The circle of empty chairs before Tony looked a little ominous. In the small, sort of cosy room decorated with simple landscape canvasses and soft cream paint, the mass of empty space in the centre of the room was a little foreboding.
Coming from a man who lived in what one could consider reasonable luxury (see: rampant), you’d be forgiven for thinking him an idiot. Tony Stark was not, in fact, an idiot. He was a genius and a mastermind, as well as a technological genius and a futurist.
He just didn’t like large, vacant spaces where there should be something happening. Scratch that, he didn’t like being here.
He didn’t deserve to be here.
Tony stuck his phone back into the pocket of his jeans, getting up from the chair. Just as he went to swing his coat over his shoulders, the group therapist Sam Wilson stepped in, looking up at Tony as he did so.
“Tony! You’re early today.” He said. Tony wanted to point out that he was super early (by half an hour), but he kept his mouth tightly shut and offered Sam a mute smile.
“The others won’t be too long. Take a seat. You want anything to drink?”
Tony shook his head and reluctantly took his jacket off again, slipping down into the soft chair once more. If there was anything positive to say about these therapy sessions, it was that Sam Wilson knew what worked and what didn’t. Tony supposed it was from experience; Sam told them he was still coping with his own problems, but that he knew certain people had acute situations that needed a different approach, hence the hour-long sessions on a Tuesday evening with soft chairs, a fireplace in the corner and bountiful warm drinks in supply.
Sometimes it felt more like a veteran catch up. Because that’s what they all were. Veterans of war or victims of conflict.
Tony didn’t belong here. He had tried to reason with Pepper, but she had insisted that he go. Sam had been pleasant enough, but upon entering the room he could sense the staring, the judgement – god the hatred from some of the veterans assembled.
Tony wasn’t a veteran of war. He was a warmonger.
He chewed on his thumbnail, keeping his eyes to his workboots as a pair of familiar, battered Chuck Taylors entered the room, their owner sinking down into the chair opposite and to the left of Tony. Clint Barton had been a sniper once upon a time, before an IED explosion had rendered him mostly deaf. Without the support of his hearing aids, he was without sound. Tony knew that the possibility of it being his workmanship that had caused Clint’s deafness was a good nintey eight percent. During Obie’s stint as head honcho of Stark Industries, a lot of Tony’s weaponry had been sold off to terrorists.
He let out an inaudible sigh, noting that four more pairs of feet had entered the room since he’d been lost in his thoughts about Barton. They belonged to the redheaded ex-assassin Natasha Romanoff, who had been brainwashed by the Russian Terrorist Organisation when she was twelve and had been trying to snap out of it ever since, Bruce Banner, who was still suffering from radiation sickness when a minaturised atomic bomb had been dropped in Calcutta a year ago, and the dynamic duo of Steven Rogers and James Barnes, who had been caught and held hostage by the enemy whilst on patrol. Following that, Barnes had lost his arm to septecemia following shrapnel from an IED and had been bitter about it ever since.
Yeah. Tony had no place being here. He hadn’t ever gone out to risk his life on the line, to lie down on the wire and let the other guy crawl over him.
He kept his head down and stared vacantly into spaces in which there were no judgemental faces of his peers whenever it was his ‘turn’ to speak. Six therapy sessions had passed and he hadn’t spoken up. Why would his problems be more important than these good women and men?
Sometimes he could sense the anger from the others whenever he shook his head. They wanted to know why he was here, why he wouldn’t pipe up.
Tony settled reluctantly back into his seat, silently declining the offer of tea from Sam, and let the sickening swirl of nerves and guilt build in his throat.
The house was pretty lonely when you didn’t have anyone to share it with. The Fifth Avenue mansion had been built for his mother and father’s parties, not the brooding silence of their troubled and disturbed son. Sure, Tony used to have parties, but they were back in Malibu. And Before the Incident – capitals required.
He sat curled up on the sofa, staring vacantly into the crackling fireplace with a discarded tablet sliding off of his lap. After therapy, the others had gone out to the diner two blocks down. Tony had scarpered before the questioning looks of ‘why are you still lingering’ could be thrown his way. In retrospect, he understood. He was a billionaire – their logical thought pattern would be to ask why he was hanging out with them, why he thought he could hang out with people he’d injured with his own two hands.
It would have been nice, but Tony didn’t like to feel like a waste of space even more than he already did.
He tore at the nail on his index, shoulders tense. Someone else could be filling his space. Someone who was worthy of sitting with veterans who had offered their lives for America could be using the time and energy of the wonderful Sam Wilson to get better.
Tony lapped at the blood trickling from his finger, tasting its coppery flavour on the back of his tongue. It reminded him of the three soldiers in the humvee with him.
It reminded him of how he had come back home relatively safe, whilst they had all come back home in flag covered boxes.
Tony swallowed hard, lying down on the sofa and pulling the blanket up to his ears. The clock on the mantlepiece had been at twenty past two the last time he checked. It was now half past three. His zones were getting longer.
Tony closed his eyes and tried to sleep.
