Obadiah had tried to tell the world that part of Tony Stark had never really returned from Afghanistan. Granted, in saying that, he’d been trying to get Tony locked out of his own company and weasel his way into warlord territory, but still. As much as Pepper didn’t want to admit it, he’d been right.
Tony didn’t sleep. And not just the usual ‘camping out in the workshop for 36 hours and forgetting to eat’ kind of thing. This was more of a ‘chronic insomnia and night terrors’ kind of thing.
He’d never given much thought to bad memories in the past; he was used to pushing his away and not dealing with them. But these memories were bigger and badder and much harder to ignore.
It was the little memories that got to him the most- how they crept into everyday life and wormed their way into whatever sense of normalcy he was trying to craft for himself in the aftermath of Afghanistan-
How heavy those jumper cables had been, connected to his chest and the car battery.
How the NG tube had rubbed his throat so raw and swollen he’d thought he was choking when he first opened his eyes.
How damned cold those caves had been, despite being in the middle of a desert in the Middle East.
How fists pounding on doors echoed in his skull.
How that blinking red light in the corner of his peripheral vision reminded him that he was always, constantly being watched.
Reminders of those little moments would creep up on him when he was least expecting it- blur his vision and suck air from his lungs and make him forget how to breathe. It could be something as simple as DUM-E dropping a wrench, and there he was, back in that goddamned cave.
The big moments hit him most often at night, when the lights were out and creeping shadows morphed into Yinsen’s bloody body slumped on the floor or Raza waiting in the shadows. Attempts at sleeping brought flashbacks and night terrors, ones that left Tony shaking and panting and covered in a sheen of sweat that made him shiver.
So instead he just didn’t sleep. He worked in the lab until he was so drained he passed out on the couch and had JARVIS wake him up in 20 minute intervals to make sure he never made it into REM territory.
“Sir, this current sleeping pattern is extremely unhealthy. I would recommend at least a few hours at a time and not working to the point of exhaustion.”
At this point, Tony would mute JARVIS until his next alarm went off.
Pepper walked in on one of these relay style nap sessions early one morning. She rapped on the glass outside the lab before rolling her eyes and punching in her code.
At the sound of the door opening, Tony shot upright and gasped awake, throwing off the blanket he’d draped across his legs. “Jesus, Pepper- a little warning might be nice!”
“I knocked.” Pepper frowned and took a sip of her coffee.
Tony swung his feet onto the floor and rubbed his eyes with the palms of both hands, running fingers through his sweaty hair. He absentmindedly raised a hand to clutch the bottom of the arc reactor as he attempted to breathe his way back to the present.
“Tony, are you okay? Because you most certainly do not look okay? JARVIS, how has Tony been sleeping?”
“Sir has slept for 98 minutes in the past 48 hours, never for more than 13 at a time.”
“Can it, J, or I’m donating you and DUM-E to city college.” The AI didn’t respond.
“Tony.” Pepper sighed and set down her coffee to rub at a headache blossoming between her eyes. “I shouldn’t need to explain to you why this is a bad idea.”
“Why? I’ve made a lot of progress on the suit and I’ve made some much-needed upgrades to the arc reactor. Gotta keep this thing going.” Tony tapped a spot on his chest next to the reactor, where his heart was kept beating millimeters away from fatal shrapnel.
“You’ve also gotta keep this thing going.” Pepper reached to tap Tony’s head, but he ducked out of her grasp and took a large slurp of her coffee. “Honestly?”
He nodded and took another gulp. “I must have super soldier metabolism or something; caffeine barely does anything for me anymore.”
“You know what would do something for you? Sleep. And food. And hygiene.” Pepper wrinkled her nose. “You know what? I refuse to do this today. You have meetings to deal with, things to sign, Rhodey needs you for a press conference, and a few engineers from R & D are upstairs with some plans for the factory arc reactor. Give me this.” She snatched her coffee cup out of Tony’s grasp, stalked across the room, and dumped it down the sink.
“Oh, and JARVIS?” She snapped.
“Yes, Miss Potts?”
“Try to keep Tony from self-destructing while I handle an art auction today.”
Pepper slapped a file of unsigned documents marked ‘Urgent’ next to a disassembled engine on Tony’s workbench and stalked out of the lab. He waited for the echo of her high heels to disappear up the stairs before he said, “DUM-E, brew another pot of coffee. JARVIS, bring up the Mark II specs.”
“Right away, sir.”
During the Ivan Vanko and associated palladium disaster, both Rhodey and Pepper had tried to force Tony to slow down. He was tired, and they could tell. But almost dying does that to a guy.
They didn’t understand that dying wasn’t something that one sat back and quietly watched; it was a challenge- a race (not unlike the one in which he had first met Vanko). High speed. Breathless. Terrifying. Unlikely to result in a happy ending.
