched in his fist, but it’s not the paring knife – this is a much larger, much sharper knife, and it’s held in a hand that’s white and shaking, the knuckles pebbled like rows of stones. It’s not exactly subtle what’s happening to him; Tony’s eyes are blown wide and brown, watering at the corners, and his breathing is shaky and coming in short pants.
Steve is standing in the middle of the kitchen, wearing a threadbare grey t-shirt and his most comfortable pair of sweatpants. He looks between Clint and Natasha, his lips parted in a startled little gesture. The paring knife is sticking out of his bicep. It’s bleeding a little bit, thin trickles of red starting to stain his shirt, seeping into the fabric slowly.
“Steve?” Natasha tries, always the first to speak, her voice rigid and stiff. She moves to step forward. Clint puts a forearm in front of her to hold her back, “Cap, are you okay?”
They all watch him stare at the blade of the knife, opening and closing his mouth, trying to comprehend just what’s happening. He reaches over and pulls the blade from his arm. It slides out with a rather nasty pop, and he looks at it before he tosses it on the kitchen island. The wound is small and thin, and the serum stops its bleeding almost as soon as the steel leaves his body.
“I’m fine,” Steve says to Natasha, and his voice is soft and breathy.
A noise that almost certainly a whimper draws their attention to the corner. Tony’s got his back up against the fridge and he’s sliding down, down, down, until his knees are pressed up against his chest and his arms are wrapped around them. His breaths come in short, panicked pants, his chest heaving, and Steve makes as though to step towards him.
“Oh, shit,” Tony’s whispering to himself, “Shit, shit, shit, Steve, shit, I’m so—Steve, I—”
Clint is the one that moves, in the end, taking slow footsteps towards Tony until he’s standing in front of him, looking down. Clint crouches down in front of the fridge and reaches out a hand to touch Tony’s shoulder. Steve kicks himself then, because the touch makes Tony flinch, and oh, God, this is all his fault.
“Tone?” Clint says, his voice gentle and steady, “Tony, look at me.”
They all watch the engineer’s eyes roll up towards Clint, then flicker briefly between Steve and Natasha. They’re wet, but there aren’t any tear tracks on his cheeks yet, and for this Tony is grateful. He bites the inside of his cheek to keep them from spilling over, and runs sweaty hands over his kneecaps.
Tony’s head feels hazy, like he’s been walking through fog. He can’t help but think of the hand over his eyes, warm and heavy, the skin rough and calloused, or the palm over his chest, covering the little circle of light that’s keeping him alive. His skin tingles with the memory of waking up in the cold and dark, sprawled on an operating table; with the memory of being paralyzed on his couch and feeling it, knowing that his heart giving up on him.
“Tony?” Steve speaks to him this time, and he can’t bear to look him in the eyes, because Steve is still bleeding, albeit hardly at all, but enough to make Tony realize that he’s just stabbed his boyfriend in the arm.
There’s a brief period in which he thinks he might start laughing with the absurdity of this whole situation, but he doesn’t, he chokes that particular symptom of crazy back, and he takes a shaky breath in. Tony’s heart beats a little slower now, not the kick drum it had been when the bar stool had clattered to the ground, not keeping in time with the jerky movements of his eyes anymore. The coils of panic in his belly starts to melt.
And yeah, everyone is staring at him, and he’s pushed up against the refrigerator, curled up like a baby. Excellent.
“Hey,” Clint says, as soon as he can see the fear in Tony’s eyes start to fade, “Hey. You with me?”
Tony blinks in response. He lets his arms drop from around his knees and sits them at his side. Clint has always had this strange softness to him that Tony admires, and in this moment it’s something he knows he needs, but he ignores it. Tony stands up, crawling first onto his knees and them pushing himself up shakily, and looks around. He takes one look at Steve’s face, and promptly leaves the room.
He walks quickly, moving down the hallway with the same careful precision that he uses when he’s working, cold and calculating, each movement smooth and polished. By the time he reaches the workshop, his hands are no longer shaking, and he can breathe again, and save for the horrible memory in his head, it’s as if nothing has ever happened at all. Dummy is in the corner, fumbling with something on a work table, and You and Butterfingers are whirring alone at their charging stations.
