You tell your doctor about the engagement because you've learned that much: she helps you. You're not keeping secrets from her. You guess you've been so fucking lucky to have found someone like her.
'She said she doesn't want to wait until I deem myself healed. She said she wants me exactly the way I am and claimed I don't need to be perfect and got annoyed at me for not figuring it out myself.'
'Are you happy?' your doctor asks you.
'I think I might be,' you reply.
But thinking you might be happy doesn't actually make you miraculously perfectly fine and you still slip. You always tell your doctor. You don't always tell the others.
You've never told your team and you know Natasha didn't share whatever she understood.
You want to make things work so much that you push yourself too far and you can't look Pepper in the eye afterwards; you've been away doing business for a week and you spent that time on something you'd have to honestly call the worst mini-cycle you've had since Afghanistan. A whole fucking week during which you're talking science and schmoozing and then, as soon as you're out of the public eye, you're nothing more than a ghost and a slave to your illness.
The reason you don't want to tell her is because she'll blame herself for pushing you (not true). Pepper feeling guilty about your fuck-ups is the last thing you want.
But she's known you for fifteen years and she immediately notices something is wrong so she takes your hand and delicately talks you out of staying with the team and celebrating one thing or another and she gently leads you upstairs and you almost manage to ignore your teammate's stares.
Pepper lets you cry and shout and hug her and she kisses you and holds you and you know she's too good for you but you know she wants you and no one else.
'Don't look at me,' you tell her.
You're not who she thinks you are. You are a joke.
'I will tell you that I love you until I lose my voice,' she counters, rolling her eyes and not pitying you. Not judging. (You know how you look, you were supposed to gain weight in a healthy way and not just put on fat by consuming 4,000 excessive kcal a day.) 'I know you hate this – but I still want you. I always will.'
You have some amazing sex later and she sleeps nestled into you and you understand that, all of sudden: she still wants you.
The broken you.
It's funny, you think when you lay in bed all night, eyes fixed on the fake constellations JARVIS displays on the ceiling for you.
You don't feel up to facing the world for the rest of the day but you're happy to talk with Rhodey when he comes by – sent by Pepper or JARVIS, you can't be bothered to ask – and you two have some great time. Then Pepper comes back home, in the evening, and you three have dinner and it's surprisingly effortless.
The next morning you get up, dress yourself and get ready to meet the team.
You go to eat breakfast downstairs and you meet 3/5 of your teammates and they stare at you.
'What?' you asks, raising an eyebrow and walking straight to the coffee maker.
'You look… good,' Steve says and Clint and Natasha nod. 'I dunno. Healthier? And you're smiling.'
'I always –'
'You don't smile, usually you just grimace,' Clint cuts in and you have to admit he's kinda right, though you do smile a lot when they're not around. You're surprised they even noticed.
(You're wondering if Steve said healthier because you're a bit less wiry than you were when he last saw you or because you're actually not looking like a zombie.)
'Well, whatever,' you murmur and take the cup of coffee and take a few slow sips of the thick bitter liquid. 'Me and Pepper, we're getting married,' you add.
She told you to tell the team whenever you felt up to it. It won't be a big thing in reality though media will probably make it a crazy mess with all their speculations and silliness.
Your team is pretty dumbfounded and you smirk around the edge of the mug.
'Didn't see that one coming?' you ask playfully.
'You just didn't peg me for the long term relationship guy, not to mention marriage,' Clint says and then whistles. 'Phil's gonna have kittens. You sure Pepper didn't tell him? They're buddies –'
'She left telling everyone to me,' you assure them. 'You can be the bearer of the news.'
'No wonder you look happier,' Steve says softly, still eying you slightly unsurely. You wink at him because that's what you do and you grab your customary two waffles and a fruit salad and munch on it, pretty much ignoring the world besides your tablet because there's some emergency work to do that cannot wait even half an hour.
You have to go to Texas to oversee something getting fixed – they need your expertise – and you come back in time for therapy. Then you spend the night with Pepper planning your less-than-thirty-people wedding. No press.
'In a few months,' you tell Pepper. 'I still – I need to be sure. Not that I'm having doubts, but I need to be sure about myself, you know how this is –'
'I know,' she cuts in and calms you down. 'There's no hurry. And you know… I always thought May would be nice.'
'Sure, May, why not,' you agree and kiss her. May sounds great.
The next month the team is sent out for a mission to Arctic which is pretty fucked up for everyone involved, mostly Steve who's trying not to let his memories turns into vicious flashbacks. No one seems to be fond of the cold.
