Attending the weekly group therapy sessions is one of Doctor Yejin’s conditions, the one she’s most strict about and absolutely won’t budge on, no matter how much Tony whines and bargains and pleads, or how many totally warranted and not at all childish tantrums he throws about it.
But it’s in Doctor Yejin’s hands if he’ll be deemed fit enough to stay on the board and run his company, so here Tony is once again, sitting in the single most uncomfortable chair in the entire universe, in a stuffy old gymnasium without air conditioning and full of people with stories that make Tony feel like the worst of all overreacting crybabies because holy shit, do they have it worse than him.
Doctor Yejin keeps telling him that downplaying the impact the Afghanistan incident has had on him is the main reason she still hasn’t given him a clean bill of health, that it is what’s preventing him from processing and dealing with his captivity, but how can Tony even start to justify his own issues when he’s faced with what everyone else in the group has been through?
There’s Kelly, the field medic who’s been caught in an explosion and left deaf and blind in one eye. Steve, traumatic brain injury followed by locked-in syndrome for nearly two months. He used to be an army captain, bulky and fit, Tony’s seen pictures, and now he’s this stick of a man, always looking exhausted and worn. Taylor who lost both her legs to a drunk driver. Natalia the Russian, she has escaped a human trafficking ring and given enough hints for Tony to piece together what exactly her and all the other girls had been brought over to the States for.
Even Sam, their counsellor, is still fighting every day after his husband, Riley, got killed in action, and he himself only barely escaped with his life. Tony doesn’t know and definitely won’t ask, but he’s seen the scars peeking out from under his shirt when he stretches to write on the blackboard.
And then there’s Tony with his billions and the immediate medical care he knows some of the others here had to wait weeks, if not months, for. Tony with his weak heart, the nightmares and the occasional panic attack as the only remnants of his time in the cave, Tony who’s the one at fault because he’d been arrogant and stupid and more interested in alcohol and getting laid than what was going on with his own company behind his back.
“Tony?” The mention of his name makes Tony jump and look up to see Sam’s impossibly patient gaze on him. “Is there something you’re ready to share with the rest of us today?”
Tony shakes his head, murmurs, “Not today.”
“That’s okay, no pressure,” Sam reassures him and smiles, making Tony lower his eyes, the shame and guilt twisting his insides into painful knots.
It’s not that Tony can’t talk about it, he’s doing it with Doctor Yejin and, to some extent, Pepper and Rhodey, but if he opens his mouth here, everyone will know that he doesn’t belong.
And as much as Tony complains about these meetings, he’s not sure how he would deal without this constant in his life right now, without the two hours every Wednesday evening during which he doesn’t have to worry about Stark Industries, the board members, Obadiah’s upcoming trial, or anything else but himself.
No, Tony desperately wants to talk, to share, get some things off his chest, but he doesn’t dare.
He only listens with half an ear as the others catch up, Steve telling them about some new art class he’s taking, and Natasha showing off what she’s learned in her English course, staring at his feet and picking at a loose thread on his jeans instead while he tries his best not to do something embarrassing like break down and cry in front of all these virtual strangers.
It’s only when silence falls over the room that Tony glances up again, quickly getting to the bottom of the sudden quiet when he realises that it’s James’ turn to speak.
And James never speaks. The only reason Tony even knows his name is because that’s what Sam calls him.
Apart from that, James is a bit of a mystery. Him and Steve arrive together because they’re friends and roommates, but they leave separately because Steve’s got the late shift during the week. James' face is set in a permanent scowl and his one remaining arm is held almost rigidly in his lap while he listens to the others talk.
He’s also incredibly, breathtakingly gorgeous in a gruff, stubbly, ‘touch me and lose a hand’ sort of way. The Tony of six months ago would have happily ignored the circumstances and made a pass or at least gone in for some flirting but, well.
Tony has gone out on the pull exactly once since his return, finding someone willing within minutes and then freaking out in a gay bar bathroom the moment the guy had touched his junk which, yeah, not very sexy. He hasn’t tried since.
As expected, James doesn’t say a word and the group moves on, the meeting ending with Sam congratulating them on their progress, and reminding everyone that recovery isn’t linear, to not get discouraged by setbacks, and to take one of his cards and call or text him in case of an emergency.
It’s raining when Tony steps outside and he grimaces, pulling his jacket tighter around himself, cursing his own stubbornness and insistence that he doesn’t need Happy to babysit and drive him everywhere because he’s a grown man, thank you very much.
He’s rounding the corner at the end of the street when a car speeds by dangerously close to the sidewalk, tires screeching and water splashing everywhere, instantly soaking Tony from head to toe.
