Warnings: A few swear words, and slight AU.
The first thing the Avengers realized upon moving into the newly-christened Avengers Tower was that they really, really knew nothing about Tony Stark. And even with the man's usually obnoxious level of arrogance and confidence, he wasn't telling.
Of course, they all knew the side of Tony Stark that existed in battle. The stories of Iron Man had become legendary in the city, and fighting alongside him had provided its own insight. But living with him – in his territory, on his terms – was radically different.
Natasha was the only one who had read Tony's true file, and she wasn't interested in sharing. Bruce, Clint, Steve, and Thor had read the edited version S.H.I.E.L.D. had provided, which mostly listed his accomplishments, inventions, and battle capabilities.
It hadn't listed the way Tony was absolutely silent in the morning until he got his coffee, and was for hours afterwards on some days. It gave no reason why Tony Stark, with all his wealth and affluence, had no swimming pool or Jacuzzi within his massive home. Tony's file did not say anything about how his AI, Jarvis, was astoundingly protective of him and could read him like a book. It didn't explain why there were exactly twenty-three small white boxes installed on the walls in various rooms of the Tower, guarded by a seven-digit number code.
There was not a single thing about his childhood, his family, or his life choices. But the most important thing omitted from Tony's file was information about the mysterious blue device that rested in his chest.
Whenever anyone questioned Natasha about the arc reactor, their queries were met with a brisk, "Ask Tony," and that was the end of the discussion.
It was late one night, and only Natasha and Tony were present in the main rooms of the house. Tony, as usual, had a drink clutched in his hand; Natasha had been studying a book on foreign strategy that looked remarkably dry.
The silence was noticeable, but not uncomfortable. That is, until Natasha broke it.
"They're asking, Tony," she said, glancing at him, her eyes uncompromising but gentle. "You know they are."
She didn't have to specify what she was talking about for him to understand. Tony didn't look up. "Your point being?"
Natasha shifted in her chair and pulled her legs up beneath her. "They are your team," she replied. "They're your friends. They need to know. They deserve to know."
Tony was silent for a long moment, the silence broken only by his fingers tapping against the glass. When he finally spoke, his words were heavy and laced with such accusation that Natasha internally winced.
"Let me ask you something," Tony said, turning in his seat to face the assassin directly. "And answer me honestly. How often do you, Natasha Romanoff, share your weaknesses with others?"
Natasha looked at her lap briefly, and then met his eyes again. "The arc reactor is not your weakness, Tony," she urged him. "It is what keeps you alive. There is a clear difference. Your team deserves to know."
Tony met her gaze head-on once more. "I've been betrayed before," he said, his words very nearly a whisper. "It's not as easy as you would think to share with others that your life so tentatively hangs in the balance. It's not easy to tell your team – who are gods, super-soldiers, master assassins – that your very heart can be so easily compromised."
He rose from his chair, leaving his glass on the coffee table. "I will tell them," Tony said quietly, not looking at Natasha. "I will tell them when I feel safe with them."
Natasha bowed her head. Feeling safe physically – that was an achievement that the Avengers as a team could provide. But as to being emotionally stable?
The answer was, none of them were. If Tony could achieve that, she hoped he'd share the secret.
Bruce had his suspicions, of course; any proper scientist would. He threw about fancy medical terms in his mind, most of which no one besides Tony would understand, and attempted to hazard a guess as to what the device in Tony's chest could be.
The bottom line was, Bruce could guess all he wanted as to the actual function of the device; however, as to why it was there and what put it there, he had no idea.
Bruce and Tony had become nearly inseparable when in the lab due to the flawless way they worked together. As a result of their burgeoning friendship, Bruce had been considering asking Tony about it for days, but had kept his silence out of fear that the man would be offended.
One morning, Bruce got into the lab before Tony did. As he booted up his tablet for the first time, Bruce noticed a new file waiting for him that he hadn't created.
Frowning, Bruce sat down on his stool and tapped to open the file. A huge, obviously in-depth technical file opened on the tablet and expanded to fill the screens that surrounded Bruce's desk.
Bruce reached out and picked up the holographic model of the arc reactor that was directly in front of him. He knew what this meant – that Tony was offering him the answers to all his questions, that he was trusting him with something that must be important.
