Rhodey took a moment to enjoy the view as the haphazard grid of DC's streets shrank below him. Not a lot of people got to see the city from above anymore—flight regulations, already tight, had been ratcheted further since the business with Killian. More bullshit security theater if you asked him.
In fact people had asked him, repeatedly—even dragooned him into serving on a “special security commission”—but none of the blowhards with actual authority had listened to his answers. In the end he’d just smiled pretty for the cameras and trotted out his armor with the ever-uglier paint jobs, hoping to hell that his superiors meant it when they said they’d work on quietly implementing his most urgent recommendations.
For now, though, he could let all that fall away with the city itself as he shot upwards, leveling out only when the streetlights had blurred together into a sparkling mass outlined by the darkness of the Potomac.
The suit could have made the flight north a quick one—DC to New York in twenty minutes, no full body scans or overhead bins involved—but he needed a little more time than that to transition from the pomp and tedium of the Pentagon to the inevitable insanity of dropping back into Tony’s orbit.
Luckily mother nature provided a little in-flight entertainment in the form of an icy gale that buffeted his suit as he did barrel rolls and stall turns and generally screwed around like he had all the time in the world. With a public image to maintain and superiors to please, Rhodey couldn’t usually afford to indulge in those kinds of antics the way Tony could and did, but, approaching midnight in the middle of a snowstorm, he could let loose secure in the knowledge that nobody else was ever going to know about it.
He touched down on the platform at Stark Tower just shy of one, relaxed and almost ready to deal with Tony.
“Welcome back, Colonel Rhodes,” JARVIS greeted him as the mechanics of the Tower peeled away his armor. “Mr. Stark is in the workshop.”
“Thanks, J.” Rhodey grinned into the nearest camera. JARVIS was a critical ally and very possibly a friend as well, and while Rhodey couldn’t quite tell if he cared about friendly gestures, they felt right.
“You are welcome as ever, Colonel.”
Rhodey took the elevator down to the workshop and was surprised to emerge to relative quiet. No blaring music, no steady stream of instruction to JARVIS—just the soft clatter of tools on metal and the occasional curse.
Tony perched on a work bench, fiddling with what looked suspiciously like an Iron Man gauntlet. He gave no indication that he heard Rhodey’s entrance, though Rhodey suspected that JARVIS had given him fair warning.
“Keeping your hand in so you can service my suit?” Rhodey called out. “I’m honored.”
Tony gave a mock gasp. “The Iron Patriot as I live and breathe. To what do I owe the honor? Did you let some other shady company fuck with the armor I gave you? Sooner or later you’re gonna to have to learn not to let anybody but me touch War Machine.”
“Kinda thought you were out of the suit business,” Rhodey noted as he sauntered over to Tony and clapped him on the back.
Tony glanced down at the gauntlet he held in his hand, and then up at Rhodey. His face registered surprise, but it quickly melted away into a rueful grin. “Yeah, that didn’t really last.”
“Imagine my surprise.” He chuckled, but then a thought occurred to him and he tensed. “Does Pepper know?”
“Her idea.” He gave the gauntlet one more tweak and put it aside. “JARVIS, show me War Machine.”
Rhodey’s suit came up on the holographic display, outlined in blue except for a few spots where the diagram glowed red.
“What has he been doing to you?” Tony murmured, turning the display this way and that and frowning over the areas of red.
Rhodey glanced away “Couple of recon missions went badly.”
“Recon? I thought you were strictly a bureaucrat these days.”
"It was clean up. After Killian."
"You did this months ago and you're only coming to me now." Tony crossed the lab to the case, where JARVIS had reassembled Rhodey's armor, murmuring as he went. "You don't write, you don't call..."
"I don't call? JARVIS, how many calls have I placed to Tony’s cell in the last two months?"
"And how many has Tony picked up?"
"One." JARVIS managed to make his tone sound reproving, and Rhodey was pretty sure it wasn't for him.
"I've been busy. Y'know, keeping my girlfriend from exploding, digging shrapnel out of my chest...." He ran one hand over Rhodey's armor. "Look what he did to you. I am so sorry, baby. I should never have let him have you."
"And what," Rhodey continued, ignoring Tony’s muttered comments in favor of continuing to address JARVIS, "was Tony's blood alcohol content the one time he actually answered?”
"I do not continually monitor Mr. Stark's blood chemistry, but from prior experience I would estimate—"
"Shut it, J." Tony turned to glare at Rhodey. "So I was a little tipsy. Pepper was out of town, we were blowing off some steam."
Rhodey took a minute to wonder at the wording, and considered asking who "we" had been, but decided to just be grateful that Tony hadn't been that drunk alone. Not that time, anyway. Instead he moved to stand beside Tony and looked his armor up and down. "How long's it gonna take you to get it up to code?"
"Couple of hours, maybe, but I can't finish tonight. Pepper and I have a deal—I make as many suits as I want as long as I make it to bed before two." He glanced down at his watch. "Which gives me half an hour to get started. Hand me that wrench?"
Rhodey put it in Stark's outstretched hand with a smack, and watched as Tony started to work in earnest. Tony's hands on his beloved machines were always a work of art. No ballet could have been more perfectly timed, and Rhodey privately considered it a privilege to watch.
Tony had just finished disassembling the gauntlet and was starting to examine the faulty guns on that arm when a man walked through the door at the far side of the lab, his head down and his eyes fixed on the tablet he held in front of him. Tony didn't seem to notice the intruder—or, no, he couldn't be an intruder, because JARVIS would never have allowed it. But Rhodey could count on one hand the people Tony allowed to come and go in his workshop, where he kept the suits and all his other secrets. There was Pepper, of course, and Rhodey himself except when they were having some kind of fight. That was it—had been it for a couple of years now. Before that there was one more name on the list, but it wasn't a name Rhodey cared to think about anymore.
And now this guy, apparently.
He looked vaguely familiar. Short curls framed a face that would have been exceptionally handsome if it weren't marred by worry. And even so, even with the slump to his shoulders, there was still something decidedly attractive about the guy. Rhodey averted his eyes quickly. It wasn't like Tony didn't know he liked men—hell, strictly speaking it wasn't even like he had to keep it a secret from his superiors anymore—but he was too used to hiding his interest to allow that to change now. And anyway, whoever the hell this guy was, he wasn't about to be a creep by staring at him, even if it was half because he knew that he recognized the face from somewhere.
The guy finally looked up from his tablet, and froze when he laid eyes on Rhodey. After an instant, he mumbled an apology and turned to leave the way he came. But Tony's voice stopped him.
"Bruce," he called out, without turning back to look. "Get in here."
The man—Bruce, apparently—pivoted again and took a few more steps into the lab, but his eyes stayed on Rhodey, watching with an apprehension that Rhodey couldn't help but find a little insulting.
"James Rhodes," Tony continued, gesturing vaguely at Rhodey, "a.k.a. War Machine, a.k.a. Iron Patriot" scorn colored his voice on that last. "Call him Rhodey—he likes it, whatever he says."
Bruce took another step in, still standing more than halfway across the room, and raised a tentative hand in greeting. "Good to, uh— I was just going—"
Tony ignored that. "Rhodey, this is Dr. Bruce Banner. Better known as..."
Cold invaded Rhodey's body, and he felt his jaw clench. Tony continued to ramble, but Rhodey couldn't listen. He already knew damn well what Bruce Banner was better known as.
He looked Banner up and down and realized that he knew that face from reports and dossiers, though the man in those photographs had been younger, neater in appearance, his face sharper and without the haunted hesitancy that Rhodey could see in it now.
He considered crossing the lab, offering a hand to shake, but Banner didn't seem inclined to come any closer, and truth to tell, Rhodey didn't relish the idea of clasping hands with him. "Hey," he managed instead, giving a little wave of greeting to match the one Banner had offered.
Banner glanced at the two of them again, his whole posture wary.
Tony set down his tools. "What's up?" He remained relaxed, as if he were perfectly used to having the Hulk's alter ego saunter into his lab.
"Nothing. It's late, I should—" He gestured back the way he came. "Nice to meet you," he mumbled, without giving the slightest impression that he meant it, and left.
Tony shrugged. “Not really sure what that was about. Anyway, I’ll get this done first thing in—”
But Rhodey couldn’t bring himself to wait for Tony to finish. “What’s he doing here?”
Tony blinked. “Bruce? Uh, lately I think he’s working on something to do with neurological degeneration—got the idea when he was helping out with—”
“He works here? In the Tower. In your workshop.”
“His lab’s downstairs, on his floor. But sometimes he comes up—” Tony stopped and looked him up and down. “What’s your deal? Why do you care where Bruce works?”
For a moment Rhodey could only stare. "Why do I care that you have the fucking Hulk hanging out in your house?" he finally managed, turning on his heel to pace away. He almost laughed, and turned back. "I thought you were reforming your adrenaline junky ways. No more inviting trouble into your goddamned home."
Tony's brow furrowed. "Bruce isn't trouble. Bruce is— the opposite of trouble. Or are you forgetting that time he saved my life?"
"From an alien invasion. But—" Rhodey made himself stop, take a breath. "If nothing else, think of all the other people in the building. Pepper lives here."
"Uh, yeah, true, but then again Pepper's more or less indestructible these days, so if we're talking about people who need protecting from the Hulk, she's pretty much at the bottom of the list." He stood and wiped his hands off on a rag. "Which is beside the point, because nobody's going to need protecting from the Hulk, 'cause Bruce has that whole rage monster thing under control."
"Does he? Tony, you need to be taking this seriously."
"That's what he said."
Rhodey blinked, unsure how even Tony could have made that into a sex joke.
"No, I mean, that's what Bruce said. We had a whole thing—he wasn't going to come to New York. The first time, well second time for him, but the time after the Chitauri. I only managed to drag him over here after the thing with Killian. Trust me, he takes it too seriously. Hulk's a pussycat."
"Yeah, not helping your case. I don't care how seriously the man takes it, he's dangerous."
Tony's face darkened. "He really isn't."
"Tell that to the guys who tried to bring him in."
"You mean the ones who shot at him because some rabid general told them to?"
There were times—many times—when Tony drove Rhodey just about out of his goddamn mind. There were times when Rhodey wanted to smack him upside the head to make him see reason, and times when he wanted to shake him until he would slow the fuck down and speak in reasonably comprehensible sentences. But now—now he had to actually restrain himself from throwing a punch. When he spoke, he kept his tone carefully level. "I mean the ones following orders in an attempt to contain a very real threat to civilians."
Tony tensed, the cold anger in Rhodey's voice finally convincing him to take the conversation seriously. In turn, Tony's reaction allowed Rhodey to walk back a little from the intensity of his fury.
"I'm not saying I like what Ross was doing, Tony, but those guys under him didn't do anything but what they were supposed to." And instead of the thanks of a grateful country, the poor bastards got ground into the pavement.
"Doesn't make it Bruce's fault."
"And that doesn't make him a safe guy to have around."
Tony opened his mouth to answer, but apparently thought better of it. He turned back to the War Machine armor. "JARVIS, do a spit polish, usual maintenance." JARVIS confirmed, and Tony moved to clap Rhodey on the shoulder. "It's late, and Pepper's going to come kick my ass if I don't get to bed. And while that can be pretty fun—" Tony grinned and waggled his eyebrows suggestively, "—it's better when she's only pretending to be pissed at me. Stay the night, I'll fix whatever JARVIS doesn't get to in the morning."
Rhodey's muscles remained tense, his whole body ready to continue the argument, but he gave a sharp nod. "Sure."
Tony smiled and headed for the penthouse living quarters. Rhodey followed as far as the hallway and paused as he turned towards his usual guest room.
“We’re not done with this conversation,” he warned.
“Fine, sure, whatever. We can finish it over mimosas. You’ll come to brunch? It’s a weekend, Pepper should be able to make time.”
“Yeah,” he agreed. Maybe Pepper would be able to help him talk some sense into Tony. “Sounds good.”
Bruce poured a measure of loose tea into the infusing basket and followed it with a long stream of boiling water. He placed the top on the elegant teapot and carried it to the kitchen table, where he sat to review his notes from the prior evening's work. The results of his latest simulation were promising, and he should really concentrate on them.
It had been a long time since he’d had the luxury of staying in one place long enough to work through new theories the way they needed to be addressed—slowly, methodically, and with unrelenting attention. Now, while he still had the chance, he ought to take advantage.
And he had, for a little while. When he first came to Stark Tower, under the pretense of helping to stabilize Pepper's condition, he threw himself into the project as best he could. Tony did most of the heavy lifting on that one, but Bruce contributed enough to feel useful, and helped out a little with the removal of Tony’s arc reactor as well. After that he had free range to delve into some of the theories he'd idly considered while traveling from place to place. It was amazing—for the first time he felt not just back to his old self, but better. Even before the Other Guy, he'd never had the resources to do work of his own. If the opportunity came because of the charity—the pity—of Tony Stark, well, his ego was a price he'd gladly pay to be getting this work accomplished.
But even though he realized the precious rarity of the opportunity before him, as he sat in that beautiful, bright kitchen with his notes and his tea, he couldn't force his mind to focus.
Instead he ran a constant inventory of his most important possessions. His back right pocket held a Chilean passport in the name of Tomas Navarro, accompanied by a little over $500 in Chilean pesos, a drivers' license issued by the city of Valparaíso, and a credit card. His back left pocket held a German passport, a thousand euros in cash, and a battered EMT license. He still worried that the German documents had been a mistake—he could read German pretty well, but his accent was atrocious and he'd never be taken for a citizen if he ever had to open his mouth. Still, they were better than nothing in case the Chilean identity were compromised. The inside pocket of his jacket held $460 in cash, and he had another couple hundred inside the sole of one shoe.
He didn't pack. And partly that was because he still held out hope that he didn't have to leave—that just because an Air Force officer had shown up in the only place he'd felt safe in half a decade, it didn't mean that Ross was on his trail.