He finally fell asleep at ten the next morning. It lasted for ten minutes before he was awake again and the crushing guilt began to seep into the corners of his world. He took in a couple of deep breaths before he swung himself up, staggering slightly as he supported himself on the sofa arm as a wave of dizziness swept over his brain. Swallowing down the nausea, Tony headed to the kitchen, perusing the fridge and cupboards. He found nothing of interest and turned on the tap, listening to it flow with a regular hiss, hearing it rattle through the old pipes as untainted memories of cooking with Jarvis appeared from his memory box.
Tony missed Jarvis with a real passion. The elderly gentleman was living in the warmth of Florida now, relaxing and chillaxing with his wife and not having to concern himself with the ragtag mess of his old charge. Tony wondered if Jarvis ever remembered him. If all of his memories were removed and replaced with the reputation Tony had built and was now unable to scrub away.
Tony blinked and noticed that his hand was stuck underneath the stream of water, prone as steaming hot liquid scalded and burned his hand.
“Huh.” He said.
The taps had always been too hot here.
Another six hours passed without anything interesting occuring. Tony had patched his hand up the best he could, had taken all of his medication and had tried to work, but nothing seemed to be working effectively in his brain anymore. Everytime he went into the workshop he was reminded of Obadiah, the kitchen and his old bedroom, Jarvis. The halls and ballrooms were saturated in his mothers aura and scent, the study and library his father’s domineering presence and cloying cologne. The small snug off of the living room seemed to be the only place that he could find respite from the rooms clogged with painful memories of a world he’d once had.
Soon, six o’clock rolled around. In another hour, Tony had to be at therapy. He decided he’d walk.
He went upstairs silently, like he did with most things, and took a hot shower that burnt his spine and the back of his neck. He dressed in jeans and workboots, pulling on his college hoodie and then a heavy cargo coat over the top.
The mansion locked automatically behind him, clicking shut as he made his way down to the bottom of the gardens and out into the backstreets, ducking his head low as rain began to slide down his face. He relished the cool respite on the back of his neck and watched his feet move, one in front of the other, unconcerned when he splashed into puddles, but careful to avoid bumping into people, because he’d caused enough trouble already.
By the time he reached the block the therapy class was on, his hair was sticking out in random directions from where he’d run his hand through it during his walk, his feet hurt on the soles, his burns throbbed with every heartbeat, and his senses had been turned up to thrice that of a normal person.
He pressed his back up against the wall of an alley, sucking in a breath of sharp, cold air to try and calm down the rabbit-fast beat of his mangled, sour heart. The wetness of the concrete ground seeped into the thighs of his jeans as he sank down, scored irritable lines into the soft tips of his fingers as he scrabbled and clawed desperately, trying to find something to root himself to reality as the world in front of him blurred into a sludge. Sound was competing against the frantic thud of his heartbeat in his ribcage and the whistling of his breath as he tried to inhale and exhale like he’d been taught.
The pressure on his chest was too tight and he was panicking, frantically trying to find a way to fucking breathe.
He focused on the memory of Jarvis, of how he’d smile when Tony would toddle up to him with a new creation out of Play Dough. The flash of his surrogate father’s smile eased the vice around the tops of his lungs in slow increments, and Tony was able to breathe in deep gulps of air that began his road to momentary recovery.
He shivered violently once his breathing was back to a relatively normal state. He checked his watch; it was twenty minutes past the hour. It would be pointless to walk in now. Besides, Tony didn’t want to walk in and have them stare at him. It was why he always got there early, to make sure he was the first there and didn’t get judgemental gazes watching him slink into his seat like the imposter he was.
Tony swallowed, throat scratchy as he shakily pushed himself up from the floor. His limbs felt like jelly, but he had a long way to walk, so he steeled himself and began to methodically put one food in front of the other, counting each footstep until he was home.
The next day rolled around in an achingly slow drag. Watching the sun rise wasn’t nearly as romantic as people thought when you’d been awake the whole night - and all of the nights of that weeks previously. It began to get a bit tedious after a while.
He ensconced himself in the snug, forcing himself to get some work done so that Pepper would at least be a little pleased with him. When it hit eight in the morning he put his tablet down, rubbing his aching eyes. He’d been coughing ever since he’d gotten dry from his little stint in the rain last night, so he suspected he’d caught a cold.
Silently, Tony moved from his warm cocoon, wincing at his aching back and thighs, and stuck another log on the fire. His stomach grumbled at him but he ignored it, favouring to slip under the blankets and see if he could doze off.
He was impressed he managed to catnap when he woke up thirty seven minutes later. Although he didn’t feel any better, the fact was that it was the longest he’d slept in a long while – he’d take what he could at this point in his life.
He read a little bit of Animal Farm before moving into the workshop to pet DUM-E, Butterfingers and You, seeing whether there was anything vitally important in his e-mail inbox, before retreating back into the snug and curling up under the blanket again. It was all very monotonous.
Tony attended the next therapy session, despite being as sick as a dog. Even though he wasn’t taxing his body with physical work, it turned out you really did need sleep to recuperate. Insomnia wasn’t really helpful in that aspect. He arrived ten minutes early, avoiding having another panic attack in the alleyway, and curled up in his seat. He looked an absolute sight, but knowing there would be some form of human interaction, despite everyone here hating him, made him a little more upbeat.
