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Truth Behind Masks

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“You are pushing your luck right now. You do realize that, don't you?”

“What, by calling you while people are shooting at me? That's, that's really not a thing, Rhodes, that's Tuesday in my world.” Tony banked hard to the left, pushing the armor to its absolute limit as he took the corner, repulsors screaming in his wake. Bullets exploded glass windows just a meter or two behind his feet, and he gritted his teeth for a second. Adjusting his trajectory, he dove under a bridge. He cut it so close that he was pretty sure he'd ruined the armor's paintjob, but it was worth it. Two of the robots went down in explosions that sent shockwaves through the air, knocking him off-kilter.

Tony had to struggle to keep himself on course, and he bounced off a bridge piling before he pulled himself out of it. He was still choking on a curse when his comm unit beeped. Tony rolled, nailing two of his pursuers with a single repulsor blast. “Gimmie a second here, Rhodey, I got another call.”

“Really? You've got another-”

Tony switched the feed, without so much as a flinch of guilt. “I'm on it, Cap, I've got it.”

“Where ARE you?” Steve snapped. “We are supposed to be-”

“I've got this,” Tony repeated, picking off two more before he flipped into a flat dive.

“Hawkeye says you just hit a bridge.”

“Barely a glancing blow, and Hawkeye is a snitch,” Tony said, trying for breezy, and probably failing. “One more on my tail, then I'll be-” He saw the opportunity and he took it, whipping his body around to nail the mechanical monster with a perfect shot. “As I was saying, I'll be right there,” he said, watching with a sense of deep seated satisfaction as the thing hit the the street and explode into a ball of flame.

“Get yourself back on target, we need you back here,” Steve said, and it was the Captain America voice. Tony grinned, pleased with himself.

“On my way.” Tony's eyes flicked over the HUD. “Give me five.”

“You've got four, we're doing a full press on the portal.”

“Aye-aye, Cap.” Tony flicked back to his other line. “Sorry, Rhodey. Had to take that. Cap's gonna have a GPS installed in this thing at this rate.”

“When did you add hold music?” Rhodey asked.

“Last night.” Tony cycled through the HUD menus, studying a map of the area as he headed back towards the worst of the fighting. There was a small pack heading towards Central Park, and he moved to intercept before SHEILD had to deal with them. “I was bored.”

“And is your hold music the theme song from the Avengers cartoon tie-in?”

“I thought that was a nice touch.”

“You would.”

“I'm good like that. Besides, for a bad reality show slash cartoon, the show's pretty good. Have you seen it? Iron Man is pretty much the best, I resent the fact that Clint gets all the best jokes, but he's stuck in that purple monstrosity of a costume, so it all evens out.”

“Why did you green light that?”

“The money from toy tie-ins has been phenomenal, I can pay for the grocery bill for the other guy for another couple of YEARS just based on those stupid green foam fists.” They were more fun than they should be, really. Tony grinned to himself. Some day he'd get Bruce in a pair. “Now, what were we saying?”

“We were saying,” Rhodey said, long suffering as always, “that this whole thing is going to blow up in your face one of these days.”

“What thing? You have to narrow it down, precious, I'm-” A bullet clipped the side of his helmet and Tony launched a missile back behind him without even looking. Judging by the explosion, he didn't really need to look. “I'm a little busy here.”

“The whole secret identity thing,” Rhodey said. “This thing that you're playing at, Tony, for reasons that I cannot understand. I gotta admit, I do not get this.” He snorted. “I help you do it, and I still don't understand it.”

“You don't understand why I have a secret identity?” Tony asked. “You do realize that I live in a giant building, in the middle of one of the biggest cities on Earth, that has my name on it? I literally-” The proximity alarm blared, hard and loud, in his HUD, and he rolled to the side. The instinctive move was enough to throw off the robot, which smashed into a lightpole instead of Tony. “I literally have postcards. They sell 'em in the souvenir stand across the road, there is no doubt as to where I live, and it seems to me that knocking over criminal enterprises and then going home to a building with my name on it seems like a really bad idea.”

He slipped between two buildings, his back arched, his body an arrow of force, and the speed made him dizzy for a second. “Even for me. Bad idea.”

“So instead, you pretend to be a bodyguard, living in the building with your name on it?”

“It makes sense when you're not the one explaining it,” Tony said. “You have a way of making ANYTHING seem like a bad idea. It's like a super power. Except it's not, it's just you. Sucking the fun out of everything, absolutely, I don't know-”

“No one could explain that in a way that did not make it insane,” Rhodey said.