Bruce settled in and began reading. He had a lot of work to do before he could truly understand.
When Tony came into the lab a few hours later, rubbing sleep from his eyes and clutching a cup of coffee, Bruce had almost completely finished his study of the arc reactor. One of the most interesting parts of the information in the file was the seven-digit code that was embedded into it. Bruce had immediately committed it to memory. If his best guess was right, that code would open the white boxes that were scattered throughout the house. Bruce would say without a doubt that those boxes contained back-up arc reactors, just in case.
Bruce didn't want to think about what tragedy had led Tony to make such a precautionary move.
Tony paused mid-step and looked at Bruce. He took a few more steps forward and stopped right in front of the screens, looking at the arc reactor model with an almost practiced sense of familiarity.
Bruce leaned back in his chair. "Good morning," he said, smiling at his friend.
"Hi," Tony replied, taking a sip of his coffee. His voice sounded uncharacteristically hesitant. "I see you got the file."
Bruce nodded once, unsure of what else to say.
Tony paused for a moment, as if considering what he wanted to say. "Could you make me one, if need be?" He asked, so softly Bruce had to strain to hear his words. "Do you understand how it works?"
"Yes," Bruce replied seriously, meeting Tony's eyes. "I understand it. I've got your back, Tony."
Sighing, Tony visibly relaxed. "It's a little stressful sometimes," he admitted, not looking at Bruce. "I have a few members of my medical staff who know the fact that the reactor must be in at all times; but there's no one else who could make one, no one else who could… who could rebuild it from the ground up, if my… if my life depended on it."
Tony looked up, his eyes boring into Bruce's. "I'm trusting you with this," he said, his voice breaking slightly. "Please… please don't let me down."
In those six faltering words, Bruce heard it all. The trust and hope that Tony had put in their friendship, all balanced on the fragile vulnerability that Tony hid so well.
"Tony," Bruce said gently. "I'm your friend. I've got your back. I promise you."
Tony nodded once, as if convincing himself of the truth in Bruce's words, and turned away. Suddenly, it was as if a switch had been flipped, and arrogant, confident Tony was back in control. "Now," Tony said loudly, looking around him confusedly, "where did I put that yesterday…"
As the billionaire moved on with his business, Bruce closed out the file about the arc reactor. Later, when Tony wasn't around, he was going to make sure he had every part of that file memorized. He wouldn't let Tony down, not in this.
"Tony," Steve said, interrupting the other man from his work in his lab. "We need to talk."
Tony looked up from the newest model of the Iron Man suit. "What's up, Cap?" He asked, wiping his hands on a towel.
"I had a meeting with Fury today," Steve replied, sitting down on a stool near Tony. "He told me some… interesting information regarding your arc reactor."
A mixture of emotions flashed across Tony's face: shock, anger, vulnerability, and most notably, betrayal. The man slumped down into the chair behind him, not looking at Steve.
"That was not his to share," Tony murmured, his hand going instinctively to the arc reactor on his chest.
"Why didn't you tell me, Tony?" Steve asked seriously, leaning forward in his chair. "We're teammates. It's important for me to know all of your–"
"All of my what? My weaknesses?" Tony said abruptly, standing up. "You've already made it clear what you think about me. You don't need another reason to think I'm weak."
Steve frowned. "What do you mean?"
Tony's face was emotionless, but Steve could practically hear the venom in his words. "Don't you remember what you said to me, back in the battle with Loki? 'Big man in a suit of armor, take that away, what are you? You're not the guy to make the sacrifice play, to lay down on a wire.' You made yourself perfectly clear."
He turned away from Steve and went back to work, carefully controlling his movements to avoid lashing out. Behind him, Steve was silent.
"We're friends, Tony. I didn't mean any of that back then."
Unable to contain himself, Tony swung around angrily. "No," he said. "You meant every word. We are not friends. You are friends with Iron Man. You're friends with the guy who can fly around and shoot enemies out of the sky, who can save the day. You're not friends with Tony Stark, and you don't want to be."
Tony lifted his hand to the arc reactor once more. "This here – it powers the Iron Man suit. That's all you need to know, all you care about. Who the hell cares what it does for Tony Stark?"
Steve looked down at his hands. "It keeps you alive."