Having that ticking time bomb inside him, that reminder every time he stuck his finger, was like a promise Tony made to himself. ‘If I can’t engineer my way out of this one, I’m damn well going to make sure that I have a good time on the way down.’ There were so many things he still wanted to do, and the fact that he wouldn’t get the chance to make it to the end of that list made him feel sicker than the palladium near his heart, which was really saying something. Starks did not tolerate missed opportunities.
“Tony, can you at least please try and pretend to be a responsible adult for once in your life?” Pepper was full-on screaming at this point, red creeping up her neck and chest and blossoming across her cheeks. “I almost watched you die today at the hands of that, that- maniac!”
“Let’s be honest, Pep- that was not the dumbest thing you’ve watched me do.” Tony clicked the armor suitcase shut and tugged off the charred remains of his racing gloves. He was glad he’d foregone the neck brace typically worn by racecar drivers, or else he would have had a hell of a time getting the helmet on.
“No, but it was certainly up there! I prefer not to have to rick my life at every fundraiser we attend together!”
“Happy was there- so was the suit. When those two things are together, nothing can get either one of us.”
“You’re luck is going to run out one day, Tony. I just hope I’m not there to watch.”
Instead of patching himself up and letting Pepper talk him into dinner and a night in front of mindless TV, he shrugged her off and left her tapping through emails on her StarkPad. He retired to the workshop, where he set about repairing the Mark II armor and trying not to think about how Vanko had gotten his hands on the technology to build his own arc reactor in the middle of bumfuck nowhere.
It was his fault; it had to be. No-one had control of that technology besides him, and Tony’s actions alone were responsible for it showing up across the world.
So far, failed attempts at recreating his armor. But today, in Spain. Today had been the world’s second success. He had been the first, of course, but this one was arguably far more dangerous. Tony had many flaws, but he was not a delusional mass murderer. He had that going for him, at least.
A news reel played gently in the background, commentary dull amidst the thundering of his lab playlist. But it was there nonetheless, flashes of exploding cars and Vanko’s whips crashing through civilians.
‘If you could make God bleed, people will cease to believe in him.’
‘All I have to do is sit back and watch as the world consumes you.’
‘There will be blood in the water and sharks will come.’
Ivan was loud. Crashing cars were loud. Explosions were loud. Screaming civilians were loud. Pepper and Happy screaming in that car were louder still. But the voice in Tony’s head was loudest of them all- thundering around inside his skull until he was sure the headache associated with it was going to fracture his skull or rupture his eardrums. Or both.
This was Tony’s fault. He should have been more responsible with the arc reactor technology, should have held his armor closer and kept it under heavier lock and key. Everything that happened at Monaco today- that was his fault. Everyone who died- they were his responsibility.
He could have done something. If he’d had the armor with him in the car. If he’d used his brain for half a second and not driven the car at all. He could have responded quicker. He could have kept Pepper much farther from harm’s way.
“Tony, look at me.”
He could have been more, done more. Vanko’s whips had killed a lot of people today, but the blood was on Tony’s hands.
Someone was crouched on the ground in front of him, prying a screwdriver from his white-knuckled grip. Wait, why was he on the ground? He’d been sitting at his desk just a minute ago.
The AI switched off both the music and the TV, and Tony’s eyes were able to focus long enough to realize that Pepper was the one on the floor with him, worry wearing her skin pale and thin.
“Tony? You with me?” Her tone was gentle and soothing as she reached out to smooth his sweaty hair, tuck a few strands behind his ear.
“What? Y-yeah, I, I’m good.” He scrubbed his face with his hands and tried to forcibly push the intrusive thoughts out of his skull. He’d learned after Afghanistan that that most certainly didn’t work, but it was worth a shot. Anything to get his brain to quiet the fuck down. He couldn’t concentrate when everything was so loud.
“Tony, what was that?”
His hand instinctively strayed up to the arc reactor, where he thumbed the bottom of the metal. Could it be the core? No, he’d just swapped it out yesterday. He knew the palladium was getting to him, but not like this. This was something different.
“Nothing. Nothing, Pep- I’m fine.”
“Cut the bullshit, Tony.” She rocked back onto the heels of her feet and crossed her arms. “Give me a little credit; I’m not that stupid.”
“No. No, I know that. Pepper, you’re, uh, very smart. Why do you think I gave you an entire company?” It had, in fact, been another panic attack, but Tony wasn't about to tell Pepper that. He scooted back from her so his back was pressed up against the cool metal of his workbench. His eyes flashed to the TV screen across the room, which was still off. Pepper followed his gaze and sighed.
“Don’t pay any attention to that stuff, Tony. You know it doesn’t mean anything.”
“But it does! It means everything, Pepper, because it’s all my fault!”
“What are you talking about? You’re not here one who invited Whiplash to Monaco.”