And then there's a portal involved and while you don't have to go up and almost-die – even though you wouldn't die that easily, this suit has been upgraded – it still makes you feel really, really uncomfortable. It's like your current dosage of anxiety meds isn't able to handle this shit and you end up crashing down after the fight and freaking out. Just a bit.
It passes when you listen to JARVIS' calm voice talking you out of your head the way he always does, with ease and skill, even if it takes a long time.
You're too wound up to function normally and you can't exactly go back home – there are still very suspicious energy surges so the portal might open again – so you're playing a little game. The anxiety ends in you throwing up, not on purpose this time, it's just that your body is somehow used to reacting this way, and you don't think you can eat (still anxiety's fault: it's like that one time after Afghanistan when being lean didn't matter because it was fake; these issues are not part of your big issue but something separate).
JARVIS coaxes you into eating though and you make your best effort at listening to him because you both know that after a not-eating time it's much harder not to binge.
There is another skirmish two days later and you stay on base for one more day to make sure the energy levels are back to normal and no more creepy alien creatures will come to say hi.
During those three days you get a lot of stares – even though you've playing your role just fine – especially from Natasha and Bruce.
A few hours before you will be flying back home you're all eating dinner and halfway through it you're not sure you can go on because you don't want to. JARVIS being his usual self reminds you gracefully that you're required to fulfill the protocol's objectives.
'Can I ask you a question about JARVIS?' he asks, looking around at the rest of the team and taking off his glasses and focusing his eyes on you.
'Shoot,' you tell him despite how reluctant he sounds.
'… you might prefer it in private.'
'Oh,' you frown, but you are 99,8% sure you know what this is about. 'No, no, it's okay.'
'Yeah,' you confirm. High time to share the story, right?
'Why does JARVIS tell you when and what to eat?' he asks, sounding as if he was careful with the wording. Right. Bruce's very smart.
'That, my dear, is a complex matter,' you reply, playing with a piece of meat on your plate that you're pretty sure you won't be able to eat.
'Everything is always complex with you, genius,' Clint comments, sounding pretty bored, and then stuffs a forkful of spaghetti into his mouth. You nod with amused grin.
'Sir?' JARVIS asks with concerns in his voice you're pretty sure is audible only to you.
'No, J, I guess it's all right,' you say and put your fork away. 'They should know, baby. It's because I'm pretty sure – that's a tested theory – that I'd just fail at eating if it weren't for him. Well. Most of the time at least.'
'What exactly does fail at eating mean?'
'That gets complex, too,' you reply only to gain an annoyed sigh from Clint and a curious stare from Bruce. 'Well, let me tell you I might have… somehow of an food issue.'
'Tony, I –' Natasha starts but you don't let her finish.
'Yeah, yeah, I'm not gonna give you the generic crap,' you say, waving you hand dismissively, and clear your throat almost unnoticeably. 'I've been bulimic for – nineteen years, I think. It's been – yeah. I should probably say recovering bulimic at this point but me and that word are at odds, so – that's for another discussion though – hey, don't stare?' you add because they are staring.
You understand that it's a surprise and everything and it's strange but you suddenly feel okay with having told them and with them knowing and with the whole mess because you're trying. This is trying. (You still binge sometime and say self-deprecating jokes that Pepper hates but you can't stop, but you're getting a hang of things. It's just the way things are.)
'I'm not sure I understand,' Steve says with his sad Cap face and Natasha is half a word ahead of you so you let her answer.
'Bulimia is an eating disorder that is characterized by alternating food binging and purging, Cap –'
'Didn't anyone give Capsicle the Why shouldn't you date a supermodel handbook? I think it's all in there,' you say, doing a good job at not cringing when you hear binge and purge because really, those two words have been pretty much overused in your life.
Steve take a moment to process the worlds.
'I'm still not sure I understand,' he says finally and his face is combination of sad and sheepishly accepting his own lack of knowledge. Tony nods and he does get it: eating disorders were probably not glamour in the times of food shortage, unlike nowadays.
'I could use a metaphor,' you say easily. 'But it might not be nice to about everyone here.'
'A metaphor?' Clint asks, glancing at Natasha whose eyes are still locked on you.
'I believe sir wants to propose you an explanation of his issue in a way that would be more easily imaginable to you all,' JARVIS offers and you smirk, knowing that he'll see that. They all nod and Bruce nudges you and tells you to go on.