Something about the workshop has always been home. Tony doesn’t know if it’s the quietness of it, or it’s the familiarity of the metal tables, the sleek computer screens, the walls that go from smooth plaster to rough, unfinished concrete. He tries to place the feeling sometimes, the warmth that blooms under his skin when he opens the glass door and steps in, but he can’t remember feeling anything like that since Afghanistan, since walking off a plane and finding his way back home.
There’s medicine. It’s in his desk drawer, the big one on the bottom that’s filled with half-finished patent applications and pictures of his family that haven’t seen the light of day in years – Pepper used to try to put them on the wall, or sit them on his desk, but stopped when she realized he was flipping them over to hide the fronts or shoving them under all of his junk.
The doctors are adamant that it’s the kind of thing that’ll help him, but Tony isn’t about that kind of stuff. He doesn’t like the doctors, or the pills, or the way they make him feel. He’d taken them once at Pepper’s request, after New York when the nightmares started, and for the first few days been awed by the effects. There had been nothing, no ball of anxiety in his stomach, no shaking hands when he looked up at the stars, and he had sat on the couch in his living room, right by the fireplace, and wondered if this was the way he was meant to feel. If it was right, to feel nothing so strongly.
He’d thrown them in his desk drawer and hadn’t looked at them since.
Tony runs his hand along the wall, turns his back to it and leans against it like it’s the only thing in the world that’s keeping him up, and at this point, he’s not entirely sure if he’s wrong about that. He slides down, down, down, until his knees are bunched up and his hands are in his lap, and he pushes his forehead into his kneecaps.
The breaths he takes are steady, more or less. Dummy rolls over and chirps at him, and Tony drags his arm into his lap. The robot whirs, and the claw at the end of his arm opens and closes. Tony pets the metal struts, rough and scratched and starting to age, and leans into him.
“Good boy,” he whispers.
Clint finds him on the roof, and he’s a little annoyed, because this is his spot, but he figures that this time he can share. Tony’s sitting at the edge, hands gripping the safety railing that goes all the way around, white knuckled and tense. His legs dangle out, kicking back and forth against the sculpted metal that is Avengers Tower, and he’s got his chin resting on the railing bar.
“Comfy?” Clint asks, stepping out onto the rooftop. He’s wearing a windbreaker, mostly because it’s getting cold out the closer they get to October, and even he’s not stupid enough to be that high up in just a t-shirt and jeans. Tony is, though. Tony’s not always as smart as he says he is.
Tony doesn’t turn around, just leans further into the railing and tilts his head to the side. He keeps kicking his feet, “Sure.”
And yeah, Clint knows there’s something wrong, because Tony’s got a one-liner for everything, a nice quip or a jab of snarky words that fucking hurt every time. Tony does that, mostly without realizing it, never paying attention to the words he’s saying, just knowing that he can always do it better than anyone, that he can get under their skin. It’s usually why he and Steve fight, and why more often than not it takes them so long to make up. Tony’s can be brutal – his intelligence makes the first cut, and his words finish the job. Cold and calculating.
Clint would like to say ‘just like his father’, but fathers are shitty, and he’s not ready to tread those waters just yet. He knows the feeling. Brutal.
“You’re gonna die,” Clint says, and he steps a little closer, just a little, because he’s not sure what mindset Tony’s in right now, “Pneumonia. Do you really want to have to spend the night in SHIELD medical?”
Tony clutches the bar a little tighter, stops the movement of his legs. He rolls his head to the side and looks at Clint. The archer wants to flinch – he looks like a piece of broken glass, jagged around the edges, cracked up the middle.
“Really, at this point, what’s another night there, and let’s be real, I probably need more than a SHIELD doctor to deal with this shit,” Tony says, all at once with no space for breathing. He looks back down at New York below him, hustling and bustling with people, so many people. “It’s a long way down.”
“You thinkin’ about jumping?” Clint asks, more of a joke than anything.
Tony snorts a little, a sharp exhale through his nose that Clint figures is supposed to be some kind of laugh. He unclenches a fist and drums his fingers against the railing.
If there’s one thing that can be said about Tony, it’s that he’s a damn good actor. Clint’s stomach ties in knots that are held together by the fear that he can’t tell if Tony is joking or not. He wears his ego on his sleeve, most days, but Tony’s not an easy read at all. The surefire confidence, those shit-eating grins that make the front page – they’re all a clever façade. Behind that, it’s all somber faces and wide-eyed stares, and Clint can’t get anything out of them.