“Maybe not, but I might as well of! He had one of these!” Tony tapped his arc reactor through his T-shirt. “He had a piece of me! And he turned it into- into my worst nightmare!” He stood up and used one hand to steady himself against the desk, wishing his chest would stop aching and remember how to breathe at least semi-normally.
“H-he took my tech and he turned it into a weapon of mass destruction! I might as well have signed my name on the blueprints, Pep!” He slammed a fist down on the workbench, making all his stray tools jump and a few clang to the floor. Pepper flinched as a wrench bounced a few inches from her head. “Shit, sorry. God, I-“
“Tony, stop. Just stop talking. Can you do that for like, a minute and a half?” She extended an arm, and Tony helped her up off the floor, resting a hand on her waist to steady her as she regained her balance on three-inch heels. “Come here.”
She gathered his head in her hands and pulled him close to her chest. Tony stiffened at first before allowing himself to be pulled close to her, close enough to smell her French perfume (perfume he’d probably bought her). She kneaded gentle fingers into the back of his neck, digging into knots of anxiety bubbling up in his muscles that nearly made him groan.
“Breathe,” she whispered. “This was not your fault. Sure, his designs were based on yours, but generic Poptarts aren’t nearly as good as the original, are they?”
“This is so much bigger than breakfast pastries, Pep.”
“It was just a metaphor.” She sighed before gently lifting Tony’s chin to force him to look into her eyes. “You did not do that.” She gestured blindly at the TV. “You did, however, do this.” She pointed at his arc reactor and the armor lining the walls of the workshop in their glass cases. “You gave the world a gift, Tony. It’s not your fault it doesn’t entirely know how to handle it yet.”
“I should have kept it to myself if the world wasn’t ready yet.”
“If you had, who knows how many more people would have died today? How many more people would have died at the hands of the Ten Rings? And Obadiah? You need to get out of that head of yours, Tony. It’s a brilliant place but it’s also tearing you apart.”
He nodded. “I’m too tired to even attempt to argue with you right now.”
“That can’t be a good sign. JARVIS, how much sleep has Tony gotten this week?”
“Sir has slept a total of –”
“If the answer ends in ‘minutes’ instead of ‘hours,’ I don’t want to know.”
The AI remained silent.
“I want to stop thinking, Pepper. It’s all too loud. I can-I can’t breathe these days. Everything is too much.”
“I know. Come on, let’s go to bed.” Pepper steered Tony towards the door. “I won’t let anyone get to you tonight, I promise.”
In which Pepper begins to realize how big of a mess Tony is post-Chitauri invasion.
Even with Pepper holding him that night, Tony didn’t sleep. He tried, he really did- even drifted off a few times. But every time he did, he woke up sweating and shaking and frantically searching for something to ground him in reality.
Then New York happened. And he really couldn’t sleep.
‘I’m a piping hot mess. It’s been going on for a while, I haven’t said anything.’
‘Nothing’s been the same since New York.’
‘You experience things, and then they’re over and you still can’t explain ‘em. Gods, aliens, other dimensions. I…I’m just a man in a can. The only reason I haven’t cracked up is probably because you moved in. Which is great. I love you, I’m lucky. But, honey, I can’t sleep. You go to bed, I come down here. I do what I know; I tinker.’
‘But threat is imminent, and I have to protect the one thing I can’t live without. That’s you, Pepper.’
Tinkering was a great distraction, but that’s all it was- a distraction. And a temporary one at that. While it may temporarily take his mind off the voices screaming in his brain, it only meant they sounded so much louder when they returned.
They always did. Whenever he paused- to eat or sleep or breathe. He had to stay busy, or else they would creep in and ruin the façade Tony had crafted so carefully for himself. It was cracking, but he still had appearances to keep up. Starks always did.
The thing he hated the most was that the thoughts, the panic- they would show up when he was least prepared to deal with them. Lunch with Rhodey. Driving down the highway. Movies with Pepper. He could (maybe) handle things better if he had a bit of warning, but panic attacks didn’t exactly schedule appointments. Therapists did, as Pepper pointed out constantly, but panic attacks most certainly followed no schedule other than their own.
They weren’t something he could bargain with or ignore or engineer his way out of. Tony had been able to invent his way out of most problems- Afghanistan, palladium poisoning, hell- even an alien attack and a crazy son of a bitch blowing his house into the Pacific Ocean. He couldn’t even drink his way out of this problem, which he had most certainly tried, and was extremely disappointed in a certain Jack Daniels when it didn’t work.
Tony was tired. His body was exhausted because it never got more than half an hour of sleep at a time, but most of all his brain was exhausted, from spinning in circles constantly and never, ever shutting up. Tony was so goddamned tired of thinking, and that was saying something for someone who had made millions thinking his way to the top of the weapons and technology industries.
“Tony, come to bed.”
