Dunes of what Rhodey would have called snow, if not for the faintly iridescent green-sheen of it were reflecting a hazy mist under a barely-noticeable violet crescent moon. Another, more rounded, moon gleamed low in the sky, red and brilliant, interacting harshly with the landscape. Rhodey's breath caught from more than just the shock of the ice-cold wind.
"There are three options for what is happening here," Tony said. "Well, four, I guess, which is that all five of us are having the same bad trip, but that would be too lucky for any of us, so, back to three. One, we've somehow managed interplanetary travel, two, we've been thrust into an alternate dimension, or, three, and my least favorite, magic." Tony made jazz hands to illustrate, as though the two were somehow connected. Then, unhappily, he added, "Or some combination."
Rhodey glanced at the others. Captain Rogers looked concerned but not surprised, and Agent Romanova wasn't giving anything up by way of facial expression or body language. Pepper seemed displeased, but less ruffled than she should have been by any normal measure. For his part, Rhodey growled, "I am never visiting you again, Stark."
"Reasonable because of course you only get into trouble when you're with me. Except for that one time in Saudi—"
"No other time has involved magic," Rhodey cut him off, because Tony'd saved his ass more times than he could really count, but he was sure Tony could recite every single instance.
"That could easily be Cap's fault," Tony said. "Why don't you ever blame Captain America?"
"I'd love to sit and argue about whose fault this is, boys," Romanova said in a sardonic tone, "but we've got company."
Two hours earlier
Tony blinked as Rhodey strolled over to where Pepper and he were sitting at the edge of the tower's new rooftop pool, dipping their feet in. Pepper smiled widely and rose to greet him. "It's been too long."
It was a relief to see her looking well, have her reach out to him without fear. He'd been the recipient of more than a few panicked calls over the eight months when Tony was fixing the Extremis problem, and a number of hugs and touches cut short as she worried about harming others. Now she hugged him tightly, but no more than he could take. He toed off the sneakers he was wearing, rolled up his jeans and joined them at the side of the pool. It was a perfect day, in the seventies and sunny, a surprise given that it was late June. Nobody seemed to be taking it for granted.
Rhodey, for his part, was using it as a completely legitimate excuse to watch Tony and Pepper move around in bath shorts and a bikini, respectively. Tony'd tightened up a bit in the time since he'd finally cajoled the team to move in and if Rhodey watched the flex of his back muscles a little too intently while he swam, Pepper was kind enough not to call him on it.
Tony drew up to the side of the pool and asked, "Were we expecting you? You know I like to prepare for these things."
Rhodey snorted. "What I know is that you'll just forget if I tell you I'm coming."
"You wound me," Tony told him solemnly, and Rhodey took the opportunity to look at the clean lines of Tony's chest, interrupted only by scars,, weird after this long. He still wasn't sure if it was reassuring to be back to "normal" or not. He was sure he wanted to touch. He nearly rolled his eyes at himself, but caught himself just in time.
"Is this a layover, or will we actually have you with us for a bit?" Pepper asked.
"I'm in town for a couple of weeks." They didn't have the clearance level for him to talk about why, but he had no doubt Tony would look into it anyway.
Tony perked up at this. "Two whole weeks? My goodness, I don't know if I even have enough colors of nail polish for that many sleepovers."
Pepper suggested, "SI could always buy Zoya out from Art of Beauty."
"Isn't that at your discretion?" Tony asked.
"Under basic corporate law? Not so much."
"We should talk to legal about changing that," Tony said. Pepper patted his knee.
She opened her mouth to respond, but caught sight of something behind Rhodey, and waved. "Afternoon."
Rhodey glanced around to see Natasha Romanova and Steve Rogers emerging onto the deck, her in a sophisticated red bikini and him in plain blue bathing shorts. Rhodey started to rise, but Rogers shook his head. "Nice to see you again, Colonel."
"Captain," Rhodey said. It was kind of uncomfortable for him that he outranked the guy. Not that Rhodey thought the Army should be giving out promotions based on strength, but given the totality of the circumstances, Rogers really did deserve at least brigadier or major general. "Agent Romava."
She was making her way to the diving board, but called back, "Natasha, if you don't mind. The other is clunky in this context."
"Of course," he said, and pretended not to watch either her Olympic-worthy dive or Rogers watching her dive. Rhodey felt the nudge of something at his memory and a phone conversation with Tony came back to him, mostly because it had used the phrase 'making the beast with two backs' in reference to Captain America. Rhodey wasn't religious or anything, but there were some lines Tony managed to cross that he hadn't even know where there.
Idly, watching the way Natasha used Rogers as a flotation device, laughing at something he said, Rhodey wondered if they were still friends-with-benefits or had moved on to something a little more commitment-intense. But he was out of the loop: Tony regularly grumbled over his lack of knowledge of Natasha's personal business with variations on, "Not that I can find out. She even senses I'm snooping around and you will never find my body."
Rhodey liked a woman who could make Tony behave in any way. Oh, who was he kidding? Rhodey liked anyone who could make Tony behave. So long as they didn't use waterboarding or emotional manipulation. Not that Rhodey thinks those things have ever gotten Tony to behave, but if they did, he still wouldn't approve of their use.
Pepper was talking with JARVIS about ordering food, Natasha and Rogers were swimming laps and Tony was watching Rhodey, not even subtly. After a moment, he said, "You don't get your own floor; you don't visit me enough for that."
For a moment, Rhodey flashed back to Tony as a kid, absolutely no transition space between his sharp defenses and expansive generosity. Rhodey had liked Tony despite himself, and despite the fact that the first time Tony spoke to him, it was to focus all his sharpened bravado and hurt pride on Rhodey, who'd just saved his ass. It might have helped that Tony had been naked and terrified, but mostly Rhodey had just always been able to respect Tony's innate fierceness.
He swirled his feet in the pool. "I think I can handle having a wing."
Tony smirked and said, "I'll see what I can dig up."
The five of them were sitting in the shade, digging into the pizza Pepper had ordered when JARVIS spoke up. "Sir, I am reading some kind of environmental disturbance moving toward you from the east at a speed of 37.29 miles per hour. Aside from breaking down its particle structure, there is no other information I can give you as to what, precisely, it is."
"Big, small, round, square, gimme a little bit more here," Tony said, his gaze focusing on the east horizon. Rhodey looked over as well, but whatever the disturbance was, it wasn't visible.
"Fluctuating, but with a solid 54.62 kilograms of mass."
"Huh," Tony said, still staring.
"Should we get out of its way until we know more?" Rogers suggested in a tone that was more order than question.
Rhodey respected that it worked on Tony, though, since he said, with the air of a man pretending to not still be freaking out over unexplained phenomena, "Not your worst idea ever, Cap."
Which of course was when JARVIS let out a startled, "Sir, its speed is—"
There was the sensation of being sucked through a dryer vent—too hot and like his bones were being crushed to fit a space they were never meant to—and Rhodey rolled out, crashing into Pepper. Air Force training and experience immediately kicking in, he looked around to discover they seemed to be somewhere he had never even imagined, let alone actually seen.
He moved to checking on the others, each of whom seemed a bit bruised up, but nobody appeared to have any serious injuries, at least on the surface.
Tony caught his eye and said, "There are at least three options for what is happening here."