“It's like, I have a conversation with you, and I can just feel the fun draining from my life,” Tony mused. “I'm amazed. You, sir, you are a special man.”

“We wouldn't have to do this if you just told your team mates.”

Tony made a face, safe in the knowledge that no one would see it. “No, we won't be doing that,” he said. The HUD beeped, and he banked off to the left, shooting before he caught sight of his target, and it did not matter. The last of his targets went down in a shower of fragmented metal.

“Tony...”

“Got the bastard,” Tony said, because he really thought some praise was in order.

“I never doubted it. Tony-”

“Can you come help me out, or not?” Tony asked, speeding back towards the rest of the team. “Simple question, Rhodes, I don't know why we're still having this discussion. Either you can help me, and we're still friends, or you can't help me, and I guess I'm in the market for a best friend.”

“Wow. Even for you. Wow.”

Tony grinned. “You love me, cupcake.”

“Less so some days,” Rhodey said. “Today? Today is one of those days.”

“Today is the first day of the rest of your life, you black hole of fun destruction, are you coming to stand around in my armor, and collect a medal so that I can be there as the Avengers' fairy godfather? It's just, it's just hard, when Iron Man and Tony Stark are invited to the same ceremony, and I could ask Pepper, but I really like to save that for emergency situations of thirty minutes of less. She hates the suit.”

“And she still gets into it, despite hating it, so that should tell you something,” Rhodey said. He sighed. “And you wouldn't have to abuse Pep, let alone me, if you'd just tell your team the truth.”

Tony made sure that his sigh was loud enough for Rhodey to hear it over the comm line. “Are you going to give me a damn alibi, or not?”

Rhodey was silent. “You know why you insist on this dual identity shit?” he asked, and Tony groaned.

“No, feel free to explain to my why I make my life choices,” Tony said. “Please. I have nothing better to do, oh, wait, I do. As a matter of fact, I should be shooting things right now, can I call you back?”

“You do it because of your ridiculous man crush on Captain America,” Rhodey said.

“Okay,first of all, no. No, there is nothing ridiculous about my man crush on Captain America,” Tony said. There was something ridiculous about the fact that he spent all of his time hanging around with a guy who was never going to reciprocate his feelings, but that was a completely different discussion. “I get this idea that you assume I will be defensive or ashamed here, and I'm not sure why, because you know me, Rhodes.”

“I'm just saying, using a secret identity to manipulate a completely in the dark individual into spending more time with you-”

“You say that like it's a bad thing,” Tony said. Before Rhodey could get started, he cut him off. “And that's not what I'm doing. Steve has two settings: 'man in charge' and 'comrade in arms.' That's it. That's Cap. I'm not saying that he isn't friends with the team, that he doesn't like and enjoy the company of the team, but he's hyper aware of the fact that he is in charge. Being charge changes things.” A strident beep from the HUD brought his head around and his arm up. He took the shot, and then had to dodge as the debris came crashing in on him. Biting back a curse, Tony dropped to get clear of it. “I should know.”

“Are you really trying to sell this as, what, an act of philanthropy?”

Tony grinned. “If the shoe fits.”

“That's stretchin' that poor shoe a bit,” Rhodey said. “Your feet must hurt like hell.”

“I'm just saying, when he's sick of being the guy in charge, when he's done with dealing with the Avengers, he has a choice. He can go talk to Tony Stark, and Tony Stark is fine with that.”

“Except Tony Stark is a lying liar who is also an Avenger,” Rhodey pointed out. “It's a flaw in the plan here, Tony. Also, the man has friends. He's a good guy. He actually does have-”

“Why are we having this discussion?” Tony asked. “I am in the middle of a fire fight. Do I call you in the middle of fire fights and ask you what you plan to do with your life and bring up the fact that you're a lousy friend?”

“That is how this conversation started, so I'm gonna have to go with yes,” Rhodey pointed out. “You make your own problems.”

“And I depend on you to get me out of them,” Tony said. They both knew it, so there really wasn't any point in lying about it. “So, are you going to?”

“Fly down there to save your spoiled rich ass? Don't I always?”

“And that is why you will always be my favorite,” Tony told him.

“Yeah, yeah. I'll get it cleared with the brass, forward me the date.” Tony could hear the smile in Rhodey's voice, and he grinned back.

“Thanks, Rhodes.”

“Just watch where you're flying, dumbass.”

“I always am.” Before Rhodey could come up with further objections or insults that were just thinly veiled concern, Tony disconnected the feed. “Jarvis, send him the details through the usual secure channels,” he said, banking hard and watching the HUD for additional attacks as he pressed forward for the meet up.

The only thing that popped up on his sensor grid was usually friendly.