He held up a finger. “But Mark 42 is acting up again, and damn it if I’m going to let the problem child throw a temper tantrum without disciplining him. That's how you raise spoiled kids, you know?”
Pepper had shed her CEO-ness for the day, dressed in one of Tony’s old grease-stained T-shirts and soft pink sweatpants. She held out a hand and waited expectantly for him at the door to the lab.
“I’m too wired, Pep. I can’t. I’ll just keep you up tossing and turning.”
“We don’t need to be asleep to toss and turn.”
“We.” She smiled. “Come on, you look…tense.”
“Sir, I would very much recommend calorie intake. It’s been-”
“Hey, J- nobody asked you.”
“Miss Potts did, sir.”
“What did she do, set a timer?”
“Actually, yes, sir. She did.”
Tony groaned and waved a hand JARVIS wouldn’t pay any mind to. The thought of food these days made him want to vomit, violently. His stomach clenched and his throat seized when Pepper suggested Italian or even an old favorite- greasy Chinese food from the place around the corner that knew his order by heart. Especially greasy Chinese.
He instead opted for his favorite combination- alcohol and caffeine (often in that order). He’d long stopped feeling any energy boost from the caffeine, but it kept his neurons firing along to the tune of a pleasant, bitter buzz he’d grown accustomed to, like some sort of neurotic soundtrack.
The alcohol did much the same, though its numbing effects were more what Tony was after. Anything to forget, to stop thinking for more than a few seconds at a time. Anything for some semblance of relief, damn the hangover the next morning. He’d rather spend the energy on being drunk than having nightmares.
“Sir, I really must insist you consume some form of susten-“
“I’m sorry, JARVIS, who programmed you? Me, or Pepper?” Silence. “Me, that’s right. Now bring up the Mark 42 specs again, the thrusters misfired spectacularly during our last test flight.”
Despite how shaky he felt, the nausea won, and Tony skipped whatever meal this was supposed to be. Lunch, dinner- he wasn’t sure. It didn’t matter, either, because Pepper wasn’t home to bug him and wouldn’t be for a while; she had a board meeting at seven, and God only knew how late that disaster would drag on.
Pepper finally got home around eleven, staggered in through the door on heels digging into her aching ankles. She kicked off her shoes by the front door and collapsed on the couch, shrugging off her jacket and ditching the belt that had been squeezing an ache in her side all day.
“Miss Potts, I believe sir requires some assistance in the lab.”
“What does he need me for, another pat on the back?”
“No, Miss Potts. I do believe you may want to hurry.”
When even the AI managed to sound concerned, Pepper knew something was wrong. She rushed down the tower’s elevator and into the lab, heart pounding in her ears. She didn’t even need her code to get into the workshop- JARVIS had left it open.
“Tony?” He wasn’t seated at his desk, nor stationed near the coffee pot in the corner of the room. She found him instead on the floor, pale and shaky and staring at nothing.
“Oh my God, Tony!” Pepper rushed over to him and picked up his head in her hands, brushing through his sweaty hair and trying to force him to look her in the eye. “Tony, what’s wrong? JARVIS, anything?”
“Sir has not eaten since yesterday at 12:54 p.m. and as such his blood sugar has reached a critically low level of 46.”
“Jesus, Tony,” Pepper hissed. “Sit up, come on.”
“Pep, I don’t feel so good,” Tony moaned, visibly dizzy.
“Yeah, I’m sure you don’t.” She shot him a glare he likely paid no mind to and rushed upstairs. She grabbed a bottle of orange juice from the fridge and a sleeve of saltines. “Drink. Eat. Now. Not an option.”
Tony didn’t even try arguing with her, just took the orange juice, opened it with wavering hands, and took a sip before resting his head against the back of the workbench.
“You have to care about yourself more than this. I can’t worry you’re going to pass out on the floor every time I leave to go to work.”
“I don’t," he nearly whispered.
“What? Pass out on the floor? Evidently you do.”
“Care about myself. More than this.” Tony gestured with the bottle at his pale form on the floor. “Can’t be bothered. Don’t deserve it.”
Pepper tried hard not to show how much those few sentences broke her heart. Here was the man who saved New York, who was willing to make the ultimate sacrifice, the man who saved millions of lives, and he still thought he didn’t deserve to be happy. To feel loved. Safe.
“Tony, have I ever lied to you?”
“Not when it really mattered.”
“You best believe it. Now look at me when I tell you that this,” she gestured at him, “matters. You matter. You need to believe me when I say this, because I mean every word. You are a hero, and you deserve to be as happy as the people you saved.”
“But I’m not a hero, Pep! That’s what you don’t understand! Sure I got rid of the nuke, but thousands of people still died that day. Why? Because I wasn’t quick enough to figure Loki out. If we’d used our brains from the beginning, his plan might not have gotten as far as it did! That wormhole might never have even showed up! I wasn’t good enough! This Avenger wasn't good enough!”