He blinked slowly as the room filled, carefully looking at everyone in turn, before noting where they sat and how close they were to the exit. Tony had positioned himself at an angle, and had surreptitiously moved all of the chairs to ensure that he had a way straight out of the room if he needed it. It would avoid contact with anyone, and draw the least attention to himself. He hoped.
Sam welcomed him back, to which he received a lazy blink (great, now they’re gonna think you don’t fucking care about his feelings, you dumbwit) from Tony in reply.
“Everyone sleep well?” Sam asked. There was a round of murmurs, but Tony only really caught the murmuring, too concerned about regulating his breathing through his mouth. It seemed like the wrong thing to do, because Sam’s laser-like focus honed in on him.
“Tony? You sleep well?”
Tony shrugged, not wanting to admit the truth. The truth was a bitch and he didn’t want to anger the good people here by opening his mouth and spewing out some bullshit. Sam raised his eyebrows.
“You don’t look like you did, Tony. You know we have to sleep to get better.”
Tony nodded twice, raising his tissue to wipe his nose before tugging out the bottle of anti-bac from the pocket of his hoodie and religiously cleaning his hands. Even though he bit his fingers to buggery, clean hands was a must have of Tony’s, ever since the Incident.
He looked up to see Barnes speaking in a low tone, saying how he’d had a nightmare the other day but he’d coped with it and managed to fall back asleep. Barton was next, and he spoke of how his dog Lucky was helping him nowadays. Sam said that animal interaction often helped lots, and that he could organise a day for them with an animal sanctuary if the thought it helped.
Natasha was next, but she said she needed to go to the toilet and pushed her chair back. It scraped along the floor with a loud shriek, and before Tony knew it, there were soldiers pouring into the room, crude machetes held above their head, demanding that Tony get down onto his knees. Tony heard them yelling in their native tongue to Yinsen, speech coming hard and fast.
He sucked in a sharp breath and tried to turn away from the hands as they touched him, keeping the air held in his lungs as he prepared for another dunking. They had begun to scream his name – Stark! Stark! What are you doing! And Tony panicked, sucking in another breath, just as they dumped his head in the bucket of cold water --
He came to, eyes instantly staring into those of Sam, who was crouched in front of him, careful not to touch, but repeating his name – Anthony – with a steadiness that echoed of Jarvis. Unbidden tears heated up the backs of his eyes and he bit his lip angrily to hold them at bay.
He glanced up to find everyone carefully engaged in conversation elsewhere. Natasha looked like she hadn’t gone to the toilet after all, and was talking to Clint, whilst Bucky and Bruce and Steve were discussing the merits of collapsible irons.
“Tony.” Tony looked back at Sam. His dark eyes were gentle and understanding. “You freaked out a little man. You doing well up there?”
Tony swallowed the hard lump in his throat.
“No.” He admitted gravelly, shocking himself at the vocal admittance. Sam’s face didn’t change however, remaining gentle and calm as Tony took in another breath. “It’s the fourth one I’ve had in two days.”
“The fourth? Did the others have a trigger?”
“Just that one.” Tony admitted, reaching up to wipe his nose. He then used the anti-bac gel again, making sure he got every bit of his fingers. Sam let out a soft noise but didn’t press.
“On a scale of one to ten, ten being badly, how well are you coping, man? And you gotta be truthful. You think I won’t whip of the puppy eyes on you to make you comply? Because I will.” Sam joked, drawing a foreign sensation to his face that Tony realised was a smile.
“Probably a seven.” Tony admitted roughly, trying to pretend he was more put together than he probably looked, bundled up in sweats and his MIT hoodie. Sam nodded.
“That’s okay. We can work that down to a five by next week, I’m sure of it.”
Tony wanted to say he didn’t deserve to be ridded of this guilt, but Sam’s eyes were so earnest that he found himself nodding twice and twitchily moving his hands.
Sam got up and called for a break, moving out into the office briefly. Tony tucked his hands up into his sleeves, unconsciously chewing on his lip.
The soft, feminine fragrance that Tony recognised as Chanel No.5 (because no matter how much you rid yourself of the memories, parties will always be triggered by certain relevant scents) floated up his nose, soon accompanied by the lithe figure of Romanoff perching in the chair usually occupied by Bruce.
“Hey.” She said softly, voice at odds with how blunt she usually was. “You fairing a bit better?”
Tony looked her in the eyes, wondering what horrors had been inflicted on her. She seemed to be coping better than Tony was, but then she wasn’t at fault of the deaths of thousands of young, innocent soldiers.
Tony nipped that thought in the bud. Natasha's story was even more gruesome than his, he knew that. She had told them all at one point in lurid detail about what the Red Room had done to her. Tony’s torture didn’t hold a candle to what Natasha had gone through.
He tried a quiet smile. “Not really.” He admitted. She nodded.
“Yeah. That’s what we all said when we first started to recover. I’m surprised you didn’t want to get better sooner.”