“Hey, Shellhead!”

Tony's tipped his head to the side. “What's the good word, Wasp?” he asked, as Jan came shooting up alongside him.

“The good word is, Cap's going to bash your shiny little head in if you don't get back to the rendezvous point, like, now,” Jan said, her voice full of amusement. “He's a little steamed at you right now.”

“I'm absolutely confident that by the time this is over, he'll be more angry at Hawkeye than he is at me,” Tony told her.

Jan came in for a landing on his shoulder. “Maybe not,” she said, taking a seat, her tiny form curling into one of the armor's seams. “He's behaving for once.”

Tony adjusted his speed, making sure that he wouldn't throw her off, but Jan didn't seem concerned. “Want to put money on the fact that he'll make it through this mission in Cap's good graces?”

She snorted, her face tipping towards hers. “Sucker bet, Shellhead. Still doesn't mean we won't be joining him if you don't, I don't know, get to where we're supposed to be going.” She reached out with one tiny little fist and rapped on his faceplate. “Move it, mister.”

“Unlike most of the team, you do actually have the ability to fly without me having to carry you,” Tony pointed out. “Which means you're not reliant on me to get you there.”

“True, but if I show up without you, I'll be in for it,” Jan said. Her teeth flashed in a grin. “Away, Jeeves! Don't spare the gas!”

“You heard the lady, Jay,” Tony said. To Jan, he added. “Hold on, it's going to be a wild ride.”

“It's Stark tech,” she said, her hands and legs braced, her body angled forward into the wind. “I'd expect nothing less!”

“And I hate to disappoint a lady,” Tony said to himself. Grinning, he pushed the armor into overdrive. “Or the boss.”

*

Steve needed to punch something. Very badly. He was determined that it would not be a member of his team, and right now, that was a struggle.

“You pull that again, Hawkeye, and I'm going to bench you for a month.”

“I got him, didn't I?” Clint gave him a grin, his bow slung over his shoulder as he slumped lower in his seat. The seatbelt was the only thing keeping him upright at this point.

Natasha gave him a look. “He got you, too,” she pointed out. She was flying co-pilot, with Carol at the controls, but whenever the topic turned to Clint, she was going to be involved.

“Barely,” Clint said, with an unconcerned sort of shrug. “He barely clipped me. Does that even count?”

“Yes,” Steve said, ignoring the way that Bruce was chuckling, one hand cupped over his mouth to try to hide it.

“I'm just saying-” Clint continued, and Carol cut him off.

“Quit while you're ahead, champ, and before Cap has you thrown off the Quinjet,” she called back over her shoulder.

“He wouldn't,” Jan said, laughing. She had one heel braced on the edge of her seat, her arms looped around her upthrust knee. She leaned her chin on top of her knee, her big eyes twinkling as she grinned at Clint. “He'd feel bad.”

Steve scraped a hand over his face, the muscles of his back and shoulders pulled so tight that they were twitching. “I wouldn't bet on that to save him today,” he gritted out.

“Eh, Thor and Iron Man are out there,” Clint said. “One of 'em will catch me.”

“I would not place you bet there, either,” Wanda said, not even glancing away from the window. “I don't think that Iron Man was pleased with you today.”

“No one is ever pleased with me,” Clint said. He yawned, wide enough to show off his back molars. “Bruce still loves me, though.”

“No, I don't,” Bruce said, going back to his tablet. His lips were twitching as he ducked his head, though, and everyone knew it.

“Yes, you do, buddy.” Clint patted him lightly on the chest, then leaned back, resting his head on Bruce's shoulder. “Cover me. I need a nap.”

“Hey, no, wait-” Bruce let out a sigh as it was clear that short of shoving Clint to the ground, there was no chance he was going to be removed. He rolled his eyes.

“How do you put up with him?” Jan asked Bruce, who shook his head.

“He grows on you,” Bruce said.

“He's a pain in the ass, but once you show him any sort of affection what so ever, he'll follow you home,” Natasha said. Clint chuckled. “Also, don't feed him, Doc.”

“Too late,” Clint mumbled.

Shaking his head, Steve went back to his mission reports. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Wanda's head tip forward, the dark waves of her hair shifting along her shoulder.

“We are all fine, Captain,” she said, her voice pitched soft and low. Steve wondered if the words were intended for only his ears, and as such, he wondered if anyone else COULD hear them.

He huffed out a sigh, his heel drumming against the floor of the jet. “Too close this time, Wanda.”

Her head tuned in his direction, her eyes dark and sharp. “I think,” she said after a moment of silence, “that there is no such thing. Something that is close is, by nature, a miss.” Her lips curled up in a surprisingly wicked smile. “I like close, for that reason.”