The terrain was almost like a dessert made of ice. It was slick and cold against Rhodey's bare feet and he was more than a little worried about Natasha, Pepper and Tony, who were all in swimsuit attire. Rogers had survived actually being frozen for seventy years, so he was probably all right.
It meant none of them had weapons, though. Rhodey could feel Natasha cursing herself internally. She took the comb out of her hair and Rhodey noticed it was actually a stiletto knife. Well, that was something.
They pushed Pepper into the center and took positions around her, shoulder to shoulder. Rhodey would have put Tony with her, but he didn't have the time to argue and at least Tony had been training with his teammates on sparring without the suit.
Their 'company' was a group of ten aliens—so, at the very least, they were probably on a different planet—that were twice Steve's size. Rhodey swore under his breath. Natasha laughed in acknowledgement. Tony said, "Call it, Cap."
Steve eyed the curved blue objects the aliens were carrying, probably some type of weapon, and said, "We should see if they understand us, first." Then, "Hello?"
Rhodey had half a second to feel a sort of sick horror at how the wave that came out of the weapon threw Steve a solid yard. Then the impact hit him, cracking bones, and he was flying backward, losing his grip on consciousness.
Rhodey woke up in a decently-sized room the shape of a dome with no visible entrances or exits or even vents. The others were there as well. Their previous outfits had been replaced by something that looked vaguely like scrubs but moved with his body more and provided a tad more insulation.
Tony and Pepper were still unconscious. Steve was leaning against the wall as best he could in the rounded structure, Natasha between his legs. He was whispering to her, and she was twitching, or possibly nodding, so Rhodey presumed she was at least somewhat aware.
Rhodey breathed in and frowned. Not that he wanted to have broken ribs, but he knew at least a few of them had cracked under the force of the energy weapon, or whatever it was. Now, though, while his ribs felt a little bruised, it was nothing too bad.
Steve looked over at where Rhodey was sitting up as best he could. "They healed you. Some kind of…beam, I guess, although I felt it more than saw it."
"I'd feel better about that if they hadn't caused the damage in the first place," Rhodey said.
Natasha opened her eyes. "Also, if we weren't currently imprisoned?"
"That too," Rhodey agreed. He was about to ask if those two had done any exploring—not that there was much to explore—but Pepper moaned slightly, and Rhodey inched over to her.
She opened one eye, clearly waited a moment to focus, and frowned. "Did I get drunk? I don't—"
Tony rolled a little onto his side and grumbled, "Fucking pool party from hell."
"Oh," Pepper said, opening her other eye and seeming to piece things together. Tony wasted no time hauling himself to his feet and stumbling around to check the situation out, which, yes, was Tony's response to everything. However, Rhodey didn't miss the cageyness in Tony's eyes that suggested he was only just holding panic at bay. He was breathing, for the moment, but Rhodey didn't plan on taking that for granted. His low mumbling about "fucking caves" and "ice age douches" were reassuring, since they meant Tony was staying with the four of them for the time being. At one point, when he'd nearly fallen about four times, Steve got up and just made sure he didn't fall on anyone, including himself.
"Okay," Tony said, when he was evidently as certain as he was going to get there was no immediate way out and had gotten the first flush of PTSD symptoms out of the way. "Did we come up with a plan while I was sleeping? Tell me, so I can make a better one."
Natasha, who'd been watching Tony every bit as carefully as the others, if not as obviously, said, "We decided to leave the thinking up to you, Stark."
"Yeah, yeah, pin the hard part on the genius." Tony glanced around at each of them. "Do we even know what these things are? Something SHIELD's run into before, maybe? Some kind of lore, maybe? Seriously, where is Thor when a guy needs him?"
Natasha shook her head a little. "If we knew about these guys, it was above my clearance level."
"We're sure they're not Frost Giants?" Steve asked. He hesitated for a second and then said in a tone carefully devoid of emotion. "It's pretty cold here."
The look on Tony's face, which was as wary as Tony ever got, told Rhodey volumes about how Steve felt about cold. It made sense, but it also made the situation worse than it had been a second ago, which had been bad enough. After a moment, Natasha shook her head. "I've seen the file on them. It's not impossible these are…distant cousins, I suppose."
Pepper, ever practical Pepper, asked, "What do you imagine they want?"
The five of them shared a look, but nobody ventured a guess.
Whatever they were being fed had no taste. Rhodey supposed it could be gourmet to their captors and taste like crumbly bits of plaster to humans. He suspected that was not the case. It did seem to provide enough basic nutrients, though, if Rhodey was at all correct about passage of time.
On what he deemed the second day, when Tony was poking and prodding at the place where the food had come from, one of the aliens appeared in the center of their sphere, grabbed Steve, who was closest, and disappeared. Even Natasha, who threw herself at the space the second things happened, was not fast enough.
She swore quietly and in Russian, but Rhodey had served for the majority of his adult life. He might not speak Russian, but he spoke International Curses fluently. He muttered an appropriate response without even thinking about it. She looked over at him sharply.
"Okay," Tony said, in the tone of voice he got when he was doing his best not to sound panicked. "Do we all stand as close to the center as possible, or as far? I can argue pros and cons for each, ad infinitum, but I think I'll give this one over to the guy who decided fighting for a living was the way to go and the lady who can kill people with the power of her mind."
Natasha was still looking at Rhodey and it suddenly clicked that she was waiting for him to answer, testing him to see what his approach would be. He went through possibilities in his head. After a moment he said, "Natasha and I stay close to the center. Tony, you and Pepper get as far away as you can. If they return him, maybe we can figure out what's going on as a group. If they don't, maybe Natasha and I can figure it out with Steve and use it to spring us."
Assuming Steve wasn't already incapacitated, but Rhodey left that thought off. The rest of the people in the room—cell—were smart enough to figure it out on their own. Natasha's face softened in what might be provisional approval. Normally, Rhodey wouldn't give a fuck what she thought, but she was Tony's teammate and also, c'mon, Black Widow. He cared.
Tony said, "I don't like this plan. We should think up a better one."
Natasha looked over at him. "We need you here, Stark. Pepper's hand-to-hand is better than it was before we started practicing, but yours is still further along, and she's back at relatively normal human strength. And you're the only one of us with the kind of knowledge that might get some kind of door open out of this place."
Tony grumbled. "You wrote the psych report on me. You should know cool logic is not the way to go."
"Mm," Natasha said, and Rhodey almost laughed. Instead, he came and sat down facing her, the two of them listening to Tony gripe and Pepper occasionally rein him in.
Steve tumbled out of thin air in the space where he'd been taken and crashed to his hands and feet. Less than a second passed before he was trying to stand, but in faint, shifting green-white of the cell, the fairly serious amount of blood covering his arms, legs and torso was immediately apparent. Tony swore, Natasha growled, and Pepper softly said, "Steve."
Rhodey, because he wasn't one of them, because he could be the one to do it, asked, "Anything the serum won't heal?"
Steve shook his head. "No."
Natasha moved then, getting him off his hands, visually assessing the extent of the damage and then helping him to a position that would be more comfortable while he healed. Her tone was even as she asked, "What happened?"
Steve took a deep breath. It stuttered a bit. "I think we might be entertainment."
Tony scowled. "Cap—"
Steve cut him off. "They put me in a room with a…creature. I don't know what it was. Looked kind of like that thing in one of the Star Wars movies. The second one, with all the ice. But it had really big teeth. Everywhere. Lots of mouths, I can't exactly explain it."