He makes the last few steps towards the railing and crouches down, perching at the edge, before he flips his feet through the holes and dangles them off the edge. Tony’s quiet beside him, eyes scanning the city below. He’s doing something mindless, Clint is sure, like taking apart the city brick by brick in his head, organizing the grid on which it lies.
Clint isn’t good with silences, mostly because he himself is a quiet person. He likes the dark spaces of the tower, the corners and the high up nooks that he can shove himself into. The vents are nice, but neither SHIELD nor any of his Avengers counterparts really enjoy him crawling around up there, particularly Coulson. But hey – it’s a nice reprieve from the constant babble of the life he leads now, and he enjoys the quiet, so sitting here on the rooftop would be fine if he were alone, but he isn’t. And he’s not exactly sure how to carry on the conversation.
“So,” he starts, and even to his own ears his voice wavers hesitantly, “You wanna talk about it?”
Tony doesn’t miss a beat, “Fuck off, Barton.”
Okay. That’s a thing, all right, but Clint doesn’t exactly want to leave it there. He knows Tony, as much as he figures the engineer would like to deny it, and he knows that if this doesn’t get resolved within the next few hours, it will never get resolved, will just join the legion of other Fucked Up Things that he buries under his skin.
“Okay, well, hear me out,” Clint says to him, spreading his hands out in front of him like he’s laying all his cards on the table, “I get it, man. Tone, I get it. I get not wanting to talk about it, you know? You think we all wanna talk about how fucked up we are?”
“Let’s set some things straight, right here,” Tony says suddenly, snapping his head towards Clint. His eyes are blown black, and Clint can’t see anything in them. Tony’s jaw muscles tense and bulge, “I know how fucked up I am. I don’t need show and tell, I don’t need some goddamn pills to be okay, and I sure as hell don’t need your psychobabble bullshit. I’m fine.”
And Clint tries not to take it personally, he really does, he’s got his head screwed on pretty straight, but Tony is just such a handful sometimes. He pulls one leg out from its place and turns on an angle to face him with his eyebrows pulled together tightly.
“Tony, can you just for one minute acknowledge the fact that you aren’t okay? Is that something you can do? Because I watched you fall apart on the kitchen floor this morning and no one wants to talk about it.”
He says nothing. Clint doesn’t expect much, but he figures it was worth a try. Tony grabs at the railing until his hands tremble with the effort, until his legs stop moving and his eyes stay in one spot.
“Steve is worried about you. He wants to talk about—“
“No.” Tony says, and his voice is hard and firm. His jaw clenches and unclenches, and his tongue darts out over his lips.
Clint frowns. “Tony. We gotta know what happened. So that it doesn’t happen again, you know?”
Tony scrambles to his feet, all flailing limbs and heavy, shaky breaths. He stands there over Clint with his fists balled at his sides, hands trembling. His mouth opens and closes, until he can find the right words and force them out of his mouth.
“It was a panic attack, all right? I woke up in a cave in Afghanistan with a hole in my chest,” Tony’s voice is no more than a whisper, almost lost to the wind that blows this high up. He taps on the arc reactor loudly enough that Clint can hear it, “They held my head under water until I couldn’t breathe, and then they did it again and again and again, and then they put a bag over my head and left me in the dark, Clint. They left me in the dark, hooked up to a car battery, wondering why my lungs weren’t working and why my heart kept fluttering every time I tried to breathe.”
The hand over his eyes. The palm on his chest. Clint closes his eyes and takes a deep breath, because Christ, this is fucked up, and it makes sense that Tony would react this way, all shaky hands and heavy breathing, back up against the fridge in the kitchen. He opens his eyes and meets Tony’s gaze, and suddenly Clint is in that cave too, stuck in the darkness, right there with Tony.
“You have to talk to Steve about it,” he says, and he nods his head a little slowly for emphasis, “You hearing me, Tone? You gotta sort this out. The guy's in his room – his room, not yours – going completely mad about you. Insane, Tony. Did you see his face when you left?”
“I can't talk to him about it, so let's leave it there and get on with our day, all right? Can we do that? Let's do that,” Tony tries, and Clint can tell he's forcing that snark into his to tone, because it doesn't belong, not there, not in this situation, not now. Clint crawls out of the space between railing and ground and stands up.
“Jesus Christ, Stark,” he says, and gently as possible, “He loves you, you know that?”
