Ask Tony how he's doing on any given day and he'll either give you a somewhat puzzled, somewhat wary look, or he'll smile brightly, instantly lighting up. Either way, the answer is the same. Fine, I'm fine.
Most of the time, it's even true.
Occasionally though, there's those stunningly obvious reminders that he's really excellent at lying to himself. Like when they get the call from SHIELD to suit up and head out to the barren wastes of Nevada, because apparently Hydra decided to try the reverse psychology trick and hole up in the desert instead of somewhere more appropriate for their name. Even for late October, it's hot as hell, but that's not what bothers Tony the most. He takes one look at the dark cave mouth where the Hydra cell is supposedly located, and abruptly decides that he's going to sit this one out in the Quinjet.
Although of course he does no such thing. He mans up and he goes in there and kicks some ass, the way he always does. He mostly leaves the witty quippage part of today's program in Clint's capable hands, and just gets on with business. It's not that hard, thankfully. The place doesn't even look like a cave, once you get past the entrance; beyond that first stretch of rock the whole thing opens up into just one more modern underground stereotypical bad guy lair.
After they're done and the Hydra guys are all contained and there's nothing left to do but wait for SHIELD to come mop up, he hurries outside and lifts the faceplate and takes his first deep breath in what feels like hours. He steels himself to turn around and look at the cave again, because honestly, this is stupid, he needs to get over himself. And really, it's not that bad. He's not exactly going to build a summer home here, or a winter home, or even come within a hundred miles of this place again – but whatever, it's over and he can go back home now to his wide open spaces with lots of glass and visible blue skies.
"Tony!" He spins around and whoa, holy crap Steve is like right there, and he reels backward a little, wondering how the hell Steve managed to sneak up on him like that.
"What?" he snaps, painfully aware that he's standing just two steps away now from the shadow of the cave mouth.
"Are you all right?" Steve's noble brow furrows. His stupid patriotic blue eyes look concerned.
"Why wouldn't I be?" Tony says. "We just bagged ourselves a neat little group of Hydra agents and confiscated all their tech. I have new toys to play with. I'd say I'm doing just fine."
Steve is not diverted. "You were breathing funny," he says. "Like you were hurt. Were you injured in the fighting?"
And that's, fuck, that's… That is not cool. It really isn't. He doesn't know how to respond to that. After three months and twice as many missions together, he's pretty sure he's got a handle on the other Avengers. But not Steve Rogers. Especially not a Steve Rogers who is looking at him now with such worry on his all-American face.
So he falls back on the tried and true. He spreads his arms and sighs his most you-are-all-too-stupid-for-me-so-I-will-use-small-words sigh. "In case you hadn't noticed, I'm wearing a suit of armor," he says. "I'm fine. Just dandy, in fact."
"I know," Steve says, sounding a little testy himself. "I just thought…" He presses his lips together and shakes his head. "Never mind. Forget it."
"Okay," Tony says brightly, and that's that.
It's not always that obvious, though.
Sometimes it's the stupid, little things that trip him up the most. Those are the ones that completely blindside him.
Like the Halloween party, just a week after the Hydra thing in Nevada. It's nothing too big, nothing too fancy. Mostly just an excuse to get into silly (well, sillier than usual) costumes and introduce Thor to the concept of Halloween. Thor of course takes to this like a duck to water; he's always ready to be charmed by Midgard's holidays and traditions.
Each of them has their own memories of how they spent Halloweens past, and so each of them brings something to the party. Elaborately carved pumpkins, roasted pumpkin seeds, a display of tombstones complete with scary music and black lights, baskets of candy corn and a big wooden tub of apples bobbing in water.
Tony walks in, wearing his 1940's suit and fedora, ready to start talking smoothly about all the gin joints in all the world, and right away his gaze goes to that tub of water. Without missing a beat, he turns around, no, let's be honest, he fucking whirls around, like some crazy dance move that goes beyond the borders of humiliating and well into what-the-fuck-was-that territory. And just to complete that snazzy little number, he actually clutches at his chest in the world's oldest pantomime for help I'm having a heart attack right fucking here and now.