But mostly he didn’t pack because everything he really needed fit in his pockets. If he had to, he could walk out that door right now and be a hundred miles away before anybody knew he'd gone further than the nearest sushi joint.
Which meant it was OK if he didn’t leave yet. If he stayed a little longer, and let himself hope that this would blow over.
Thus reassured, he tried again to concentrate, but couldn’t keep his mind from wandering to the presence of Colonel James Rhodes three floors above him. Bruce knew of him, of course. Everyone knew of the Iron Patriot, and Tony himself had spoken of the man as a close friend. The only real surprise was that he hadn’t shown up in the Tower before now.
But somehow Bruce hadn't expected it, any more than he expected Rhodes' easy grace, or the sharp intelligence in his face as he watched Tony work. Qualities which, Bruce reminded himself, made him more dangerous, not less.
JARVIS pinged for attention, and for a moment Bruce felt glad of the distraction. "Mr. Stark is here to see you."
Bruce frowned. As far as he could remember, Tony had never come to his rooms to see him—hadn’t even entered them since the perfunctory tour he’d offered when Bruce moved in. Tony dropped by his lab, or summoned Bruce to the penthouse, but he'd never just come by the apartment for a visit. "Uh, tell him to come in."
Tony’s eyes swept the kitchen as he walked in, as if curious to see what Bruce had done with the place. The answer to which was, of course, essentially nothing. Tony didn’t seem surprised.
“You should come to brunch.”
Another anomaly. In the two months that Bruce had been living in the Tower, Tony had demanded his presence at dinners and poker games, ritzy charity events, late night drinking sessions, and, most often, in Tony’s workshop. Tony had never so much as mentioned breakfast, brunch, lunch, or anything else that began before four in the afternoon. “This wouldn’t have anything to do with your friend, would it?”
“He... will be there, yes.”
Bruce tried to smile. “I don’t think that’s a good idea.”
“He’d like to meet you.” Tony moved as he spoke, toying with the mortar and pestle Bruce kept on the counter, rifling through Bruce’s cupboards, pulling out a bag of almonds and popping a few into his mouth.
Bruce didn’t answer, waiting for Tony to turn and face him again. When Tony finally obliged, Bruce spoke quietly. “That isn’t the impression I got.”
“You took one look at him and left—we’re not going with your powers of observation on this one.”
“Tony.” Bruce crossed his arms over his chest.
“He should want to meet you,” Tony amended. “I want him to meet you. And I get what I want, so don’t bother arguing, it’s a waste of my time. Come to brunch.”
A cold little shiver ran over Bruce’s skin.
He ought to be flattered. Tony clearly liked him, cared about him enough to want him to get along with his other friends. But all he felt was sick.
“What do you mean you can’t? You take the elevator upstairs, you drink mimosas, you eat melon—I know, melon’s terrible, but Pepper seems convinced that it’s not brunch if there’s no melon, so you eat the melon, and also waffles, which are actually good. The point is that there’s nothing challenging about brunch. Even the melon isn’t a problem, really.”
“I don’t think it’s a good idea for me to meet Rhodes.”
“Why not?” Tony’s eyes narrowed dangerously, and Bruce’s hand moved to reassure himself that the passport in his back right pocket was still there.
“You know my history with the Air Force.”
“I know your history with Ross. Rhodey is—“ Tony spluttered for a moment, as if he couldn’t fit everything he wanted to say into words. “Rhodey is nothing like him,” he finally concluded.
Bruce took a breath. “I know. But he’s a Colonel, right?” he asked quietly.
“Yeah,” Tony agreed, still watching Bruce with a dark look on his face.
“And Ross is a three-star General. I know that Rhodes is a good guy—“ and he does—he’s listened to Tony’s stories, and he believes them, “—but at the end of the day he’s outranked.”
“That is not the way it works. Not with me and him.” Tony actually looked pained, and relented a little. “Come to brunch. I promise he doesn’t have any orders about you. He didn’t even know you were here.”
Bruce took a breath. If he refused, Tony would make sure that his absence was conspicuous. He couldn't very well stay under the radar this time, so he might as well agree. If nothing else, it would be an opportunity to get a sense for Rhodes—see what kind of threat he really posed. If worst came to worst, at least he was ready to leave.
"OK," he agreed. "What time?"
"Nowish? Probably nowish."
Bruce sighed and looked down at his slightly disheveled clothes. Pepper wouldn't approve. But, he supposed, that was likely the least of his problems.
When the two of them arrived in the penthouse, Pepper had already begun laying out the food, and Bruce moved to join her in the kitchen.
"Thank you for coming, Bruce. Tony was eager for you to meet James."
Tell him something he didn't know. "Any friend of yours," he offered politely. "How can I help?"
She pressed a couple of dishes into his hands, and as he carried them out to the dining room he could hear Rhodes' voice.
"How're the repairs coming?"
"Done," Tony answered, his voice smug. "You didn't bang the suit up too badly, no matter how hard you may have tried. Some weird icing, though—did you fly into a snowbank or something?"
Rhodes snorted. "Like you haven't done worse."
"Oh, I've done much, much worse, but I expect better of a patriot such as yourself."
Rhodes laughed again, sounding a little more irritated than before, but when he spoke his voice carried real warmth. "Thanks. I appreciate it."
Bruce could hear them approaching the dining room and ducked out to see if Pepper needed any more help. He'd only made it a few steps up the hallway when he nearly ran into her and had to squeeze out of the way. She carried what he realized must be the last of the dishes, and he found himself with no choice but to follow along.
As he entered the room he could feel Rhodes' eyes on him, even when he ducked his head to avoid meeting anyone's gaze. He glanced up to see Rhodes giving Tony a dark look, and Tony grinning like he'd pulled off some kind of trick. Bruce winced and sank into a seat.
Pepper began passing dishes around, smiling brightly. "James, how have things been going in DC?"
Rhodes shifted to focus on her. "More or less what you'd expect. I'd rather be anywhere else, but—" He shrugged.
"I'm sure they appreciate your expertise."
Rhodes gave a tired laugh. "I wish I had your confidence. How have you been? I'm sorry I haven't visited since... the procedure."
"I understand. Though if you left it much longer I was going to have to come down there myself and haul you back." She glanced away. "I'm fine. Better than fine, actually. I don’t even get headaches anymore." Her laugh sounded pleasant as ever, but Bruce could hear the tension under it. She’d only had a couple of months to cope with everything that happened to her, and she was already trying to move forward, build something with it. But Bruce knew better than most that that didn’t mean everything was OK.
“She sees me almost every day and no headaches—clearly a superhero,” Tony added, grinning broadly.
Rhodes’ laugh at that was a little more genuine, but irritation still marked his face when he looked Tony’s way.
They fell silent, and Bruce used his fork to poke at the melon balls on his plate, finally spearing one and bringing it to his lips. Still no one spoke. Pepper eyed Tony and Rhodes, as if trying to decipher what was going on between them. Bruce wondered if she’d figured out yet that it had to do with him. If that was even true, and not just his paranoia talking. Then again, he couldn’t help but think of the old saying—it’s not paranoia if they really are out to get you.
By that standard, Bruce had never been paranoid.
He swallowed the melon without really tasting it, and glanced around again. No one else seemed inclined to fill the silence, so he made an attempt. “How is the, uh, suit coming?” he asked Pepper.
She paused with her mimosa glass just at her lips, and then took a long sip before answering. “Almost ready, apparently. I get to start training next week.” She sounded as if she dreaded the prospect, but even so her tone carried no hint of hesitation.
Rhodes made a strange noise and briefly seemed in danger of choking before he managed to swallow a mouthful of waffles. “You— what?”
"Tony didn't tell you?" She gave Tony a playful slap on the shoulder. "I assumed he was keeping you better informed. Tony's making me a suit." She watched Rhodes carefully, as if she wanted his approval.
He regarded her blankly for an instant, eyebrows raised, but quickly relaxed his face into a smile. "He definitely was not keeping me informed. So you're, what, joining the Avengers now that you're all... super?"
She shook her head. "Aid missions only. I don't—" she took a breath. "I don't want to fight. But I got... well... I got a gift, whether I wanted it or not, and I ought to put it to use. I heal better than just about anyone, and with a suit, I can get in and out of places other people can't. I don't know if..." she shrugged. "I don't know if it will work out, but I'm going to try."
As she spoke, Tony watched her with pride all over his face. "I'm dating a superhero," he bragged.
"Just wait," she threatened. "You'll see how much fun that is."
Rhodes snorted at that. "Is he out of the game now, or—?"
She shook her head, and started to explain.
Bruce kept his head down and tried to focus on his food as the three of them discussed Pepper and Tony's plans, the aftermath of Tony's operation, and Rhodey's work in the capital. They had a lot of catching up to do, and Bruce wished he could leave quietly and let them do it alone, but sneaking out wasn't exactly an option. He let out a little sigh of relief when Rhodes finally moved his napkin from his lap to the table and pulled his chair back.
Rhodes smiled at Pepper. “This has been great. I hate to do it, but I'm afraid I've got to get back to DC.”
“Promise to come back soon,” she demanded. “I’d appreciate flying lessons from someone who didn’t start out by crashing through roofs.”
“Sure thing. Whenever your suit’s ready, let me know.” He glanced over at Bruce and gave a little nod, and then turned back to Tony. “We still need to talk. Alone.”
“Tony.” Rhodes’ voice was a warning.
“Oh, right. You wanted to talk about Bruce when Bruce isn’t here to defend himself. Too bad. Spit it out or drop it.”
Bruce wouldn’t have thought he could tense further, but he could, and did, as his eyes flicked over to Rhodes, whose face had gone rigid with anger.
Rhodes let out a breath in a long stream and, to his credit, turned to face Bruce. “I’m sorry, Dr. Banner, but I have to ask. Is it really safe for you to be here?”
Bruce reminded himself that the question was a reasonable one. That it was one he’d asked himself, repeatedly, before he dared even visit. But he could feel anger singing through his veins anyway, and while it wasn’t half enough to shake his control over the Other Guy, he couldn’t keep it out of his answer. “Where is it you think I should be?”
“James,” Pepper offered gently, “Bruce has been a big help, and there’s never been any sign—”
Her defense of him meant something, or it should have, but things had gone too far already to be diffused with polite conversation. “I’d like to hear his answer,” Bruce interrupted. “Where am I supposed to be? I spent three months in Kolkata—was that better? Or British Columbia? Is that good enough? Or did you have something a little more... structured… in mind?”
Rhodes looked away. “I didn’t mean—” He took a breath. “I’m sorry. If you say you’ve got it under control, if Tony believes that, and Pepper does, I respect that.” He stood, and offered a hand, tension still visible in every line of his body. “I worry about them. It’s kind of a habit.”
Bruce forced himself to clasp Rhodes’ hand. "I can understand that. I wouldn't be here if—" He looked away, and then back. "I wouldn't put them in any danger." He didn't expect his words to convince Rhodes, and judging by his face they hadn't. But maybe they at least convinced him not to run to Ross with Bruce’s whereabouts, if Tony's friendship hadn't already bought him that much.
He glanced over at Tony and Pepper and attempted a smile. "Thank you for brunch. I should get back to the lab."
The two of them offered weak smiles of their own. Bruce took them as permission to leave, and went. Once in the elevator, he let himself relax a little and assess the situation.
No real harm done, probably. No reason to think that Rhodes would come after him, or that anybody else would. No need to use the passports tucked away in his pockets.
Still, he couldn't afford to be complacent. "JARVIS, can you let me know next time Rhodes is in town?”
"Yes, Sir," JARVIS agreed.
Bruce allowed that to calm him. The next time Rhodes visited Tony, he'd stay out of sight, and hopefully keep himself off Rhodes' mind.
And in case that didn’t work, he’d be sure to be ready.
Rhodey managed to keep his promise to Pepper, visiting nearly every weekend for most of the spring to give pointers and help out with the flying lessons that she could fit in amongst her other responsibilities. But in all his visits, even when he stayed for dinner or overnight, even when he hung out in Tony’s labs at odd hours, he never saw Dr. Banner.
Banner hadn’t left. JARVIS told him that much, and Tony mentioned him occasionally, though Rhodey suspected that he did it more to push buttons than because Banner came up naturally in the conversation. Rhodey generally tried to avoid giving Tony the satisfaction of reacting, but he couldn't help but worry. However brilliant or well intentioned Banner might be, the Hulk was a real threat, and even if Tony and Pepper and Banner himself could forget that, Rhodey couldn't.
It was just one more reason that he tried to make it up to New York on a regular basis, and one more reason for his frustration when his work on the Hill kept him in D.C. Even as the city sweltered, turning almost unbearably humid by the middle of May, the higher-ups insisted that his presence was crucial to getting decent security legislation passed. So he went to meetings in the Congressional office buildings, and gladhanded Senators and Congressmen and their ridiculously young staffers. He attended glitzy fundraisers and tedious meetings, and glared at his appointment schedule, which didn’t leave him enough time to leave the city again until the August recess.
So when a call from Stark Tower interrupted his breakfast with the junior senator from Oklahoma, he felt a little guilty for sending it to voicemail. And when, exactly five minutes later, his phone buzzed again, he gave an apologetic nod to Senator Wagner and her assistant and left the table to answer.
"Tony, I'm sorry but I'm going to have to call you back."
But the voice that answered wasn't Tony. "Apologies for interrupting, sir, but Mr. Stark and Ms. Potts have been missing for one hour five minutes, and protocols dictate—"
"Yeah,” he agreed quickly, “I'm there.” He gave a quick excuse to the senator—superhero business, he told her, but nothing that she needed to worry about—and found a cab to the Pentagon, where he’d left War Machine this time. He was in the air in twenty minutes.
“Where to, J?”
"The signal was lost amid an electrical storm over the northwestern Atlantic,” JARVIS continued. “My review of satellite feeds has yielded no information on Mr. Stark or Ms. Potts’ whereabouts. Dr. Banner is currently attempting to determine their location from Mr. Stark’s workshop.”