Tony nearly laughed. "Yeah, it does. Maybe one day that will matter to you."
Tony wandered into the archery range one day to find Clint there, as he had expected. The man was dressed in workout clothes and was shooting arrows at close-range, aiming for a target that Tony could barely see.
"Hey, Clint," Tony said casually, not at all surprised when the man appeared not to hear him. Clint regularly got into a 'zone' when he was training, in order to concentrate solely on his craft. "Clint!" Tony called loudly, finally breaking the archer from his focus.
Clint turned towards him and, registering who he was, let his bow fall to his side. "Tony," the man acknowledged. "What's up?"
Tony sighed and took a seat in one of the chairs on the edge of the range. "I've been telling a few of the others about this," Tony said, placing one hand on the arc reactor on his chest. "I figured it was your turn."
Clint lifted his bow once more and shot a single arrow into the dead-center of the target, without even glancing at it. "You don't need to tell me anything, Tony," he said.
"Did Natasha tell you?"
Shaking his head, Clint turned back to the target. "No, she didn't tell me anything. I just figured it out, everything that I need to know, anyway."
Tony leaned back against the chair. "And what did you figure out?"
Clint paused for a long moment before putting the bow down and taking a seat next to Tony. He took a deep breath and began.
"I figured out that it – whatever you call it, I don't know the proper term – has some important function in regards to your life, as you don't go around talking about it like you do everything else you've invented." Tony couldn't help but laugh at that and concede the point to Clint.
"The second thing I figured is that whatever it is came from a moment when you were completely desperate."
Tony turned his head to meet Clint's eyes. "What makes you think that?"
Clint frowned and gestured to his bow. "These are just weapons," he said thoughtfully. "My bow, Natasha's guns, your suit. Just weapons. But my bow is like an extension of my arm – it has become a part of me, an integral part. It became that way because I had no other choice." Clint bowed his head.
"I can tell enough about you to know that you wouldn't build the Iron Man suit and fight like you do just for show. Something pushed you to that moment, something that made you desperate, hopeless. Something happened that made you fight like hell to survive, and I'm betting it comes down to that thing in your chest."
Tony was silent for a long moment, letting Clint's deductions wash over him and sink in. When he finally spoke, it wasn't what Clint had expected.
"It was Afghanistan," Tony said quietly. "Terrorists had me stuck in a cave. Torture, death threats, all that good stuff. I have shrapnel heading towards my heart. This arc reactor here – there you go, proper term – keeps me alive."
Clint nodded slowly, and then stood and returned to his bow. "Right," he said, taking a shot. "Arc reactor." He glanced at Tony, their eyes meeting. "I'll make sure I remember we need to keep it working."
The understated loyalty in that simple sentence wasn't lost on Tony, who cracked a smile as he left the range. Clint had read him like a book.
Steve was lying on his bed one morning, already fully dressed and deep in thought. Suddenly, he sat up in bed and blinked speculatively at the ceiling.
Tentatively, Steve spoke out loud. He still wasn't completely used to addressing the AI system that Tony had built into the entirety of the house, but he was getting there. "Jarvis?"
The reply was instantaneous. "Yes, Captain Rogers?"
Steve hesitated. "If I ask you something, can you not tell Tony?"
"I will observe your requested silence," Jarvis said, but even with Steve's limited experience with the AI, he could hear what it really meant. I'll keep it a secret, unless it directly involves Tony in some important, crucial way.
"Why does Tony… why does he act the way he does, sometimes?" Steve asked, feeling ridiculously vague.
The reply took longer this time, almost as if the AI was hesitating. "Mr. Stark suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD," Jarvis finally responded. "I believe in your time it was referred to as shell shock."
Steve opened his mouth to say something, but no words came out for a moment. "Post traumatic–" He said haltingly, confused. "What happened to him to cause–"
Steve couldn't help but be surprised at the depth of loyalty that artificial intelligence could display. "That is not my story to tell," Jarvis said, sounding almost cold. "You'll have to ask Mr. Stark yourself, Captain Rogers."
Nodding, Steve leaned back on the headboard. "Understood," he murmured, his mind already racing in an attempt to decipher what he had just learned. What could Tony have lived through to give him post-traumatic stress disorder? Steve had had friends back in the war who suffered from shell shock; he still remembered the nightmares that had wracked their bodies, the unmentioned tremors in their limbs, and the way their personalities were irrevocably changed.