Tony shrugged. “I don’t know why I didn’t either. I feel like I should be like this because of ... what I’ve done.” He admitted, answer half truth and half lie.
Natasha reached out and squeezed his shoulder. She graced him with a gentle smile. “It gets better. Trust me. Now. Bourbon or Custard Cream?”
Tony was roused from a daze two days later to the buzzing of the intercom. He rolled out of his hermit position on the sofa, clutching at his blanket as he shuffled to the panel on the wall that told him who was outside.
To say he was surprised to see Clint Barton and Lucky stood outside the gates was a bit of an understatement. He frowned, however, despite the pleasure of seeing people voluntarily standing in front of his home, and tapped the touchscreen panel.
“Stark?” Clint asked, leaning forwards in the CCTV footage to speak into the microphone. “You mind if I come in?”
“Uh, sure?” Tony said, confused about the whole situation. Lucky barked, jumping into view once again with an airborne doggy grin. Tony felt his mouth twitch at the sight. He swiped to allow the gates to open, watching as Clint headed through, turning to look at the gardens in awe.
Tony shuffled to the front door, still swamped in his blanket and still running a low grade fever. His nose had cleared up, but not getting any sleep was still very detrimental to his health. He let a cough out into the blanket, using the hand gel quickly before he opened the front door. Clint was coming up the steps, and Tony blinked at him.
“Hello?” he asked. Clint gave him a grin.
“Is hello all I get? I brought you a companion to get to know.”
Lucky barked, tongue lolling.
“Barton. That’s your dog.” Tony pointed out. Clint made a ‘duuuh’ face.
“Yeah, but this is sort of an incentive to try and get you to buy your own dog.” He explained. “I’ll tell you more over coffee.”
Tony narrowed his eyes at the ploy to come inside but shrugged. It was nice to actually speak to Barton, despite the likely fact the man hated him for making him lose his hearing. He stepped back to let the man in, carefully making sure that Lucky didn’t bowl him over as they went to the kitchen.
Clint cooed at the sparkling coffee machine before delving into the cupboards and fridge for anything he could find to eat. For a man troubled by war, he had no problems looking through other people’s things, Tony realised. Not that there was much to eat in the house anyway. Tony didn’t really have much of an appetite recently. He ate when he know he needed to, but even then it was just your basic carbs and protein, to ensure he didn’t waste away right there and then.
Clint, however, seemed affronted at the lack of food.
“You’re a billionaire, right?” Clint asked, head stuck in the bottom of a cupboard. Tony winced.
“Yeah.” He admitted, knowing that ‘I wish I wasn’t’ isn’t the right sort of thing to say around people who weren’t ... well. Billionaires. More often than not, they tended to get huffy about it.
“So you’re a billionaire who has fuck all to eat?” Clint asked, popping his head out and coming back empty handed. Tony shrugged. Clint let out a dramatic sigh, turning to Lucky who had perched herself on a soft chair in the corner of the kitchen.
“He’s mad, Lucks. You think you can go to Joe’s and pick up some shit for me?”
Lucky barked. Clint turned to Tony.
“Gimme a pad of paper and a pen. I’m writing a list down, and you’re paying.”
Tony numbly did as he was told, watching as Clint wrote down a list that mainly consisted of ‘Peanut Butter’, 'Pizza', ‘PB Cups’, ‘PopTarts’, ‘Hot Pockets’ and ‘Doritos’. He then rolled it up and gave it to Lucky. Clint let Lucky out and Tony wisely buzzed open the gates enough for her to pass through, before turning back to Tony.
“When I’m feeling really lazy, I get Lucky to pick stuff up.”
“Smart dog.” Tony murmured, rubbing his eyes. Clint noticed and raised an eyebrow.
“Getting sleepy, Stark?”
Tony snorted. “I haven’t been properly sleepy in a year and a half, Barton. I doubt it’d be happening now.”
Clint’s face fell and he led Tony into the kitchen where they sat down at the island. Tony rested his face on his arms.
“So you got insomnia too?”
“Seems like it.” Tony ground out tiredly. Clint patted him on the shoulder.
“Sometimes it’s the company of someone else that helps you sleep. When Steve stayed over mine whilst his apartment was being fixed, I fell asleep like that.” He snapped his fingers for emphasis. “And it’s the same with Lucky. Unless you’re allergic, being snuggled by a dog is the best help for sleeping known to man.”
“No fucking clue, actually." Clint admitted cheerily, "But I know it works for me.” Clint said. “And I was like you. Didn’t sleep for days, but as soon as I adopted Lucky? Bam. Began to get to sleep like clockwork.”
Tony let out a sigh, feeling bone weary. He turned around, muttering something about Clint being allowed to do anything he wanted, before shuffling off towards his snug.
Clint followed him instead, settling down beside the fireplace and putting another log on when he thought the flames were about to die down. They sat there for a good ten minutes in a silence that was quite pleasant. Clint didn’t pry about Tony’s issues, and his presence began to have an almost hypnotising effect on Tony’s fucked up sleep schedule. His eyes felt gritty in a way they hadn’t since Before the Incident; gritty with sleep and not the sands saturated in the blood of the fallen.