“What about Steve? And Natasha? And Bruce? And Clint? Were they good enough? Do they deserve to be happy?”
At this Tony was silent.
“I shouldn’t have survived, Pepper. But I did and now I don’t know what to do about it. I wasn’t supposed to have a future and now I do and that’s terrifying. It’s like I’m living time I stole from somebody else, and I don’t deserve this time.”
“A lot of things happened that shouldn’t have,” Pepper said, using teeth to tear open the sleeve of crackers and pushing them towards Tony. “Alien invasions. Wormholes. Nukes launched at a city of innocent people. None of that should have happened, or even been possible. But it did, and it was. Now the entire world has to deal with that knowledge. So trust me when I say that while you may have been the only one who flew into that wormhole, you are not alone.”
“There was nothing in there, you know.”
Pepper shook her head.
“Sure, there was a fleet of deadly aliens. But there was no air or light or life. It was this perfect nothing. And I see it- feel it- every time I close my eyes. That’s why I don’t sleep. When I wake up I’m falling. Just falling, all the time. That’s why I forget to eat and do all the normal human things. It’s hard to put out the fire on your jacket sleeve when the whole forest is on fire.”
“That’s where you’re wrong, Tony. You don’t start with the forest. You start with yourself.” Pepper took him in her arms and wiped away the hot tears that rolled down his cheeks.
“It’s okay. I’ve got you, and I’m not gonna let anything else happen to you. You’re here to protect me, but you have to let me return the favor occasionally, yeah? I’m here; I’ll help you put out the fires. They can’t burn forever.”
“Are you sure?”
Pepper glanced at the view of the city out the window of the lab. Blocks of destruction roped off by yellow police tape. Entire buildings ripped up from the foundation. Slabs of street reduced to gravel. Smoke clearing from the horizon.
In which Rhodey tries (and fails) to help.
“I suppose you’re here with marching orders. Whose? SHIELD’s?”
“You know damn well if SHIELD wanted you for something I wouldn’t be the one they sent.” Rhodey stepped onto Tony and Pepper’s (rebuilt, not decimated) floor of the Tower and eyed his friend, still dressed in a ratty tank top and baggy sweatpants. “Besides, I thought your ‘marching orders’ from SHIELD were to clean up this mess.”
“Which one? That one?” Tony pointed vaguely at the window.
Rhodey laughed. “No, the bigger mess. This one.” He used two arms to gesture wildly at Tony- scruffy and in need or a shower or a shave or both.
“SHIELD is leaving us alone for the moment. At least I hope so. I’ve seen enough of Fury’s face to last six lifetimes.”
“Seriously, man.” Rhodey took in the sight of the bedroom, sans Pepper. She was at the office, coordinating cleanup efforts with agencies and organizations all over New York. In her absence, Rhodey would have expected Tony to be in the lab, but here he was in their bedroom, sheets rumpled, blinds drawn, a sweaty glass on the bedside table. “Don’t bullshit me. I know you well enough to see through that in a heartbeat.”
“Come on, honeybear. Give me a little credit.” Tony offered a weak smile, but it did nothing to cover up the sallow cheekbones and deep, bruise-like bags that sunk in under his eyes. Nevermind the physical bruises, those would go away. It was the invisible ones he was far more worried about.
“Look, did Pepper send you? Because I really don’t need another babysitter right now, thanks.”
“No, you don’t need a babysitter. You need a friend.”
“You honestly think a friend is gonna help put New York back together?”
“I think it could help put you back together.”
“Rhodey, look, I’m really not in the mood right now. I need to head down to the lab; I have a lot of shit I need to work on and you are very much in my way.”
“I don’t care about the lab, Tony; I care about you. You haven’t been okay since New York. Not since you shouldered a fucking nuke and flew into space.”
“Jesus Christ, Rhodey! I don’t need you to tell me that!” Tony shot up from his spot on the bed and started pacing the floor with his back to the window. He worried his hands on the seam of his sweatpants and tried to concentrate on not hyperventilating.
“You can’t honestly believe that you can keep going the way you are and expect to be okay! From what Pepper’s told me, you’re either going to end up passed out from exhaustion or alcohol poisoning, and quite honestly, I don’t want to watch you destroy yourself!”
“There’s the door!” Tony spun on his heel and levelled his face a few inches from his friend’s. “No-one is asking you to stick around. I’m not asking anyone to fix me; I can handle that by myself.”
Rhodey sighed and dropped his voice to a near whisper. “I don’t think you can.”
Tony huffed and stalked back to the track he was wearing into the thick carpet.
“Do you think I’ve never seen PTSD? Known what it feels like? I’m a solider, Tony.”
“Nobody is immune, not even Iron Man. This is not weakness.”