They've always had this interesting dynamic, he and Tony. They're either sitting on the couch trying to destroy each other in Mario Kart, or they're literally at each other's throats, spitting nasty words and vicious tones at each other. There's not a medium. So when Tony takes two small steps forward and gets in Clint’s face with no care in the world for his personal space, Clint realizes this is going downhill fast. He reaches out for Tony's shoulder, to reassure him, to calm him down, but Tony swats it away.
“Do you think this is easy?” Tony spits, the words leaving his mouth like poison, “Do you think I'm having fun? This isn’t fun! And you know, I really don’t think you understand the fact that I cannot talk to him about this, Jesus, Clint, I just—I can’t—I can’t talk to him about it. I can’t.”
Tony turns away, faces his back to Clint, and even so, Clint can still see how his shoulders tremble, how he brings a shaky hand up to his eyes, how it lingers there for longer than it shoulder. He hears the engineer take a sharp breath.
“I don’t need him to know,” Tony starts, and his hand drops back to his side, “I don’t—I just, I don’t need him to know. He won’t want m—I’m—he doesn’t need to know how fucked up I am.”
And for all that Clint loves this moron, this man who wormed his sneaky way into the hearts of everyone on the team with his little quips and his stunning bravery and his golden fucking heart, he wants to hit him. Just smack him upside the head and see if that helps his reasoning, even a little.
“You’re supposed to be the one of the smartest—”
“The smartest,” Tony interjects, but it’s lacking. Clint gives him a pointed look.
“The smartest man of your generation, but you are just lacking in the intelligence department right now, you know that? Do you know that? Jesus, Tone, we’re all fucked up, we all have something shitty that we don’t want to talk about, but we do it anyway because we’re a team, and we’re supposed to have each other’s backs,” Clint is speaking so fast that he’s stumbling over some of the words, and Christ, this would be a lot easier if he just had Steve say it, he’s the one that’s good with speeches, after all. And feelings. “And Steve loves you, he wants you to be okay, he wants to know what happened. Just because you don’t wanna talk about it—Tony, just—Jesus.”
Tony turns back to him then, and it’s a sight to see, because his brown eyes are massive and a little red around the edges, and who could ever have thought that this was Tony Stark? Who could have ever thought that this man, this man who was broken like a piece of glass, was Iron Man? Clint’s chest pulls unnervingly, and he rubs it with his hand. The thought makes him ache.
“When I was four years old, my dad broke my arm,” Clint says, voice even. He drops his hands to his sides, tries to shove them in his pockets, but he can't find the openings. He holds one arm up and points to the bone, “Snapped it like a twig. It was effortless, you know? He just grabbed me one day, a little harder than normal, and when I tried to get away, he twisted it. I felt it break, heard this really disgusting crunching noise, and then it was on fire and I was on the floor screaming for my mom and she wasn't coming, and my brother was hiding in the closet and—I was just trying to save my brother. He was two, and dad wasn't exactly nice, right, and so I don't really remember, but I think he tried to throw something at Barney and I got in the way because it wasn't fair. I didn't get to go to the hospital for a whole day, and so right here you can see where my arm bends funny, and that scar there is from when they went in and had to do surgery.”
The thing about telling Tony this isn't that it's uncomfortable (which it is), but that it ends in silence on both ends. Tony’s looking at him, face contorted in that miserable mouth twitch that he does when he's upset, unsure of what to say or how to carry this conversation forward. Clint is a little more than exasperated, and so he contemplates briefly picking Tony up and just dragging him back into the tower, but that doesn't exactly seem conducive to this whole lesson-learning attempt.
“What are you doing?” Tony asks when he has a voice again. His mouth twitches, “What, are we being judged? Is this a game show? Most fucked up wins? What the hell are you doing, Clint?”
“Comparing scars,” Clint says, exasperated, and he doesn't miss a beat at all, “Jesus, Tony, just… I told you. We all have stuff we don't want to talk about. But we do it anyway. Go talk to Steve. Compare scars, pitch a fit, I don't give a shit what you have to do, just do something.”
Tony spares a bitter laugh, “I think it's more like comparing open wounds, if you ask me.”
“Whatever,” Clint mutters, and he reaches out. Tony lets him put a hand on his shoulder, no flinch or anything, and fuck yes, Clint feels victorious, “Go sort out your shit. Or I'll do it for you.”