All of which is just brilliant, just fanfuckingtastic.
No one sees this wonderful performance, though, which is the only saving grace. He stands in the hallway and waits until he can catch his breath, and then he smooths down his suit jacket, and if his hands are still shaking a little, well, it doesn't really matter because no one will see. He just takes a deep breath and smothers the cough that wants to build in his chest, and plasters a big, bright smile on his face.
So he gets to make his grand entrance anyway, and if his Here's looking at you, kid isn't the greatest, no one except Steve really notices, and the look on Steve's face is more like faint puzzlement than disappointment. No big loss there. No one pays attention to the way he sort of creeps past the tub of apples, one wary eye on the water like he half-expects a pair of hands to reach up and grab him and yank him down into those cold depths—
Fuck it. He never liked Halloween much anyway. This is one party he's free to skip. Let Clint and Bruce teach Thor the story of the Great Pumpkin, and take him out trick-or-treating with Tony's imported silk pillowcases. He's done here. He's got some work to do in the lab. He'll just head down there and--
"Hey, Stark! What's a guy gotta do to get a drink around here?" He looks up and there is Clint, standing by the bar with two SHIELD agents dressed like the Blues Brothers. Clint is wearing a red striped shirt and carrying a stuffed tiger by one paw.
Abruptly he changes his mind. Yeah, all right. Maybe he'll stay after all. Have a few drinks. Then have a few more. Why the hell not?
And for a little while it's all good. He has a couple drinks and Natasha scares the shit out of them with a gory horror story that he strongly suspects is something that actually happened to her. There's some good food and Pepper glides by in a Grecian toga outfit that bares one shoulder and is slit really high up one thigh. He circulates among the guests and laughs and tells them to play it again, Sam, and keeps one eye on the tub of apples.
But he's cool, it's all cool. Right up until the moment Bruce suggests they start the actual apple-bobbing. And just like that, he can taste the water, cold and metallic with his own blood. He gulps frantically at his drink to rid himself of the taste, but his glass is empty except for a few ice cubes and the cold, thin remains of the Scotch. It burns going down his throat, thick and cold, and he gags, horribly close to vomiting up everything he just ate.
Quickly he turns around, before anyone can see. "Tony, you joining us?" someone calls, and he raises a hand in a dismissive flapping sort of wave over his shoulder. Behind him, something splashes, and he knows someone is down in there, their face in the water, and oh God he's going to be sick, there is no stopping it.
He bolts for the balcony. Just as he reaches the French doors, Steve steps into his line of sight. For a moment their eyes lock, and he sees shock and worry on Steve's face. He twists to one side, neatly avoiding physical contact, and then he's outside in the cold night.
Just in time, too. He leans over the balustrade, retching, choking, able to taste the water in the back of his throat even through the burning, disgusting act of vomiting up everything he's eaten in the past forty years. He heaves until there's nothing left to bring up, and still he can taste it. Behind him, there is another splash and a sudden burst of loud, raucous laughter, and he shudders helplessly.
Eventually his stomach decides it's through, and he's able to stand upright. He looks down through eyes filled with involuntary tears and almost laughs when he realizes he's still holding his drink. There isn't much left at all now, but there's enough liquid in the glass that he's able to rinse his mouth and spit, and that helps. A little.
"Tony?" A rectangle of yellow light spreads over the balcony.
He spins around, putting the ironwork to his back. It's Steve. Of course. Because who else would it be?
"Are you okay?"
There's another splash and he's got to be hearing things, surely he's far enough away that he shouldn't be able to hear that. "Shut those doors," he orders. His voice wobbles all over the place, and Jesus please us, could he sound any more feeble?
Steve obeys, closing the French doors. Instantly the light becomes more muted, although it's still enough to see by. It's cold out here, but he doesn't care. It's not the cold of the cave, where he could see his breath and his fingers and toes hurt all the time, and the metal rim of the arc reactor burned with a cold fire that was never extinguished, no matter how hot he lit the forges.