“Really? Then what is it?”
“It’s your body and your brain trying to process what happened, and not necessarily working together to get the job done. Your brain is overwhelmed, and while you might not be asking for help, it is.”
“Well it can fuck off. Starks don’t need help. And even if they do, they certainly don’t ask for it.”
“We all do. Why do you think Fury formed the Avenger Initiative? He needed help.”
“Well I’ll bet Fury sleeps when his head hits the pillow at night. And I’ll bet Captain-fucking-America can remember to breathe when someone talks about World War II. Natasha is fucking untouchable, so don’t even get me started on her.”
“They all have something, Tony. And that doesn’t make it a weakness. It just makes them human. Well, mostly human.” Rhodey sighed and rubbed a hand the back of his aching head. “You don’t have to do this by yourself. What do you say?”
“I say fuck off, Rhodey.”
When the door slid shut behind Rhodey, Tony buried his face in his hands and let the panic escape in one bottled-up gasp. He pounded a fist on the bed, but it didn’t hurt nearly enough to make him feel any better, so he picked up his whiskey tumbler and hurled it at the headboard, not even flinching when shards of glass bounced back up his hand and made tiny, fiberglass-esque cuts in his forearm.
“JARVIS, did Rhodey leave?”
“Colonel Rhodes is pulling away in his car now, sir.”
“Good. Lock the damn door.”
Tony held a precision screwdriver in his teeth, ACDC once more blasting through the labs’ speakers, courtesy of JARVIS. The whole room was a blissful cacophony of drums and guitar and bass that vibrated behind his eyes with a pleasant, humming pain. He’d been working since Rhodey left, attempting to recalibrate the motion-detector and tracking sensors in one of the Mark XVII gauntlets. He preferred not getting hit in the face every time he had to call the armor from across the room.
He was on edge, hairs on the back of his neck standing on end for no reason. He’d pushed how workbench up against the far wall, so he could keep an eye on the whole room while he was working. He tried to ignore the window, the one Loki had pushed him out of a few weeks ago. He tried to ignore the dull ache of stitches on the side of his face, the bruises still wrapped around either side of his ribs underneath his shirt.
DUM-E was over in the corner of the lab, pulsing some green protein powder in the blender despite his protests that he was far from hungry. The bot attempted the get a glass out of the cabinet, but it fumbled in his mechanical grasp and shattered on the floor.
That was all it took. A broken drinking glass. And there he was, back in the middle of it all-
Loki pushing him out that window, glass shattering and echoing in his eardrums.
Civilians screaming as their city fell around them.
Cap and Natasha and Clint panting and cursing and over the com link, drawing the fight to the span of a few blocks so Tony had a chance to grab the nuke and divert it away from Manhattan.
And that goddamned nuke. So heavy on his shoulders. And hot. God, the thing had been so hot he’d felt it even through the suit. So hot and so heavy and then nothing. Nothing in that wormhole. No oxygen, no sound. Just inky black space and then fire as the force of the exploding Chitauri spaceships sent him crashing back down onto his own planet.
“..ir? Sir, my diagnostics reveal you are having another panic attack.”
JARVIS’s voice pierced through the flashback, muffled and far away like it had just been pulled out of the rubble that remained after the battle.
“Sir? If your vitals do not stabilize soon, I will need to notify Miss Potts.”
There had been so much of it- rubble. Afterwards. Dead people- police, army, civilians. Blood, too. Lots of it. Steve had a slice to the abdomen and another on his arm. Clint’s back and upper arms looked like he’d been hit with buckshot after crashing through a window. Natasha had her lip near split in two, and a litany of bruises she refused to let anyone treat. Of course the Big Guy was fine. And Thor was a god, so he was fine. But there were so many people that hadn’t made it out of New York fine that day. So many people who didn’t make it out at all.
The fact that Tony had made it out was a complete mistake. Some hilariously un-funny cosmic fuck-up. Like Steve had said, it was a one- way trip. Should have been.
“Tony? JARVIS called, what’s wrong?” Pepper’s voice echoed through the speakers in the lab. “Tony? You have to talk to me. I’m on my way home right now, but I need to know what’s going on.”
“New York,” he muttered, almost without realizing.
“What? Speak up.”
“New York. New York- that’s what’s happening.”
Pepper’s voice was so far away. So muffled, like she was the one wearing the faceplate this time.
“Tony, I need you to stop whatever it is you’re doing and look out the window. Stand up, right now, and go look out the window. There is no wormhole. No spaceships. No aliens. This is not happening now, it’s over. Tony? You with me?”
Tony glanced up and out the window. The city was still standing, still bruised and wounded and trying to piece itself back together. But Pepper was right. The sky was intact. There was no wormhole, no space creatures. Not even Thor.