The sky around them is turning dark, waxy yellows and baby blues fading into the blackness that rims the edges of the sky now. It'll be night soon, bright stars and a waning moon, and Clint tugs his wind breaker around his body more, resilient against the chill. The wind is picking up. He spins around, back to Tony, and starts the walk back to the tower.
“And put on a fucking coat, Jesus Christ.”
Clint’s heart feels a little lighter. A laugh bubbles in the pit of his chest, and it's not bitter for once. He steps inside the tower, rubs his hands together, and tosses his jacket onto the back of one of the chairs in the communal kitchen.
He hopes more than anything that Tony feels just as free as he does right now.
Steve’s room is on the third floor, spacious and warm, and it’s the only room in the entire tower that looks like it hasn’t been lived in. Ever. Even Natasha, who doesn’t exactly seem like the type to settle down, has made a home out of what she’s got – there’s pictures in her room, mostly of her and Clint, and her bed is made with the silk sheets she likes and the cheap cotton pajamas she wears are all placed nicely in a dresser drawer. Steve doesn’t have any of that. Walking into his room is like walking into military barracks, and Tony supposes it makes sense given who it’s coming from.
The entryway is pristine, and to the side of it is a little area where Steve’s shoes are stacked neatly beside each other. Above that is a rack for jackets, and Tony can see the leather one hanging there, brown and beaten up and still the only jacket that they can get Steve to agree to wear. Tony cracks a smile at the thought. Inside, the room parts into the kitchen and the tiny little living area – Steve has always been adamant about not having too much space, much to the chagrin of Tony’s intrinsic desire for extravagance in all its forms. The kitchen is scrubbed clean, no dishes in the sink, no nothing. Tony can’t decide if that’s a product of Steve’s military background and internal (but fucked up) love of cleaning, or if it’s because lately, he’s been spending most nights in Tony’s room. He vies for the latter, mostly because it makes his insides warm.
Steve’s passed out on the living room couch, and Tony can only tell because he’s too long for the damn thing, his feet hanging off the edge at least a full foot. He’s wearing threadbare sweatpants and one of those stupid, stupid t-shirts that are way too tight for him, but really, can he complain? It’s a nice view.
He notices the bandages wrapped around Steve’s bicep, and cringes a little. They’re probably healed now, silvery little scars that cross his pale skin and will be gone by morning – that’s how fast the serum works. But it doesn’t stop Tony’s cheeks from flushing in something akin to embarrassment. He steps towards the couch and shoves his hands in his pockets, twisting in place, until he garners up the nerve to kick Steve’s shin.
The thing about Steve is that he hardly sleeps deeply. He puts himself in bed at the appropriate time every night, because of something important about routines or that sort of junk that Tony can’t even pretend to be interested in, and he sleeps all the way through the night mostly, but he is one hell of a light sleeper. And he doesn’t react well to being startled awake.
He bolts into a sitting position, muscles tense, hair mussed, and breathing hard. Steve looks as though he’s about to stand up, to grab Tony around the wrist as if he were an intruder and unleash the wrath of God upon him, but then he realizes who it is. His determined expression melts into something that looks like bewilderment, then fear. Steve reaches for Tony.
They’re new at this whole thing, at figuring out how to comfort each other, but Tony has to say that Steve is pretty good at it. He lets him wrap a hand around his wrist and pull him close, so that Steve’s legs are open in a ‘v’, and Tony is standing in the middle of them.
“Tony?” Steve asks, and his voice is so quiet that the sounds of the TV almost drown it out. He looks up at Tony with those eyes, those killer blue eyes that in the half light of the living room turn cornflower, and goddammit, Tony can’t help but feel an overwhelming wave of guilt.
Steve blinks, and Tony turns his head, “Don’t look at me,” he blurts out without thinking, and when he turns back, all the more embarrassed for it, Steve has his eyes closed – because of course Steve would take him seriously. Of course he would. Tony rolls his eyes and reaches forward with the wrist that isn’t clutched painfully tight in Steve’s grip, and punches his shoulder playfully.
“No, don’t actually do it. Just—” He stops abruptly when Steve’s eyes flicker open, and the worry he sees in them makes the knot in his stomach soften, just a little. Tony runs his hand over the bandages on his arm, “Are you okay?”
“I’m fine,” Steve says, almost immediately, and shrugs Tony’s hand away, “Where have you been?”
