Smile. Laugh. “I’m fine”. Repeat. This was the general routine Tony went through. People often called him selfish, narcissistic and stubborn. All characteristics he would rather be called than caring and broken. God he hates that word, broken. Its not like damaged, where damaged could mean it could be fixed. But broken was just..broken. Left to be discarded and collect dust, a lost cause. He would rather people scold and scowl at him as he passes, slurs yelled at him and blamed for everything that goes wrong, than to be praised and coddled. He tells himself this everyday, he doesn’t need to be hugged, he doesn’t. that would be admitting he’s broken. Worthless. So he locks his feelings away and throws away the key. He throws it away, somewhere he doesn’t want to go, ever. And if he doesn’t want to go there, no one else will either, right? If, on a small chance, someone saw past his carefully constructed facade of sarcasm, no one in their right mind would go looking for what he made sure to bury deep inside of himself. No one.
Then comes New York. And things slowly start to unravel. He can see it in the way the other Avengers tip-toe around him in the tower. Movie nights are suddenly tense, replacing the comfortable silence that once was. Where Clint used to reach for the popcorn bowl in Natasha’s lap, his eyes stuck on the screen, not noticing the smirk on her face as she graduallu moves the bowl inches from his grasp. Where Thor looked thoroughly confused at the movie, Bruce falling asleep on the arm of the couch, and Steve and Tony sitting side by side.
Recent 'move nights' see Tony sitting alone on the chair while Clint fidgets in his seat, the popcorn bowl full on the table, as Natasha squints her eyes at Tony, not even bothering to be subtle, as if she’s trying to figure out a complicated equation. The night usually ends up with Tony excusing himself with his usual citation of being tired. He feels himself begin to fall apart as he looks in the mirror and recoils at what stares back at him. His vision playing tricks on him as shadows- no, chitauri - move in his peripheral vision, causing him to flinch back at nothing, fingers trembling uncontrollably. His hair now a dishevelled mess, purple bags under his eyes.
But still, he denies any problems. Instead, he focuses on his work. The soundproofing in the shop preventing ACDC from quaking the tower. His days in the lab filled with mindless banter and empty threats of donating DUM-E to MIT and JARVIS’ constant recommendations of Tony sleeping, to which he mutes the AI and continues his work feverishly until he finally collapses of exhaustion, a half-empty bottle of something in his hand.
He's not supposed to care. Numb yourself. Auto-amputation so they say. Tony tries to convince himself this is the better way. To save himself from pain, is to become numb. But he can’t, only alcohol can help him with that.
But when faced with a choice of helping himself and others, no matter how much he expects himself- or everyone else does- to save himself, he always finds himself helping others. But before they can thank him or show any gratitude he throws his walls back up and gets back into character. Because he’ll be damned if they see him. He’s narcissistic, and stubborn, he doesn’t play well with others. He doesn’t help others. He only cares about himself. Right?
New York was supposed to be his last time. He decided on a whim and adrenaline-pumped stupor that he was finally going to show them him. Because he wouldn’t be there for their reaction right? Wrong.
“You know thats a one way trip” Cap had warned, knowing Tony knew. He didn’t bother to answer, instead he used all his energy to turn the missile 90 degrees up towards the portal. The ultimate sacrifice, how poetic. Except it wasn’t poetic, he fell from the sky and was revived. When he opened his eyes and saw his team standing over him his heart jumped to his throat and he managed to choke a sarcastic line out, his walls built up in record time. He couldn’t stand the relieved eyes they were looking at him with, they should be full with anger, how could he risk his life like that? A vital part of their team, their income, gone?
Tony's painful reminiscing is cut short as he finds himself facing Steve, the soldier having finally caught Tony while he was returning from his bi-hourly coffee re-fill. He really needed to remember to teach DUM-E how to properly make coffee for him, no motor oil included this time.
Steve stuttered at first, taken aback by Tonys appearance.
“To-“ The genius’ name dying on his tongue as he saw Tony, battered and bruised and- broken. Tony’s dark eyes looked up at him, shadows cast over his face. Still, he smirked and spat sarcasm towards Steve, trying to ignore the flame of guilt in his stomach that ignited.
“Whats the matter Cap? Blown away by my staggering good looks?” He said, but even then there was a raspiness to his voice, betraying his exhaustion.
“Tony,” Steve managed to grit out, pity and remorse dripping from the word. Tony visibly stepped back, placing his hand as sort of a shield in-between them, his mask slipping slightly, allowing a glimpse of some emotion Steve couldn’t read to show.
“Stop,” Tony started, his voice wavering dangerously, “I don’t want to hear it, I know it was stupid to risk my life, risk everyones. If I hadn't come back the team would have no funding."
Steve paused. Trying to process what Tony had just said. Trying to process how the funding even mattered when Tony's life was on the line. Something sharp wedged itself within him at the thought that Tony only viewed himself as a tool for others to use.
“W-What? Tony- Tony what are you talking about? You nearly died.” Tony flinched violently, jaw clenching in a strained effort to prevent the tears that had been building up since his impromptu reveal of his reflection from falling. He failed to see how him nearly dying had any place in this conversation.
"I didn't consult you guys before I acted, I know you hate that" Tony's voice started out as something akin to determination, but fizzled out into a whisper near the end of the sentence. Something about the way he directed it at Steve had the soldiers gut twisting with regret at his usual harsh reprimands towards Tony.
"Tony, you were, you are a hero" Steve urges, taking a step forwards, hand reaching out towards Tony in what he hopes is a placating manner.
“I- risked lives unnecessarily,” Tony whispers, his eyes locked on Steve’s hand. “I made a selfish decision and I risked all our lives, not to mention the property damage I inflicted on countless buildings from crashing through them unnecessarily.”
A sound crawled it's way out of Steves throat, sounding like a wounded animal at the notion of Tony rolling around in these thoughts for so long without the team noticing.
"If I hadn't come back, Fury wouldn't have an easy way to upgrade weapons, or fund research projects, or hire interns, or-"
Tony was rambling, Steve knew this, so instead of responding, his mouth tightened into a line, jaw working before he stepped forward and embraced Tony, ceasing his mindless rambling instantly.
Steve could hear Tony suck in a sharp breath at the sudden position they found themselves in, his entire body stiffening in his hold.
For a few ageless seconds, they stood still. One of Steve's hand held Tony’s head to his shoulder, the other around his back. Their nervous puffs of breath could be heard between them, the entire world narrowing down to this little space in between their bodies.
And then Tony was melting into Steve, his body fitting into the soldiers form, pushing his face into Steve’s collarbone until stars appeared in his vision.
He didn’t know how long it was since he had physical contact with somebody else.