He glanced around and realized he was on the floor again, in the corner of the lab next to DUM-E and the puddle of green protein shake in the kitchenette. He was crouched in the broken glass, hands bleeding where he’d clenched them around a few shards in some attempt to bring himself back to reality.
“Tony? You there?” Finally, he could hear Pepper clearly. He took a deep breath through aching lungs and cleared his throat. When he voice finally reappeared, it was hoarse, like he’d just woken up after eight hours of sleep. Not that he could remember the last time that had happened.
“Yeah, Pep; I’m here.”
She sighed in relief. “What happened? You okay? You with me?”
“I’m with you.”
“Are you okay?”
“I’m okay.” His responses were robotic, automatic, like someone else was flying Tony’s brain and his body was along for the ride, stuck on auto-pilot.
“I’ll be home in five, okay?”
“Home in five. Okay.”
That was how Pepper found Tony, staring at nothing in the corner of his lab, hands still bleeding.
“Tony! Oh God.” He glanced at her, eyes empty and sunken into his skull. “Come here. I’ve got you.” She drew him against her, not caring when he wrapped his arms around her suit and streaked blood on her blazer. She took his face in her hands and wiped tears tracked down his cheeks with her thumbs.
“Rhodey stop by earlier?”
“Did Rhodey come over earlier? Think, Tony. Try to remember.”
He nodded, eyebrows furrowed together like he was confused and having to think far too hard about her question.
“What did you have for breakfast this morning?”
She sighed. “Okay, do this for me. Feel my coat. What does it feel like?” She guided his hands to the lining of her blazer.
“Soft. It’s soft. You have…good taste.”
“Yes, I know.” She allowed herself a soft smile.
“You smell good. Hey, I bought you that perfume.”
“There you are. You back?”
Tony shook his head and made to rub at his eyes with the palms of his hands before Pepper caught them by each wrist. “You dissociated pretty hard there. Flashback?”
“They getting worse?”
Tony ducked his head and tried to wiggle out of her grip.
“Tony.” Her tone, however reprimanding was gentle enough for him to visibly relax his shoulders. “Are they getting worse?”
“I’m no hero, Tony, but met more than a few in my life and I’ve learned a few things- chief among them being that you can’t do things by yourself. You don’t have to. The Avengers are a plural entity for a reason. I’m pretty sure not any one of you could have saved New York by yourselves, but you did together.”
“Natasha could have. Her glares are scary enough that we shouldn’t have needed the nuke.”
Pepper smiled into Tony’s hair, breathing in his shampoo and faded aftershave mixed with motor grease.
“You get what I’m saying.”
“I can’t be an Avenger if I can’t even deal with my own brain by myself.”
“There’s no rule book, last time I checked.”
“Maybe not, but Fury has common sense! Why would he want to keep around some useless chunk of metal who needs Prozac to get out of bed in the morning when he could have his pick of, oh, I don’t know, Captain- fucking- America.”
“The fact that you could possibly see yourself as a liability is beyond me. Plus, your armor is not the only thing that saved the world a few times. Your brain is pretty useful, too.”
“When it’s not convincing me I’m dying.”
“We can work on that.”
In which Pepper recruits Natasha, and she does what she does best- intimdates people (Tony) until she gets what she wants (or he needs).
Slight trigger warning for this chapter- Natasha briefly mentions suicide and beind on a suicide mission, but doesn't go into too much detail. Stay safe when reading, and let me know what you think. I don't know how long this fic is going to be, but I will keep making regular updates (every few days or so) until it's done!
His music was so loud that Tony didn’t notice when the elevator slid open ono the other side of the floor, and a certain SHIELD agent stepped out. She pounded on the glass, flashing red hair catching in his peripheral vision.
“You’ve got to be kidding me. JARVIS, I thought I told you not to let anyone else in!”
“You did sir, but Agent Romanoff has overridden my protocols with Miss Potts’ permission.”
“Lovely.” Sending Rhodey to kick his ass into gear was one thing. Siccing easily the scariest Avenger on him, however, was a different ballgame altogether. Tony would rather deal with an angry Thor any day. Hell, even The Big Guy was debatably easier to manage than a pissed-off Natalie Rushman.
“Hello, Natashalie.” She scowled and slapped a manila file on his workbench.
“That’s for you, from Coulson.”
“I thought, according to Fury, we’d ‘earned a leave of absence.’ Honestly, he’s such an ungrateful little-”
“It’s not a mission, and it's not from Fury."
“You mean you voluntarily walked into Stark Tower and the world isn’t ending?”
She shrugged in that way he knew meant more than he could understand. Even the way she shifted her eyebrow, cocked that glare at him out of the corner of her eye, was enough to tell him he was in some deep shit.
“You aren’t taking advantage of your vacation?” he asked.
“I might be an Avenger, but I also have the unique pleasure of working for Fury, so I am still at his beck and call. So’s Clint.”