Steve managed a smile for her. “That's one way of thinking of it,” he said, trying for diplomacy. Judging by the way her smile faded, the way that her legs curled up beneath her, the way she turned back to the window, he wasn't quite successful. But right now, he really wasn't in the mood for a chat.

The rest of the flight home, he stared, unseeing, at the mission reports, and stewed.

By the time Carol brought the Quinjet in for her usual perfect landing, he was ready to get off. But he hung back, as always, watching every one of his team mates as they gathered themselves and their gear and disembarked. His eyes sharp, he watched for any sign of injuries that might've gone unreported or damage to their equipment. Only after everyone was clear did he step out, grateful for the crisp bite of the wind.

“You all right, Cap?”

He glanced at Iron Man, his own face reflected in the slightly curved surface of the man's face plate. “Fine,” he said. “I just need a little time alone.”

Iron Man nodded. “Can't say I blame you.” His head tipped back in the direction of the landing pad. “If we're done for now, I'm going to go let Mr. Stark know we're back.”

“Thanks,” Steve said. “Let Thor know we're free until tomorrow, will you?”

“Sure. Have a good night, Cap.” Iron Man flipped him a loose salute, and took a few quick steps before launching himself skyward. Steve watched him go, intercepting Thor in mid-air, then peeling off towards the penthouse.

Taking a deep breath, Steve headed towards the rest of the team. “Take the rest of the night,” he said, as he passed through the group.

Natasha's eyebrows arched. “You think that's a good idea?” she asked, her voice neutral. “Director Fury's going to want to know-”

Steve held up his hand, palm out, and everyone fell silent. “Tomorrow,” he said, his voice firm. “Do we all understand? Tomorrow, we will have one heck of a debrief, but for right now, everyone go get cleaned up, get something to eat, and take the rest of the night off.” Without waiting for a response, he turned on his heel, stalking towards the wide, curving stairwell that lead up to the elevators.

The faint buzz of tiny wings was the only warning he got before Jan came flitting into view just to his right. “Cap?” she asked, hovering at his side. “You okay?”

“Just fine,” Steve bit out.

Her tiny face drew up, her nose wrinkling and her mouth drawing up into a pout. “Are you-”

“I really need to go pound a sandbag for a few dozen rounds,” Steve told her. He punched the elevator button with a bit more force than was strictly necessary. “I know you're trying to help, but right now, I just need to wrap my fists, and take on a target that won't fight back, and that I won't feel guilty for maiming.”

She sighed. “You shouldn't be alone, it's not-”

He managed a tight smile for her. “Go tell Hank you're okay, you know he worries,” he said, and as the elevator arrived, he slipped through the doors.

He made it back to his room, stripping out of his uniform and shoving himself into workout clothes in record time. Grabbing his bag from the closet shelf, he headed back towards the massive gym at a light jog.

“Hey, Cap, how'd it go?”

Steve turned, glancing back over his shoulder, as Tony came ambling down the hall. He slowed his stride, waiting for Tony to fall into step beside him. “About as well as we could hope,” he said.

Tony grinned. “You say the same thing every time,” he said. His legs weren't as long as Steve's, but his steps were quicker. He had a quick, fluid energy that let him keep up, no matter how fast Steve was moving. “Iron Man's okay?”

“Yes, and you ask that every time,” Steve pointed out. “Doesn't he talk to you?”

“Listen, no one ever tells their boss that they made a mistake or two,” Tony pointed out. He jammed his hands in his pockets, pushing his expensive jacket back. “Seriously. Did the armor-”

“It did the job just fine,” Steve said, a smile tugging at the corners of his mouth. Stark nodded, a quick jerk of his chin, but his smile was satisfied. “Got some dents this time, but it definitely did it's job.”

“Dents I can pound out,” Tony said, waving a hand. “I've got some frustrations to work off.” He glanced in Steve's direction, his dark eyes sharp. “Don't suppose I could convince you to give me some sparring practice?” he asked.

Steve was already shaking his head. “We have an appointment tomorrow,” he said. “And I think that I need a session with something I can't accidentally hurt right now.” His shoulders rose and fell in a quick shrug. “It wasn't a good one, Tony.”

Tony's eyes flicked towards the ceiling. “How much of a fight is that punching bag giving you?”

“More than you do,” Steve said.

Tony threw his hands in the air. “Well, whose fault is that?” He was grinning now, and Steve reminded himself not to get suckered. Again. “I mean, you're the one teaching me hand to hand combat, Cap.”

