Tony doesn't tell anyone because no one else deserves to know. Or at least, that's what he like to tell himself. At night, when he's alone in his bed and dizzy with the need to sleep and the fear of nightmares, he knows it's because he's already too weak. Tony Stark not recommended, right? If his team knew, if SHIELD knew, he would lose everything. Right now, the only thing holding him together is the fact that he's an Avenger.
It's just a lot easier to push away the thoughts of what he's lost during the day.
But he keeps it private and tells himself that it shouldn't matter, because really it had only happened a handful of times. Maybe a dozen at the most, and that's not so much, right? So it shouldn't matter like this. It shouldn't hit him in the belly like a craving when he spots something that reminds him - and that seems to happen all the fucking time. It shouldn't make him cry at night like the baby he's trying so hard not to be, covering his face while the huge, shuddering sobs shake him from head to toe. It shouldn't make Pepper look at him with obvious concern, or Rhodey place a series of increasingly worried phone calls about the state of Tony's health.
He should be holding it together better than this.
About two months after the Battle of New York he wets the bed, wakes up crying and muffles it with his pillow because no one's coming. He finds a pacifier in his bedside table and gives it a few quick, guilty sucks in the hopes of getting calmer, but it's not the one he really wants. No, that one - the one that was painted to look like Cap's shield - had a special place in the pocket of a suit jacket, where it was always on hand when Tony needed it the most. He's never had the nerve to search the SHIELD servers to see if anyone found it after the fact, because what if someone notices his curiosity and puts two and two together?
It takes effort to keep himself awake the rest of the night, but he doesn't dare try to go back to sleep. He takes the longest shower he can bear and gets dressed, fumbling his wet sheets into the garbage instead of down the laundry chute, and then he sits down with his back to the wall and just stares. He thinks about indulging in a glass of whiskey, maybe just one, but he's not supposed to be doing that anymore. Those oft repeated words ghost through his mind and he chokes on another sob, putting his hands over his ears. It's not supposed to be like this. For all Tony knows, it was nothing more than a way to get him to warm up to Shield. There's a good possibility that it didn't really mean anything.
Babies aren't supposed to have alcohol, Tony, you know that.
He tells himself that over and over again, that maybe it didn't mean anything, that it mattered so much more to him, but he doesn't really believe it until he stumbles down to breakfast that morning. The rest of the team was already there, because for people who'd claimed they were going their separate ways, they'd showed up alarmingly fast at the tower, and it occurs to Tony that it's a lot later than he thought it was. Steve is cooking breakfast with Thor's help, and Bruce and Natasha and Clint are already sitting at the table, and that's right about when Tony's mind grinds to a complete stop.
Phil Coulson looks back at him with an even expression.
Hallucination is the first thing that goes through his head, but then Clint turns to him and says something and Phil rolls his eyes. It's natural, easy, in a way that dispels any notion that Clint might have just found out. And if Clint can see him too, than that means either they're all hallucinating or that he's real. Tony's not sure which he wants more, but he is sure that his legs can no longer hold him. The sound his shoulder makes when he slumps sideways against the doorframe catches Natasha's attention, and she frowns at him.
"What are you doing, Stark?"
Words. Words are things that Tony needs to remember how to use. "I... you... you're alive."
Something changes in Phil's face, but it's Clint who answers. "Yeah, didn't you hear? We've known for like a month now, but he just got clearance to leave the medical bays a couple days ago. Apparently the doctors didn't trust him not to pull his stitches open. I wonder where they got an idea like that from." He's grinning like it's a big joke, and Tony can't breathe.
Tony doesn't know what kind of sound comes out of his mouth. It can't be a good one. The grin vanishes from Clint's face and Steve and Thor spin around and Phil starts to stand, but it turns out that his legs will support him after all because Tony's already stumbling away. He can't really see where he's going, his eyes are so full of tears, but he's been in the tower long enough that he should know it like the back of his hand. He still bangs his shin hard into the coffee table and the momentum is enough to take him down, crumbling into a pathetic heap right there on the floor for everyone to see.
"Tony, baby, shh. I'm sorry. I'm so sorry. I thought - I didn't realize no one told you. I'm sorry." Familiar hands grip his shoulders, pulling him up a bit, and he remembers the first time those hands had ever touched him. The one and only time he'd ever driven Phil to lose his temper, back when Tony was dying and being an asshole to the universe in general. Phil had gotten so fed up with his attitude that he'd dragged Tony over his knee to treat him like the child he was pretending to be, and - to Tony's lasting shame - he'd broken down and cried. Things spiraled from there, though Tony's still not completely sure how it ever got to this point. He struggles to drag in a breath and inhales an equally familiar scent, chokes on it, too fast.
"No, no, sweetheart, don't do that. None of that. It's okay. C'mon, Tony, I'm right here. Match your breathing to mine. We can do it together, just like we practiced. C'mon, baby boy, breathe for Daddy."
Trembling all over, Tony exhales on automatic. Phil coos praise in his ear, one hand resting over his chest, encouraging him to breathe back in. The panic is still jumping through his chest, but at least black spots aren't dancing in front of his eyes anymore. He turns his head a little, finds himself looking right at Phil's chest. Clumsily, he paws at the jacket of the suit.
"I know what you want. Got it right here. I didn't know if you'd ever want to use it again - guess that was pretty stupid of me, huh?" Phil mutters, sounding both angry and sad, and he reaches into the inner pocket of his suit and takes out the special pacifier. He carefully guides it into Tony's mouth, wiping away a few tears as he does. "Oh honey, I'm so sorry. Believe me, if I'd realized I would've had someone tell you. I would've come to see you myself no matter what the doctors said. I'm so sorry, baby, so sorry."
This pacifier tastes just right. He has to pee again, but by the time his mind registers that his bladder is already letting go. Phil makes a quiet sound when he feels the damp warmth, but he doesn't let go of Tony. If anything, he squeezes tighter. Tony buries his face, tentatively wrapping his arms around Phil's back. He feels like there are eyes watching him, and he doesn't know how to handle that. After months of trying to hide it, of successfully hiding it on his own, it's all fallen apart in the span of a few minutes. His shaking gets worse, and he hears himself whimpering.
"I know," Phil says, "I know. Don't cry." He puts a hand on the back of Tony's head. "It's just us, okay? The others have given us some privacy. We don't have to go anywhere right now. We can just sit right here until you're ready to get up, and then we'll go upstairs together. We'll get you all cleaned up and into a fresh diaper, and then maybe we'll be able to have some of that delicious breakfast that Uncle Steve and Uncle Thor were cooking. Doesn't that sound nice, sweetie? Tony, honey?"
Tony just clings tighter, sucking hard on his pacifier, trying to convince himself that it's really not the dream it seems to be. This is real. Daddy - Phil is here. He squeezes his eyes shut against another bout of sobs. He's not good at doing it on his own. He doesn't want to go back to being alone.
"You won't," Daddy whispers, and maybe it really is him, because he's the only one who could ever decipher what Tony is saying while he's sucking on his pacifier. His hand trails down Tony's neck and shoulders and back, then rubs up soothingly. "You're not going to be alone ever again, Tony, I promise."