If Steve had to guess, he would say it had something to do with Tony's arc reactor. He frowned. If only he hadn't botched up his relationship with Tony so badly, maybe the man would have eventually trusted him enough to share the story.
He was in a cave. Again.
Of course, this time there weren't any terrorists, Tony wasn't in immediate danger of dying, this wasn't the same type of cave, and Thor was with him, but still. He was in a cave. A damned cave.
Tony shut his eyes tightly and opened them again, as if that would make it all go away. It was pure coincidence that they were here; the whole team had been fighting some mutant goats or some other strange mammal… thing on a deserted island who-knows where. Things had been going just fine when a sudden explosion hit the ground and ripped the Earth open, creating a hole that Tony and Thor had fallen into. Rocks and debris had immediately covered the opening, leaving just enough room for Tony and Thor to sit on the ground side-by-side, the Iron Man suit uncomfortably bulky in the confined space.
Tony gasped loudly and flipped open the mask on the suit. Thor was breathing heavily next to him, no doubt as a result of the battle they had just fought more than in reaction to being stuck in a cave.
Taking a deep breath to try and control his thoughts, Tony said urgently over the comm, "Hey guys? Yeah, we're stuck in a cave under the Earth. So whenever you can finish up there and get us out… Yeah, hurry the hell up." The last four words were nearly hissed.
"Oh, shit," Clint was the first one to react. "A cave? That's not good. Tony, we'll get you out. We're almost done.."
Tony leaned his head back against the wall as Steve said, "What's the significance of a cave –"
Natasha had just begun explaining, "That's where–" when Tony shut off the comm. He didn't need to hear the story, not now – not when he was reliving his worst experience in his head, blow by blow –
Yinsen. Car battery. Fear…
"Man of Iron?" Thor's voice cut through Tony's thoughts. "You're shaking."
Tony opened his eyes and saw that indeed, Thor was correct. Even through the metal of the Iron Man suit, Tony's whole body was visibly trembling. Tony sighed deeply, feeling his heart beat erratically. He looked down unconsciously to check to make sure the light of the arc reactor was still there. You're okay.
"Yeah," Tony breathed, his voice soft. "Caves and I don't really get along."
Thor frowned. "Why not?"
Tony tapped the arc reactor with one finger. "That's where this guy came from," he said, leaning his head back against the wall again. "I was… almost killed in a cave." Tony found he couldn't say anymore, but that was apparently all Thor needed to hear.
"The rest of the team will get us out of here," Thor assured him. The god of thunder paused for a moment before continuing. "Have I ever told you about that time back on Asgard when I…"
For the remainder of the time Tony and Thor were stuck in the cave, Thor attempted to keep Tony's mind occupied with story after story of his childhood on Asgard. Tony found he couldn't follow all the stories – the fear possessing his mind and the tremors plaguing his body were still too violent – but he appreciated the effort all the same.
When the rocks above began to slowly be pulled away from their precarious perches, one by one to lower the risk of a further collapse, Tony slowly began to breathe again. When Clint pulled him out of the rubble, Tony very nearly fell over with relief.
When he promptly threw up as soon as he was on solid ground again, not one member of his team mentioned it.
Ever since the entire team had moved into Avengers Tower, Steve had made it a habit of watching the sunrise. One of the top floors had a balcony with a perfect view of the rising sun. Somehow, the morning ritual grounded Steve. Each morning he took his place on the balcony with his sketchbook, ready to watch the dawning of a new day.
It was a morning just like all the others, a little cloudy perhaps, and Steve had just settled into his chair against the back wall and began drawing when the door to the balcony opened suddenly.
Tony came out onto the balcony and leaned against the railing, breathing deeply, clad in sleep pants and his typical Black Sabbath t-shirt. Steve remained silent and watched him for a moment, before deciding it was rude to not let the man know he was there.
"Morning," Steve said quietly. "Did you have a nightmare?"
Tony nearly jumped out of his skin. "Holy shit, Steve," he swore. "What the hell are you doing out here?"
Steve held up his notebook. "I like to draw the sunrise," he explained. "Didn't mean to startle you."