"I'm glad to see movie night has paid off in a surprisingly useful way," Pepper said, still appearing unsteady.
"Did you kill it?" Natasha asked.
Steve nodded. "I—I tried to talk to it, but…it was clearly meant to fight me until one of us was dead. And they were watching. I couldn't see them, but sometimes I could hear them, and I could feel it, I guess. Like when you know someone's staring at you."
It was information of a sort, but it left a lot of questions; and, since only one of them was a super-soldier, a lot of concerns. Steve looked worn to the bone, though. Conjecture would have to wait. Natasha seemed to agree, because she gently but firmly helped Steve sit and lowered his head into her lap. Rhodey returned to his spot at the center of the room. Natasha met his eyes. He was the first to look away, but he didn't have the feeling he'd lost anything.
Food once again appeared, but not nearly enough, especially not for Steve, who had clearly used up reserves healing, and who ate twice to three times the calories of a full-grown male on a daily basis, according to Tony. Steve didn't complain, though, just took his portion from Natasha when she brought it to him and ate slowly.
Rhodey watched as Natasha tried to get Steve to eat some of hers and he gently but implacably refused. He pretended not to see the way Tony was trying to get Pepper to take some of his, the way anxiety poured off of Tony. Rhodey wondered if he could make Tony or Steve eat any of his. He wasn't even going to try with Natasha. Pepper…he didn't know how Tony would feel about that.
He tried to find a way to offer, but everything that came to mind seemed like it would only remind the two couples that he was there, that they weren't even left the privilege of trying to bully and coddle each other in privacy. Instead, he kept silent, and ate what he thought would keep him on his feet. When the others had eaten, he looked at Tony.
Tony rolled his eyes. "Don't even try it. We both know who can out stubborn whom."
It was true, so Rhodey switched targets and said, "We need you fully operational, Captain."
Steve raised an eyebrow. "I've been through worse."
Rhodey didn't doubt it. "But you and Tony represent our best chances of getting out of here, and Natasha can provide better backup than I can. I'm not saying I can't be useful, given the chance, but I am saying we need to prioritize, and you know it."
He could feel Natasha assessing him once more. He didn't let himself wonder what she was deciding. Rhodey had been in love with Tony long enough to know the danger of allowing himself too much interest in the people he found beautiful and sharp and unique. It was seriously just his luck to be stuck in a cell with four of them. If Rhodey'd believed in reincarnation, he would have wondered what the hell he'd done in his previous life for this to be visited upon him. As it was, he kept his eyes on Steve, and didn't give quarter.
It was Pepper who said, "Steve, you need more food than the rest of us—"
"And less," he said, presumably referring to the fact that it was not actually clear he could starve to death.
Pepper didn't even blink, "And Rhodey makes good points. We can reassess when we have more information, but for now take the food."
Natasha nodded in agreement. Tony looked pissed, but, miraculously, stayed silent. Steve, appearing incredibly unhappy, took the last of Rhodey's rations for himself.
Whether because he was closest to the center, or because Rhodey was always the second hostage they would have grabbed, Rhodey couldn't say, but they took him next. And as terrifying as the creature across from him was, mostly Rhodey was relieved, because it was easier than waiting, not knowing if one of the others would come back.
His opponent wasn't the same creature Steve had described. Instead, it was more as if Dr. Banner had done his experiment on a hairless cat. There was no green in evidence, but the rest of the description made sense to Rhodey's mind. The cat-thing lunged at him and Rhodey feinted. He wondered if it knew something he didn't, or if they were both in here, blind of information, torn away from everything rightfully theirs.
Then he made himself stop thinking. Because if it was him or the cat-thing, it would be him. The others might not need need him, but that wasn't going to keep him from staying alive to watch their backs. He'd saved Tony's hide too many times to stop now.
He didn't think about how completely mundane life without Tony would be, or the way Pepper would be brave and silent in her grief. He thought about where he would move next, how to strike without any weapon aside from himself.
The cat-thing's claws got him when he began to tire, a swipe against his arm as he twisted away and Rhodey knew then he had to end it. Hoping against hope the thing's anatomical structure was essentially cat-like, Rhodey watched, waited for his opening to duck in under the claws and snap its neck.
He managed, although not without taking three of the claws through the back of his shoulder. They tore out when the creature fell. Rhodey saw the edges of his vision darken. He tried staying conscious, but there was nothing he could do.
Rhodey woke up with his head propped on someone's lap, on his side, to a burning fiery wash of sensation over the shoulder that had been speared. He sucked in a breath. Fingers brushed his hair, and familiar hands held him in position. Tony was talking, saying things like, "That's it, buddy," with a thread of rage so clear to Rhodey, they very well could have been having a fight.
Natasha's no-nonsense voice covered Tony's as she said, "They gave us supplies to clean, sew and dress the wounds, but they didn't heal you up like before, and we've got nothing for the pain. I'm sorry."
Rhodey shook his head, then regretted it when his shoulder screamed in pain. He leaned further into Tony. "I'm fine."
Tony made a derisive snort. A large hand came to rest on Rhodey's hip, Steve anchoring him even more. Rhodey asked, "All healed up?"
There was a moment of silence, then Steve seemed to understand. "Yes. I'm good as new. Try to keep breathing."
Rhodey almost smiled at the military bent of the words: a command that wasn't meant to be a command. Rhodey had a brief moment of being somewhat seriously pissed that in the last few days he'd gotten to see these four people in bathing suits and had to keep his reaction under wraps, and now they were all touching him, and he wasn't feeling well enough to appreciate it beyond comfort. Rhodey'd stopped having relationships around the time he'd fallen for Tony, so, about twenty-two. He'd stopped sleeping around when he'd taken the suit, something switching off inside him. It wasn’t that he'd needed touch any less, more that all the casual touching didn't feel like it was accomplishing anything.
He was possibly more skin-hungry than he'd let himself realize. But even if he hadn't been, four of the hottest people on the planet were touching him, one of whom he'd been pining over for a few decades. Really, it ought to be a moment.
Instead, he was fighting against nausea as the needle dipped into his skin time and again. He followed Steve's non-order and worked to keep breathing.
Steve was not as good as new. Rhodey became aware of this as soon as his ability to think came back online. Oh, he was doing better than any of the rest of them would in his situation, but there was something off. Because not having important intel left everyone sitting ducks, Rhodey asked Natasha, "What's wrong with him?"
Her gaze was frigid and if he wasn't already cold and hungry and torn up he might have had the sense to be scared, but he was past that point. He simply said, "I can't help as much if I don't know the facts. And if we're going to keep Tony and Pepper out of their hands, we all need to—"
"He's starving," she said.
It took him a second, because none of them were exactly well-fed at the moment. "The metabolism."
She nodded. "Theory suggests he can live in a state of starvation longer than any of us, but it affects everything. And healing takes energy. At home, he'd be eating even more than usual, keeping peanuts and apples and whatever he could carry on him to help his body make up the difference."
He looked over at where Steve was sleeping with his head in Pepper's lap, appearing impossibly young. But then, in actual living years he was barely in his twenties, really. Rhodey ran a hand over his face. Fuck.
Seemingly out of nowhere, Natasha said softly, "We should be conserving heat."