Rhodey spent the flight calling every contact he had with access to any kind of boat, plane, or satellite pulling data or making observations anywhere near where Tony and Pepper went missing. He didn’t explain why, but some of them knew him well enough to guess. With any luck none of them would let the information go any further. Tony would bitch if it did, but as long as Tony was alive to do the bitching, Rhodey would call that a win.
He landed on the roof of Stark Tower seventeen minutes after he left DC, and bypassed the car wash to head straight into the workshop, suit still on.
When the workshop doors slid open to let him through, Rhodey thought he saw the muscles of Banner’s back tighten, though for all Rhodey knew, Banner could have been that tense already. Either way, his eyes didn't leave his display as his fingers flickered over it, adjusting some program that had something to do with frequencies.
He slid his visor open. "Any progress, Banner?"
"Working on it. I've got JARVIS commandeering all the sensor arrays he can to scan for the electromagnetic field of the arc reactors. If either of their suits is still functional, they'll be putting out an anomalous signal and we should be able to pick it up."
Rhodey moved so that he could get a better view of the screen. "Unless they're more than a dozen yards underwater," he pointed out, "or held someplace where there's some major electrical interference.”
Banner glanced back, surprise on his face, and Rhodey let himself enjoy a moment of petty satisfaction. He'd be the first to admit that he was no Tony Stark, but he knew his stuff, and not a lot of people expected that.
"I've managed to refine the search algorithm so that we'll pick up muddy signals and amplify them—should get us to a depth of twenty meters, and past your typical interference, but you're right, it's not a perfect solution." Banner spoke quickly and precisely, without any personal inflection at all beyond a grim air of determination. He made a few final adjustments to his screen. "JARVIS, start the scan."
"Yes, sir. Approximate time to complete the scan for the selected area is twenty-seven minutes."
Rhodey cursed. "You can't do better than that?"
"I wasn't notified until after their signal had been lost for an hour," Banner told him, his voice icy. "You know the kind of range those suits have, and there isn't an overabundance of appropriate sensor arrays that cover the North Atlantic." He turned to another display. "JARVIS, can you contact Natasha Romanoff? Tell her it's an emergency."
"Attempting to locate Agent Romanoff to relay your message."
"You think she'll take your call?"
"If she can."
"And you trust her? I don't get the sense that Tony and S.H.I.E.L.D. are on such good terms."
Banner shrugged. "I doubt S.H.I.E.L.D. wants him dead. And anyway, I trust her as much as I trust anybody with that kind of resources. She's not blindly obedient—she'd help if she wanted to, even if Fury didn’t like it." Banner eyed Rhodey at that, like he was looking for some kind of reaction, though what Rhodey didn't know.
"I’ve asked around, but I got nothing from the ships in the vicinity other than reports of a nasty little storm,” he offered. “National civilian air traffic control’s got nothing, and neither does the Air Force."
Rhodey recognized Banner's expression as a challenge. "You're monitoring military frequencies?"
"Technically JARVIS is." Banner turned away from the display and crossed his arms over his chest. "You going to file a report?"
"Not interested in a territorial pissing match right now. Tony and Pepper are—"
Something about the tone drew Rhodey's eyes, and as he looked Banner over, it finally occurred to him to worry about the tension lining his body, the cold determination in his eyes. "You OK?"
"Do you mean do I give a damn that they're missing? That they could be—" He shook his head. "No. I'm not OK."
"You know what I need to know."
Banner let out a long breath. "Yeah."
"So you're not going to hulk out if—"
He turned away. "I've got it under control," he answered, but his tone entirely failed to reassure.
"Because I need to know if we're going to have a problem."
"So you can do what exactly?"
"I don't know,” Rhodey spit out, his voice louder than he intended. He took a breath and spoke more quietly, but couldn’t keep his anger out of his voice. “Which is why you shouldn't be here in the first place."
Banner's eyes flashed with rage, and for an instant Rhodey could feel his heart freeze in his chest. But a moment later Banner gave a brittle laugh, and Rhodey forced himself to relax just a little.
“You know,” Banner noted, his voice more amused than angry, “for a guy who’s so worried about my control, you’re not shy about pissing me off, are you?”
Rhodey looked back at the screens, searching the surveillance video for anything, any hint that Tony and Pepper were out there. He didn’t find it, and glanced over at the display in front of Banner, where the status bar on Banner’s search edged across the screen at a glacial pace.
“I get that you’re worried about them,” Banner continued quietly. “And not just now. You’re worried that I’m going to hurt them. But that’s not what this,” he gestured at himself and then at Rhodey, and back again, “is about. This is about something else, isn’t it?”
Rhodey felt a bitter taste in his throat as he swallowed. Finally he forced himself to speak. “Do you remember Alice Campbell?”
Banner ducked his head before meeting Rhodey’s eyes again, and Rhodey could see the effort it took him to keep his gaze steady. “No,” he admitted, his voice thick.
“But you know her name.”
Banner gave a sharp nod and turned away, fixing his attention on the display in front of him as he spoke. “I know all their names.” He drew in a long, unsteady breath. “She was a friend?”
“We were at the Academy together.” They’d never been especially close, but he admired the hell out of her—the guts it took in those days for a woman to enroll at all, let alone take the place by storm the way she had. If she had to die young, she should have gone out flying, not ground into the pavement by a force of nature she had no hope of taking down.
“I’m sorry.” Banner hadn’t looked back. He stared down at his computer, head bowed and shoulders slumped. He stood there, unmoving, for a long moment before he continued, so quietly that Rhodey wasn’t sure if he even knew he was speaking out loud. “I tried to run. I always tried to run.”
He suddenly looked so broken, so worn down with regret, that Rhodey couldn’t sustain his anger, even on Campbell’s behalf. “Ross should never have gone after you.”
“No, he shouldn’t have,” Banner agreed. “But it was still my fault.”
Rhodey didn’t have an answer to that. He felt an impulse to assure him that it wasn't—that the deaths had happened because of Ross, not because of Banner. But the truth was that he didn't disagree with Banner's statement. Whatever Ross had done, Banner was the one who created the Hulk, and all his regret for it couldn't absolve him of responsibility.
He was saved from the necessity of a response when JARVIS announced an incoming call from Agent Romanoff.
"You doing OK Bruce?"
Banner obviously knew what she was asking, and Rhodey winced a little, realizing how often Bruce must get that question.
"I'm fine, thanks,” Banner answered, pointedly ignoring what she really meant. “But Tony and Pepper—"
"JARVIS filled me in. As far as I can tell nobody snatched them. We've got no chatter from the usual suspects, and haven’t picked up on any unusual air traffic in the region they were last tracked. But it’s not conclusive.” A muffled crash came over the line, and Rhodey could hear a shift in Romanoff's breathing. “Sorry, gotta go. Call me again if you don’t find them soon.”
The line went dead and Banner blew out a long breath.
“Could be good news,” Rhodey offered.
“Yeah,” Banner agreed without confidence, “could be.”
They stood in silence. Rhodey tried to come up with something, anything that he could do. He considered heading out to do a manual search of the area where Tony and Pepper disappeared, but a flyover wasn’t likely to come up with anything that JARVIS’s satellite surveillance hadn’t already. And anyway, as Rhodey eyed Banner’s careful breathing he wasn’t sure he could justify leaving the man alone in Manhattan, especially with the very real potential that he was about to get some very bad news.
"You didn't exactly answer, before. Am I going to meet the Hulk if they're..."
Banner looked up, his eyes haunted, but his face set with grim determination. "If they're dead? Depends on how they got that way."
Rhodey swallowed, and for a moment he let himself focus on his own rage for anyone who might dare lay a hand on Tony or Pepper, and could feel nothing but satisfaction at the idea of what the mindless beast inside of Banner might do.
Banner watched him and chuckled softly. "He's not so bad when you like where he's aimed, huh?"
"How good's your aim?"
"Better than it used to be." He looked away. "Most of the time."
JARVIS broke into the silence that followed. "The scan has detected a possible match for the arc reactor's electromagnetic field, located at approximately forty-three degrees, forty-six minutes north latitude by sixty-five degrees, ninety-nine minutes west longitude." The display screen in front of Banner shifted and zoomed to show the spot, a handful of rocks twenty miles off the coast of Nova Scotia. The satellite focused in further, until Rhodey could make out what looked like two human forms, both covered in torn metal.
Banner brought up another window and frowned at the results. "The field isn't as strong as it should be—both suits must have sustained serious damage."
"Are they—?" He knew better than to ask the question, but he couldn't help it.
"I don't know."
"Right. I'll let you know when I get there." He slid the visor down and started out of the workshop.
"Wait. You can't carry both of them back. If they’re hurt—“
"If I may suggest," JARVIS interjected, "Ms. Potts has a personal helicopter kept at the Tower for business use. Given that the storm has abated, it should be adequate for a rescue mission."
Bruce nodded and jogged to the other side of the workshop to retrieve the first aid kit. "Will you be able to fly it?" he asked, glancing over his shoulder at Rhodey.
"If it flies, I can fly it."
"Good. Let's go."
For an instant Rhodey wanted to object—to refuse to take Banner along, to tell him that he wasn't the one in charge—but he knew it for the petty impulse it was, and shook it off.
The two of them made it to the helicopter in minutes. Rhodey shed his suit in the back and left it there, still not quite sure he wouldn’t need it.
They'd settled into a smooth flight over dark water by the time it occurred to Rhodey that he didn't actually know Banner's qualifications. "Are you even a doctor?"
"If you're asking am I licensed to practice, no," Banner answered, yelling over the noise of the rotors, "but I've got an MD and I'm one of about eight people in the world who understand the heart surgery Tony had six months ago. Good enough for you?"
"Under the circumstances I'll take it."
They made good time getting out to the little scrap of island. One of the figures—Rhodey thought it was Pepper, but with all the damage their suits had sustained, he couldn't be sure—waved frantically when they passed overhead. Rhodey set the helicopter down a dozen yards from the two of them, and jumped off the instant he got it settled and shut off.
"James, Bruce, thank God." Pepper didn't move from Tony's side, but looked up at them with desperate relief. "He's conscious, but the suit’s broken and I think some bones too."
Banner knelt and slipped a finger in through the open visor of Tony's suit to take his pulse, and shone a pocket light into both eyes. He spoke softly to Tony and, on hearing his response, proceeded to free him from the suit and check him over.
Rhodey watched as Banner worked with calm confidence, his every motion careful but brisk and efficient.
"He's very good," Pepper murmured, standing close so that her voice carried easily. “I’m glad it isn’t a stranger. Tony’s not— he’s not that good with doctors, but Bruce—”
She didn’t finish, and Rhodey gave a noncommittal nod. He couldn’t quite share her gratitude at the trust Tony placed in Banner, but he couldn’t argue with it either.
Banner straightened after a moment, and turned to Pepper. "I think he should be OK. If there’s a concussion, it’s minor. He’s coherent, his pupils are dilating. His leg’s broken, but otherwise he’s all right.”
Rhodey felt Pepper sag against him in relief. “Thank you,” she murmured.
Between the three of them, they managed to load Tony onto the helicopter. On the ride back to the mainland, Banner and Rhodey both argued for heading straight to the hospital, but Tony refused, and in the end they took Pepper’s advice and brought him back to the Tower, where Banner promised to run him through a series of tests to make sure he hadn’t sustained any injuries that they couldn’t handle.
After they settled Tony into a bed and helped Banner bring in the equipment he needed, Rhodey couldn’t do much but hang back and watch, an arm around Pepper’s waist, and one of hers around his, as Banner checked Tony over.
"So what happened?" Rhodey murmured.
Pepper let out a long breath, frustration pushing the worry off her face. "There was a thunderstorm, and I was— I got hit. Must have fried the suit, because I lost two of my thrusters and the coms. Which,” she took a breath, “would have been OK if Tony hadn't tried to catch me."
“Hey, I did catch you,” Tony insisted, even as Banner coaxed him to stay still while the scanner passed over his legs.
“You collided with me and broke your own suit.” She turned back to Rhodey. “We had three thrusters between us. Barely made it to that island. We were lucky it was low tide.” He felt her hand on his arm, a gentle little gesture of thanks. “We were lucky you found us.”
“It was mostly Banner,” he admitted quietly.
The hand on his arm gave a little squeeze. “Bruce can't fly a helicopter.”
“We're just lucky he can ride in one. For a minute there I thought we were going to have a problem.”
She took the comment as the joke he should have intended and gave a soft, tired little laugh.
Banner straightened up and tapped the scanner off. “You should be fine,” he told Tony, his voice obviously pitched to carry. “You broke your left leg in two places—hairline fracture to the tibia and an incomplete fracture of the femur—but we can take care of that. No internal bleeding, no sign of concussion. Neither fracture is displaced, so we’ll get you into a cast. Stay off the leg for now, and in a couple of weeks we'll reassess. I assume you can get somebody to come in here and apply the cast and write you a scrip for some pain meds.”
“Yeah, sounds like a plan. Really liking that last part.” He looked around the room. “You look at Pepper yet?”
Banner glanced over to her. “I'll do an exam to be sure, but with extremis...”
“I'm fine,” Pepper told them both. “You know that.”
In the end she let him do the exam anyway, and Rhodey stepped out to give her some privacy, though she laughed a little when he did. After a few minutes Banner emerged. “She's fine, as predicted.”
Rhodey let out a breath he didn’t know he’d been holding. “Do they... need anything?”
“Just rest. He's got someone coming up to do the cast. But I'm sure they'd appreciate it if you stuck around.” Banner glanced at him and then at the elevator. “I'll just, uh, get out of everybody's hair.”
Rhodey couldn't quite mind that Banner was leaving, but he felt a pang of guilt to admit it. “Hey,” he called out, just before Banner made it to the waiting elevator. He should say something, explain that he appreciated that Banner found Tony and Pepper and took care of them. Whatever he’d done in the past, Banner had obviously put everything he had into keeping it together, and that alone deserved more appreciation than Rhodey had given. The sight of him might still make Rhodey shiver a little inside, and the prospect of his leaving might let him relax, but neither of those were Bruce’s fault—not anymore.