Tony shrugged and nearly fell into the chair next to Steve. "S'alright," he said, staring at his trembling hands. "And, yeah, I had a nightmare. That thing with the cave… It kind of messed me up."
Steve was quiet for a long moment. "I'm sorry," he finally said, glancing up at Tony.
"For what? You didn't have anything to do with that."
"No," Steve said, faltering. He paused for a moment and began again. "I'm sorry for – for being an ass."
Tony looked surprised. "Captain Steve Rogers, swearing on my account? I'm honored."
Steve rolled his eyes – that was so typically Tony. "When the occasion calls," he joked, and then sobered. "I'm being serious, Tony. I'm sorry. I shouldn't have said those things to you, that day on the helicarrier. I didn't know you well enough then – and I don't know you well enough now – to make comments like that."
Steve set his sketchbook down on the table and leaned forward slightly. "I know you don't think we're friends," he said quietly. "Maybe I don't deserve it, yet. But really, Tony – and I'm being completely honest here – I'd like to be your friend."
Tony's eyes met Steve's. "What changed?" He asked, his voice slightly flat.
Steve hesitated. "Well – I think you've proven time and time again that I was wrong about you. You put your life on the line – not only that, you made the sacrifice play. You were going to die, Tony. You did that. And, well – I've learned some things that have made me believe that some of what you do is all an act, to cover for what's beneath."
"You've heard bits and pieces from other people, you mean," Tony corrected. Steve ducked his head in acquiescence, and Tony sighed.
"That's a hell of a diagnosis to be stuck with, let me tell you," Tony said. "Post-traumatic stress disorder? Say that, and some people immediately think that you're irrevocably messed up. That's not completely true, of course, but some days…"
"I heard some stories," Steve added quietly. "Back in the day, Howard used to say –"
Steve winced. He had a remarkable habit of forgetting that Howard was actually Tony's father, and that it was rather awkward to discuss him on a familiar level with his son. To his surprise, however, Tony did have something to say.
"To start off our friendship," Tony said quietly, refusing to meet Steve's eyes, "I'll tell you another secret. Howard Stark was a terrible father."
Steve blinked, trying to reconcile Tony's words with the man he had known back all those years ago. "I'm sorry," he said. "I didn't know."
Tony waved him off. "You had no way of knowing," he said. "I just want you to understand that he's not the same man to me that he is to you."
Standing up, Tony yawned. His hands had almost completely stopped trembling. "I need coffee," he said, moving towards the door. "Thanks for the apology, Steve. I – it means a lot."
Steve nodded once in response and returned his gaze to the sunrise, which was just breaking over the horizon. It seemed a friendship could still be salvaged, after all. Steve smiled. There was hope yet.
The battle had been a long, difficult, hard-fought skirmish from hell.
That was really the only way to describe it. The Avengers had in the end been victorious, but even they wondered sometimes if the ends justified the means.
Each of the Avengers was a little worse for wear. Steve was mostly just grimy, as he had stayed on the ground fighting. Thor, too, was covered in dirt and dust, but he had a massive gash across his forehead and some fingers on his left hand had been crushed. Clint had some sort of burn across his left shoulder that had to sting like hell, but mostly he was just grumbling about how it would affect his shot. Natasha had been blasted backwards by an explosion, and her leg had been caught under a giant rock. It wasn't broken, but some rehabilitation would be needed to get it up to full strength. The Hulk hadn't returned yet, but as usual the team had no doubt he would be fine.
Curiously, it was Tony that hadn't revealed any of his injuries. He had been thrown around quite violently during the battle, but he had kept up his usual energetic banter both during the fight and after it. But now, sitting on the helicarrier and waiting to be back at Avengers Tower, he was completely silent. Usually he flew home in the suit, but this time he had elected to sit in the helicarrier. His face mask was still down.
"Tony?" Clint asked, squinting at the man. "Are you alright?"
"Yeah," Tony quickly replied. "I'm fine. Just worry about your arm, Legolas." Clint grinned and went back to applying a healing salve to his arm.
As soon as they arrived back at Avengers Tower, Tony could see Bruce Banner entering the Tower through the front door – right on time, as usual. The rest of the team was met by Stark medical personnel, who began identifying who needed treatment. Tony slipped away from them and headed down to the lab, gasping slightly as he walked. He needed to get out of the suit.