He opened his eyes again to see Clint eating a sandwich, the fire simmering in the grate and the sky outside dark. There was a heavy weight on his legs, and peering down the length of his body, Tony realised that Lucky had clambered on top of him, snout resting on the bumps of his kneecaps. Two liquid brown eyes gazed back at him.
“How long was I asleep?” Tony asked, throat croaky. Clint’s face screwed up and he checked his wristwatch.
“About seven hours.” He said, as though it were absolutely nothing. Tony’s eyebrows went to his hairline, eyes squinted with the remnants of a heavy sleep. Clint grinned, mouth still working around his peanut butter appetiser. “Told you someone else’s presence can do a world of good. You gotta trust them, though.”
“So this means I trust you?” Tony asked dubiously. Clint tilted his head left and right a couple of times, shoulders coming up in a shrug.
“More likely you trust Lucky. Dogs and humans instinctively have a bond, I think. You may not trust me, but because you probably trust Lucky, your subconscious is saying I’m alright to be close to because I'm his owner.”He bit into his sandwich again. “Or I’m just fucking amazing and you do trust me.”
Clint looked so privately earnest that Tony couldn’t help crack a grin. “Maybe it’s both.” He murmured, pressing his aching head into the pillow.
Silently, it was decided that Clint was to stay in the mansion until Tony was better. Upon the realisation that Clint lived in a right old shithole, Tony wondered whether he should offer him a place in one of the many bedrooms, rent free. He technically deserved to live in luxury more than Tony did.
He chose to not voice this, however, when it became apparent that Clint had made himself quite at home already. Lucky’s bed now sat in the corner of one of the spare rooms, and the dresser in said room was chockablock with Clint’s ratty, threadbare t-shirts and trousers. Clint always left his door open a crack so that Lucky could wander out and down to the snug, which didn’t even have a door, only a tiny opening at the side of a bookcase, if Lucky sensed something was going wrong with Tony or Clint’s brain.
The next therapy meeting was more pleasant for Tony, now he was better rested. Natasha gave him a gentle, barely there smile as she entered the room.
“You look better.” She commented quietly, perching in her usual seat. There was still five minutes to go before the session started. Tony chewed on his nail and nodded.
“Clint appeared a week ago with Lucky,” he said, gesturing to the ex-sniper who was currently wolfing down as many Bourbons as he could without Sam or Steve noticing. “It ... it really helps.”
Natasha nodded. “Animals have a peculiar way of offering their own comfort.” She agreed. “Are you wishing to buy your own pet?”
Tony contemplated the idea. On one hand, it would be nice to not have to share a dog – he was sure Clint needed Lucky more than he. On the other hand, he didn’t want Lucky getting upset with another hound in the mansion.
“I don’t know.” He admitted. “I’ll think on it.”
Sam called for attention, but Natasha tacked on a quick pointer before anyone could fall completely silent.
“Cats are just as good, y’know.”
Tabitha was brought home two days later. Thankfully, Lucky took a shining to the little cat and Tony no longer feared he would one day find brindle fur in-between Lucky’s sharp teeth. The diddy feline took a preference to laying upon Tony when they were in the snug and had it been anything heavier on his chest, directly on his sternum, he may have gotten rid of her.
Thankfully, she was a mite of a being and so he barely registered her presence. Over the course of a week, Tabitha became the quiet companion he’d always desired. She often gave him looks that he interpreted as ‘do work’ or ‘stop panicking’, and although he logically knew it was just himself trying to think positively, the idea of Tabitha being his furry, tiny little cheerleader helped recovery get that little bit more bearable.
Because therapy and recovery wasn’t always sunshine and daisies. It took the biggest amount of courage to say you were fucked up in some way, and even more to decide that you weren’t going to let it consume you. Some days Tony never wanted to get out of his warm cocoon; he never wanted to go to therapy or to have to interact with the world. And yeah, the meds helped, but the side-effects weren’t pleasant. He was constantly tired and twitchy, the sort of tired that made your bones ache and your eyelids burn, but you couldn’t ever get respite for it.
He knew he was a depressive, but he tried not to use that word often. The word itself was shrouded in negativity and pessimism, and with the help of Tabitha, Tony was working his way towards that little light of optimism. Sam had even said he could bring Tabitha with him to therapy, if he wanted to. Clint sometimes brought along Lucky, and Steve often brought along a Chocolate Labrador called Dugan.
Tony would say it was all Tabitha’s fault; her fault for making him feel like his problems were worth speaking up about. The little steam engine purred away on his lap as the therapy session commenced, eyes half lidded as she carefully kept an eye on Dugan. Tony knew the Lab wouldn’t do anything – Steve wouldn’t let him either – but he mirrored her movements. He wondered whether, if he was a cat, he’d be a Tabitha. He kept guard on the entrances and exits, whilst Tabitha kept an eye on the threat.
Today if felt like the room was airy and light, and Tabitha’s reassuring purrs vibrating against his thighs gave him another surge of foreign confidence that brought the words tumbling haltingly from his mouth.