But he couldn’t quite bring himself to say any of that. Instead he went with the best he could manage. “It’s good you were here.”
“The intake manifold, not the valve. Seriously, Bruce I’m taking away your genius card.”
“Remind me again how your broken leg disqualifies you from doing this yourself?”
Tony idly scooted back and forth, doing little spins and maneuvers in the wheelchair he’d come up with immediately after laying eyes on the top-of-the line model Pepper had ordered him and declaring it hopelessly antiquated. “I am on painkillers, which you know, even though you refused to prescribe them for me—“
“You know I don’t have a license.”
Tony scoffed. “Excuses. I am on painkillers,” he repeated, “and Pepper won’t let me work on heavy machinery of any kind while I’m on them. I tried to explain to her that that instruction is about driving the heavy vehicles and not fixing them, but for some reason she hasn’t come over to my way of seeing it—“
“Which doesn’t explain why you need to soup up your car right now, or why I’m the one trying to install some new compressor.”
“Well now I’m just doing it because you’ve exposed your woeful ignorance on the subject of fine automobiles, and I feel that it’s my solemn duty to educate you. I don’t know how you’re going to make it in the world if you can’t even fix a damn car—“
Bruce wiped his forehead with one shirtsleeve, careful not to smear his face with the motor oil covering his hands. “I made it from Lima to Rio in a 1986 Yugo. I can fix a damned car. What I can’t do is think of any reason you’d need a car that can go from zero to sixty in under three seconds.”
Tony frowned at him. “I understand all the words in that sentence, but put together, in that order, they make no—“
A series of beeps at the door interrupted Tony’s gentle mocking. From where he stood, still hunched over the Audi’s engine, Bruce couldn’t make out the visitor, but he recognized the tones of the access code as Rhodes’.
“Rhodey, thank God. Will you please explain to this heathen the importance of decent acceleration?”
Bruce straightened up to face Rhodes, just in time to see him hesitate and glance back at the door. Bruce had mostly managed to stay clear of Rhodes in the week since Tony’s injury, and Rhodes obviously didn’t expect to see him in the workshop.
“I’ve got a better idea,” Bruce suggested. “Why don’t I get out of your way and let him play with your toys for you.” He grabbed a cloth, wiped his hand as clean as he could manage, and started for the door.
Before he made it there, Tony snagged his arm and pulled him back. “What is the deal with the two of you? One of you enters, the other one exits, it’s like one of those terrible movies where one person is pretending to be two different people, except that I know that’s not happening because I have in fact seen you both together.” Tony paused, seeming to think for a moment, but didn’t release his grip on Bruce’s shirtsleeve. “Besides which, I really don’t think either of you is that good at disguises.”
“I’ve got my own work to do, Tony.”
"Your model is still processing. It's not going to be ready for another half an hour."
True enough. He tried another tack. "This really isn't my thing."
Tony frowned at him, and then looked at Rhodey, who shifted from one foot to another before taking a quick breath and producing a smile that almost didn't look forced.
"It could be your thing," Rhodey offered, moving closer to the car and leaning in under the hood. He glanced back at Tony. "You're trying to improve the VLIM on the Audi?”
"Weakest link. Short of replacing the engine with an arc reactor—and I've considered it—that's the only way we're going to increase the pickup."
“Huh,” Rhodey noted, but shifted to take the part out of Bruce’s hand and lean in to connect it to the intake runners. He turned to Bruce. “This should be interesting. Or it could explode. Which would be a kind of interesting, I guess.” He paused, a hard look briefly descending over his face. “You gonna be ok if—“ He stopped suddenly and glanced down, a slightly sheepish expression on his face when he looked back up. “Sorry. Here, watch this.”
Bruce gave one last glance toward the door before turning his attention to Rhodes’ deft hands moving over the parts of the engine, swapping the old compressors out for Tony’s new versions and checking the joints and connectors with quick, efficient motions. It took Bruce only a moment to grasp the design, and as he did, he heard Tony’s soft chuckle.
“There you go. Now we just need to teach you why it’s fun.”
Bruce shook his head. “Gotta admit, I’m still not seeing the appeal of fiddling with a technology we’ve been perfecting for a century when you could be doing something new.”
Tony rolled his eyes. “Right, which is why painters all packed up and went home after da Vinci.”
“It’s not art, Tony, it’s a car.”
Tony gave a mock gasp of horror. “That’s it. JARVIS, we’re cutting off Dr. Banner’s access to his lab until he’s gained an appreciation of the finer things.”
Bruce sighed, but didn’t try to argue. Tony would get bored of the prank faster if he played along. “And how am I going to acquire that appreciation?”
“You are going to disassemble and reassemble the engine on…” He surveyed the line of cars parked along one wall, “the Bugatti. You’ll see, it’s like the Mona Lisa. But better, ‘cause it can do two-eighty.”
“And you want me to take it apart?”
“And put it back together. Rhodey’ll help.”
Rhodes shot Tony a look which wasn’t as dark as Bruce would have expected under the circumstances.
“What? Tell me you haven’t always wanted to get your grubby mitts all over the Bugatti. You would make sweet love to that car if you could figure out how.”
The look on Rhodes’ face as he let his eyes wander over the vehicle in question supported Tony’s point pretty well. Bruce felt an odd pang to see that glowing appreciation on his face. It suited Rhodes in a way that pulled at his gut, and he forced himself to avert his own gaze.
“You got me,” Rhodes admitted, a smile spreading across his face as he turned back to Bruce. “You up for it?”
Bruce laughed. “Why not?”
Disassembly of the major engine components went quickly enough, and, with a couple of pointers from Rhodes, Bruce had almost finished taking it apart to Tony’s satisfaction when he encountered a piece that he honestly couldn’t identify. He held it up in one hand. “I’m guessing this didn’t come standard.”
“Nope,” Tony agreed easily, not looking up from the schematics he’d started screwing with while Bruce worked. “You’re taking that apart too.”
“Not until I know what it is.”
“It’s a car part. You really telling me you can’t figure out a car part on your own?”
“A car part that you personally designed? Yeah, I’m telling you that I don’t want to mess with whatever it is until I know what I’m dealing with.” Bruce heard his voice getting a little too harsh, felt the temperature of the room rise by a degree or two. He carefully relaxed his shoulders, and flashed a quick—and hopefully reassuring—smile. “I just want to know what it is.”
“Relax, Big Guy. I’m not playing any games here. It’s just a customized fuel injection system—multipart, simultaneous injection, pretty standard. I just screwed around with it a little to make it actually simultaneous.”
Bruce blinked and tried to force that to make some kind of sense in his head. But they’d gone too far from his field of expertise, and he couldn’t quite get it to come together.
“Here,” Rhodey murmured next to him, pulling over a computer display and sketching out a diagram. “Tony’s got it set up so the pressure equalizes in a cyclical pattern in order to increase the output. Like this.” Rhodes filled in the margins with a few quick equations. The whole thing fell into place in Bruce’s mind, and his eyes flicked to Rhodes’ face in surprise.
An instant later Bruce realized how Rhodes would take his expression, and schooled it back into an easy smile. “Thanks.”
Rhodes smirked. “Any time.”
Using Rhodes’ diagram as a guide, Bruce got the injection system broken down into spare parts in a few minutes, and laid them out with the others. “Good enough? Can I put it back together now?”
Tony glanced up. “You better be able to. Do you have any idea what that car cost?”
“I’ve got a feeling I don’t want to know." He began to gather bits and pieces, absently fitting then together. He caught Rhodes' gaze on the sleek metal components of the turbocharger and gave a little nod at them. "You wanna help me with that?"
Rhodey grinned. "Sure." He settled on the floor and started to work, careful but unhesitating.
They worked together, mostly in silence, for half an hour before Bruce felt Rhodes’ eyes on him. He met Rhodes’ gaze with a questioning raise of his eyebrows, hoping that Rhodes would get whatever it was off his chest.
Rhodes hesitated, but Bruce didn’t change his expression, and after a moment he spoke. “What was that about? Before, with Tony’s injection system.”
Bruce shrugged, disinclined to rehash old regrets, but Tony answered for him anyway. “Bruce is a little gun shy about working blind. Which is pretty short sighted if you ask me, considering that last time he came out with an awesome superpower.”
Rhodes looked to Bruce, as if for confirmation, and he nodded. Rhodes picked up a wrench, and spent longer than he could possibly have needed to adjusting its settings. “I didn’t know it was an accident.”
Bruce laughed a little at that. “You thought I was shooting for ‘uncontrollable monster’?”
Rhodes didn’t seem to have an answer to that, and Bruce shrugged. “It doesn’t matter. It was my experiment. My choice to try it on myself. I thought I knew what I was doing.” He gave another bitter little laugh. “Obviously I was wrong.”
Rhodes didn’t answer that either, shifting his gaze to the turbine wheel without actually resuming the re-assembly. Out of the corner of his eye Bruce could see that Tony’s hands had stilled and he was watching Rhodes’ reaction.
“It was my fault,” Bruce continued softly. “You’re not wrong to hate me for it.”
“Bullshit.” Tony wheeled over, real anger flashing in his eyes. “I’ve seen those records. Ross fucked with your data. He gave you bad information and he pushed you into that test. It was not your fucking fault.”
But Bruce couldn’t quite focus on Tony’s argument—one he’d heard more than once before—because Rhodes’ head jerked back to face Bruce, his face stricken. He didn’t speak until Tony finished his diatribe. “I don’t,” he told Bruce softly, with an intensity that Bruce couldn’t quite figure out how to take.
Bruce shook his head and turned his attention back to the compressor. “It doesn’t matter,” he said again. “Give me a hand with this?”
“Yeah,” Rhodes agreed quickly. “Sure thing.”
Dinner time had long since passed when Bruce finally closed the hood and turned to Rhodes. "Do you want to do the honors?"
"Nah." Rhodes tossed the keys over, and Bruce snatched them out of the air.
He swung himself into the drivers seat and felt a little thrill in spite of himself when the engine roared to life. He turned it off quickly, unsure just how good the workshop’s ventilation was, and slipped out of the car with what he suspected was a foolish grin on his face.
"So? Give it up," Tony demanded. "You've never had so revelatory an experience in your life. You repent of ever doubting my aesthetic judgment."
Bruce chuckled. "It's a very impressive piece of machinery."
Tony crossed his arms and didn't shift his gaze from Bruce's face. "Don't lie, it was amazing.”
“It was amazing. Can I have my lab back now?”
“Say it like you mean it.”
Bruce glanced at the car, and then at Rhodes. “I, uh, I did have a good time. Thanks.”
“Hey, Tony wasn’t wrong, any chance to get my hands in the Bugatti.”
Bruce looked back at Tony and arched an eyebrow. “Good enough?”
“Yeah, yeah, JARVIS, Bruce can have his lab back.” He shifted his attention to Rhodes. “Come have a beer?”
Bruce took that as his cue to leave, forcing himself to ignore the ensuing conversation about the advisability of adding alcohol to the drugs Tony’d already taken. The elevator doors closed just as they reached the conclusion that Tony would watch and laugh while Rhodes got drunk on his behalf, and Bruce found himself smiling all the way up to his lab.
Rhodey ignored the complaints from the Pentagon for two weeks, swearing up and down that his presence was vitally necessary for the health and safety of one Tony Stark. His superiors likely knew that his claims weren’t literally accurate, but trusted his judgment when it came to Tony, whose work they continued to value even as the man drove them collectively up the wall with his refusal to return to weapons manufacturing.
He spent most of the time keeping Tony company, screwing around with his cars and watching him fiddle with new designs for the suit. After that first awkward afternoon with the Bugatti, Banner showed up a few more times. Rhodey figured it was at Tony's request, but Banner didn't seem to mind much, and Rhodey was surprised to find that he didn't either. Banner kept up with Tony's more experimental physics in a way Rhodey never had, but when the conversation turned to the engineering work that hewed closer to Rhodey's wheelhouse, he listened to Rhodey's suggestions with real respect.
Somewhere early in the second week Rhodey realized that he hadn't had this much fun in months.
But by week three the legislative liaison people were screaming about some new authorization that they needed his help pushing in the Senate, and Rhodey couldn't find any excuse not to go.
He spent the next two months having the same four conversations with several flavors of assholes and idiots. Even the people that knew what they were talking about and gave a damn generally weren't ready to prioritize fixing the authorization bill over the other issues they cared about.
In the end the bill went through on the last day before the August recess, with much of the ridiculous excess that Rhodey despised, but also at least some of the provisions that actually mattered. Rhodey spent the next week filing reports and lobbying his superiors to assign him to something—anything—other than legislative liaison work. When Tony called, promising new upgrades to the armor, he was glad of the excuse to head back to New York.
He touched down on Tony's roof just as the sun set behind Manhattan's skyline. He found the penthouse empty, and the workshop too. "Hey J, Tony downstairs with his cars again?"
"Mr. Stark and Ms. Potts left the tower at approximately seven thirty-two with the intention of enjoying dinner and a show."
Rhodey tried not to be pissed. God knew Tony and Pepper got little enough time to themselves, and God also knew, surely just as well as Rhodey did, that their relationship staying on an even keel was a boon to both of them, and to national security as well.
Still, he couldn't quite shake his irritation at being invited and then, well, stood up. Not that it was the first time by a long shot.
He looked around the empty penthouse and settled on helping himself to an excessively expensive drink at Tony's bar, tossing it back without quite tasting it. He mentally ran through the people he knew in the City and came up with nobody he particularly felt like getting in touch with, and headed for the kitchen instead.
He rifled through a few cupboards, finding them far better stocked than Tony's kitchens had ever been before Pepper moved in, but settled on nothing he particularly felt like eating.
