Takes place after IM1.

"So, you want to explain to me why Pepper's suddenly allowed to sneak up from behind and practically tackle you?" Colonel Rhodes drawled, dragging a long swig from his beer.

Tony looked up from his own drink, eyeing his oldest friend and trying to decide if there was a note of jealousy in his tone. The bar was crowded and loud and people kept glancing at him and whispering, and it didn't make him nearly as nervous as it had when he'd first returned from Afghanistan. He was getting better, slowly but surely. "Because I realized recently that she is, indeed, female. Did you have any idea?"

The soldier snorted. "You've hardly touched a woman since you got back." When Tony didn't answer, Rhodes pressed on. "I mean, ever since I've known you you've had every phobia under the sun. No one's ever been allowed to approach you from behind or hand you anything. And it got a hell of a lot worse after Afghanistan. And after Obadiah… it's kind of a wonder you're still functioning."

Tony hadn't quite realized how much he missed Rhodey's brutal honesty. It'd kept him grounded on more than one occasion when he was having trouble seeing the bigger picture or keeping things in perspective. "Pepper, she's… she's helping. Helping me." No change there.

"Yeah, I gathered that." For a long moment, Rhodes stared with dark, searching eyes as his oldest friend pointedly looked away. "Hey man, I get that you don't want to talk about what happened over there. If you talked with Pepper about it, that's none of my business. But the old stuff, the stuff you've been carrying since I knew you… you told her, didn't you?"

It wasn't an accusation. That is, it didn't sound like an accusation, more like a statement, blankly accepting if somewhat bitter. Tony frowned, twirling his own drink on the bar as he debated how to answer. "Yeah, I told her. But it wasn't like I… like I planned to, or anything. I just kind of broke. So much had happened, and the nightmares were pretty much unbearable-"

"You don't have to explain yourself to me, Tony." Rhodey interrupted, the bitter tone gone and replaced with placating concern. "I'm not angry. I'm just curious as to why you didn't think you could tell me."

Tony had to swallow the mirthless laugh building in his chest, and instead settled for a dark smirk. "You probably already know, and just never wanted to accept it." When Rhodes opened his mouth to protest, Tony waved him off, already looking apologetic. "That's not… I don't blame you, I'm sorry. It's just that… part of me is always going to see you as the guy my dad hired to keep me out of trouble." They were quiet while Rhodey tried to puzzle out the indication of this statement. Taking pity, Tony helped him along. "So I'd know that I'd never… never be safe from him."

His oldest friend closed his eyes for a long, long moment, taking in a deep breath that seemed to rattle in his lungs. He turned away briefly, seeming to collect himself before he could reply. "Tony, you've gotta believe me, I didn't know."

"I know you didn't." His voice was dull and lifeless, contrasting harshly against Rhodey's comparatively broken tone. "Not really, at least. You couldn't have known."

The soldier didn't seem to hear him, scrubbing a hand over his face and giving a breathless, self-deprecating chuckle. "God, man, I'm so sorry. I don't even… what can I say? Hell, it's no wonder you don't trust me, I didn't do anything even when I had some idea…"

For the first time in that conversation, Tony met his eyes, looking every bit as arrogant and unbreakable as ever. "Don't say that. Don't doubt for a minute that I would trust you with my life."

The conviction in his voice, that fact that he was looking him in the eye, it all must have counted for something, because Rhodey nodded silently in reluctant understanding.

"Apology accepted, by the way."

Super shortness is super short. Hopefully it'll hold you for now.

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