It was true, but it also left either all of them in the middle, or none of them, which seemed like having less control over the situation, even if their control was entirely in their minds. After a long moment, he asked, "What do you think?"
"I think we put me in the middle, you and Steve on either side, and Tony and Pepper on either side of you two, and hope for the best."
Rhodey quirked a smile. "Wouldn't have pegged you as an optimist."
"I'm not," she said, and stood, pulling him to his feet.
They had positioned Pepper next to Steve, as the more defensible of the two outlying positions, so it was Rhodey who got several of the bones in his dominant hand snapped while trying to hold on to Tony. The hand hurt, but it was a minor annoyance compared to the feeling of having Tony torn away, the panic in his throat and chest and everything about whether Tony would return. Rhodey trusted himself in combat situations, knew how to stay calm, to think things through. Being the one who had to wait had never been his strongest suit. He was genuinely patient, but patience only got a man so far.
It was Pepper who stepped in front of him, her eyes wide and worried and said, "Rhodey. Rhodey. We have to fix your hand."
Rhodey blinked down at his hand and, for the first time, appreciated the numbness the cold had brought on. He could only imagine what the fierce, burning ache would feel like without its buffer. Because Pepper was right and because they all needed distraction he said, "Right, yeah."
Luckily, both Steve and Natasha were well-versed in emergency bone repair. There were no painkillers, but Rhodey promised not to move. Nonetheless, Steve sat down and pulled Rhodey into a tight grip, Steve's fingers caressing along Rhodey's skin. Rhodey thought it must be unintentional, but it was too comforting to point it out and risk having it stop. He imagined if he were in less pain, were less freaked out about Tony, it might be something nicer than comforting, but as it was he would take what he could get.
Natasha didn't count, just ordered him to inhale and then exhale. Rhodey was good at following orders when they made sense. When she'd set everything he was fading in and out of consciousness, holding on only by dint of how worried he was. She wrapped the fingers as best she could in some of the leftover bandages and then came to curl up around Steve's side, her fingers settling lightly on Rhodey's bicep.
Rhodey motioned for Pepper to scoot inside the v of his legs. He covered her with as much of his body as he could and said, "He's gonna be fine. He's Tony."
He wasn't entirely sure for whom he was saying it.
Tony came back. One of his eyes was swollen shut and bleeding. He had a ring of bruises around his throat which inhibited speaking, and his right shoulder—his dominant arm—was displaced. The eye that was open burned with anger, which was predictable, fury being Tony's automatic response when he felt threatened.
Rhodey held Tony still as Steve pushed the shoulder back into its proper position. They lowered him into a lying position then, and Steve probed gently at Tony's ribs. Tony nearly came out of his skin. It was worrisome, because even with the arc reactor removed, there was so much scar tissue near to Tony's lungs that broken ribs could be a serious problem. For now, though, there was nothing to do but wrap them, clean Tony's eye, and try to make him as comfortable as possible.
After some yes/no questions, Steve decided Tony probably didn't have a concussion and that rest was the best option at the moment. Pepper pillowed Tony's head in her lap. Natasha and Steve stayed close to his side to try and keep him as warm as possible. Rhodey had noticed that with each passing "meal" of not nearly enough food to sustain him, Steve was having a harder time guarding against the cold. Natasha kept talking to him steadily, quietly and he focused on her as though she was a lighthouse in a storm. Steve didn't appear to have PTSD, but Rhodey could only imagine that being in a frozen environment brought back bad memories, more so as his body began losing the fat stores it needed to regulate his temperature.
Rhodey was unsure of whether to tuck himself on Steve's other side and see if he could help, or hold Tony's feet, keeping him surrounded and as safe as possible. In the end, Tony won out—Tony always won—but when their next meal came, Rhodey made Steve take half of his.
Steve wasn't happy. "There's not enough for you to begin with, you're injured, and who knows if they'll take you out again."
Rhodey had thought this through, though. He knew he was a good officer, a good man, a good friend to Tony and an asset to his country. He also knew that part of being a good soldier was prioritizing. "We're soldiers, Steve. Imagine this is war."
"In war, those under my command come first," Steve said quietly, firmly.
"Objectively, who is more expendable? Captain America, or one of many Air Force colonels?"
Steve's gaze flickered to Tony for a moment, blazing with something Rhodey couldn't understand. Finally he said, "Just this once."
Rhodey watched as Steve ate slowly, clearly trying to stretch out the calories. He had the look of someone who had done it so many times it was nearly habit. It made Rhodey want to give him the rest of his food, but he wasn't an idiot.
When they'd gotten some liquids and a little food into Tony, who was having problems swallowing, Pepper brushed her fingers over his forehead and said, "Sleep, baby. Just close your eyes."
Tony listened without a hint of mutiny. As many times as Rhodey had wished Tony would just shut up and listen to someone who knew what was best for him, he was remembering—once again—why he had sworn off wishing for things with Tony.
Rhodey saw it happen and he still couldn't explain how the creatures had managed to snatch Pepper. It left Natasha unconscious on the ground, though, and Tony yelling threats that were a little too based on human anatomy to probably register with the aliens. Then, with a sickening suddenness, he went quiet.
Steve was on his knees next to Natasha, checking her skull. Tony was looking at the spot where they'd disappeared with Pepper, wan and clearly about to collapse. Rhodey caught him just as that happened. Once they were sitting, Rhodey kept him close. What warmth the others had was becoming more and more necessary.
Tony blinked and said quietly, "Natasha?"
Steve shook his head. "I'm not sure. Her breathing is even, and nothing seems broken."
Tony was trembling even harder than could be accounted for by the temperature. Rhodey found himself rocking a little bit. "Hey. Trust in her, Tony. She's a survivor."
Tiredly, Tony mumbled, "Nobody around me gets much of a choice, do they?"
Thankfully, Pepper came back more quickly than the others had. Natasha was awake, if somewhat fuzzy, by the time, but it could not have been more than an hour. The first thing she did after reappearing was to limp over to the farthest "corner" of their cell and vomit mostly bile. Tony was beside her as quickly as he could manage, his hand rubbing tiny circles over the small of her back.
Vaguely, because it was easier than watching Pepper's obvious distress, incapable of helping, Rhodey thought, we need to get her rehydrated.
When it seemed like she wasn't going to be sick anymore, Steve and Rhodey went over and helped her to a spot near Natasha. Natasha immediately began systematically checking her over. Pepper was shaking so hard that if there was serious damage, she had to be hurting herself fiercely. Since she seemed not entirely aware of her surroundings, Rhodey wasn't ruling out the possibility.
Natasha, however, stated, "Some strains and twists. Serious bruising. Hopefully nothing I can't feel."
"No," Pepper said dully. "Nothing."
Rhodey shifted so as to get Tony in next to Pepper, where he could hold her. Tony asked, "Pepp?"
"It—it was a kid. I think it was a kid." There was a second of stillness, and then Pepper dry-heaved. Steve moved to pull Pepper and Tony into his lap and Natasha rubbed at Pepper's stomach muscles. Rhodey couldn't see where he was needed, so he stayed next to Steve, a hand on Tony's shoulder.
When she could speak again, Pepper said, "It was one of them. The kind that put us here. But…but it was small. I didn't even—I was just trying to get it off me. They're made differently. That thing that's like an arm on their left? It's not, it's…I'm not sure, but I crushed it and the, the kid just dropped."