'It's like having this part of you that isn't really you,' you explain, carefully choosing the right words. 'And that makes you do things you don't want to do and that controls you sometimes – and you can neither accept it not get rid of it. And, in this case, it makes you physically sick.'
'But you don't look–'
'It's sneaky, Cap, 'cause you usually don't see bulimia until it's too late. But I'm doing better – also, everyone, don't freak out about this, 'kay? I have J to manage my meal plan and watch me all the time and he's doing the best job he can and I really don't need any more keepers. Or people who think I'm gonna break or something. Don't stare, Hawkeye, it's rude –'
'You told me don't think a few hundred thousand people searching for your naked pictures on the internet every day is an invasion of privacy – how are you fine with that?'
'Fine with what?' you ask, starting to tap your fingers on your thing because you're tense and bored and you want to be home already.
'People staring at you, I dunno, body image something?'
'They don't see what I see,' you reply truthfully and that isn't followed by any comments. You're not sure it means anything to them. (Also, most of those pictures are old and accidental and you never look at them yourself and just don't think about them.)
'So that's why you almost never stayed with us for dinner nights and all those things –'
'Yeah, Capsicle, pizza is a big no food, but it doesn't really –'
'Of course it matters,' Steve insists so genuinely that you wonder if it does.
'So that medicine you mentioned the other time?...' Bruce trails off questioningly and you shake your head.
'No, no, that's post-Chitauri thing, buspirone,' you supply and Bruce's eyes light up in recognition. 'Fluoxetine didn't really work so we've been doing all the job by talking, I have a therapist – she's great – and constant behavioral therapy, thanks to J.'
'Glad you're getting help,' Natasha speaks up finally and you meet her eyes and give her a tiniest nod.
'Well, even I'm not above that, though I've gotta admit it took me long to realize that,' you tell them honestly and then clap your hands, making half of them jump up a bit. 'But, now that we're done with issues, can we proceed to the next piece of our original plan? I think we were supposed to debrief with Fury via the magical thing called satellite connection – he's somewhere above the Indian Ocean, right? – 'cause I'll have my fiancée waiting when I come back home.'
Everyone moves suddenly and then everything is back to normal.
When you come to the tower, you go to see Happy first of all and you tell him you told the team because he's Happy and he deserves to know first. He laughs and mock-punches your arm in a tv-like friendly gesture and gives you a bear hug.
'Good for you, boss,' he adds then and goes back to reading his book, ignoring you completely and it makes you laugh.
Then you tell Pepper and you tell her how much you missed her and you spend the whole afternoon on one sofa and then you eat a nice dinner (you can't make yourself not count calories, you aren't sure you'll ever stop) and spend the rest of the night in bed.
For the next few weeks the team stares at you more than normally, some of them pretending not to and some – like Clint – winking at you every time you catch them, but after some time they stop doing that, too, probably growing used to the thought of you being bulimic and realizing that you're not going to let them see anything even if you do fuck up. (Well, Natasha does notice something is off with you this one time and she asks you if it's tummy ache and you nod and she gives you painkillers and borrows you her heating pad but you never talk about anything.)
(Sometimes you still don't let anyone but your psychiatrist know.)
Bruce has this strange mixture of frown and smile on his face every time JARVIS reminds you of your protocols and you act accordingly.
The only person that actually comes up to you to talk is Steve and it takes him two weeks.
'When you told us about your… problem, on the Quinjet, I – I thought it was bit silly. To do those things.'
You nod, it's actually something you expected most people to think and yet they keep surprising you with not telling you're just making a drama queen of yourself.
'I still – I still can't really wrap my head around that, Tony, just don't take it wrong, in my times, we didn't really – it was the Depression –'
'I get it,' you assure him. You prefer him being honest rather than pretending to be fine with it and secretly thinking you're some kind of a freak.
'No, but – I did some research,' Steve says, smiling shyly, in an honest way only Captain America can. 'JARVIS helped. It makes much more sense now and I just wanted to tell you that it's amazing that you've been so strong. Dealing with things for – for that long.'
'Thanks, Cap,' you say, not sure what more you can add. Strong is the last thing you'd call yourself, but you've had enough therapy to recognize that your point of view is biased.
'And I just wanted to tell you that whatever you might think, you're a very handsome fella,' Steve says quickly, eyes shining. 'And Pepper surely knows that,' he adds and disappears, leaving you standing in the middle of the living room and gaping. It's…. sweet.
Then you laugh.
Captain America's words don't have a magical healing power but they so help a bit.
You all slowly go back to your normal lives and you still rule the world.