"Are you all right?' Steve asks again. He's wearing a vintage 1940's Brooklyn Dodgers baseball uniform. It should probably look ridiculous on him. It does not. Tony approves only because he knows the uniform is the real deal and therefore probably cost an arm and a leg; he's of the opinion that if you're going to put on a costume for Halloween, then you better be ready to spend a small fortune to make it just right.
"I saw you leave," Steve says. He takes one step forward, then stops, uncertain.
"I'm fine," Tony says. "Just had a little too much." He raises the glass in what is supposed to be a jaunty salute, and swirls the last dregs of liquid around.
Steve studies him for a long moment, then says, "Don't take this the wrong way, but you're actually a really bad liar."
And what the hell? He knows for a fact that this is not true. He is a great liar. He used to make his livelihood selling lies about security and safety, lies with neat names like Jericho that came packaged with free minibars with orders of five hundred million or more. So scratch that, he is an excellent liar, and if someone like Steve Rogers can see through him, that means he is in some seriously deep shit.
"I know you're not all right," Steve persists, and that is enough, that is enough.
"Well, then if you're so smart, why did you follow me?" Tony snaps in a brilliant display of…brilliance. "Why didn't you just leave me the hell alone?"
Oh yeah. That'll show him.
"Because I'm worried about you," Steve says, doing that noble furrowed brow thing again.
"Why?" Tony asks, using every power he has to imbue the word with as much sarcasm as is humanly possible. He might also possibly call upon the earth's gravitational and magnetic fields, too, just to add some weight to it, but that's still a work in progress, so he can't be sure of any real success there.
"Why?" Steve repeats. And now he sounds exasperated. Like he can't believe he's having to say this out loud. "Because you're my friend."
"No, I'm not," Tony says immediately.
"Okay," Steve says, and holy crap, was that almost an eyeroll from the almighty Captain America? "You're a member of my team. You—"
"That makes me your teammate," Tony points out quickly, before he can get any further with that line of thought. "Not your friend."
Disappointment flashes across Steve's face. It's there and gone so quickly most people would probably miss it. Not Tony. He's been the recipient of that kind of disappointed look all his life – and he's very good at picking up on it. "If that's what you want to call it." He takes a breath. "Regardless, I know that something's wrong, and that's why I followed you. I just wondered if you wanted to talk about it."
That's a little bit sweet and a little bit suffocating. Tony isn't sure which one he prefers. Either way, it's not happening. There are things he's never told a soul (not even JARVIS, and yes JARVIS has a soul, he'll argue that until there's no breath left in his body). Things he can't tell anyone. Maybe he could have, at the start, when he was expected to talk about it and have pretty little issues that were resolved swiftly and tied up with a pretty little bow.
But what is he supposed to say now? He can't tell Steve that four years after the fact he still can't look at something as innocent as a tub of water for bobbing apples without hot terror jolting through his body. That the worst part wasn't the water itself, the way his blood swirled red and sinuous through its depths from where they had hit him, or the cold heavy weight of it as it poured down his throat and filled his lungs. Nor was it the way he feared dropping the battery in the water and electrocuting himself or worse, dropping it to the floor and pulling out the electromagnet and dying by slow inches from the shrapnel.
No, the worst part was knowing, even before it began, even as they dragged him forward and he got his first glimpse of the hell that awaited him, knowing that he would break. That he would surrender and give them what they wanted. He would say yes and build their damn missile. Because he wasn't strong enough. Because he was small and he was weak. Because he was afraid, God, he was fucking terrified.
He can't tell Steve any of that, though. Not big, strong, perfect Steve Rogers. At best he'll earn Steve's disgust. At worst, his pity. And he wants none of that, thank you very much.
"Tony?" It's almost more than he can take, the gentle way Steve says his name, looking at him with wary concern, like he might just decide to turn and leap over the balustrade at any moment. "Just breathe. Okay?"
Yeah. Breathe. Because he can. There is no water. No hands gripping him. No one laughing at his choked pleas. No one asking if he has changed his mind yet.