“I was on a weapons demonstration in Afghanistan.” Tony said lowly. He was looking down at Tabitha, hand stroking gently through her brindle fur, and didn’t see the looks the others exchanged. “And after it had commenced, I was put into a humvee with three young soldiers; Dan, Josie and Liam. We ended up being hit by enemy fire. The humvee in front was destroyed by an IED, which I later found out was one of my own, and the three soldiers with me decided to get out and try and fire back. At the time I was inside, I was wondering why an armoured vehicle wasn’t holding up against bullets, but it dawned on me that there was only one company in the world who made bullets strong enough to tear through an armoured humvee.”
He swallowed, shifting in his seat. He took a deep breath.
“I got out the other side when Dan’s blood went on the window. I tried to protect myself, but I was caught short by a bomb – one of my own – and ended up being taken by the Ten Rings. The shrapnel from my bomb lodged itself in my chest and heart,”
He touched where it lay unconsciously.
“And they didn’t want me dying on them right there, so they brought in a man to do surgery to put ... to put...” he took in a shaking breath and rubbed his face. Tabitha kneaded her claws into his knee gently. “He put a magnet in the centre of my chest, to provide magnetic force to keep the shrapnel away from my heart valves.”
“Um. It wasn’t pretty. I knew what was going on for the entirety until they knocked me out. Yinsen said later it was because I was screaming so much. After that they tried to get me to build them the Jericho, the missile I had been exhibiting earlier on in the month, but I didn’t want too. By that point I had seen the damage my technology had done to our own soldiers, so I said no.”
Tony let out a soft laugh at the memory, bitter and hysterical. “They didn’t like that. So they water boarded me until I complied, and even then, when I stopped for more than two hours, they began to threaten Yinsen. Without Yinsen, I wouldn’t survive. We were trying to configure a palladium core so I wouldn’t have to cart around a car battery everywhere. So I had to do it.”
“But Yinsen made a diversion. We made a prototype Jericho, without the inner workings by that point, because the palladium had been used for my arc reactor, but with a rigged bomb, and they took it outside. As we stood on the hill, Yinsen started to fire off rounds at the soldiers and told me to run. I did, and the next thing I knew the bomb had gone off and I was wandering around the desert alone. Yinsen had said to not look back, and if he survived, he’d follow my footsteps. He never did.”
Tabitha got up and curled around on his lap, licking gently at his thumb. He smoothed his hand over her delicate skull; hands that had killed thousands of innocent lives but were considerate enough now to scratch behind Tabitha’s pointed ears. He let out a low breath.
“I still have the arc reactor.” Tony said into the pregnant silence. He took the collar of his shirt and pulled down, revealing the soft blue glow of the reactor core. The scars were ugly, but Tony couldn’t see the point in not finishing the story. “And my dad’s old friend, Obadiah, tried to kill me for it. He took it out of my chest and left me for dead. Pepper and Rhodey were contacted by my AI and they saved me. Stane was found guilty of attempted manslaughter eventually – got a life’s sentence in the maximum security prison. It wasn’t so much the fact he tried to kill me that hurt –it was the fact that I’d spent so many years looking at him as a father figure, and then the next thing I know he’s in prison because he hurt me.”
He sighed again, feeling restless but lighter. His heart still pounded a mile-a-minute at the fact he’d just blurted all of his feelings out, but he knew he could trust Sam and the therapy group. Things said here were only spoken to each other.
“That took a lot of courage.” Sam said softly. “We’re all proud of you.”
Tony smiled sharply, not looking up from Tabitha.
“That’s pretty machinery though,” a gruff voice said. Tony glanced up to meet Bucky’s eyes. “That thing powers you up? Like a robot?”
“Bucky!” Steve hissed, slapping his friend on the arm. Tony sniggered, however.
“We’re one and the same, Barnes.” Tony said archly, looking at Bucky’s arm. Bucky’s mouth quirked up at the side.
Sam called for a break and this time, Tony split the Custard Cream between himself and Tabitha.
Tony wasn’t able to squirrel out of the diner date that evening. Natasha took him by the hand and led him and Tabitha, cosily curled up in a specially sewn (by Clint, no less) pouch on the inside of his hoodie, to the diner they all went to once a month. Their server was a hulking blonde of at least six foot three with a beaming smile.
“Friends! A pleasure to see you again!”
Tony was wary of the blonde, Thor they called him, but the man simply settled him down in a cosy booth and explained how the diner worked. They specialised in providing for the homeless and hungry, as well as recuperating military personnel. The atmosphere was calm and cool, except in the case of Thor who was so genuine it was hard to find a fault.
Tony found himself settled in-between Natasha and Bruce, opposite Steve. Lucky and Dugan had sprawled out under the table, and a squirming Tabitha soon joined them, content to settle on Lucky’s back, tail resting between Dugan’s ears.
The food was ordered and the conversation was light; apparently Steve had found himself a permanent job as a comic artist, and his blue eyes lit up in excitement when he spoke about the tech the company used, and that they still used pencil and paper for sketches. Tony wondered if Steve knew he looked like a work of art when he spoke about it himself.