JARVIS pinged for attention. "Dr. Banner asked me to inform you that he is preparing dinner, and you would be welcome to join him." Jarvis paused briefly. "Dr. Banner also requested that I specify that he will not be offended should you decline his invitation."
Rhodey laughed at that, and considered the offer. He still found Banner unsettling—there was no way he could forget what lurked under the guy’s skin. But he was surprised to find himself tempted to accept anyway. He’d had a surprisingly good time messing around with engine parts with Banner, whose sly humor and steady composure had been a pleasant counterpoint to Tony’s manic energy.
Then again, Rhodey reflected, after the long stretch with nothing more exciting than a tense cloture vote, he could just be jonesing for a little adrenaline rush.
Either way, fifteen minutes later he found himself in Banner's kitchen, drinking beer and watching Banner pat out a series of corn tortillas to throw on the griddle.
"You cook a lot?"
Banner hummed an affirmative. "I like to, when I have the time. Which isn't that often, but—" he smiled, the expression more relaxed than any Rhodey had seen on his face, "More often, lately." He moved the last tortilla to the griddle and looked up at Rhodey. His eyes darted over Rhodey's face, assessing, before relaxing again into a gentle smile. "Nothing fancy, I'm afraid." He gestured to the stack of perfect tortillas, and to the pan of beans and vegetables.
"It looks good. Thanks for, uh, inviting me."
"Only fair. JARVIS tells me Tony blew you off. You should at least get some dinner. I'm sure he'll do whatever he had planned for your suit tomorrow. If you've got time to stay?"
Rhodey laughed. "For an upgrade to the suit, they'll let me take all the time Tony needs. Which Tony knows damn well and doesn't hesitate to take advantage of."
Banner loaded up a plate and Rhodey followed suit, piling toppings on his tacos. Banner snagged himself a beer and moved to one of the couches.
Neither spoke at first. Rhodey settled on an armchair and considered trying to make conversation, but took the hot food as an excuse to eat in silence. The tortillas had a soft give to them, punctuated by a little char here and there from the griddle, and the savory filling had just enough garlic and almost, but not quite, too much spice. Rhodey polished off his last taco sooner than he realized, and found himself licking a little of the filling from his thumb and forefinger.
A little chuckle drew his eyes to Banner, who watched with evident amusement. "Can I take that as a compliment?"
"Pretty sure you can." He put down the plate and leaned back. "Thanks, really. This is nice. I don't think I've had home cooked food in..." He shook his head. "I don't want to think about it."
Silence settled for a moment, until Banner spoke into it, quietly. "How are things going in DC?"
"Better than they could've. Worse than they should've." He shrugged. "I’m just hoping I get a real assignment next."
"So you're looking to get back in action?"
"I'd like to be someplace where I can actually—“ he shook his head, not quite sure what he was trying to say. “They didn’t stick me on the Hill ‘cause I know how to talk to Senators. They stuck me there ‘cause everybody wants to meet the guy that saved the president, or the guy that knows Iron Man, or the guy wearing the red white and blue armor. I’d just like to be doing something I’m good at.”
“Huh.” Banner watched him for a moment, brow slightly furrowed. “That how you ended up where you are? You were good at it?” He took a swallow of his beer. “Seems like you’re good at a lot of things.”
“Yeah, I could have been a great auto mechanic.”
“You could have been designing those cars.”
“Maybe.” It sure as hell hadn’t seemed that way at the time. But he’d never have picked it anyway. "Truth is, I just wanted to fly," he admitted with a smile. "Didn't give much of a damn about anything else. So I worked my butt off, got an appointment to the Academy. And then I kept working my butt off so I’d get to fly whatever was shiniest.” He laughed, and rolled his eyes. “In between the times they had me bugging Tony for more tech, anyway.”
“Seems like that worked out for you.”
“That’s God’s own truth.” He couldn’t help but smile when he thought about it. “I thought flying a fighter jet was where it was at, but goddamn, Tony's suits—" He gave a little chuckle at his good fortune and shook his head. "Still can't quite believe he gave me one."
Bruce retrieved his beer from the coffee table in front of him and took a drink. "Thought the story was that you stole it."
"He tell you that?"
"That's what he said. Of course, he also said that his suits are keyed to him. Non-transferable." Banner’s tone stayed bland, as if there were no particular import to his words. But the way he watched for Rhodey's reaction said that he knew damn well what he was implying.
Rhodey completed the thought for him. "And yet mine fit like a glove from the minute I put it on. Funny, huh?"
Banner’s lips spread in a sly grin. "So does he just like the story, or does he actually think you don't know?"
“Officially, he really thinks I don't know. Unofficially…” Rhodey shrugged. “Don’t tell him I said so, but I’m pretty sure even he isn’t that oblivious.”
“Yeah,” Bruce agreed. He stood and picked up both their plates and whisked them into the kitchen before Rhodey could do more than feel like an oaf for not having done it earlier. “You want another beer?”
Bruce returned with two bottles held between the fingers of one hand, and leaned over to let Rhodey take one.
By sheer force of habit, Rhodey clinked his bottle against Banner’s in a kind of toast, and Banner gave a surprised smile, like he hadn’t expected the gesture, and liked it.
“So what else don’t people know about you?”
Rhodey paused, and for a moment found himself with no answer to that. People asked him a lot of things—why did he put up with Tony and what was Tony like and how did it feel to save the President and 'what's next for James Rhodes'—but Banner's questions felt probing, quietly but insistently intimate, and from a guy whose approach had mostly been avoidance, the shift was unsettling. “Why the interest?”
Banner gave a little tilt of the head. “You’re interesting. How did an upstanding soldier like you end up friends with Tony Stark in the first place?”
“Airman,” Rhodey corrected absently. “Soldier’s army.”
“Of course,” Banner agreed, his tone mild, but Rhodey could see the sudden strain in Banner’s shoulders, and the sight made him tense a little as well.
He gave himself a firm reminder that Banner hadn’t shown any sign that he lacked control, that so far everything Tony had said about him had proved true. It helped. But not much.
He forced himself to relax anyway, and smiled ruefully. “Not that I was always such an upstanding airman either.” He took another long swallow of his beer and gave a short laugh. “Then again, they did not always make it easy.”
Banner didn’t answer, just watched and waited, his posture back to the relaxed patience that made Rhodey feel like he could spill his whole life story and not even be wasting the guy’s time.
And somehow in response to that almost flattering interest, Rhodey found himself admitting more than he had to anybody but Tony and Pepper in a long time. “Section nine-hundred and twenty-five of the uniform code. I, uh, had some trouble following that one.”
“I don’t know what that is,” Bruce said softly.
“’Unnatural carnal copulation with another person of the same or opposite sex.’” He quoted, loading the words with the mockery they deserved, but unable to keep the dread they still held out of his voice. “Same, in my case,” he added, tensing and glancing away. It wasn’t that he expected Bruce to give a shit that he was gay, but somehow Rhodey couldn’t keep himself from bracing for a reaction anyway. Just like he did every damned time he let a pronoun slip. He wondered if he’d ever lose the habit.
But Bruce just chuckled. “For a minute there I thought you might actually have something to be ashamed of.”
Rhodey raised his beer bottle in a kind of salute, and drank deep.
A thought occurred to him. "You know, Tony seems to be under the impression that you're a terrible listener."
"Hmm," Bruce murmured, as if he found the remark only mildly interesting. He stood and picked up Rhodey's empty bottle. "You want another one?"
Rhodey considered that—a fourth drink of the night was hardly going to get him drunk, but he felt relaxed and almost tipsy already. Bruce smiled down at him as he thought about it, and something in the warmth in his face felt like permission to relax a little further. "Sure, thanks." Funny, that he'd find himself relaxed around Bruce Banner of all people. But right now he felt like the Hulk existed in some whole other world, not in this comfortable room. "So you really fall asleep on him while he was sharing his life story?" Rhodey called out as Bruce disappeared into the kitchen.
"What do you think?"
"I think you're a sneaky sonofabitch."
"Well," Bruce said as he emerged, carrying one open bottle, "I suppose you're not wrong about that."
Rhodey took the bottle when Bruce handed it over. "Not having another one?"
"No." He said it like he'd won something with just that single syllable, and for a moment Rhodey couldn't quite parse his satisfaction.
Then it fell into place. He'd read Bruce's file, and he knew guys from families like his. "You have a couple of drinks, and then you stop. 'Cause you can."
"Right," Bruce agreed, and something about his expression reminded Rhodey of a professor whose student just found his way to the right answer. Then the smile faded, and he glanced away. "It's not about the Other Guy."
"I didn't think it was."
Silence fell between them again, and for a moment Rhodey felt a little guilty about bringing the beer to his lips. But Bruce smiled and gave a little wave, urging him to go ahead, and Rhodey did, enjoying the companionable quiet.
He'd almost worked himself around to broaching some new topic of conversation when JARVIS interrupted. "Mr. Stark and Ms. Potts are here to see you."
Rhodey glanced at his watch—almost eleven, but hardly the sort of time he'd have expected Tony and Pepper to end their date.
"Tell them to come in," Bruce instructed, standing and taking a few steps towards the foyer.
Pepper strode into the room, and Rhodey noticed Bruce's eyes briefly surveying the deep plunge of her décolletage and the curve of her calves in those elegant heels. The appreciation on his face—gone in a split second, but still unmistakable if you were looking—made Rhodey wince for some reason he couldn’t quite pin down, and he quickly put the subject out of his mind. Tony followed after Pepper, dapper in one of his usual suits, a look that almost approached shame on his face. Rhodey noticed with satisfaction that he seemed to be walking without pain, though the bulk of a walking cast was visible under Tony’s left pant leg.
Pepper gave a brief smile to Bruce before turning to Rhodey. "He didn't tell me you were coming until twenty minutes ago—he's very sorry that he kept you waiting."
Behind her, Tony made a face, and Rhodey stood and crossed his arms over his chest, trying to recapture his earlier irritation at Tony's absence. But the light buzz of the alcohol in his veins and a little of the quiet warmth of the evening's conversation remained, and he couldn't quite manage it. He dropped his arms to his sides and smiled at Pepper. "Really, don't worry about it." He glanced over at Tony. "You'll do whatever you're doing to my suit tomorrow?"
Tony grinned. "You're gonna love it, I promise." He came up close behind Pepper and stroked her arm, the motion drawing Rhodey's attention to what looked suspiciously like beard burn at the hollow of her neck. "See?" Tony continued, speaking almost into her ear. "He doesn't mind. He and Bruce are playing nice." He looked up at them. "Aren't you?"
"Yeah, sure. He hasn't even hulked out on me once." Rhodey caught the little cringe that was Bruce's response to that, and winced inwardly himself. The joke hadn't been a good one, and Rhodey regretted it almost immediately. "I'm good. We're good. You two go and do whatever it is you were doing."
Pepper worried at her lower lip for a moment and glanced back at Tony, temptation replacing concern on her face. "We'll have dinner tomorrow, no arguments."
"None from me," Rhodey agreed, and caught Bruce's awkward nod out of the corner of his eyes.
Tony and Pepper both turned toward the elevator, their attention focused back on each other, leaving little doubt of their plans for the rest of the evening.
The elevator closed behind them, and Rhodey picked up his beer and drained the last of it. "Good to know they're doing well, I guess."
"After the year they've had, they deserve it," Bruce agreed. "Not an easy year for you either.” He ran a hand through his hair, tousling the curls, but allowing them to fall right back into place over his forehead. “You, uh, have somebody?”
Rhodey let out a long breath, giving more away than he'd prefer to. "Nah." He shrugged like it didn't mean anything—like he was between partners for the moment but had a healthy history of appropriate dates, instead of a string of furtive encounters and longer periods of self enforced celibacy. "You?"
Bruce shook his head. "I, uh—" He stopped himself from whatever admission he'd been considering, and produced a weak smile. "No."
The smile he wore only made him look sadder, and for a moment Rhodey felt the insane impulse to hug him. And hell, maybe it wasn't all that insane. He'd offered a nice meal and a welcoming ear, not to mention easy acceptance when Rhodey had done very little to earn it. "You deserve it too, you know. I'm sure this year hasn't been easy on you either."
Bruce blinked and turned away, picking up Rhodey's empty beer bottle and ferrying it to the kitchen. "It's been a pretty good year for me, actually."
Something about the tone sounded sadder even than his smile, and Rhodey followed him and placed a hand on his upper arm. "You OK?"
Bruce turned back and forced the corners of his smile a little higher. "Yeah," he said with more confidence. "I just, uh, it's been a long time since I've had a year this good." He glanced away. "Sorry. I don't mean to—"
"Hey, no. Look, I know when we met, we didn't exactly— For the record, I was wrong. I’m glad you're here."
Bruce sucked in a ragged breath, but his answering "thanks" almost sounded calm.
Rhodey didn't have an answer, and suddenly realized that he was a little too close. Even so he didn't move. Standing there just inches from Bruce, he found himself remembering what he'd thought when he first laid eyes on the man, before he knew who he was. Bruce's face was still too careworn to be conventionally gorgeous, but it was dignified and well proportioned, and his full lips looked almost inviting.
Rhodey caught himself and, later than he should have, took a step back. Too much to drink. Definitely too much to drink, because he ordinarily had no problem keeping his thoughts under control around straight men of any stripe. And all the more reason to watch himself with a guy like Bruce.
Not, he knew, that there really were any guys like Bruce.
"It's, uh, late. I should probably—" he gestured towards the foyer, and Bruce gave a quick nod that Rhodey hoped to hell wasn't relieved. "Thanks. For everything." He turned, and Bruce followed him out to the elevator. "See you at dinner tomorrow?"
Bruce gave a casual wave and a smile. "Sure. Sounds good."
Bruce woke late, and with little of the gnawing ache that usually marked his returns to consciousness. Instead he found himself oddly content.