“The roof,” Tony answers, because there’s no point in lying to Steve. Even he, with his poker face and his acting abilities, can’t lie to the man. It’s impossible, “Did you know that the city is crooked?”
Sometimes, Tony can’t stop himself from spouting out nonsense like that. It’s mostly a coping mechanism, or at least one of the healthier ones, because as long as he’s providing Steve with facts that neither of them care about, he’s not forcing half a bottle of whiskey into a body that just isn’t cut out to handle it anymore. He fumbles with his one hand, unsure of where to put it, and settles on shoving it back into his pocket.
“You were out there a long time. I was worried about you,” Steve says, and he tugs on Tony’s wrist to get him to sit in his lap. Tony locks his knees and keeps himself upright. With wide eyes, Steve immediately lets go of him, “I’m sorry. I should—”
“When I was in Afghanistan,” Tony starts, and he’s forcing himself to look Steve in the eyes, to face the conflicting emotions that are there, swirling around in the blues, “When the Ten Rings kidnapped me, they kept me in a cave. And it was dark, and cold, so cold you could see your breath, and I woke up with this in my chest.”
He takes a minute to tap himself on the chest, right where the arc reactor now sits, glowing blue and brilliant. Steve looks at him curiously.
“Tony, what are you doing?”
Tony is a genius. He is an intelligent, intelligent man, and he has created some of the most beautiful and terrible things in existence, and he is also so incredibly inept at having meaningful, fulfilling conversations. And social interaction in general, really. He holds a hand up and waits for Steve to stop.
“I’m comparing scars,” Tony says, matter-of-factly, “Figuratively, whatever, Clint said it. Just, Steve, stop. Stop talking.”
“Clint? What do you mean ‘comp—”
His sigh is one to mark down in the record books. Even he’s impressed by it, “Steve, just shut up! For one minute. Just, stop talking, okay? I’m trying to do something.”
And he listens, because who is Steve to refuse an order, even from Tony? He closes his mouth and waits, his eyes trained on Tony intently. Which mostly doesn’t help, because it makes Tony even more nervous. He swallows thickly.
“I woke up with this. It was attached to a car battery, and it was the only reason I was still alive. And it still is. This is my heart, now. It’s part of me, and I just, I need it, and I need to know it’s there. You know? And then, and then sometimes, when I was there, and I didn’t do what they told me to, they’d hold my head underwater until I saw black around the edges of my vision, and they would pull me up and do it again.”
Tony’s hands are shaking, now, trembling at his sides, matching the shaky movements of his chest as it struggles for a more confident breath. He can feel the panic eating away at his insides, but he wills it to stay away, to keep itself at bay until he can find reason to go into the bathroom and fall apart on the floor. He breathes in. One, two, three.
“And then, there was this time when they filmed me, they did, I don’t know, I thought it was a ransom video but it was confirmation that I was alive, I guess, but that’s a whole other story I don’t want to get into right now. And when the filmed me, they put a bag over my head, and Steve, it was so dark. It was so dark. And then they put me back in this cave with a lantern and a tank top and I was so, so cold. And I just—”
“Tony,” Steve whispers, “Tony, I’m sorry, I’m so sorry, oh God.”
The room is warm, too warm, so warm that Tony is starting to sweat a little – or is that just him? He can’t tell, only that his face is flushed and his palms are starting to sweat, and he’s a little bewildered about the look in Steve’s eyes. There’s something like worry there, something pure and innocent, and a little bit like love.
“What?” He says, and Jesus Christ, Tony, here he is pouring all of his problems out onto Steve’s lap like he’s some sort of fucking psych patient, god, how much more embarrassing could he possibly be as a human being?
Steve rolls to his feet in front of Tony. The height difference has always made Tony rather grumpy, but sometimes he can admit that it’s cute that Steve has to bend down a little to kiss him. Right now, though, he’s got his head tilted back, looking up into Steve’s face, and wondering exactly how he can make this situation go away so that he can bury himself in his workshop and lock the door.
“Tony,” Steve whispers, and he reaches out with his arms to pull Tony against him. He threads his forearms around Tony’s back, hugs him tight and rests his chin on his hair. Tony smells like motor oil and burning wood, a mix of his city and his engineer, “Tony, I’m sorry.”