'Are you happy now?' your doctor asks you.
'I don't think I'm striving to be happy at this point,' you tell her truthfully. 'I think I just want things be good and then it'll happen and some point.'
'I hope that will work for you,' she replies, giving you the nicest smile you've seen on her. 'You've certainly earned that.'
In late March it's a month and a half before you're gonna get married and two months before you'll be 44.
You've been peeling layers off yourself for over five years and you wonder if this raw simple imperfect you is what you've always been looking for (you wonder if you've been searching for the wrong thing all those years because it seems like you need to find a way to accept yourself being imperfect (something you father and Ty destroyed and you took their words for the truth) instead of building a perfect you).
In late March you do a photo session for June's issue of Rolling Stone you're wearing nothing but a pair of smart designer's pants. Pepper talks you into this and it's sneaky because the whole world will be crazy about this – you haven't undressed yourself like that since Afghanistan, actually it's the first non-business interview you've given since that time – while you and Pepper will be calmly enjoying your honeymoon.
Pepper talked you into this insisting that you are incredible and that deserve the world's understanding.
The big words on the pages say the man underneath the armor and I have nothing to hide and scarred hero. You do let the world see your scars and the arc reactor embedded in your chest – everyone knows it's there by now but no one has seen it like that – and your athletic body (you look perfect despite more pounds on you that you're comfortable with but no one else knows that and your psychiatrists praises you for taking such a bold step and making the best out of it). You let the world see that you are just human and that yes, you can be broken –even if they don't know how far that one goes – and you need time to heal.
You hope maybe someone will see themselves in you and it will change their lives.
It's an article and an interview and there's this bit that amuses you:RS: You realize, Mister Stark, that sometimes it's just hard to remember? TS: Remember what? RS: That you might be Iron Man and a genius and one of the wealthiest men in the world – but you're just like everyone else. TS: Don't let the wrapping fool you! [both laugh]
They don't realize how human you are. But it's okay.
They call you genius, uncompromising, brilliant, febrile and they call you magnetic and Byronic and conflicted and you think you're all of that things.
You enjoy those words as you stare at your electronic copy of the magazine in spare moments of your marathon of events with Pepper: you open a Stark Towers in Berlin and in Madrid and in Beijing and in Sydney within a week, all filled with cutting-edge research facilities because Stark International can never be big and amazing enough. You give lectures and attend parties and teach. You smile and laugh and win people and you do take over every single space you find yourself in and that is who you are.
At night you kiss Pepper and knowing that she won't leave you (even if your body is no longer perfect in your head, even if it doesn't fit; you hope one day you will get to the point when it won't matter, you know you can't rush it) makes you feel this special warmth inside.
You deal with your issues in the meantime because there are no magical spells to make anxiety and an eating disorder just go away. You accept that and you move on around them. Sometimes you still break apart in Happy's or Rhodey's lap but you've learned how to pick up pieces. And then you get up, work, make toasts, save the day and laugh with your friends and you wear the suit and, most of all, you grow and change the worldandyou create.
It feels nice. It feels like it makes sense.
It feels like you are (almost) yourself.
I don't like long notes, but ;d I want to start this way: I chose bulimia on purpose. To make a point.
I've read all ED stories that are available in several fandoms I've been in and 95% of them were about anorexia (or high school girls who occasionally threw up). Anorexia is, in a way, glamorous and fascinating, it's light and delicate and it's a win. Bulimia is the ugly thing. It's being out of control and being a mess, it's constant failing and hatred and even more failing and it's the overlooked disorder because it's so hard to notice: the battles and not difficult to hide.
It seems – looking at general opinions – that it's easy to accept (and write) not eating because it's clean and understandable, even to people who never had food issues. It's tougher to understand (and write) urges and desires when it's all dirty and contaminated. Bulimia makes people think "pull yourself together" and "stop dramatizing".
So I wanted to write this story exactly this way, even if some parts get ugly and painful and scarily predictable and sometimes you never stop counting and calculating. I leave you a lot of space for interpretation here, lots of unfilled blanks and barely mentioned details, because that's how I wanted this story to function: the sentences might end with full stops but they are left unfinished. Maybe it explains something and maybe it helps. I hope it does.
Well, after this rant, thank you again for reading and all the incredible support I got from you, all your encouraging and insightful comments 3 I'll be very thankful for your feedback and opinions on the last piece and I am, of course, very eager to read anything you'd like to share and discuss anything you'd like to discuss :)
So, as they say: until next time (I hope!)