Suddenly embarrassed at the thought, Tony diverted his attention to Barnes. Bucky was staring back with a grin on his mouth and Tony flushed red. The sniper shifted in his position, arm awkwardly coming up to rest on the table. Tony frowned.
“Can you move that?” he asked. Bucky quirked an incredulous eyebrow.
“What do you think, hotshot?” he asked in a slow drawl.
“I think that I can build you an arm that will be more beneficial than that stick. Unless you’re partial to it.” He added hastily, afraid of offending a potential new acquaintance. Bucky grinned, however, eyes shining in excitement.
“You can build me a working arm?”
“Nerves and everything.” Tony confirmed.
The table went silent and Tony suddenly felt awkward. What had been a private conversation was now for the whole table, it seemed.
“You can build nervous systems?” Bruce asked. Tony glanced at Tabitha and then nodded.
“Sure. It’s just a matter of connecting them to Bucky’s and finding out the correct frequency that bodily electricity runs on. Only problem is that it does require minor surgery, so if you don’t I can always just make an arm that works with mental thought.”
The table was silent.
“You can do that?” Steve asked. Tony shrugged.
“Sure. Being an insomniac helps you come up with great ideas.”
“Tony that’s amazing.” Bruce said in awe, taking off his glasses and wiping them. “I knew you were a genius, but I didn’t realise you could do that.”
Tony leant back in his seat awkwardly. “I gotta have had something to move into when I closed down weapons manufacturing.”
Their food came before anyone could add anything on, and for a while, Tony just relished in the flavour of the beef Thor and his wife Jane used for the hamburger.
“S’good, isn’t it?” Clint said. He used a napkin to wipe his mouth. “Comes all the way from Norway.”
“Norway?” Tony asked. Natasha jabbed a thumb to directly where Thor was standing, behind her, in a way that screamed ‘psychic’.
“He sounds English.”
“Boarding school.” Bucky said. “His parents have a shit-ton of money. Run ‘Asgard’, that body armour factory?”
“Seriously?” Tony asked. “They’re one of my main investor companies. I’d have thought Thor would have taken on the family business.”
“He will one day,” Steve said. He was sipping at his Diet Coke carefully. “But he said he wanted to get to know the people buying from him first.”
“Smart move.” Tony murmured, sort of transfixed on where Steve was sucking the soda up the red and white striped straw. Bucky scraped his knife along his plate deliberately loudly, jolting Tony from his staring. He shot him a thankful glance and went back to finishing his burger.
Despite Tabitha’s presence, Tony didn’t get to sleep that night. His mind was moving at a thousand miles a minute, heart competing for first place in the bodily race. He was shocked at how much an impact Steve had had on him – he had barely glanced at Steve until a day ago, and now his thoughts were fixated on nothing but the blonde of his dishevelled hair, the deep blue of his eyes.
Tony let out an irritated grunt, rolling over to face Tabitha who was fast asleep, silent. Her whiskers twitched as she snoozed on. He wanted to fucking sleep, but his brain was working too fast. He gave himself another five minutes before he carefully lifted himself out of bed (yes, he had moved to the bed now, go him!) and dragged on a heavy dressing gown over his shoulders, tightening it at the waist.
The mansion was dark as he moved about, headed for the kitchen. He flicked on the under cupboard lights, so that his eyes didn’t water at the sudden intensity, and set about making a mug of cocoa.
Another pair of footsteps, closely accompanied by the clatter of claws on hardwood, became audible as the milk bubbled on the stove;it always tasted better than nuking it in a microwave, Tony found. He added another mugful.
Clint appeared around the corner, dirty blonde hair flattened against one side of his face, but his eyes were bright and awake. Looks like Tony wasn’t the only one who couldn’t sleep.
“You okay?” Clint asked. Tony shrugged his shoulders.
“M’okay. Can’t sleep.”
Clint made a soft noise that sounded like laughter. “Yeah. Sometimes the critters don’t work.” He admitted. He settled down on a barstool and watched Tony stir the milk.
“Can I ask a favour?”
Tony turned and raised his eyebrows expectantly. Lucky began to lick his paws.
“If Natasha asked to live here, would you let her?”
Clint blinked. “Really? Just like that?”
Tony smiled softly, taking the milk off the stovetop. “I know you and Natasha have a history, Clint. Sam said you two go back, and the only reason you have separate apartments if because the rent on the shared got too high.”
Clint made a moue of indifference before quirking his eyebrows up as if to say ‘Yeah sure.’
“It’s not like I don’t have any vacancies here, Barton. If Natasha feels comfortable moving in, that’s fine by me.”
Clint gave him a smile that was all teeth, and for a brief moment Tony thought the sniper was going to hug him, such was the positioning of his body and the twitchy movement of his upper arms. But the moment passed, and Tony’s shoulders relaxed. He poured a little of the milk into the cocoa powder at the bottom of both cups and stirred it into a paste before filling them both up to the top. He leant into the newly restocked dairy fridge and brandished the squirty cream aerosol. When Clint let out a noise quite akin to a dog’s pathetic whine, Tony rolled his eyes and began to put some on top of the mug that wasn’t his own.