The prior night had been nice. He couldn't remember the last time he'd had a real conversation with anyone but Tony or Pepper, and with either of them he still felt like he was horning in on someone else's relationship, someone else's life. And much as both of them were stunningly attractive, and incredible, fascinating people to boot, even in his own head he'd never dared to want anything more than the comfortable friendship they offered.
Which wasn't to say that he expected anything more from Rhodes either. But there had been something unencumbered about their conversation, something that made him think that even though Rhodes knew him for what he was, he might be willing to see him as a person too.
And maybe that was enough.
Bruce made himself a pot of tea and a couple of slices of toast, and spent much of the morning reading through the tests that JARVIS had run the prior evening. He found the results more or less what he'd expected, but noted down a few interesting anomalies, and sketched out some ideas for further inquiry. He'd nearly finished up with what he could do from his breakfast table when JARVIS pinged politely for attention.
"Ms. Potts wishes to inquire whether her presence would be welcome at this time."
"Sure," Bruce agreed quickly. Unlike Tony, Pepper had visited Bruce in his apartment a number of times since he'd moved in. After the mess with Killian, she had a lot to struggle with, even once they managed to stabilize what had been done to her. And somehow, she seemed to take comfort in his advice, or at least his attempts at conversation. He could claim no great wisdom, but he knew what it was to gain a power that you never wished for, and to fear causing more harm than good with it. If he had more reason to fear than she ever would, it didn't mean he couldn't lend a sympathetic ear.
So for a time she visited regularly, and even as she resumed her role as CEO, and took up flying lessons and other activities, she still dropped by from time to time. Something about that trust always made him feel just that little bit more human, and less like a necessary evil which only existed because there wasn't yet any way to wipe him off the face of the planet.
The click of her heels on the tile of the foyer brought a smile to his lips, and he stood to fix her a cup of her favorite blend of tea before she came into view.
When she entered the kitchen, she drew him into a quick embrace, placing a kiss on one cheek, and he returned it.
"Good night?" he asked, relishing a little that she wouldn't object to the familiarity.
She smiled and gave her little bell of a laugh. "I could ask you the same. You and James certainly seem to be getting along better."
Bruce blinked, and then glanced away before he could form an answer. "I, uh, yeah. He's a good guy."
"Very good," she agreed. "James is—" She didn't complete the sentence, and laughed a little instead. "Sometimes I wonder what Tony would be like if he hadn't known James all this time, and... I don't think the answer to that is anything good. Does he—" She frowned. "How is he?"
"You're asking me?"
She shrugged, but her expression conveyed no uncertainty. "You looked like you were getting along," she repeated.
Bruce frowned, and considered his reply. After a moment, he settled on the truth. "I think he's doing well. But he— He seems lonely."
She nodded at that, and accepted the cup of tea he offered. "He's always been very focused on his career, and I hoped that was enough. But... he hasn't had an easy time of it. Sometimes I wonder..." She toyed with the tea bag for a moment before coming to a decision to continue. "He's always been such a good friend to Tony. Sometimes I wonder if he wishes it were more than that."
"I don't think he—" Bruce wasn't quite sure how firm a denial he could formulate to that. "I don't think he ever expected that."
"No, of course not. He never expects much, even when he should.”
Bruce wasn't quite sure he was comfortable with the quick little look she gave him then, but he agreed easily anyway. "Yeah. He— I guess he's had to put off having a real life with someone. And... I'm sure he deserves one."
Pepper blew on her tea to cool it, and took a careful sip. "He does," she agreed. The way she watched him still felt oddly searching.
"Are you— How are you?"
She smiled. "Funny you should ask. I'm afraid I'm in a little bit of trouble, actually, and I was hoping I could count on your help."
He swallowed. There was very little chance he'd say no to anything she asked for, but he had a sinking feeling that he was going to want to.
"There's a fundraiser—tonight actually—and I was only supposed to drop in, give a little speech, and get out, but—" She let out a quick huff of breath. "Then Tony had to go and insult half the people who were supposed to be sitting at the Stark Industries table, and... now it's going to be empty."
Bruce swallowed a sigh. "And you need to fill the table." This wasn't the first time this had happened, and Bruce still didn't grasp why it was an issue. Surely donating breathtaking amounts of money ought to be enough for any charity, but for reasons passing Bruce’s understanding, sending actual people to the events was apparently nonnegotiable.
Pepper reached out and placed a warm hand on the back of his. "I'd appreciate it. I did promise you dinner—"
"Just tell me I won't have to mingle."
"You won't have to mingle. Much. I've got a couple other people from R&D going. Tony,” her voice carried fond disapproval on his name, “will be doing all the networking that the execs were going to do until he went and pissed them off, so he'll be a little busy, but I'll make sure there are people you can talk to at the table." Her smile turned a little mischievous. "James has already promised he'll be there."
He frowned at her, wondering why his life had suddenly turned into a reenactment of junior high school, but ignored the comment and nodded. "Just tell me what to wear."
"Thank you, Bruce, really. I'll have the tailor drop off your tux this afternoon."
Bruce spent the day working, getting a few of the more bandwidth-heavy tests ready to run while he was out. The work relaxed him, and allowed him to contemplate the evening's plans with something short of dread—if not very far short.
A young man arrived with the tuxedo around six, and Bruce took it with a resigned smile. He already had a tux in his closet—he'd worn it to one of the other fundraisers Tony and Pepper dragged him to—and he was pretty sure that he could not to save his life articulate the difference between this one and that. But it wasn't his money, and he had it on good authority that the tailor was well compensated for his efforts, so he’d gladly wear whatever would make Pepper happy.
Bruce had nearly finished changing when JARVIS announced that the car awaited him downstairs. He fiddled with the bowtie, not quite sure he had the thing on right, and cast one last glance at the mirror. On the whole he wasn't disappointed. Tuxedos had a way of suiting just about anyone, and he was pleased in spite of himself to find that he wasn't an exception.
He made it halfway to the elevator before he absently patted his pants pockets and found them empty. He froze. It had been months since he’d last forgotten his IDs, even for a few minutes. He chuckled a little to himself. He was getting too comfortable again, just like he had when he first lived here, before he found Rhodes in the lab that night, his military bearing giving away his allegiances even before Tony's introduction.
It was funny, to think that that same man had sat in his living room, eating his cooking and chatting like they were friends, like the barrier between them had vanished. But, he reminded himself, it hadn't, and it never could. That he liked Rhodey and respected him was all the more reason to be wary. Rhodey would regret giving Bruce up if he was called upon to do it. The least Bruce could do was make sure that when that day came, he'd be too far away for it to matter.
He found his IDs quickly, slid one into a back pocket and another into the inside pocket of his suit jacket, and took the elevator down to the waiting car.
He arrived at the event fifteen minutes later and walked in alone. Pepper and Tony had arrived early, and Rhodey had apparently accompanied them. Bruce felt a little guilty for showing only when he was absolutely needed, but the less time he spent mingling with people he didn't know, the better in his book.
The ballroom sparkled with candles and crystalline chandeliers, and beautiful people in impeccable suits and elegant dresses dotted the floor, talking and laughing in little knots, pausing at one another's tables to catch up with so and so or darting across the room to make some strategic new acquaintance.
An enthusiastic young woman at the door chatted with him for a few moments about her work with the host charity. She was an intern, apparently, which explained why her dress looked like it cost a fraction of what anyone else in the room wore. He liked her eagerness to discuss the group's mission, and the fact that she seemed no more comfortable with the fabulous decadence of the event than he was, but even so he was glad of it when she pointed him to his table and allowed him to excuse himself and make a beeline towards it.
Most people were still mingling when Bruce arrived at the table. He sat down anyway, refusing to give a damn that it would look odd. For once in his life he didn't have to be inconspicuous. No one would be angry if he looked out of place. He wasn't going to be caught out or kicked out or attacked. It was a funny little luxury, but one he found he enjoyed.
He munched on one of the long thin breadsticks waiting on the table, and surveyed the room. In a far corner he watched Tony glad-handing a series of older men, his posture relaxed and his smile almost genuine. He'd been trained all his life for rooms like this one, and it showed. Bruce caught a glimpse of Pepper, who flitted from one conversation to another, kissing cheeks and smiling politely and, Bruce was sure, asking after each donor's children or spouse or pet project individually.
Sitting there, in that warm room full of strangers whom he didn't have to fear, Bruce found himself relaxed enough that he didn't notice Rhodey’s approach until he spoke from just behind Bruce's chair.
"This seat taken?"
"Please." He turned to face Rhodey and almost froze. Rhodey's suit—no, uniform—was carefully tailored, and somehow as elegant as a tuxedo even though it was busier, dotted with brass buttons and rank insignia and a generous collection of medals over his left breast. The narrow jacket only emphasized his broad shoulders, and when he smiled Bruce couldn't help but smile back. "You're, uh, not much for mingling?"
"I've had enough mingling to last me a lifetime. And Pepper promised me I didn't have to."
"Me too. So did Tony get around to fixing up your suit?"
Rhodey's eyes sparkled. "Turns out he didn't so much mean to fix my suit as to give me a whole damn new one. Apparently you can't retrofit the system where it comes when you call it."
Bruce frowned, trying to remember the specs for that. "Doesn't that involve subcutaneous implants?"
"Right. Got 'em in, and, hey, I've got to say they worked." He glanced away. "It’s gonna take a little practice, but so far they’re working surprisingly well, actually."
"You mean in comparison to his first try?"
"Right. I think there's a reason he didn't offer me the upgrade until now—probably wanted to give me some time to forget how badly his screwed up."
Bruce laughed "Probably."
Rhodey nodded his agreement, and Bruce picked out another of the breadsticks, fiddling with it a little before taking a small bite on the end. A waiter walked by carrying a tray of champagne flutes, and Rhodey leaned back to snag a couple, sliding one over in front of Bruce.
Bruce took it by the stem and held it up to clink against Rhodey's. "To not mingling."
"To not mingling," Rhodey agreed.
Bruce took a sip and enjoyed the sharp effervescence. Rhodey drank as well, and for a long moment the two of them watched the room together.
"So," Rhodey put down his glass and leaned back in his chair, "seems like I told you my whole life story last night and didn't let you get a word in edgewise. Tell me something I don't know."
Bruce shrugged. "My life is an open book. Or, uh, file, anyway. Which I'm pretty sure you'll have read by now. So I doubt there's much about me you don't know."
He had the grace to look embarrassed. "You can’t tell me the file’s whole story. You traveled for a long time. Was it all—" He ducked his head, and when he returned his gaze to Bruce's face, his eyes had turned solemn. "Was it all bad?"
The question took Bruce aback for a moment. Something in the way Rhodey asked it made it sound like more than ordinary conversation. Like he hated to think of how difficult things had been. Like he gave a damn about Bruce, and not just because they had a friend in common.
"No," he answered. "It wasn't all bad." Rhodey listened as Bruce spoke for too long about strangers who had been kind, local delicacies he'd come to appreciate, empty horizons where he'd found a kind of peace.
He was still talking when others took their seats at the table—a couple of them guys Bruce knew from R & D, and one apparently someone Rhodey had worked with at SI before it stopped making weapons. Pepper and Tony found their seats just before the speeches started, and conversation ceased while they listened to a series of sponsors, some earnest and some pompous and most of them entirely too eager to hear the sound of their own voices.
Pepper spoke last, and Bruce smiled to watch her, once again feeling intensely lucky to have fallen into the company of such extraordinary people. He glanced over at Tony and saw the admiration in his eyes, and for a moment envied the bond that he and Pepper shared. But the thought was unworthy. His eyes drifted to Rhodey's face, focused on Pepper with an air of warm respect. Bruce had almost managed to turn back to Pepper when Rhodey's eyes shifted to him, and held his gaze for an instant before Bruce forced his attention back to the podium.
After the speeches, waiters came around with coffee and desserts, which Tony ignored in favor of meeting Pepper halfway and sweeping her to a clear section of floor. He took her in his arms and gestured at the quartet in the corner, who obligingly began a waltz.
Half the room turned to stare as they danced, Pepper blushing at first but obviously pleased in spite of herself. The two of them moved with incredible grace, Tony’s stiff leg barely noticeable as
they glided across the floor. A few other daring couples joined them quickly, and one of the servers shifted a few tables and chairs to clear some space. Bruce leaned back and watched, sipping his second glass of champagne a little faster than he probably should have.
Rhodey watched them too, a kind of wistfulness on his face, and it occurred to Bruce to wonder how often he’d ever been able to dance in a room like this, or any other with so many people in attendance. Bruce had gone dancing a few times with Betty, thoughtless of the privilege they’d enjoyed, able to simply dance with one another without anyone thinking anything of it but that they were a lovely young couple.
And maybe it was that, or maybe it was the champagne that made its way through his blood faster than beer or whiskey usually did, but he felt a giddy little impulse, watching Rhodey watch the dancers. “What do you think?” he asked. “Want to dance?”
The instant he said it he cursed himself for a fool. Rhodey's face registered what might have been surprise, but could just as easily have been shock. Bruce’s mind quickly—too late, but quickly still—produced a half dozen reasons why the suggestion was ridiculous and impossible. The event was extremely public, and for all he knew Rhodey wasn't out to the world. A single wistful glance provided no evidence at all that he’d want to dance, and less that he’d want anything like that with Bruce. Tolerance, even a budding friendship, was a far cry from being willing to flirt with the Hulk.
Bruce opened his mouth to apologize, but before he could manage it, Rhodey had downed the last of his champagne in one go and stood, taking Bruce’s hand with an oddly courtly gesture and a smile. “You sure you want to do this?” he murmured as they made their way toward the impromptu dance floor.
Bruce looked around and saw that already they’d attracted some attention. Gay marriage might be legal in the state, but that didn’t mean that a couple of men dancing in a room like this one was the sort of thing anybody would expect, much less when one of them wore the uniform of a military officer. “I, uh, maybe I should ask you the same question. They don’t know who I am.”
“But me, they know,” Rhodey acknowledged, his voice almost grim. “And they aren’t expecting this. But maybe they should be.”