And just like that, Tony freezes, can’t move a muscle, is back with the Ten Rings, people yelling in languages he doesn’t understand, fingers yanking at his hair, pushing his head down, under the water, again and again and again and-
“Tony,” someone says but the person sounds far away and this is wrong, no one here uses his name, no one but Yinsen and Yinsen is- is-
“Hey, man, you’re okay, you’re safe,” comes the same voice again, low and rough yet gentle, somehow. “Whatever you’re seein’, it ain’t real, I promise. You’re in New York, it’s 2015, the weather’s shit but you’re safe, pal.”
Rain. New York.
Tony blinks, confused, scared. “I-“ he tries but his throat’s too dry all of a sudden, and what was he going to say, anyway?
“Yeah, okay,” says a man, the blurred picture of a man. “I’m gonna touch you now, gonna take your arm and get you somewhere dry. I’d appreciate it if you didn’t punch me, that’d be real nice of you.”
Whoever’s walking with him keeps up a stream of nonsensical chatter and one-sided small talk, but it’s enough for Tony to focus on and slowly start pulling himself out of his own mind and back to reality.
When he surfaces, he’s sitting in a booth in the back of a small diner, a little apart from the other customers and with James in the opposite seat, a worried frown on his face which melts into a relieved smile, the first one Tony’s ever seen on him, when he notices Tony looking at him.
“Welcome back,” he says and nudges a steaming cup of hot cocoa a little closer to Tony. “Drink up. Warmth and sugar, oughta help.”
Tony’s hands are trembling too much for him to lift the cocoa, so he simply wraps them around the cup and lets the heat seep into his stiff fingers, grounding him in the here and now.
Eventually, he manages to croak out a weak, “Thanks.”
James just gives a one-shouldered shrug, apparently completely unbothered by having had to drag a barely functioning Tony through the city. “Don’t worry ‘bout it. Last week, I lost my shit over some tomatoes and nearly decked a cashier. Wasn’t pretty, but stuff like that happens.”
“Right,” Tony says slowly, then, because he’s obviously an idiot, adds, “You’re talking.”
James’ mouth twitches, in amusement Tony hopes, but before he can answer, a waitress appears out of nowhere to take their orders, startling Tony enough to spill his cocoa, his heart rate picking up again and his vision going grey around the edges.
But James is right there, throwing some napkins down on the table to catch the liquid and exchanging a few words with the spooked waitress, turning over and offering his hand for Tony to take. Which Tony does, clinging to it like it’s a lifeline, dimly aware that his nails digging into James’ palm are probably hurting James, but unable to let go, the skin to skin contact feeling too good.
He has no idea how much time has passed with James’ thumb stroking over his knuckles and James talking to him again, mostly complaining about Steve in a half annoyed, half fond tone, when James gives their linked hands a little tug to get more of Tony’s attention.
“Our food’s coming,” he warns, for which Tony is unspeakably grateful, even managing to shoot the waitress a shaky smile before she moves on.
“Thanks. Again,” Tony sighs, briefly closing his eyes and taking a few deep, steadying breaths.
“’S fine, don’t mention it,” James dismisses him, but not unkindly. There’s definitely amusement in his voice when he drawls, “Kinda need this to eat, though.”
Feeling himself blush, Tony lets go of James’ hand and picks up a fry, mumbling another, “Sorry.”
“Nothin’ to be sorry for,” James insists, moaning extremely prettily as he takes a bite of his burger. After swallowing, he says, replying to Tony’s earlier non-question, “And yeah, I talk. Just don’t like doin’ it in group. It’s always the same, people either pitying me or judgin’ me, and I can do without both.
Tony gives a humourless chuckle. “Same here.”
“Steve says I’m bein’ dumb,” James goes on, “and he’s usually right about this stuff, so you’re probably bein’ dumb, too.”
“And here I was starting to like you,” Tony laughs, genuine this time. “Still, this isn’t the worst advice I’ve ever gotten, so, thanks, I guess?”
James grins, even throws in a playful wink. “You’re welcome. I’m nice like that.”
Tony grins right back. “I’m getting the feeling you’re kind of an asshole.”
“Well,” James says, considering that for a moment before smirking. “You’re not wrong.”
It takes another three weeks, but with James sitting pressed against his side and allowing him to clutch his hand, Tony answers Sam’s weekly inquiry with, “Yeah, there’s something I’d like to share. I’m kind of sick of being dumb.”
James squeezes his hand and promises Sam that he’ll try next week when it’s his turn to speak.
Later, over burgers and milkshakes in their new favourite diner, James kisses the top of Tony’s head and mumbles, muffled by Tony’s hair, “I’m proud of you.”
“You too,” Tony whispers back, tucking his face into James’ neck so James can feel his smile.