“Yes, but you're not learning,” Steve said, and Tony laughed. “Seriously. Just... Let me go hit the bags for a while. Maybe later?”

“Sure,” Tony said. He shoved a hand through is dark hair, disordering the stands. “I understand. Don't worry about it.”

Steve's eyes slid in his direction. “Don't worry about it,” he repeated, his lips already twitching. He knew Tony, and he knew Tony well enough to know that there would be more to this conversation.

“Yeah, don't-” Tony waved a hand in the air. “Don't worry about it. I understand. You've got better things to do than spar with me.”

Steve rubbed a hand on the back of his neck, amused despite himself. “Tony-”

“It's fine," Tony said, his voice light. "Don't worry about it. I'll just stay here. Unprotected. Since, you know, my bodyguard is off playing super hero with you whenever you need backup. Which is surprisingly often, I don't know how you got by without him some days, he seems to be guarding you more than me, if we're being honest here."

Steve stopped walking. He struggled against the smile that threatened to break over his face. "Really?" he asked, his head tipping forward.

Tony spread his hands. "Don't worry about it, Cap. I'm sure I'll be fine." He made a sad face that would not have been out of place on an underfed orphan. "Here. Alone. Waiting for someone to come and try to kill me, or-"

Steve couldn't hold back a wave of laughter. "You," he interrupted, "are unbelievable."

Tony grinned at him. "You're laughing," he pointed out.

"It's hard not to, you are-" Steve was shaking his head, his shoulders still jerking with choked off laughter. "How does anyone take you seriously?"

"I have my moments of competence," Tony said, unruffled. He tucked his hands in his pockets, rocking back and forth on his heels. There was a puckish smile on his face and a glint in his eye that was contagious. "Come on, Cap, wanna spar?"

Steve was still shaking his head. "I'm not going to go easy on you," he warned, because this was a foregone conclusion, and they both knew it. Steve knew he should resent it, should want the time alone, but somehow, it was fine. It was fine, because it was Tony. There was something easy about talking to Tony, despite his fierce intelligence and rapid fire delivery, he was so easy to talk to, to be around.

And Steve realized that all of the strain that had held him too tensely upright had already bled out of his frame.

"Wait," Tony said, already striding in the direction of the gym. Shaking his head, Steve joined him. "You've gone easy on me? Ever? When was that? I do not remember anything that could be defined as easy. Not ever. A little bit less painful, sure, and occasionally you don't drive me to tears, but-"

"Tony?" Steve waited until Tony looked in his direction. "Today, I'm not going to go easy on you."

Tony's teeth flashed in a wicked grin. "Looking forward to it." He waved a hand in mid-air. "It's been a long day of wanting to strangle contractors. I've got some frustration to work off, and you're a pretty big target."

Steve gave him a look. "You really think you're going to get a hit in, Mr. Stark?"

"There's a first time for everything," Tony said, sanguine. "I bet you dinner I'll get you this time."

“Do you enjoy losing?” Steve asked him. “I'm always curious about that when you make these bets.”

“It's not that I enjoy losing,” Tony mused. “It's more that I don't have a dinner date for the evening, and I really despise eating alone. It's bad for the digestion.”

“There are eight other people in this building.” Not that Steve minded a break from the team every so often. It probably did him a world of good. “You can eat with us sometimes.”

“Eating with Thor is also bad for my digestion,” Tony said, chuckling. “C'mon, I found a new place. You'll like it.”

“I like how you're taking your loss as a foregone conclusion.”

“I assumed that if you won, I'd get to choose the restaurant as a consolation prize. That seemed like the gentlemanly thing to do.” They reached the door to the gym, and Tony peeled off his jacket. The fine fabric of his shirt stretched tight across his shoulders. Steve had to admit, for a business man with some very bad habits, Tony was in very good shape. Not that he'd noticed.

Tony stretched, his arms pulled up over his head, and that drew his clothing tight all over. Steve felt his face flush. All right, so he'd noticed. Didn't mean anything.

“That does seem like something I'd do,” Steve said, dragging his thoughts out of the gutter. It was harder than it should've been. “Except I'm feeling like getting a burger tonight.”

Tony grinned at him. “I think we can make that happen.”

He let out a quick burst of laughter, and Steve glanced at him. “What's so funny?” he asked, smiling.

“It's nothing. Just..” Tony said, reaching up to loosen his tie. “I was just thinking that right now? My life is just about perfect.”

“I do not understand you,” Steve said, and it didn't matter. It really didn't. Because right now, his life felt pretty good, too.

*

Everything hurt.