There was a reason Tony hadn't talked much on the return trip, and that was that he could barely breathe. The chest of his Iron Man suit had been nearly crushed on impact during the battle, and Tony could feel a few broken ribs, a few cuts from the jagged metal, and a pressure on his windpipe. What scared him the most, however, was the erratic flickering of the arc reactor in his chest.
Tony collapsed onto a reinforced chair as soon as he got into the lab and began pulling off his armor, piece by piece. He couldn't risk using the automatic removal system, lest the crushed armor rip the arc reactor out of his chest. He was going to have to do it by hand.
Doing so took a ridiculously long time, and Tony's breathing became more and more labored as he finally got the arm pieces off and began to work on the chest.
Up on the higher floors of the Tower, the Avengers had already been released from the care of the medical personnel. They were all used to more grievous injuries, and had not a lot of patience for extended stays in the medical wing when a short one would do.
They were all settling down on the couches in the main living area when a loud alarm began sounding throughout the Tower. Beep – Beep – Beep – Emergency – Beep – Beep – Beep – Emergency –
The entire team shot to their feet, ready once more for action, as Jarvis' cool voice broke through the alarm. Bruce hadn't thought it was possible, but the AI's voice sounded urgent.
"Mr. Stark requires immediate medical attention in his lab," Jarvis said quickly. "Immediate medical attention required."
As fast as they could go, Natasha running through the pain in her leg, the Avengers made their way down to Tony's lab. There, they found two members of the medical staff crouched over him, looking lost and unsure of what to do.
"Let me see him!" Bruce cried, and immediately they cleared out. The team gathered around Tony and assessed the damage, Bruce with the most critical eye.
Scattered armor was all over the floor; it was apparent that Tony had had to remove it by hand. The man's shirt was off, and it looked to Bruce like a few of his ribs had been crushed based on the bruises that had appeared on his skin. The most startling problem, however, was the arc reactor itself. It was jutting out at an odd angle, halfway in and halfway out of Tony's chest, and it was flickering. Tony appeared to have passed out; when Bruce felt for it, his pulse was weak and fluttering.
"Shit!" Bruce exclaimed, flinging himself to his feet and running towards the wall. He glanced back to see one of the medical team reach for Tony's chest, as if to perform CPR. "Don't touch him!" Bruce bellowed. Immediately the person scuttled away again.
Bruce entered the combination into the white box in the corner as quickly as his shaking hands would allow. He pulled the spare arc reactor from the box almost gingerly, as if it really were Tony's heart that he held in his hands.
"Stand back," Bruce directed, returning to Tony's side. Gently, he pulled the broken arc reactor from Tony's chest and disconnected it, ignoring the assorted gasps from the team. This was what Tony had prepared him for. This was what he had promised to do.
Stay calm, Banner.
Bruce was grateful that the connector for the arc reactor and the place in Tony's chest where it resided were still intact. Carefully, Bruce connected the spare arc reactor and slid it back in, waiting for it to click into place. When it did, he let out a breath he hadn't known he was holding.
Tony was still for a long moment, and then with a shattered gasp his eyes opened. For a few long minutes the man gasped for air desperately, his hands clutching at the light on his chest as if looking for reassurance that it was there.
"Tony?" Natasha said softly, sounding more fragile than anyone other than Clint had ever heard her. "Are you okay?"
He coughed once before answering. "Yeah," he said, his voice hoarse. He looked at Bruce. "Glad I sent you those files, huh, buddy?"
Bruce couldn't help but smile. "I promised that I had your back," he said. "You didn't have to test it."
Tony sighed and closed his eyes briefly. "Thank you," he said quietly, the rest going unspoken. His team looked back at him solemnly.
It was Steve who asked the question most of them were thinking. "How did you know to keep spares around the house? I've been wondering what those were."
Tony was silent for a long moment. "I… I've had someone take the arc reactor from me before," he said. "It nearly killed me. It was… it was a friend."
It was then that they knew – they had just seen Tony Stark at his most vulnerable. They had been trusted with the very thing that kept him alive, and he had made it clear how valuable his trust was.
As they helped their teammate and friend to his feet, silently Thor, Steve, Natasha, Clint, and Bruce all vowed never to break that fragile trust.