"Tony, it's okay." Steve strides forward, determined now. And oh no, that is not happening, and he whips his hand up, palm out.
"Stop. Right there. Don't move."
Instantly Steve stops. "Okay. I'm not moving. See?" He holds up his hands, the very picture of innocence.
He's suddenly disgusted with himself. The situation has gone way beyond salvage. But he's never been backed into a corner like this. With Pepper he could play it off and distract her, and Rhodey had more sense than to ever ask, and there's never been anyone else who noticed before when things got to this point. He doesn't know what to do.
Steve is still looking at him with that worried expression, and he realizes he's got to say something. And fast.
So he says, "No. We're not doing this."
"Doing what?" Steve asks.
"This," Tony says. "You know, that thing where you ask if I want to talk and I say no but then I suddenly find myself talking to you anyway and before you know it hours have passed and we've each had a cathartic moment and we're suddenly best friends and all is right with the world."
"That…wasn't really what I had in mind," Steve says dryly.
"It wasn't?" he blurts out before he can stop himself. Then he comes to his senses. "Oh. Well, good. 'Cause it's not gonna happen."
"Okay," Steve says. "But sometimes I feel like I need to talk to someone. It isn't easy, being so far out of my time." His mouth twists in a strangely bitter mockery of a smile. But even now he's still perfect, so sincere and straightforward and earnest that it's almost nauseating. "So can I still come to you if I need to talk to someone?"
"I didn't offer," Tony says, stupid, selfish, and just the tiniest bit baffled, because truthfully the last ten minutes are something of a blur what with the whole almost-flashback thing and maybe he did offer and he just doesn't remember doing it.
"I know," Steve says simply. "But you were going to. I can tell." He smiles a little, a smile that hints at a previously-unknown devious streak to his personality – and suddenly Tony almost likes him. Certainly it's the most human he's ever seen Steve act before.
Which makes it easier to play along. "Sure, whatever," he says. "But if I'm working, I reserve the right to tell you to shut up and kick you out of my space." There. That should take care of most times Steve wants to talk – he's always working, and even when he isn't, he can claim he is because, hello, genius here, it isn't always obvious to the layman when he's hard at work.
"Okay," Steve says, accepting this at face value. Because he's just that gullible and sincere, and Tony decides that maybe he does look ridiculous after all in his baseball uniform, just so he can feel spiteful and more like himself.
Only it doesn't work. Steve isn't ridiculous and he knows it. Apparently he is a sucky liar after all.
"Should we go back in?" Steve says. He hooks a thumb over his shoulder, gesturing to the rest of the party.
"I don't know. Are they still bobbing for apples?" Tony asks, just putting it out there, waiting to see if Steve makes the connection. Because Steve is not an idiot, and Steve saw the way he acted in Nevada, and more importantly, Steve has read his file. Because if he's calculated this right – and he always does – then he will never need to say another word about this.
And it works. He can see it, the moment comprehension dawns in Steve's eyes. And it isn't pity then that softens Steve's expression and draws down the corners of his mouth. It's sympathy. And what a moron he is for never realizing the difference between the two.
He just stands there, chin lifted, his heart pounding, daring Steve to say something.
"I think they are," Steve finally says. "We can just stay out here. I could tell you a horror story. It is Halloween, after all."
Tony stares at him for a long moment, waiting for the inevitable questions. But Steve doesn't say anything, and after a long pause, he finally figures it out. There aren't going to be any questions. This is really it. The crisis is past. The moment is over. They've already moved on.
And that makes it official. He really does like Steve.
He says, "So what's your story about?"
"The first time I rode the Cyclone at Coney Island," Steve says.
"That's a horror story?" Tony scoffs.
"Well, it was for me," Steve says with a little smile.
He's on a slippery slope here, and he knows it. Still, he judges that it's safe to keep going. Just this once. After all, what's the worst that can happen? He's already surrendered, even if he can't quite remember the moment it happened.
"Okay," he says. "Tell me a story."