“You have broken ribs, don't you?” Pepper said, her voice pitched low, her lips a tight red line between the words. She was staring at the elevator door as it it held all the secrets of the world, and her arms were folded tightly over her files, hugging them tight to her chest.

Tony straightened his spine. “No. Why would you say that?” he said, and he thought he did a great job of selling that.

Pepper's head snapped towards him, her ponytail whipping through the air, and Tony took a literal step back. She glared at him. “Because you're breathing like a pug dog with a sinus infection in high humidity,” she said, her voice tart.

That stung. Tony pouted at her for a second. She didn't seem to care, and he gave up the effort. “Cracked,” he admitted. Her lips tightened even further, and Tony gave her his most reassuring grin. “Barely. Tiny. Tiny, hairline-”

“This isn't funny,” she said.

“I kind of agree with you, surprisingly enough,” Tony said. He leaned against the wall, his head back. “Pep. It's not the ribs. I mean, it is, but it's-”

“Two back to back missions, a board meeting, a national emergency, a session of congress and an attempted hostile takeover,” Pepper said.

“Yeah. That.” Tony let his eyes close. He was so exhausted that he wanted to cry. He didn't have the energy, but man, just curling up into a ball and sobbing sounded like a good way to end the week. “This week has been very unpleasant,” he said to Pepper, not bother to open his eyes again.

“Iron Man had a bad week,” Pepper said. “Tony Stark had a worse one.”

“I wish both of them weren't standing in my shoes right now,” Tony said. Everything hurt. His bones hurt, cracked ribs aside. “Did I just completely fuck over my life in less than five days?”

“In your defense, it took five days, three continents, an idiot with a spinning armored suit, and some underhanded business tactics, but yes,” she said. “Your life is pretty much fucked.”

“You are a ray of sunshine, Potts.”

Pepper sighed. “You need to tell them.”

Tony was waving her off before the words were even out of her mouth. “Oh, yeah, that's a great idea. Tell them that we came within a couple of pieces of paper of losing the company that keeps us all in medical insurance and fancy crime fighting gadgets? I'm sure that'll go well.”

Her gaze was cutting. “It wasn't any where near that close,” she said, because at her core, she was amazingly loyal. Whether he deserved it or not. “You handled it.”

“That's right,” Tony said. “I handled it. I don't need to tell them anything. It's fine. I handled it.” He was about three minutes from throwing up, passing out, or crying, and he honestly did not know which one of the three would be the winner of that little race. He leaned against the rear wall of the elevator, his head back, trying to steady his breathing. “Ribs aren't that bad.”

Pepper's face was tight and pale when she glanced at him. “It says something about your life, Tony, that the phrase 'ribs aren't that bad' does very little to reassure me.”

Tony grinned. “You're a bleeding heart, Potts, you really are.”

“I'm the one who has to cover for you when you make these messes,” she said, her voice tart. “Really, Tony. This is ridiculous. You should be in the-”

“How are we going to explain that?” Tony asked, tired of this argument, but having it anyway. Having it anyway because he owed Pepper that. Because he owed Pepper so much more than that. If this is what it took to keep her by his side and fighting for him, protecting him, Tony would have this argument as many times as she wanted him to. “Really? How? Even if we can keep anyone from finding out about the giant Achille's heel that I'm carrying in the center of my chest, I would need some way to explain the rest of my current injuries, and I don't have an excuse in my back pocket.”

“We could call Coulson,” she pointed out with a faint smile.

“Coulson is what got me into this mess. Him and his cover stories.” The elevator was almost there, and he pushed himself back upright, straightening his clothes along with his spine. “No one can know what Tony Stark just went through, Iron Man's taking a few days off because of his injuries, and no one can know what those are, either.” For a second, Tony's head fell forward, and he was so tired that pulling it back up took a monumental effort. “Everything is fine.”

Pepper was silent for a second. “This is going to become untenable,” she said at last, “when you start believing your own lies.”

“Well then, we're fucked, because that happened 'round about puberty.” Tony smoothed his hands over his head, trying to put his hair in order, and Pepper smacked his hands away. “What?” Tony asked, grinning at her.

“You're going to look like a eighties mafia goon,” she said, her lips tight. Her delicate fingers slipped through his hair, disordering the locks. Tony leaned into the contact, just for a second, and her hand came down to cup his cheek. “There,” she said, and her voice was gentle now. “Much better.”

Tony caught her hand in his, pulling it away. He brought her hand to his lips, brushing a light kiss over her knuckles as the elevator came to a halt. “Always looking out for me, Ms. Potts. Whatever did I do to deserve you?”

