"How are you doing today?"
Oh god, it's such a simple question. You know how you're supposed to answer it. ("Fine. How are you?") But you can't bring yourself to lie that much. Not to her.
"I'm just," hand wave, "sort of," rub head, "um," shrug, "kind of..." palms up, giving up position, "Okay?"
She doesn't believe you. You don't blame her, because it wasn't like you were very convincing. But you got to the end of the sentence and forgot what you were going to say. So you gave in.
Instead, she just looks worried. She places a hand on your shoulder, and the touch is nice. She's warm. You can't remember the last time someone touched you without wanting something out of it.
(Maybe you can, but you don't want to.)
"Let me know if you need to talk," she says gently.
But you never will.
There are too many thoughts in your head, all the things you have to do, all the plans you've made, plots of movies, blueprints of designs, missions that you've done or will do, people you've met. Everything swirls around, like a giant vortex and nothing ever seems to leave.
The drinking was good for that. Alcohol is a depressant, and it quiets everything in your mind.
But you've been down that road before, Before, and you don't want to get that far again.
You always have it as an option, if it gets worse, and the thought comforts you.
You try to work, because that can take some of them away, the pressing matters, the to do list that only seems to grow no matter how many hours you spend in the workshop. It seems for every task you cross off, two more take its place, and two new ideas pop up for every one you complete.
Maybe the solution is to stop doing things, but you're fairly certain you'd drown in them.
(Is that how you survive whirlpools? You feel like this is something you should know. Do you keep swimming with them and hope to get out, or do you give up and let yourself be sucked under? Probably not that. Of course, the best way is to never get caught in one to begin with, but you're a lifetime too late for that.)
You know you're a mess. Of course you do. How could you not?
And you know that you don't want to be.
And you're working on it, really. Maybe not in normal ways, with medications and traditional therapies, but you are working on it, and it is better.
It's the small things, the things that you and Jarvis can categorize and analyze and note that you're making progress. It's the small things that you can't explain to anyone else, because drawing the line between full out panic attacks and just... little panic attacks are not obvious enough to the average observer. And god knows everyone is average.
So you don't tell them, even if you're proud of your progress, because you hate where it leaves you.
Some days are better than others. That's just how it is.
Some days are good. You're better. It's better.
But you're still not good, and you don't know if you ever will be.
Sometimes you shiver, and you don't realize it until you try to use fine tools, and your hands don't cooperate.
Sometimes you can make it stop.
Sometimes you can't. You look down at your hands and note with detachment that they are still shaking, despite your best efforts to stop them.
You pull the blanket around your shoulders tighter. Maybe if you pull it tight enough, it can make the shaking stop. Maybe if you pull it tight enough, you can bury yourself inside it and make everything go away.
Dum-E presents you with a cup of coffee, steam rising off it, made just how you like. You look at it in surprise, because he can't work the coffee machine, not since you got a new one after the last fiasco.
"I made coffee for you sir, and I instructed Dum-E to bring it to you," Jarvis informs you, like he knows what you're thinking.
Maybe he does. Or maybe you were talking out loud again.
Either way, he doesn't tell you, and you accept the cup from your bot.
It burns your tongue, but it hurts in a good way, a way that reminds you you're still alive and breathing.
The arc reactor hitches in your chest a little when you think about that, about breathing, and you nearly freeze up again.
Instead you inhale the warm steam and pretend nothing's wrong.
You're getting very good at it, after a lifetime of practice.
You're thankful that everyone else thinks you're an asshole, because it makes it easier for you to escape from meetings or debriefs when you're about to freak out.
They simply excuse your behaviour as 'Tony being Tony,' which is true, sort of, only because you are Tony, and you're not being anyone else.
Being an ass is preferable to having everyone know.
Which is what you tell yourself when you're crouching in a bathroom stall mentally talking yourself through breathing. The tiles of the wall are cool against your forehead, and you try not to think about what could be on them. (It doesn't work.)
Knowing they hate you for leaving is better than having them tiptoe around certain subjects. (But only on certain days, because sometimes you can deal with the thought of a desert mission, on days where your chest doesn't ache and you don't remember the feeling of open heart surgery with just the mention of sand. Because some days you can talk about when you used to make weapons without seeing the blood on your hands, without seeing empty eyes. And some days you just can't.)
Hell, you know they've got problems too. Steve is pretty much the poster boy for repressed issues. But he's stupidly brave and strong and just so pure that everyone forgets how much he's lost. That he plunged into the sea expecting to die, and instead woke up to find he'd lost everything.
You feel guilty for feeling bad when you think about what Steve's lost.
But you remind yourself that suffering is not a contest, that pain cannot be measured, and that no one can tell you your experiences are not valid.
After all, you were the one who went into space, and saw the emptiness that lay beyond what you thought existed.
(That's what fills your dreams these days, millions of miles, as far as the eye can see, of empty space, the darkness only broken by the light of distant stars.)
You reassure yourself that your pain is justified, like it needs to be, but that's how you roll.
(Yet another testament to your fucked-up-ness, that you feel the need for your pain to be justified in order to allow yourself to feel it.)
But you also remind yourself that you're not the only one. Because maybe they're broken too, but it's not a contest.
It's a club.
A club of broken people who pretend they're not, who hide nightmares behind sleepless nights sparring in the gym, who hide panic attacks behind storming out of meetings, who hide pain and loss behind rules and regulations, who hide fear and loneliness by smiling brighter than everyone else, like the light could eliminate the darkness.
You don't say anything to any of them, never calling them out on it, because you do the same.
You're not sure if they know.
Yeah, you're on a team with spies and soldiers and gods, but you're still not sure if they know.
Because you do a damn good job of hiding it, and you deny deny deny like your little heart depends on it, and maybe it does.
So instead of talking about nightmares, you make excuses about why you just couldn't sleep, too busy inventing or reinventing or fixing or improving. No one can argue with that.
And instead of talking about panic attacks, you bite off sharp retorts and storm out of rooms when you can't talk anymore.
And instead of talking about shivering alone in your workshop when flashes of memories come back, the clang of metal reminding you of the cave, the dark reminding you of space, you drink coffee that your robots bring you.
Nightmares are nightmares, no matter where you have them, and you've finally decided that because Pepper isn't sleeping with you anymore (or sleeping with you, for the best really) that you may as well not sleep in your bed instead of not sleeping in your workshop.
It makes Jarvis happy anyway, and you can't disagree.
Because even if you wake up in the middle of the night, the blankets soaked through with cold sweat and every single muscle in you aching from trying to flee from something that didn't exist, at least you're somewhere soft and warm.
A place that had once been safe.
It's almost enough to ease you back to sleep.
Some nights, anyway.
On days where you haven't sleep for nearly a week, when the coffee only makes the shaking worse and the blanket you wrap around your shoulders can't hold the chill at bay, when you lock down the lab because you can't even think of facing anyone, you daydream about the time when you can just sleep the whole night through.
That would be nice.
Maybe one day.
But instead, you wander upstairs to talk to Steve, because Jarvis informs you he's out of bed, after his heart rate elevated for a short period, and he awoke from sleep.
You wonder if he dreams of ice and water the same way you dream of empty space and stars.
Maybe you'll even talk about it, you muse in the elevator.
Or maybe next time.