She was sobbing softly, biting her lip, unapologetic in her grief and Rhodey wanted nothing more than to take her away, keep her in a place where her ability to value life would be appreciated. She bit out, almost a quiet scream, "I was so fucking careful. All those months when I was a firebomb just waiting to happen and I—I made sure nobody around me was hurt."
Natasha reached out, working to steady her hand despite the cold and her head wound, and touched Pepper's face. "You kept the people who mattered safe. This was not a kid, Pepper. An enemy. Sometimes the two are mutually exclusive."
"No," Pepper said, still crying, "No."
"Believe me, Pepper some children are—"
"Used and thrown away. Trained to kill. Hurt beyond their ability to bear." Pepper sniffled and wiped her eyes angrily with the back of one hand. "You don't get it. You think if someone had hurt you back then it would have been all right because of who and what you were molded to be, but it wouldn't have been. Not then and not now, because enemy or not, you were a child. And the fact that you grew into a fucking superhero only proves my point."
Natasha blinked slowly. Rhodey noticed, out of the corner of his eye, that Steve was struggling not to smile. It was incongruous, but Rhodey felt for him. After a few too many beats, Natasha said, "Technically not one of the supers."
"Technically," Pepper said, enunciating each syllable, "I don't give a shit."
Even with Rhodey sharing his portion, Steve was starting to zone out a little bit. Tony said, "I think you should probably try and sleep, Cap."
Steve's gaze flickered to the spot where the aliens always appeared. His shoulders slumped and he nodded in recognition of Tony's wisdom. "I'll try."
Rhodey looked over at Natasha, who still appeared less sharp than usual. She seemed a bit better after eating, but nowhere near what Rhodey would have considered one hundred percent. She curled herself around Steve, though, breathing steadily, as if she could convey calm purely by her presence. For all Rhodey knew, she might have been able to.
Tony and Pepper had also wrapped themselves together, the ongoing challenge to maintain body heat at play, as well as the discomfort both of them were suffering. Rhodey calculated for a quick minute, trying to consider any patterns in how the aliens had been taking them. The obvious answer was that they were testing each of them, and Natasha would be next no matter what.
Since he probably had little control over what would happen, Rhodey tucked himself into a ball in the center. To his surprise, the gambit actually worked. When they came next, they didn't fool around, just snatched him up and winked out of the cell.
Rhodey looked at his opponent. It had a very large beak, but other than that, Rhodey would have had a hard time describing it to another person. There was no good context for the shape of the thing, or the way its size seemed to vary. Rhodey hoped that if there were shapeshifters, this wasn't one of them, because that would suck. Well, it would suck more than this situation already did.
The creature attacked beak first and Rhodey had the strange thought, civilian. It made him sick to his stomach. He couldn't even be certain it was true, but the halting, heavy strokes being aimed at him suggested no formal training. Rhodey had a sharp sense of how Pepper had felt.
He evaded as long as he could, but he was tired. He hadn't had a full meal in a while, and his ribs were still injured, along with his hand. He considered his options. If he let the creature win, Steve wouldn't have the extra food and there wasn't the possibility of standing in for the others. All the same, Rhodey couldn't kill the creature. It was too ungainly, too raw.
Instead he struck out, trying anything he'd thought up in the time he'd been evading, watching how the creature attacked. When the creature was lying still on the ground, making noises Rhodey knew he was going to hear again and again when he closed his eyes, Rhodey looked up and said, "He's down. I'm not—he's down."
It happened so fast Rhodey didn't even feel the pain for a couple of seconds. Then he looked down at where twin ice picks, evidently having risen up from the floor, had driven straight through his feet. He forced himself through the panic, his own desire to struggle, and stayed very, very still. He swallowed several times, bile burning at the back of his throat, and said, as calmly as he could manage, "He's down."
The next spike shot through his left shoulder. "He's down."
Another one through his hip, shattering the bone. He screamed that time. It took him a while to regain his breath. "I can do this all day."
If he was being truthful, however, he wasn't all that upset when he passed out three ice picks later.
He woke up. That was surprising. He'd figured, somewhere between the pick through his lower intestine and the one through his thigh that death was the punishment for refusing to kill. But when he came up to consciousness he was definitely alive and the trauma from the ice picks had been fixed, along with his broken bones. He felt sick to his stomach and like a gentle breeze could knock him over, but the damage was definitely healed.
He'd been awake for less than thirty seconds when Tony said, "Even think about doing whatever the hell you did to piss them off again, and they will be the least of your worries, ol' buddy, ol' pal."
Rhodey just let his eyes close again. Pepper and Tony were responsible to each other, as were Steve and Natasha. As teammates, Steve, Natasha and Tony were responsible to each other. Rhodey didn't answer to any of them, though. It was his choice whether or not to kill, to cross lines that were his to cross. And maybe he'd made promises to Tony, but never aloud. "Maybe it was my opponent."
"They showed us, Rhodey." Pepper's voice was just this side of too-even. "Warning, or maybe just to hurt us, but—they made us watch."
He forced his eyes back open. Since he was alive and awake, he'd take the chance to check on the others. Now that he was concentrating, it took all of a second for him to realize Natasha was missing. "Is she—have they got her?"
"Took her when they returned you," Steve said, his jaw tight. It couldn't have been that long. Steve had a gash down the side of his face that was still knitting itself together.
"How was her head?" Rhodey asked.
Steve took a deep breath, but just said, "She'll be able to handle herself."
Rhodey suspected that might be true of a Natasha with all four limbs missing. He nodded. Now that awareness was trickling back into him, he was beginning to feel just how cold it was. "Did it get colder in here?"
"Not noticeably," Pepper said.
"I think it's a side-effect of the advanced healing," Steve said. Rhodey reeled in the grimace he wanted to make. If Steve was right, he was consistently feeling colder than the rest of them. Instead he rubbed a hand over his eyes and asked Tony, "Got anything cooking by way of blowing this popsicle stand?"
"My kingdom for an ice cream scoop," Tony said in return. Rhodey forced himself to laugh, because Tony so clearly needed it. He was beginning to feel like this entire experience was some kind of fucked up metaphor for his life.
Natasha came back silent and with chunks of skin missing from her right bicep and left thigh, but she came back. She didn't make a sound as Rhodey cleaned out the wounds and sewed up what he could. Steve held her tightly, probably a little too tightly, but she just closed her eyes and said, "I really miss alcohol at this moment."
When Rhodey had finished, Pepper tucked herself carefully around Natasha, with Tony acting as bookend. Rhodey filled in the space on the other side of Steve, since he was now aware the guy probably needed the most body heat. He didn't have much to give, but he was more than fine with sharing it.
Rhodey must have drifted off, because he woke to the sound of Tony coughing harshly. He sat up and said, "That is not a first cough."
Tony had the grace to look just a tiny bit rueful. "Didn't think we needed one more thing to worry about. But, uh, my lungs aren't what they were before the whole thing with the gaping hole in my chest that I've now fixed but is really only so fixable as it turns out."
Rhodey was more concerned about what this meant if Tony had to go back into the arena than anything else. Tony could outthink any opponent the world threw at him, but he had to breathe as much as the next person to be able to do so. And right now, even his breathing sounded wrong, too loud.