She made a disdain noise under her breath, but her cheeks were pink. “I'm not sure,” she said, her chin up. “But I'm sure that I'll regret whatever it was, sooner or later.”

The doors to the elevator opened, and Carol leaned in. “This a joyride, or are you planning on getting off here?” she asked, her teeth flashing in a grin. “Hey, Pep, haven't we told you not to bring this guy around?”

“Captain Danvers, I am hurt,” Tony said, as Pepper laughed. “I am absolutely hurt right now. I am your damn landlord, treat me with respect or I'm rewriting your lease.” With a real effort, he managed to pull himself straight and move out of the elevator.

“Absentee landlord, you mean.” As Tony went past, Carol slapped him on the back. He saw the blow coming, and even with the warning, his exhausted body refused to move fast enough to dodge. Her hand hit, not with the force she usually commanded, but it landed right on a spot that had taken a missile two days ago. Tony staggered, pain washing through him, and he barely realized that both women had grabbed one of his arms to keep him on his feet.

“Tony?” Carol's face was, for a second, a pale, featureless blank in front of him, and he blinked hard, trying to clear his vision. “Tony, are you all right?”

“He's just tired,” he heard Pepper say. “I tell him, he's got to sleep. But when the meetings stack up, we don't want to be the ones delaying the process.”

“Yeah, that can be taken as a sign of weakness in the business world,” Tony said, forcing his head up. The ground tilted under his feet for a second, then steadied. Tony gritted out a smile, one that probably lacked its usual panache, but there wasn't much he could do about that. “And it's not that I'm tired. Tired can be fixed with coffee. Lots and lots of coffee.”

“Until your heart stops,” Pepper said.

“But until that moment, I am so awake, I cannot even tell you,” Tony said, waving a hand. “It's more that last week, Cap tossed me halfway across the gym,” he told Carol. “Landed wrong, but I didn't want to tell him. I prefer having him bitch at me for letting a hit past my guard than I do having him fuss at me.”

Carol's face relaxed. “He is a champion level fusser,” she agreed. Her grin was quick and warm. “You okay, Stark?”

“I've got him,” Pepper said, before Tony could open his mouth.

“Never doubted it.” Carol slipped past them into the elevator. “Glad to have you back!”

Pepper waited until she was gone before she gave Tony a look. “You should head straight to the penthouse, right now,” she said. “Before anyone else starts asking questions and I end up having to spend time in that death trap.”

“I know you hate it-”

“You have no idea how much I hate it,” Pepper told him. “I do it. Why, I don't know. But I hate it, Mr. Stark, and it would do you well to remember that.”

“How could I forget?” he asked, grinning. “You always remind me.” She gave him a look, and his grin stretched. “Hey, Pep? Thanks.”

“Less thanking, and more taking care of yourself so it's not actually necessary,” she said. “Go to bed.”

“I need to put in an appearance,” Tony said. “How will it look if I just hide in my apartment?”

“It'll look like you're exhausted and need a scotch and about twelve hours of sleep,” Pepper said.

Tony groaned, and the sound was very nearly sexual. “You can't just say things like that, Pepper,” he said. “That's... Not in public.”

She rolled her eyes. “Go put in an appearance,” she said. “Then go to bed.” She turned on her heel, pushing the elevator button. “I'll go cover the rest of it.” She gave him a look. “Will that be all, Mr. Stark?”

“That will be all.” Tony forced himself up and forward. “Thank you, Ms. Potts.”

One quick trip down to the kitchen. That would be all it would take. One quick walk through. Tony focused on the thought as he forced his strides into something approaching ease. Someone would be down in the kitchen, someone was always in the kitchen. All Tony had to do was say hi, snark a bit at someone, and then he could go pretend that his life hadn't gone so amazingly to shit so amazingly fast.

“Hey, you're home.”

Tony looked over as Steve came around the corner. For an instant, Tony just allowed himself to revel in the very lovely visual that was Steve Rogers ready for a fight with a punching bag. He wasn't sure who was still selling that boy shirts about three sizes too small for his chest, but Tony really appreciated it. The sight of all that white cotton, stretched to its limits across Steve's chest was enough to make him dizzy.

Or it might've been a head injury. Hard to say.

“I am indeed home,” Tony said, grinning at him. “How've things been?”

“It's been quiet,” Steve said, and Tony knew that was a lie; he always wondered why Steve seemed to downplay what the Avengers had been up to when Tony Stark was 'out of town.' Maybe he just didn't want Tony to worry. Or maybe he didn't want to explain just what Iron Man had been doing with all of Tony's tech.

Hard to say.

“You're just in time. I thought you were going to miss another session.”