He set the cocoa down in front of Clint, who scooped the top of the cream off with his index finger and let Lucky lick it off. They drank in companionable silence, the mansion dark around them, but no longer domineering.
It was hard to tell that Natasha had even moved in for the first week or so. She lived up to her old ‘assassin’ reputation; she was as stealthy as a shadow, and the room she had apparently claimed as her own had no signs of someone inhabiting it.
However, after Clint admitted he and Natasha were living at Tony’s home now, things began to appear once Natasha realised Tony was fine with it. Admittedly, finding a knife in the downstairs cupboard that housed the vacuum and feather duster was a little terrifying, but they all had their quirks. Two days after their therapy session, Tony wandered into the kitchen to find Natasha dishing up hot soup.
“Want some?” she asked. Tony peered at it, and once he was satisfied there wasn’t any chicken in sight, he nodded. They sat down together. Clint appeared ten minutes or so later and eagerly poured himself a bowl. Apparently he was a ‘Natasha-made-soup’ addict. Tony couldn’t fault him.
“So.” Natasha said, in-between sips of her pleasantly spicy soup. “What’s the deal with you and Rogers?”
Tony inhaled his soup. Clint fetched him a small glass of milk and patted him on the back. Tabitha twined her tail around his leg.
“Say what now?” he coughed, wincing at the burn in his oesophagus. Natasha raised one delicate red eyebrow.
“You and Steve. I can see you both making cow eyes at each other, and yet you’re acting like a more demeaning version of Tabitha.”
“Pussy. She means pussy.” Clint piped up unhelpfully. Tony scowled.
“I know what she meant, Barton. And there’s nothing going on between us,” Tony corrected. “It’s wrong for therapy buddies to get together anyway.”
“So you do like Steve.” Clint crowed delightedly. Even Natasha was smiling, scarlet hair cast in a softer golden glow as the sunlight streamed through the tall French windows out onto the back garden. Tony let out a huff.
“Maybe I do. But I don’t see why it would work. I made the bomb that left Barnes without an arm.”
“Yeah,” Clint agreed, and wasn’t that a nice knife in the chest. Haha. “But you’re also the guy making the arm that’s gonna replace it and obviously have missiles in the shoulder.”
“Shut up Clint.” Natasha said. She turned to Tony. “For a man whose been Time Magazine Man of the Year twice and voted the Sexiest Man of Hollywood twelve times running, you don’t hold yourself in very high esteem.”
“Yeah, torture sorta does that to you.” Tony said matter-of-factly. “Makes you realise who you really are for the most part.”
“A genius.” Clint spoke up, fanning his mouth as he took a big spoonful of soup too quickly. “And, dude, if I were gay.” He gave a little wolf whistle. “Mmhmm, honey.”
Tony rolled his eyes, but was unable to prevent the smile on his face. He rubbed his temple in an uncharacteristic show of bashfulness.
“Take it slow.” Natasha advised. “Take him to Thor’s and buy dinner. Steve likes to be wooed good and proper. He’s an old timer.”
“Yeah. Say ‘I’m sweet on you’ and he’ll get down on both knees straight away.”
Natasha and Tony turned to look at him, and even Lucky cocked and ear as if to say ‘what the fuck, man?’. Clint shrugged and went back to his soup.
“But seriously,” Natasha said. “Steve does like you. He hasn’t explicitly said it, but he has these little tells. Bucky said that you and Tab, - ”
“Tabitha,” Natasha corrected. “That you and Tabitha had recently made a lot of appearances in his sketch books, and not just in the way Steve sees everyone else. Bucky isn’t a master with art, but he knows when an artist falls in love with their subject.”
Tony winced. “I wouldn’t call it love just yet.”
“But there’s something there worth chasing.” Natasha said wisely. She fixed Tony with her green eyes, eyes that had seen unimaginable horrors and gone though unspeakable realities. “And believe me when I say that I don’t take love lightly. For a long time, I believed love was only for children. But there’s something between you and Steve that even I can see is true. Go for it. Don’t regret it.”
Tony sipped at his soup, feeling a little attacked in a pleasant sort of way. Tabitha bumped her skull against his leg reassuringly and Tony knew that Natasha was right.
Steve said yes the moment the words ‘would you like’ came out of Tony’s mouth. Tony halted in his speech, eyebrows furrowing.
“I could have said ‘would you like to murder someone with me’, you know.” He commented lightly.
Steve’s cheeks went a lovely shade of pink and he let a grin spread over his face. “Yeah, but I know you don’t and haven’t ever murdered someone, so...”
“My memories and history beg to differ.” Tony said quietly. Steve huffed.
“You may have designed the weapons, Tony, but they did a hell of a lot for us before they were put in the wrong hands by someone who wasn’t you.” Steve said determinedly. “But yes. I will go with you to wherever you want. And by that, I’m hoping it’s Thor’s, because I’m dying for a Rainbow Bridge Milkshake.”
Tony smiled and wondered if this was what it felt like to finally be on the road to recovery, because if it was, he wasn’t ever planning on veering off again.