They took Steve again. It felt like forever, waiting to see if he would return and when he looked at the others, all Rhodey could see was the way Steve had clearly lost both weight and muscle, the hours and hours it had taken his last wound to heal.
Steve did return. He once again fell to his knees the second the transportation device let loose its hold. He was covered in dark, thick slime which Rhodey suspected might be non-human blood, or some equivalent thereof. Underneath it, bright red seeped out, too. He was holding himself off the ground with his left arm, the right one hanging twisted and useless at his side.
Pepper was biting her lip, fighting to regain composure. Tony's eyes were burning with a hatred that had nowhere to go. Natasha said softly, "C'mon, let's fix you up."
Tony and she eased Steve onto his back, which seemed relatively undamaged. He was shaking so hard, though, the contact was probably irritating his exposed skin. Natasha asked, "Hold or set?"
It took Rhodey a second to remember he had to be the one she was talking to. He looked at the arm. There were at least two breaks, he suspected a third. He inhaled through his nose and when he let the air out decided, "Set."
The worst part was, if he reset any of it wrong, they'd have to rebreak and reset once they got out—if they got out—because Steve would heal too quickly for anyone to simply correct the mistake. Cautiously, he felt along the arm, doing his best to find the fractures. He counted three, and hoped he wasn't missing anything.
He murmured, "Hold on, soldier," and forced himself to tune out the sound of the moans Steve couldn’t hold back.
Rhodey made Steve take all of his food the next day. After the healing he'd had at the hands of the aliens he was physically in the best shape, and Steve's body was working overtime. They could barely get him to wake in order to eat and the protest he put up about Rhodey's portion was cloudy, as though he wasn't entirely sure what was happening.
The other three all did their best to make Rhodey take some of theirs, but he pushed the point that he was the only one whose body wasn't struggling to make itself better. Pepper was the next best off, her bruises and strains fine so long as she was resting. Tony was getting worse.
Rhodey acquiesced to taking a bit from Pepper and Natasha, but he wasn't taking anything from Tony that might help him fight the chest infection now blazing its way through Tony's lungs. Instead, he sat and bullied him into eating, the way he'd done in school when Tony would get a flu in the middle of inventing and have to be physically removed from the labs. This Tony was less resistant, if still grumbly. Rhodey mostly tried not to think too hard about anything.
Somewhat anti-climactically, their way out came over what seemed to be some kind of breach of inter-galactic peace treaties and an incredibly pissed off Thor. By the time he was done making his point, Rhodey was pretty sure Thor had melted half the planet and he hadn't even used Mjolnir. Rhodey was totally buying him a balloon bouquet or something else weird Thor would get a kick out of for days.
Clint did some serious damage of his own with good, old-fashioned fire tipped arrows. When the rescue team was hastily led to the captives in hopes of getting them the fuck off the planet without further damage, Bruce got one good look at the five prisoners and that possibility evaporated instantly.
Tony managed to cajole Hulk to leave, mostly by dint of looking pathetic. Hulk picked Tony, Pepper and Steve up. He tried to get Natasha, but she said, "I'm walking out of this shithole myself."
Even if they hadn't come for him, Rhodey appreciated the liberation .
They were taken to SHIELD medical, since nobody wanted to try and explain what had happened to civilian medical personnel. Rhodey was released after a few hours. The only things wrong with him could be taken care of by sleep, keeping his body at a normal temperature, and eating regular and balanced meals.
He checked with Banner as to how the others were doing. Consensus was it would take a few days, but everyone would recover. He checked on them, but Tony, Pepper and Natasha were sleeping under the influence of sedatives to help with the healing, and Steve was just plain passed out after they'd taken care of his arm. Itching to get the hell out of there before he somehow became the fifth wheel in the trauma recovery go-kart, Rhodey left.
He considered his options, since the tower was where he normally bunked when in town. According to SHIELD personnel, it had been about six and a half days since their disappearance, which meant he was still on assignment in New York. He hailed a cab and had it take him to the administrative offices, where he checked in his commanding officer. Rhodey was relieved to find SHIELD had evidently already smoothed things over for him with some story about needing to borrow him and prioritization and a flag in his file requiring him to take a couple of days recovery leave.
Well, he could have done without that last, but the first two were pretty critical, so he'd tolerate the entire package. Having been dismissed, he found his way to the nearest restaurant that served soup, easing himself into the idea of real food again. Once finished he was exhausted, so he asked his waiter for close places to stay and was given the name of a hotel two blocks over. It took everything he had in him to make it those two blocks, and when he had gotten himself a room he barely took the time to discard the shoes someone had brought from the tower—along with an outfit and, thankfully, his wallet and phone—and climb under the blankets before falling asleep.
He woke to the sound of his door being jimmied open and immediately cursed the fact that he hadn't yet replaced his service weapon. Then he remembered the door was electric. Sure enough, Tony called out, "Are you serious with this walking off to die with dignity bullshit?" entering the main part of the room.
"I'm not dying," Rhodey pointed out. He really wanted to go back to sleep. It was good seeing Tony on his feet and all, but he was actually warm and very interested in dropping right back off the edge. "And shouldn't you be in medical? They said you had to stay overnight."
"It's been almost eighteen hours since you left medical," Tony said, with his I'm-trying-to-sound-flippant voice. It always failed with Rhodey, but never let it be said that Tony Stark gave up on anything.
Rhodey looked at his phone. Huh. He should probably get some food. "Does that pizza place I like deliver to this part of town?"
"Don't make me have Cap come up and drag you out of here," Tony said, and that, that was his beyond-pissed-off voice.
For the first time since Tony had walked in, Rhodey considered him for more than a glance. He looked all right, given what they'd been through. He was pale, covered by gauze in a number of visible spots and his cheekbones were too prominent. But he was steady on his feet. Exhaustion was still evident in his eyes. Rhodey wondered how long it had taken Tony to track him down. He sighed. "I was gonna call when I woke up."
"I have zero fucks left to give," Tony told him. "I woke up, Pepper woke up, and you weren't there. Even Natasha's off-kilter in a way where Steve knows better than to touch her. It was an asshole move and that's my role in this friendship."
Wearily, Rhodey said, "I have the right to some alone time, Tony."
Tony stiffened for a second, but then said, "Yes, but if that was what you wanted, you would have gone back to the tower, had J get you settled and told him not to let anyone disturb you."
It always seemed weird to Rhodey, for all the times Tony didn't understand him at all, when there were these moments of sharp insight. He sighed. "I really do want pizza. And to sleep more."
"Already have an order on its way to the tower," Tony told him quietly, no particular cheek or smugness to it. "And your bed is made."
Rhodey knew this was what always got him in trouble, this willingness to let Tony drag him around, but he was tired of fighting everything, himself included. For the moment, he was going to give in.
Tony hadn't lied; the bed in the wing he'd "found" for Rhodey was made. It also had Pepper in it. She looked small and fragile in a way that reminded Rhodey of when Tony had been missing. Worse, in her eyes was still the knowledge of having killed, perhaps having killed a child. Rhodey made a mental note that he was going to have to get her to talk to someone. Although it was distant, he remembered the sharp grief of his first kills, and those had been of a defined enemy and not in close-range combat. Also, he had been trained to have the necessary mindset. She had none of those advantages.