Tony was still so stuck on enjoying the view of Steve in those pants and that too-small shirt that it took a few seconds for the words to sink in. “What?” he asked, like the moron that he was.

Steve's eyebrows arched. “It's Tuesday. Time for sparring practice. Actually-” He checked his watch. “You're far overdue for your sparring session, you were supposed to be in the gym about three hours ago.”

Tony pushed a hand through his hair. “Sorry, meetings ran over. Steve, the thing is-”

“C'mon,” Steve said, and there was something eager about him, something so enthusiastic that Tony felt like a bully taking a kid's favorite toy when he even thought about saying no. “You have missed your last three sessions.”

“I was... Not in North America,” Tony pointed out.

“Doesn't change the fact that you missed your last three sessions.” Steve smiled. “Let's go. You have been slacking on your lessons, Mr. Stark.”

Tony stared at Steve's broad, open, welcoming smile, and resisted the urge to burst into tears. He stared at Steve for a long, frozen moment. Trapped, backed into a corner, so tired that he wasn't sure how he was still upright, he did the only thing he could do.

He lied through his teeth.

“I can't,” he said, and his voice sounded smooth and natural, regretful, even. He heard it as if from a distance, too drained to even figure out what he was saying. “I've got a session planned with Iron Man.”

Steve's smile faded, just a tiny bit. “Iron Man?” His head tipped to the side. “Hand to hand combat isn't really his specialty.”

The lie was perfect, so perfect that Tony was grinning now, grinning like an idiot. “Yeah, that's why I'm-” He patted Steve on the back, a little harder than he'd intended to. Steve being Steve, it really only hurt Tony's hand, but still. “I really thought it was a good idea if I had a chance to spar with different kinds of fighters.”

“Oh,” Steve said, and there was something to his expression that Tony couldn't read. “Still, I don't think-”

“I figured, I could switch it up a bit,” Tony said, his tone deliberately breezy to hide his desperation. “Try out a couple of different fighting styles, try out my moves with some different defenses, see how I have to adapt, depending on who I'm facing.” He grinned at Steve. “You are the best, but not everyone fights fair, Steve.”

“I'm aware of that,” Steve said, and his arms crossed over his chest, then uncrossed almost as rapidly. “He didn't say anything to me about this.”

“Didn't know if I was going to be back in time,” Tony pointed out. “Besides, he probably didn't even think you'd care. I take up enough of your time, he probably offered just to buy you a little breathing room.”

Steve's face was blank. “I don't mind,” he said. “I've never complained.”

“Cap, you don't complain nearly as much as you should,” Tony said.

“The rest of you pick up the slack,” Steve said. He shifted his weight. “Are you sure? I mean, I don't mind. I was rather-” He stopped, cleared his throat. “I think it's a better if we continue your training.”

“That's sweet of you, really,” Tony said. He patted Steve on the shoulder. “I just think-” He took a deep breath, and immediately regretted it. Pain swept over him, and his teeth ground together as he struggled not to let it show. “But right now? I got another date, Steve.”

Steve's eyes rolled upwards. “Very funny,” he said, but his lips twitched up on one side. “Tomorrow, then?”

There was no way he'd be able to stand tomorrow, and Tony knew it. “Maybe,” he allowed, but he was already retreating. “We'll see how today goes, maybe I should just, you know, switch it up a bit more, Steve.” He was so close to escape that when he grinned, it felt amazing on his face. He was so close to sleeping. “So, I'm just-” His head tipped back over his shoulder. “Gonna go catch up with Iron Man. We've got some serious work to do tonight.”

He gave Steve a grin, and a wink, and took off as fast as his battered body could manage.

Done with pressing his ever decreasing luck, Tony made it to the elevator and headed back to the penthouse. “Jarvis,” he said, as he stumbled out of the doors, “do not wake me for anything less than an actual world threatening disaster, and even then, wait half an hour.”

“Understood, sir. Do sleep well.”

Tony would've run at his bed if he'd been capable. Instead, he stumbled forward, his legs wobbling under him, and he stripped as he went, tie and jacket falling unheeded to the ground. His belt went flying in one direction, and his shirt in another, floating down behind him. He toed off one shoe, doing untold damage to the expensive leather, and he had to hop on one leg to get the other one off, fumbling at the lace with numb fingers. But both tumbled to the ground, and he got his pants unzipped with a force of will. He let them fall, stepping out of them almost before they were fully on the ground another step, maybe two, and he was at his bed. Tony collapsed, the groan that rumbled out of him the most obscene noise he'd ever made.

He was asleep before his body finished bouncing.