“You’re—” Bruce glanced away, and back. “It’s OK if this gets back to your superiors?” Bruce murmured as they reached the dance floor and both hesitated a moment, unsure if they were really going to do this.
“Officially, they don’t care. Unofficially…” He blew out a long breath, and finally smiled. “Unofficially I don’t care.”
He reached out, and Bruce placed one hand on his shoulder and the other in his free hand, allowing him to grasp Bruce at the waist and inviting him to take the lead.
As they began to move, Bruce knew that that choice, at least, had been the right one. He’d done a little ballroom dancing back in college, but remembered next to nothing. Rhodey on the other hand knew what he was doing, guiding Bruce through the slow steps of what he thought might be some very staid form of swing dancing. His footwork was surely all wrong, but with Rhodey’s hand on his hip he couldn’t bring himself to care.
The next song began almost before they could register that the last one had ended, and Rhodey made no move to pull away. Instead he leaned in closer. "So," he murmured, close to Bruce's ear, "you wanna tell me why we're doing this?"
Not an unreasonable question. "Because you said yes?" Bruce managed, a little embarrassed to use a line so cheesy, but unable to come up with a better explanation for his giddy impulse.
Rhodey laughed a little. "And do you, uh, do this a lot? Dance with men?"
"Not in the literal sense."
Rhodey pulled back slightly, one corner of his lips turned up in a surprised smile. "And in other senses?"
Bruce was tempted to allow his smile to be his answer, but after a moment he gave a little shake of his head. "'A lot' would be an overstatement," he admitted. "It's been a while." Then Bruce leaned in a little closer, keeping his lips near Rhodey's ear to ensure that his voice carried that far and no further. "Do you know what I miss?"
Out of the corner of his eye, Bruce watched Rhodey's Adam's apple bob as he swallowed, and shook his head.
"I really miss giving head." It was true. It was also an incredibly ridiculous, immature thing to say under nearly any circumstances, and especially these. But something about the champagne and the night and the way the buttons of Rhodey's uniform glittered under the chandeliers had gone to his head, and he couldn't yet manage to regret it.
That would probably come later.
But not now, as Rhodey swallowed again, hard, and gave him a look that was one part amused and several parts intrigued. Rhodey drew him a little closer and for a couple of steps Bruce could feel Rhodey's breath against his neck. After a few bars more Rhodey gave a little snort of laughter and drew Bruce's attention to the other side of the dance floor, where he could see Pepper murmuring in Tony's ear, both of them watching Bruce and Rhodey.
Tony gave a broad grin and a broader wink, and Bruce laughed out loud. Rhodey laughed with him, and they broke apart, the absurdity of what they were doing finally catching up to them. But as Bruce glanced around, wondering if he ought to go back to their table, Rhodey placed a hand on Bruce's wrist to draw his attention. "You want to get out of here?"
Bruce hoped to hell he didn't blush at that, but wouldn't have bet a damn thing on it.
They walked the eight blocks back to the Tower, and even amid the concrete and car exhaust of Manhattan, the warm night air felt good on Bruce's face.
The lobby of Stark Tower was dim and empty when they arrived and let themselves in. An elevator car awaited them, already open, and Bruce stepped in and turned to Rhodey. "Do you… um. Would you like a nightcap?"
His eyes flicked over Rhodey’s face, his chest suddenly tight with the fear that the invitation, or maybe the whole night, had been a terrible mistake. But Rhodey met his eyes with a tentative smile. "Yeah, that sounds good."
Rhodey’s eyes didn’t leave his face as the elevator began to move, and, after a moment’s deliberation, he reached out to slide a hand around the back of Bruce’s neck and leaned in for a kiss.
Bruce let his lips part, and had to hold back a swelling in his throat that wanted to be a little moan. It wouldn't be right for the moment, wouldn't be light or casual or elegant. But with Rhodey’s lips on his, Bruce suddenly felt not foolish delight but a deep well of want, and he found himself returning the kiss with desperate intensity.
Just a couple of heartbeats and it was over. Rhodey pulled away just far enough so that Bruce could see his face clearly.
Bruce felt a little pang of disappointment, and then a frisson of fear, but both evaporated at the hopeful tone in Rhodey’s voice when he murmured "Yeah?"
"Yeah,” Bruce whispered back, and kissed him again.
When the doors opened on Bruce's floor they stumbled out, still tangled in each other, and somehow found their way to the couch. Bruce let himself collapse back into it and felt Rhodey’s weight settle over him.
Rhodey’s lips found his again before making their way down his neck, and Bruce couldn’t even muster embarrassment as he moaned into the touch, the hot wet suction very nearly pulling him apart. Bruce allowed Rhodey to explore his body for a few delicious moments, feeling like the horny, carefree teenager that Bruce was sure neither of them had ever been.
Bruce shifted, capturing Rhodey’s lips in another kiss, and moved them both, trying to get Rhodey on his back and nearly succeeding in tipping both of them off the couch.
Rhodey’s laugh vibrated against Bruce’s skin, and the sound and sensation both warmed him.
Bruce let his hands wander under Rhodey’s jacket, and Rhodey shifted the two of them upright and allowed Bruce to remove jacket and shirt, revealing a gorgeously muscled torso that Bruce couldn’t resist. He brought his lips to Rhodey’s neck, kissing down over his clavicle, finding one nipple and sucking hard enough that Rhodey gasped and whined and bucked up a little.
Bruce chuckled and took the hint, sliding down until his knees rested on the carpet and his hands found the clasp of Rhodey’s pants, making quick work of them. He almost blushed to think of his ridiculously unsubtle come-on earlier in the night, but Rhodey seemed nothing if not eager, and Bruce allowed himself to draw out Rhodey’s cock and bring it to his lips.
Rhodey gave a soft murmur of approval as Bruce’s lips trailed over the smooth skin. He knew it was a tease but couldn’t resist the temptation to enjoy the sensation. In a moment he took pity and drew in the head of Rhodey’s cock, sucking hard enough to startle a rough sound from Rhodey’s lips.
And then Bruce went to work in earnest, taking Rhodey in as deep as he could, and grasping with one hand to make up the rest of Rhodey’s length. Bruce knew that a lot of people thought this was degrading, was dirty or somehow shameful. But Bruce knew shame all too well, and sucking cock didn’t bear even a passing resemblance. To focus onto nothing but the production of pleasure in someone who very much deserved it—it felt nothing but good.
So Bruce allowed himself to sink into the simple rhythms, lips tight around Rhodey’s cock and tongue busy and careful. He could have spent the whole night doing nothing else, and maybe on another occasion he’d like to, but soon enough Rhodey’s groans turned to soft curses, and then to tense pleas for relief.
Bruce couldn’t bring himself to do anything but grant them, sucking harder as he felt the muscles under his hand tense. He slipped his free hand between Rhodey’s legs, gently pressing against the space just behind his balls as he gave the last few strokes that left Rhodey pulsing, groaning, whispering something that might have been Bruce’s name. Bruce felt him come, bitter and hot in his mouth, and sucked greedily until he was spent.
He pulled off and looked up, taking in the sight of Rhodey, his head back and eyes closed, a look of deep satisfaction on his face.
And then his eyes opened and met Bruce’s, and he gave a little tug on Bruce’s shirt. Bruce took the hint, shifting to kneel on the couch, one knee on either side of Rhodey's lap. Rhodey pulled him in for a long kiss, and stroked the side of his face when they finally pulled apart.
"You should never have to miss doing that. You should have the opportunity to do that anytime you feel like it. And I’d be happy to, y’know, volunteer.”
Bruce just laughed and kissed him again.
Rhodey’s hand found the clasp of his pants and released it, pulling the zipper down slowly to give him time to object. And the way he ached for the touch, Bruce couldn’t find any part of him that wanted to make any such objection.
Rhodey reached in and clasped him, giving a couple of quick, tantalizing strokes before leaning forward to shift Bruce back onto the couch. One hand pressed Bruce down, and Rhodey sprawled over him with a casual physicality that Bruce couldn’t help but respond to.
But when Rhodey’s lips closed around the head of his cock, Bruce tensed.
He tried to relax into the sensation, tried to enjoy it for what it was—a pair of exceptionally talented lips working him, tongue hard against him just under the head. And God, it was good. Felt just right, hit all the right buttons. He let out a moan and watched as Rhodey increased his efforts in response, the gorgeous muscles of his back working as he moved down and up and down again over Bruce's cock.
It was so good, so much. Too much. Far more than he deserved. More even than he wanted, and certainly more than he expected. Especially from someone like Rhodey, someone who knew what he was, what he'd done, what he owed. But Rhodey sucked him in, pressing tight around him and humming with the pleasure of it. As if it were right for him to be devoting everything he had at that moment to make a man like Bruce feel good.
It overwhelmed him, and dread pooled in the pit of his stomach. He'd long feared the Other Guy's involvement in his sex life, but even now, when he'd long since ruled out the possibility that the racing heartbeat that came with sex could make him lose the other kind of control, he couldn't keep what he was from ruining something like this. His eyes welled, and with a flood of shame he realized that he'd started to soften in spite of Rhodey's perfect efforts.
He fought back a kind of panic—this wasn't how he wanted the night to end. He brought a hand down to Rhodey's cheek, pulling him up and hoping he hadn't noticed Bruce's flagging erection.
Rhodey pulled off obligingly, and at Bruce's urging shifted to sprawl over him on the couch. Bruce arched up against him, kissed him, and dragged his head down to whisper in his ear. "I want you to fuck me."
"Oh, God." Rhodey's voice, thick with desire, shot through Bruce and made him throb with need. The idea of Rhodey taking him, using him for his own pleasure, was an easier and far less complicated prospect. More enticing, even as he regretted the loss of Rhodey's hot wet mouth around him.
"We should— I think I'm a little old to do this on a couch," Bruce managed, and enjoyed Rhodey's low chuckle in response.
Rhodey stood and offered a hand, which Bruce took to help haul himself up. He couldn’t bring himself to break contact right away, and tugged Rhodey close for another kiss, sending one hand roving over the muscles of his back and down to his ass.
"Bed?" Rhodey finally managed. Bruce nodded, and they stumbled together, hardly willing to release one another, to Bruce's bedroom.
Where Bruce suddenly froze. Genius his ass, surely no genius would have let things get this far without realizing that he didn't have a single condom. Lube he had to spare, but it had been a long time—far, far too long—since he'd had any use for prophylactics.
He cursed softly, but not softly enough that Rhodey, who hadn't put more than a couple of inches of space between them since they'd left the fundraiser, couldn't hear. "What's wrong?"
Bruce looked away, sure his face had flushed bright red. "I— I don't think I've got any condoms." Truth to tell, Bruce knew beyond any reasonable doubt that he was clean, and that he had nothing to fear even if Rhodey wasn't. He got a clean slate every time he let the Other Guy take over, and much to his regret he'd allowed the Other Guy to take control more than once since he'd last gotten laid. Still, he wasn't about to ask Rhodey to trust in that, or in him.
But Rhodey laughed anyway. "Check your first aid kit."
Bruce blinked. "What?"
"Tony thinks condoms are first aid supplies. Do not even ask. But they should be there. Lube too."
Bruce declined to mention that lube had never been an issue, thanks to his own solitary habits. Instead he broke away long enough to make for the en suite, where, as predicted, the first aid kit contained as many sex supplies as medical ones.
He returned to the bedroom, lube and condom in hand. He put them both on the bedside table and grabbed the bedspread, throwing it off to allow himself to lie on bare sheets. He shucked off his pants and boxers, glancing at Rhodey in hopes of seeing approval there.
He got it, along with an almost predatory desire in Rhodey's eyes, and Bruce nearly melted into the bed. He spread his legs and reached out to retrieve the lube, coating his fingers with a generous amount and bringing his hand down to make a show of opening himself up.
Rhodey watched, eyes fixed like he'd never seen anything he'd rather look at, and Bruce felt a sharp spike of arousal. He fingered himself quickly, and without the kind of care he might have taken if he'd meant only to bring himself off, with a toy or his own hands. This would be better if he focused on Rhodey's pleasure instead of his own.
And Rhodey didn't seem to have any problem with that. When Bruce let his fingers slip out, and murmured a quiet "please," Rhodey took the cue easily, moving to cover Bruce's body with his own, pausing to let the head of his cock rest just at Bruce's opening. "Please," Bruce begged again, and Rhodey swore softly into his ear.
"God yes." And then Bruce's thoughts deserted him altogether as Rhodey pushed in, filling him, making him gasp and moan.
"Fuck. Goddamn, Bruce." Rhodey moved slowly, like he wanted to savor every centimeter, every tiny push or pull. Bruce relaxed as he pushed in and clenched as he drew out, and Rhodey cursed again.
Bruce chuckled low in his throat. "C'mon," he urged, "give it to me."
And Rhodey did, pounding into him with a force, a heat that took Bruce over and turned him inside out. He moaned and writhed under the force of Rhodey's desire, and had to hold himself back from spilling before Rhodey finished. In the end he couldn’t hold out as long as he meant to, and arched back, throbbing and spilling and almost sobbing as he came undone, but Rhodey followed him over the edge, and they fell together, locked in one another's arms.
Bruce slept better that night than he had in months.
Rhodey drifted awake in an unfamiliar bed, and reached the conclusion that he was safe, comfortable, and gently aroused before his mind pulled together the events of the previous night and reminded him of just where he was.
He was safe, comfortable, and aroused in Bruce Banner’s bed.
One of these days, Rhodey was going to have to stop thinking that his life couldn’t get any stranger, because so far he’d been proved wrong every damned time. But when he rolled over find Bruce watching him with soft brown eyes, he really couldn’t bring himself to mind.
"Morning," Rhodey offered.
“Morning,” Bruce murmured back. His eyes darted away, and then back to meet Rhodey’s gaze. "So is this the part where you run screaming?"
Rhodey blinked. "Sorry?"