For the moment, though, he just pulled her up and into the breakfast nook, where Steve was making his way straight through an extra large combo pizza, and Natasha was breaking into a medium four-cheese. It made Rhodey's stomach ache that there was another medium with anchovies and green peppers, which were Rhodey's favorite and something very few people were willing to share.
Tony, who was a touchy-feely person with those he trusted, but only in certain ways, leaned against Rhodey's back, resting his chin on Rhodey's shoulder, mumbling, "Got your favorite, buttercup."
Rhodey soaked in the contact for a moment, then, like the dutiful best friend and babysitter he was and always had been, got Tony seated with a plate of his favorite, which was white pizza with spinach. Pepper was looking at Rhodey as though considering something, but she didn't say anything, just sat down to share with Natasha.
Rhodey was a little surprised when Natasha reached over and dragged Pepper's chair closer to hers. Natasha didn't strike him as demonstrative. It didn't go over his head that Pepper relaxed a bit, though.
Rhodey was plowing his way through a third piece when Steve almost dropped off to sleep sitting in his chair, holding a piece of pizza. Rhodey took the piece from him and said, "Whoa there, big guy."
Steve smiled at him, dopey and sweet and Rhodey cursed his life choices, but he also prodded Captain Fucking America up and into bed. He was going to go help clean up, but Steve grabbed his wrist and asked, "Um…stay? If it's not—I'm still learning to navigate exactly how cultural taboos work, now."
"Probably about the same as they always did," Rhodey said, and climbed in, letting Steve spoon up behind him. He barely remembered closing his eyes.
This time, Rhodey woke to Pepper's screams and found himself tucked between Steve and Tony. Rhodey didn't even know where Tony got beds the size they were in the tower. Pepper was on the other side of Tony, and Tony was already pulling her into his arms, trying to get her to wake. Natasha, who'd been on the other side of Steve, was around the bed before Rhodey could really credit her having moved.
Rhodey worked himself free of Steve's grip—which slackened the moment Rhodey began to move—and went into the kitchen to heat some tea. "J, anyone in this place have some chamomile or lavender tea?"
"Dr. Foster has valerian mint."
"Can you see about me running up to borrow some?"
There was a few seconds of silence before JARVIS responded, "Thor shall bring it to you momentarily."
It wasn't that Rhodey wasn't thrilled Tony had finally found a group of people who'd seen past the surface makeup and figured out how worth keeping around the guy was. But he was still human, so it was hard not to be jealous, when for so many years if Tony had needed a friend who was not Pepper, Rhodey had been the one. If he hadn't been loved in the way he might have wished, he'd been necessary and it had been nearly as good.
He answered the door when Thor knocked vigorously, and assured him everything was fine. Then Rhodey made five cups of tea, found a tray for them and went back into the bedroom. Pepper was awake, cradled on Tony's lap between Natasha and Steve. It was a complete picture. Rhodey pulled back on the maudlin and shared the tea. It wouldn't do Steve any good, he knew, but there was reassurance in the heat of it.
He set the tray down and handed them cups. When he was passing Natasha's to her, she used the moment to brush her lips against his with a quiet, "Thanks."
He was steady enough in his skin not to flinch back, but it was a close thing. When she moved back, she tilted her head, looking at him. "I'm reading the desire correctly, so it's something else holding you back."
It was easy enough to shrug and smile. "Kind of got over the whole casual comfort sex thing a while ago."
In the corner of his vision, Rhodey saw Tony flinch, but it was minimal. Rhodey rolled his eyes. "I'm not judging it's just not—"
"I think he's more upset that you'd consider him to be something casual," Natasha interrupted.
Tony banged his forehead against Pepper's shoulder and groaned something about "dire retribution" that Rhodey couldn't follow because, "What?"
Steve said, "Natasha," in a cautioning tone at the same time that Pepper warned, "Nat."
Natasha threw a glance over her shoulder at the three of them. After a long pause she said, "I'm taking a moment to revel in the fact that, tragically, I am evidently better at relationships than anyone in this room. Or at least knowing when something really does have to be said."
Rhodey was trying to put the pieces together, but even if he was better with people than Tony, he was still more comfortable with a plane engine or a box of tools. Slowly, he said, "People who are in traumatic situations together—"
"Often work off the adrenaline and grief in the aftermath, yes, but usually when people meet under those circumstances." Natasha took a sip. "For you, for him, for us, the last few days have just switched up our perception, erased certain boundaries."
Rhodey nodded, "That's why—"
"Rhodey," Pepper said. "Stay. Stay and I promise it will be all right."
Pepper's gaze was steady and Rhodey had never once known her to lie to him. Behind her, Tony met his eyes and tried to manage a "Please ol' buddy, ol' pal," that was flippant, but fell a little short of the mark. Rhodey knew he wasn't going to say no to that, and was too tired to try and find the words to explain why he didn't think things would be all right. Instead, he let Natasha tug him back into the bed, between herself and Pepper this time. They all finished their tea in a surprisingly easy silence.
Rhodey woke up by himself, but he could hear Pepper talking on the phone in his kitchen. He wandered into the room and she smiled at him, using her tablet to write him the note, "Catching up. Nat and Steve hanging with Clint and Thor in common area, there might have been a thing about Wii battles to the death? Tony in Bruce's lab, probably causing trouble."
Rhodey smiled and pressed a kiss to her head, which he'd done on more than one occasion when Tony had been missing and she'd come to him for updates, held together only by a thin thread of determination. She tilted her head back, though, and raised an eyebrow until Rhodey chastely kissed her lips. The smile she gave him wasn't smug, simply pleased, and Rhodey appreciated the difference.
He poured himself some coffee and toasted a bagel. He took both down to Bruce's lab, where Tony was indeed doing everything but physically poking Bruce. And Rhodey was sure that would happen too, at some point. When JARVIS let Rhodey in the lab before he'd even asked, Bruce looked up with wide, hopeful eyes and said, "Hi, uh, did you need Tony?"
Tony laughed, because even Rhodey could hear the, please, please let me do science in peace in the question, and said, "I'm sure he does."
Rhodey let the uncomfortable truth of it slide off of him, just as he always had, and lured Tony out with the promise of more coffee. He took Tony to his lab, because it was where Tony would be the most comfortable, and also, it had an espresso machine. Tony immediately went to a bench and started tinkering, while Rhodey grabbed coffee grounds from the small fridge.
Rhodey was finding a second vessel to serve as a cup when Tony said, "So, uh, Natasha says I have to talk to you or she'll beat me up and she will, is the thing. Also, she said 'trust me' like she didn't expect me to and I do. Trust her."
Rhodey turned to look at Tony. "You don't have to say anything, Tony. We're fine."
"Yeah, no, I mean, we are. But we're not."
"Okay," Rhodey said. He kind of wished he knew where Tony kept the alcohol in his labs. Because no matter how many times Pepper and he had tried to make a no-alcohol-around-welding-materials rule, it never stuck.
Tony ran a hand over his face. "When we met, I was a kid. And you were an officer in the Air Force, full-grown, real adult, pretty much the only person who treated me like I wasn't something he had to put up with."
The thing about Tony at fifteen was that his desperation for approval had nearly been written on his forehead. He'd been bratty, but he'd yet to develop the sharp edges that kept people far enough away not to notice how thin his protective layer was. He'd been easy pickings amongst a group of older kids who had been, themselves, easy pickings their whole lives, and eager to have someone they could express their bitterness upon.