“I feel bad for you two.” Tony scoffed.
“Funny.” She looked far from amused. “Open the damn file, Tony.”
“Yikes. First names. I’m in big trouble now. How many lawsuits are in that folder?” He gestured vaguely with a screwdriver. Natasha shot him a glare so toxic he feared it was laced with an airborne poison. He opened the damn file-
‘SHIELD Mental Health Services’
-and promptly snapped it shut again.
“Fury’s not looking to get rid of you, if that’s what you think this is. He doesn’t expect to send his arsenal of superheroes into battle and them come out the other side unscathed.”
“Am I what?”
“I was trained for this. You, however, were not. Huge difference.”
“Was that supposed to make me feel better? Because it felt more like an insult.”
“Look,” Natasha set her jaw and pushed a stray curl out of her face. “Everyone involved in the Avengers Initiative has stumbled into something they weren’t entirely prepared for, Red Room or SHIELD or military- trained or not. None of us are ‘okay’ in the traditional sense but that’s why we work so well together. You have to be a little unhinged to stare down a legion of Chitauri and then willingly walk into the firefight. ‘Normal’ people run away in that situation.”
“I think I qualify as a little more than ‘unhinged.’ And we all know I am not normal.” Tony cleared his throat. “Wait, was that your way of opening up to me? I’m touched.”
She scowled at him. “I get it everything is a joke to you, but this is serious, so drop the act for five minutes.” Natasha lowered her voice and took a seat on a spare rolly chair on the other side of his workbench. “Pepper called me. I know you’re not sleeping. Trust me, Stark, I know what it’s like to get stuck in your own head. As much as I don’t like admitting it, I also know that you can’t be expected to sort through the shitshow yourself. It doesn’t work.”
“Admitting your weakness is the first step in other people seeing it.”
Natasha sighed and kneaded her temples with calloused fingers. “When the Red Room recruited me as a little girl, I was too young to understand what was happening. I couldn’t recognize that they were taking the ‘me’ out of me and stuffing something else in. The person they stuck in here-“ she tapped her skull “-did terrible things. Bloody things. Things I want to forget about. But instead of forgetting, I remember- way too much. I know you know what that feels like.”
“Like you’re missing whatever is going on around you because you’re doing so much damn remembering. Reliving. Flashbacking. Whatever you want to call it.”
Natasha stilled for a moment and took in a breath that Tony, for a moment, could have called shaky. “When Clint was sent to kill me, I was on a suicide mission. I didn’t know it at the time, but the Black Widow had become a liability, and the Red Room doesn’t like loose ends.” She cleared her throat. “Clint saved my life, in more ways than one. I was broken by the time he got to me, which is probably the only reason he’s still alive. All I’m saying is that I didn’t put the pieces back together myself, and you don’t have to, either. I know you’ve tried, and believe me, I did too, but I think we both know that doesn’t work.”
Tony said nothing, just busied himself with a miniature circuit board in his lap. If he didn’t, Natasha would see how badly his hands were shaking. His voice, he was sure, would reveal all, as he was having to work far too hard on swallowing and breathing around the lump that had ballooned somewhere around his vocal cords.
“That file contains a list of Fury and Coulson- approved SHIELD therapists. Pick one. Make an appointment, or I’ll pick for you. Got it?” She seemed to think she didn’t need to hear an actual answer, because she strode out of the workshop, high-heeled boots echoing on her way to the elevator.
She turned, head over her shoulder.
“Not a word to anyone.”
“I promise.” And she sounded genuine.
“You sent Natasha? Really?”
Pepper gave Tony a sly grin, then quickly hid it with her wine glass. “It worked, didn’t it?”
“You can’t fix this, Pep.” Tony gestured at himself with his fork, stained with the marinara sauce Pepper had made, dumped on some linguine, and forced him to eat.
“I can’t, no. But that’s what psychologists are for. And there’s no shame in that.”
“But I’m Tony Stark. I’m the genius up here in my tower, solving the world’s problems. I can’t be dependent on a bottle of happy yellow pills to get out of bed in the morning.”
“Nobody’s saying you have to. But you’re not okay, Tony. You told me so yourself. I know I wouldn’t be okay if I’d had to fly a nuke into space and not expect to come back. I love you too much to sit back and watch this consume you. You have so much more to offer the world.”
“I’m not so sure.”
“Well then I’ll be here reminding you until you are.”
Pepper drained the last dregs of her wine and set the empty glass on the table. “Can you make an appointment or do you want me to do it?”
“I’ll do it tomorrow.”
“Good.” She reached over and kissed the top of his head, then pulled down the stretched out collar of his T-shit and planted a string of kisses along his collarbone. “I’m proud of you.” She snaked her hands underneath the cotton and shrugged it up over Tony’s head. “Really proud.”