The first armour Tony Stark builds is not in a cave in Afghanistan. He began construction on it long ago, so long ago that he can't quite remember when he started, only that he knows he can't live without it. It's not an armour formed from gold or titanium, no steel or metal of any kind. It wasn't forged and heated and shaped with a hammer and his own two hands.
But it was still armour.
It was a different kind of armour, the kind made from thick skin, and nerves he wished he could make from steel. It featured a dazzling smile and a quick wit and an ability to never let anything get to him, at least not that anyone could see. His armour oozed charm and kept everyone at arm's length while letting them think they were the only ones who could see inside.
Alcohol and a girl on his arm weren't key components of his first armour, but damn, they made it look good. They were accessories, not essentials.
Sometimes he could take it off, in front of the people he really thought he trusted, like Pepper and Happy and Rhodey and Obie, except not Obie. Fuck Obie and the horse he rode in on, fuck his whole cavalry in fact.
Because Obie led to kidnapping and Afghanistan, and then Tony had to build real armour that everyone else could see, because he didn't think he'd ever feel safe in his skin again. He didn't get rid of his old armour, his first armour, because he couldn't wear the suit all the time, as much as he wanted to.
Fuck Obie because he made Tony feel unsafe in his own home, in his armour that he'd carefully perfected since he could remember, in his own skin with the damn arc reactor dangling from the hole in his chest before it was yanked free.
For a long time after that, the illusion of safety wasn't one Tony could afford. So he tightened his first armour, because it had never failed him. He polished his smile and sharpened his wit and decided that the alcohol and girls weren't working for him, not anymore.
So what if he was dying, because his armour was impeccable, and no one could hurt him, except for himself.
He doesn't die, and maybe his armour cracks when he falls from his (maybe) suicide mission in outer space. He patches it up the best he can, and he thinks it's doing alright, but it's not good enough when everyone moves into his tower.
It's hard to keep up the facade when he lives with five other superheroes and the person who wrangles them all. It's especially hard when he lives with a super soldier from the forties who isn't very good with the future, but somehow understands feelings;a scientist who took an experiment too far and now pays the price with his emotions, emotions that he has to read in everyone else or risk turning into something he fears; a master assassin who was raised to read and understand people; a marksman who sits and watch people for hours, days even; and a demi-god who understands far more than he lets on. Like that wasn't bad enough, there was also the man who wrangled them all, the one who basically refused to die, and Tony admired that.
But his armour was worn down by them, and they chipped and chipped at it, and eventually he cracked. He cracked and the armour crumbles to pieces around his feet and he's bared to the world, and mostly the other Avengers, and it's awful.
He's terrified, because he knows what happens when people get through his armour. (See: Obie and the following clusterfuck.) He's terrified that his team will see what he really is and hate him, or pity him, or want to protect him. And he can't do that.
But... they don't. He doesn't understand what happens, or how, but they don't hate him or pity him or try to protect him.
For reasons he can't understand, they seem to want to help. To connect.
Steve talks to him about his friend Bucky, the friend he lost, but found, only to lose again. He talks about waking up to find everything he once knew was gone, and if it still existed, it was so different it was no better than if it was gone.
Natasha sits in comfortable silence with him, and it's alright, somehow. He doesn't think she's trying to kill him, and that's something.
Clint will sit in his room, somewhere high up, and Jarvis will warn him so he doesn't have a heart attack when he goes to bed. They'll spend time together that is occasionally filled with words, sometimes about Clint in the blue haze of Loki, and in kind, Tony will talk about the cave and even worse, what happened when he came back.
Thor sometimes watches movies with him, and will speak of Loki and betrayal. He manages to not cry or bemoan the loss of his brother, because somehow he understands that Tony can't hear that right now. He speaks of worthiness and lessons learned in the face of loss and pain and suffering.
Bruce speaks science to him, and Tony speaks science, understands that Bruce is telling him tales of loss and heartbreak and the terrible ache of knowing that you fucked up, really bad.
Coulson looks at him, and Tony feels that he'd tell him things except his clearance level is nowhere near high enough for that shit, so instead Agent just looks at him, and that's enough.
Somehow, without his armour, without the wit and the smile and the charm and the illusion of closeness, they see him. They see him broken and real and his skin is paper thin and his nerves are made of spider silk and they still seem to like him, and he doesn't understand.
He doesn't think he'll ever understand, even if he's a genius. He could work on the problem his whole life and never come any closer to an answer, because it involves feelings, and he's allergic to those.
He doesn't like not knowing, but there are some things he just has to accept.
He keeps the armour. But he doesn't wear it all the time.
He definitely keeps the armour, because he comes to think it's all he needs, because when he's not in the armour, he's around the people he thinks he feels safe with.
(Although there was Obie, so Jarvis keeps an eye on them.)
So Tony works on his trust issues, because fuck yes, he has a list longer than he is tall, but he thinks, for the first time, for real, really, that it could be okay.