But whatever else, Rhodey had never been a bully. Maybe it was because he'd spent his high school years as a scholarship student at a prep school where his status as a scholarship student was enough reason for him to get pushed into lockers, beaten up and regularly find his property destroyed. Or maybe it was just innate. It didn't matter. He'd caught a couple of freshman trying to tie Tony naked to the goal post on the football field. Rhodey'd just begun his masters, and MIT wasn't a hell of a lot less white and upperclass than his high school had been, but he'd spent four years at the Air Force Academy. He had gotten even less easy to scare.
Once Rhodey had put the fear of G-d into the kids and recovered Tony's clothes, he'd asked, "Pizza?" and Tony had said, "On me," and they'd spent the next four hours arguing over flight dynamics, until the pizza place kicked them out.
Rhodey hadn't fallen in love that night, not for another year. Even then he'd hated himself for it, because Tony wasn't even legal. "I remember how we met, Tony."
Tony smiled, bitter and sharp. "At first, I mean, c'mon, how was I not gonna have a crush? You rescued me and you had—have—had serious biceps and could carry on a better conversation than anyone I'd ever been in school with. So, I knew, I knew I was just a kid and all, and I didn't bother you with it."
Rhodey blinked, slowly. "What?"
Tony rolled his eyes. "You had to have known, so, whatever, you don't have to pretend anymore. You were…it was really a stand-up thing, the way you never teased me about it or anything."
Rhodey was still processing how completely fucked up this conversation was when Tony cut into his thoughts with, "I kind of hoped it could change, when I was old enough, which, being fifteen I thought was like, seventeen, of course, but then mom and dad happened and there was the company and even after I hired Pepper, you were the only person who cared about me independently of that, of what I could do or who I was and I was too much of a coward to risk you saying no."
"I wouldn't have," Rhodey said softly, because it was all he had. He felt like his chest was on fire, making it hard to breathe.
Tony chuckled, but the thin line between laughing and crying was evident in the sound. "I love Pepper. I'd like to say I love her with everything I have, I'd like her to have that, to be that man for her. But it's obviously not the truth, not when I can fit Steve and Natasha into space that should be reserved for her. Not when…not when part of me was always going to be yours."
Rhodey cast around for a way to respond to that. In the end there was nothing for it except to cross the space between them, frame Tony's face in his hands and pulling him into a kiss Rhodey had probably fantasized about more than a million times over the years. Tony moaned into the kiss a bit before wresting his way free to say, "You don't have to—"
"Shut up," Rhodey said. "I've wanted to do this since you were sixteen and I was convinced I was a pervert and should be locked away. No talking now."
Tony's eyes lit up with a mixture of disbelief, happiness and mischief. "Sixteen? You really were—"
Rhodey bit his lower lip and Tony dove back into the kiss, laughing as he did so. He was leaning into Rhodey, who was supporting most of their weight and for once, it didn't feel heavy at all.
It seemed Rhodey and Tony working their shit out had been the catalyst the others had needed, because when they came back to Rhodey's quarters, Natasha pulled them into bed and the five of them spent several hours trying to figure out where to put their limbs, laughing when the arrangements failed miserably. They traded kisses and positions.
Steve wasn't shy in bed, but he wasn't sure of himself, either, often following Natasha's lead. Natasha was clever with her fingers, even more so with her tongue, and watching her keep Pepper right on edge until Pepper begged was one of the most beautiful things Rhodey had ever witnessed.
Tony wanted to be in the middle of Pepper and Rhodey, of course. Rhodey could have laughed with the predictability of it now that he knew he was part of Tony's fantasies. Rhodey wasn't about to complain, either, when Natasha wrapped herself over his back and whispered filthy things loudly in his ear about Steve fucking him. Then, when he'd come and was practically a rag doll, Steve, so very politely asked, "Is this all right?" even as he was sliding in.
It was too much, way, way too much, but Tony had turned to watch, heavy-lidded and so very content and somehow it was just right. Pepper said, "This was a good idea," in an awe-filled voice and Natasha's laughter was rich and deep.
When they'd all cat-napped and showered and congregated in the living room area with the donuts Tony'd had delivered—despite the fact that it was dinner time—Rhodey made himself be the one to ask, "So, how does this work? I'm not one of you."
"It starts with you reconsidering that statement," Steve said mildly, but with a thread of authority that was hard to ignore.
"I'm hardly an Avenger myself," Pepper pointed out.
Unimpressed, Rhodey said, "No, just someone who coordinates logistics and supply lines and runs interference between them and the world when needed."
"My point is, I'm called away as often as you are."
Tony nodded mournfully. "It's true."
"And I still take missions for SHIELD," Natasha pointed out. "This, us, we aren't a couple of kids trying to do monogamy across states or whatever it is that causes people to have long-distance relationships. We know the score."
"And there can be guidelines, to help," Steve said. Then, "I, uh, did some research on functional polyamorous relationships."
The fact that Rhodey knew Steve actually had and it probably hadn't even involved porn made him want to laugh until he cried, but also, to push Steve on his back and ride him until he was the one crying out "Too much."
Natasha caught Rhodey's gaze. They were clearly in agreement on this issue. Tony snickered, but managed a relatively appropriate, "Enlighten us, professor."
Steve, instead of blushing, took the challenge head on, pinning Tony with a look and saying, "For one thing, never four of us without the fifth. Two together, even three, maybe, is fine. But never four."
"I like that rule," Pepper said even as she watched the way Tony fought to find an argument, because he was Tony.
In the end, he said, "All right, Cap, never four of us."
"What else?" Rhodey asked, since that first one had been more of a comfort than he'd known he needed.
"Regular contact, if at all possible, and verbalization of problems," Steve said. Tony outright snorted at that.
Pepper said, "We're probably going to be a work in progress on that last."
"I like progress," Natasha said. Then she turned to Rhodey, "And you see about getting yourself stationed somewhere closer. Tony's got the jet, so even now we can up the amount of in-person contact, but it would be easier with you more regularly nearby."
"Alternately, you could take the position with SHIELD I know they've offered you repeatedly over the past several years," Pepper said.
The thought had occurred to Rhodey, but it wasn't as though he could guarantee being in the New York office. Although, realistically, he might be able to negotiate that into the contract. "I'll think on it."
"No," Tony said.
Rhodey raised an eyebrow. Tony said, "You're career Air Force. It's…you don't give that up for us. Not unless we're giving up something equally important for you, and we're not."
"My decision to make," Rhodey said. Between the Air Force and Tony, even if they'd had their squabbles, it was always going to be Tony. Still, he wasn't going to make the decision lightly. If he did take SHIELD up on their offer, it would be because it was time, and because he was ready for that shift in his career.
"Guess this means you're gonna need a floor." Tony's tone was annoyed, but he was practically bouncing with excitement. Rhodey really didn't need a floor, thanks, but he wasn't going to get in the way of Tony's Plans. That way laid madness.
"Or I could just keep him on mine," Natasha said, her eyes flickering over Rhodey.
Pepper and Steve both laughed, and after a second, Natasha joined. Rhodey liked the way it made the shadows that still ringed the women's eyes fade a little, cut into the healing process helpfully. Tony said, "But I have Thoughts."
Rhodey smiled. "Don't you always?"