“What are you sorry about?” Tony says, and the words are mumbled by Steve’s neck. He curls into Steve’s touch like a cat, his spine arching up, and he wraps himself around Steve as tightly as he can, “Jesus, Steve, I stabbed you in the arm.”
“I snuck up on a PTSD survivor and covered his eyes and his arc reactor,” Steve says, and he says it so bluntly that Tony huffs a laugh into the space between Steve’s throat and his collarbone, “God, Tony. I didn’t know…I didn’t know what happened.”
He shrugs into the embrace, breathing shallowly into Steve’s neck. Tony feels the arms tighten around him, and he’s never felt more at home, more comfortable, more lovedin his life. He squirms a little, and pulls out of the embrace just so that he can look up at Steve. There’s worry in his eyes, and Tony resolves to make that go away as soon as he can. He grabs one of Steve’s hands, and slides it up under his shirt until it’s resting on the skin outside the arc reactor.
“Tony,” Steve starts, and Tony shakes his head.
Using Steve’s hand, he traces the silvery scars that mark the skin there, rough and hard with scar tissue, lines that extend right from under the metal rim in his body. Tony leans his head forward against Steve’s chest. He breathes in deeply, feels Steve’s touch, feather light, on his skin.
“These are my scars,” Tony says quietly, breathing in the scent of Steve, sweat and musk and spice, “I don’t want to hide them from you anymore. And I get it, I understand if you don’t—I just, Steve, it’s not easy to love someone that’s fucked up, you know, and I wouldn’t blam—”
“Quit it,” Steve says, and he pulls his hand out from under the shirt and places it on Tony’s cheek. His thumb passes over the point of Tony’s cheekbone, “I love you. Tony, I want to know all these things about you. I want to know why you’re Tony Stark, and what makes you happy and sad and I want to know why you panic, I want to help you.”
“Steve,” Tony tries, because he will not – cannot – cry in front of this poor man. Steve shakes his head.
Tony knows a lot about Steve’s past. He’s read the files, he’s read the journals, he’s read his father’s personal notes. He knows about the ice, and all that Steve left behind. He knows about Peggy, and Bucky and Dr. Erskine, and all the stories his father told him at the dinner table, the Steve Rogers metaphors he tried to instill into every ‘be better, Tony’ lecture. Be like Steve Rogers. Be like Captain America.
Steve kisses Tony’s lips. Tony kisses back and revels in the feeling of the warmth on his mouth, the way Steve’s nose presses into his cheek, the split in the middle of his lip where his lips are starting to chap. It takes a minute, but all of a sudden Steve has his mouth at Tony’s ear kissing the earlobe, and then he’s speaking. The whispers travel down Tony’s spine and make him shiver.
“I lost everything when I woke up, Tony. We all have scars. Peggy and Bucky are mine,” he whispers, and he presses another kiss behind Tony’s ear, “I love you, you know that?”
He doesn’t say it back, because the intense wave of fear that this is going to fall apart, that this is going to be another thing he manages to break beats the words back into his throat. Instead, he wraps his arms around Steve’s neck and nods.
There’s a moment where they just stand there in the half light of Steve’s room, holding each other, drinking in the quiet and the silence and the sounds of heartbeats, until Steve abruptly pulls away from Tony and looks down at him.
“You took Clint’s advice?”
Tony scoffs, leaning his head against Steve’s shoulder, “You know, it really was not that terrible, he was very convincing. We might have to promote him to official team therapist. Save on SHIELD medical fees.”
“Yeah, but enjoy having your appointments scheduled in the vents. You know how hard it is to cram your shoulders in there?”
There’s silence, until all of a sudden Tony is laughing, laughing so hard that he’s shaking Steve from the force of it, so hard that when he finally stops to pull in a breath, his eyes are watering.
“What?” Steve asks, baby blues dancing with amusement. Tony just shakes his head.
“Did you follow him in there?”
They argue about that for a while, playful and laughing and hugging, until Tony drags Steve back upstairs to the rec room. Clint and Natasha and Bruce and Thor are all there, curled up in their Designated Spots, and Tony throws himself onto the floor with great gusto. They’re watching Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Tony spends the better half of the movie in Steve’s lap, laughing about the acting and pointing out the inaccuracies with Bruce. About halfway through, he realizes that he doesn’t have it under control after all – the scars are still there and they burn every now and then – but he doesn’t have to have it under control.
And that’s all he needs.