"Last night was...." Bruce looked away, but Rhodey caught a little flush to his cheeks that looked like fondness. But when he looked back it had gone, and the set of his jaw was grim. "I figured in the light of day, you might be having second thoughts. So for the record, the Other Guy's not going to make an appearance if you run screaming."
Rhodey swallowed. He hadn't considered that possibility until Bruce raised it. And even then he found it surprisingly easy to put out of his mind. "Okay," he agreed easily. "And how about if I don't?" He reached out and ran his fingers over the soft thatch of hair on Bruce's chest, dipping down over his stomach. He paused and raised an eyebrow.
Bruce's eyes flickered, searching Rhodey's face, and after a moment his expression softened into a smile. "That'd be good too.”
In the end, Rhodey didn't make it to Tony's workshop until after noon. Tony was there already, fussing over a section of what Rhodey was pretty sure was Pepper's suit.
"Hey," he finally offered in greeting, when it became obvious that Tony had no intention of looking up from his work.
Tony ignored him, continuing to make adjustments while Rhodey wandered among the various prototypes and experiments, poking at this and that just to see what Tony had been up to. One bench was covered with scraps of metal—all different alloys, and some of them blends Rhodey didn't think he'd seen before. He skimmed through the readings displayed over them, more than content to catch up on Tony's latest discoveries until the man himself deigned to acknowledge him. When he finally pulled his attention away from the specs on the carbon/carbon composite, he found Tony watching him with a little smirk on his face.
He met Tony’s gaze, trying to keep his expression even.
“You’re looking awfully post-coital this—” He made a point of looking down at his watch, “—afternoon. You have a good night?”
Rhodey allowed himself a little grin. "You could say that."
"I'm just saying, I'm a little surprised. What was it you were saying about Bruce the other day?" Tony turned back to his work as he spoke. "That he's trouble?"
"That was a long time ago. What do you want me to say?"
"A rousing chorus of 'you were right and I was wrong' wouldn't be out of line."
Rhodey swallowed. "Yeah," he agreed finally. "He's got it under control. I get it."
Tony snorted. "Sounds like he's got more than that. I've never turned into a giant green rage monster, and apparently that wasn’t enough for you to jump my bones."
Rhodey rolled his eyes and forced himself not to wince. “’Cause that would have worked out so well."
Tony looked up. "Hey, I'm glad you had a good time getting into trouble." He spoke with a quiet warmth that Rhodey rarely heard in his voice. And then, as if to atone for the earnest sentiment, he cracked a grin. "Or was trouble getting into you?"
Rhodey couldn't help but laugh. "Please tell me you're not actually asking about my preferred sex positions, because—"
"Fine. Whatever. I'll just have to ask Bruce. Now get over here and take a look at what I've got for you." Tony hopped off the workbench and brought up a display of War Machine.
Rhodey didn't even blink at the rapid shift in conversation. "I thought we were just working out the kinks in the remote system."
"Old news. This is better." Tony launched into an explanation, and for the next twenty minutes all Rhodey could do was stand back and be suitably impressed.
Tony wound down with an explanation of the new composite used in the shielding, and when he finally lapsed into silence Rhodey gave a low whistle.
"You did all of that... what, this morning?"
"Most of it. It’s gonna take a few days to put it into practice, though. The brass can stand your absence until then.”
Rhodey frowned. “I told my superiors I’d have the suit upgraded by yesterday morning.”
“You really telling me they won’t wait for cutting edge StarkTech?”
“You know, every time you call it that it makes me want to remind you what a punk kid you were when we first met.”
“Don’t even try telling me you’ve got a problem with sticking around. Because I’ve got a lab buddy who’s likely to go a little green if you say so.”
“Don’t tell him that.” Bruce chided from across the lab as the doors opened to let him in. The light tone he affected didn’t quite disguise the worry underneath. “He’ll believe you.”
Rhodey laughed. "Not likely. I've known him long enough to know when he's just being an ass." Only when he glanced back at Tony did he notice his own foolish smile. He forced himself to sober a little. "But, yeah, the liaison office can probably live without me for a couple of days.“
Tony ignored that, as if Rhodey's agreement was so predictable that it wasn't worth acknowledging. Instead he held up one hand and beckoned Bruce over to the display. "Check this out." With a few quick gestures, he expanded the designs for the new armor, and further magnified one section of the shielding to show Bruce the composition.
Bruce gave a low whistle. "Finally got the new graphene alloy stabilized?"
"And you didn't think I could do it."
Bruce examined the display again, his brow furrowed slightly, and looked back at Tony. "That wasn't technically an answer. Did you get it stabilized?"
Rhodey shifted to look closer as well, and realized that that hadn't come up in Tony's earlier explanation.
"It's practically stabilized. I'm almost there. Whole thing will be done in a day. Or two."
Rhodey allowed himself to feel annoyed for a couple of seconds, but his mood was too good to sustain it for long, and he couldn't help but laugh at the almost sheepish expression on Tony's face. "You're going to get it working in a couple of days, huh?"
Tony scoffed. "The alloy I'll have done by midnight. The rest of the time's for fixing the paint job."
Bruce cracked a smile at that, only to wipe it from his face when he glanced over at Rhodey.
But Rhodey couldn’t help but enjoy Bruce's guilty amusement, and gave a broad wink in answer. Bruce took a couple of steps towards him, and suddenly Rhodey could think of nothing but the way his lips had felt around Rhodey’s cock the night before. And again that morning.
Tony interrupted his train of thought, or lack thereof, with an exaggerated cough. “Enough with the eye fucking. Bruce, make yourself useful.” He gestured at a display. “Figure that out. And you—“ he pointed at Rhodey, and then at the prototype gauntlet in front of him, “help me with this.”
Rhodey spent the next few hours watching Tony work, handing over the occasional tool and listening to Tony's ramblings. Bruce stuck around the lab, apparently pouring over the alloy. Rhodey couldn't keep himself from glancing over periodically, and Bruce looked up at him each time, as if he had a second sense for when Rhodey was watching. At first Bruce's expressions were mild, almost sheepish, but as the afternoon wore on they grew a little bolder. Several hours in, Rhodey looked up to find Bruce watching him with unmistakable desire in his eyes, and found that he couldn't look away.
Rhodey gave his head a little shake as if to wake himself, and turned to find the iron and hand it over. But instead of taking it, Tony just smirked. "Yeah, get the hell out of here."
Rhodey blinked and started to apologize, but the fond amusement in Tony's face took the sting out of the dismissal.
"There is way too much sexual tension in this lab, and distressingly little of it is directed at me.” Tony took the soldering iron out of Rhodey's hand and gestured toward the door with one thumb as he returned to his work. “Out, both of you.”
Rhodey laughed and raised one eyebrow at Bruce, who gave a little nod.
They'd just stepped out of the lab when JARVIS pinged for attention. "Should you be so inclined, a reservation has been made on your behalf at Tanjore."
Only then did Rhodey realize that he hadn't eaten since a quick breakfast around noon. He paused, and looked at Bruce. He still wasn't entirely clear what the two of them were doing, but for the moment, dinner sounded pretty good. "Shall we?"
Bruce shrugged, apparently trying for nonchalant, but coming off as amused. "Why not?"
The restaurant turned out to be casual, softly lit, and scented with spices that Rhodey could only identify as curry of some sort. A friendly older woman who looked more like a chef than a hostess showed them to a table in one corner and left them to peruse the menu. They’d barely had a chance to discuss their orders when she returned with champagne.
“I’m sorry, we didn’t—“
She ignored him and poured a glass for each of them. “It’s paid for.”
Rhodey exchanged an amused look with Bruce. Bruce shrugged a little, and thanked her, and she gave them both a warm smile.
“Have you decided what you’d like?”
Bruce glanced down at the menu, and back up. “What would you recommend?”
Her smile broadened at that, and she and Bruce ended up discussing the menu for a few minutes. In the end she gave Bruce a nearly flirtatious smile and promised to bring out a number of small plates that she promised they’d enjoy.
“So,” Rhodey drawled after she left, “should I be… jealous?”
“I don’t think so.”
Rhodey suddenly realized that he might have overstepped—that really, he didn’t have any particular right to be jealous of whoever Bruce flirted with, or slept with, or dated. They weren’t—well, Rhodey wasn’t entirely sure what they were, but one night didn’t exactly establish a claim to Bruce’s affections. “I didn’t mean— That was a joke.”
Bruce glanced away quickly, and turned his attention to his champagne glass, holding it up to watch the bubbles float to the surface. “This, uh, this feels… kind of like a date. Is that— I know it was Tony’s idea….”
Rhodey shrugged. “Yeah. But… not a bad one. Right?”
“Right.” Bruce’s lips curved in a shy little smile, and it was everything Rhodey could do not to lean over the table and kiss him. “So… we’re dating?”
“Looks that way.”
Bruce’s smile turned more pleased than shy. “I’m a little rusty, so if you’ve got any pointers…”
“I think we’re doing pretty well, so far.”
“Yeah. Me too.”
The rest of the dinner passed in a pleasant haze of rich curries and biting champagne and the wry sparkle of Bruce’s eyes. When they finally asked for the check, their server insisted that everything had been taken care of, and refused to so much as tell them how much the bill amounted to.
They made their way back to Bruce's place and, after mumbling a few perfunctory lines about nightcaps or coffee or stopping in for just a moment, Bruce kissed him, hard. After that it was mere minutes before they tumbled into Bruce’s bed, laughing and teasing and peeling off each others’ clothes. Bruce's hands and tongue and everything else were impossibly skilled, achingly generous, and with a focus on Rhodey so complete that he could feel himself melting into it.
He felt only a slight pang of disappointment when he made a move to take Bruce into his mouth, and Bruce froze for an instant before rolling both of them over and launching an assault on the sensitive spot just under Rhodey's ear. But his perfect, playful touch and throaty laugh banished any regrets, and Rhodey gladly gave himself over to whatever Bruce had in mind.
Only afterwards, when they lay side by side, sweaty and sticky and spent, did Rhodey have the time to remember the expression, aching and sorrowful, that flickered over Bruce's face as he'd pushed Rhodey away.
He rolled onto his side, his lips parted to broach the subject, but Bruce's eyes had fallen shut, and his chest rose and fell in the slow rhythm of sleep. Rhodey didn't move back. He lay there, watching the soft, open look on Bruce's face. Bruce had seemed happy enough over the past few days, but now, in true repose, his face lacked the regret that Rhodey only then realized had haunted his expression even in his lightest moments.
Not long ago he'd seen that guilt and felt it justified—only fair for what he'd done. And even now he couldn't claim that Bruce was entirely innocent. Tricked or not, Bruce was right that he’d made a grave mistake, the consequences of which reached far beyond himself. Rhodey knew Bruce would carry that guilt for the rest of his days, no matter how hard he worked, how good he was, how much more he gave back to the world than he'd ever taken from it.
When Rhodey finally slept, he dreamt of that face painted with delight, awake and alert and free of regret.
He woke alone, to the sound of water running. He considered lounging in bed for a bit longer, but the thought of Bruce, standing just a few yards away and soaping himself under the spray of the shower, got him up in a hurry. He knocked on the door of the en suite, and felt a rush of pleasure at Bruce's enthusiastic invitation in.
The air in the bathroom felt hot and soft on his skin, the steam a welcome contrast to the crisply air conditioned apartment. Rhodey crossed it without a thought and pulled open the shower door just far enough to step inside and close it behind him.
Bruce turned and reached out, clasping Rhodey's shoulder and drawing him close. Water beat down on his head and trickled over both their faces as they kissed, mouths wide and hot and reveling in a gorgeous closeness that Rhodey hadn't felt in way too long.
Bruce's soap-slicked hands slid down over Rhodey's sides, his hips, landing on his ass and squeezing until Rhodey let out a little groan and reached out to grasp Bruce. Pressed together, he could feel Bruce's cock stir between them, hot and urgent.
Rhodey reached up to slide fingers through Bruce's wet hair, using that bit of leverage to urge Bruce's head back and bare his throat to Rhodey's lips. The soft little noises that Bruce let out as Rhodey licked and sucked went straight to Rhodey's dick. After a moment he brought his lips to Bruce's ear. "You know, I have never slept with a guy who didn't like blowjobs."
Bruce tensed and shifted back, far enough that Rhodey could see him look away.
Rhodey cursed himself. “I’m sorry, that was— I just want to know if there are things that are—“ He took a breath, trying to find the words for this. “Is there stuff I should know to avoid?”
A soft look, something like wonder, crossed Bruce’s face. “No. It isn’t— it isn’t that. I just, um, it's good for me, when it's good for you."
"Well,” Rhodey allowed with a grin, “that works both ways." Rhodey let his hand drop down, sliding over the gentle muscles of Bruce's torso, to pause just over the jut of his cock. "I'd really enjoy blowing you. If that's something you'd—"
Bruce shook his head, the motion almost frantic, and Rhodey moved back, afraid again that he'd misread. "Hey, look, I don't want to do anything you don't want to do. No pressure. But—" He swallowed, glanced away, not totally convinced he wasn't pushing too hard. But the ache of Bruce's guilt stayed with him, and Rhodey couldn't suppress his urge to do something about it. "Whatever would feel good to you—you'd deserve it."
"No." He drew out the word, long and high and sad, and took a step back. Ran both hands through his hair, and almost imperceptibly bent forward, like he was trying to protect himself from something. He finally wrenched his head up and met Rhodey's eyes. "Don't. You know better."
Rhodey drew in a long breath. It felt like dangerous ground, and he didn't trust his footing, but he didn't know how to retreat any better than he knew how to move forward. "I'm not looking to make this a thing.” He glanced away, hesitant to say too much. “I just need you to get that I—"
“I get it.”
And from his expression, almost awed and almost sad and definitely pleased, Rhodey thought he did. He grasped Bruce by the waist and drew him closer. "I'd just like to make you feel good. However that works for you."
Bruce pressed his lips against Rhodey’s neck, and let his hand trail down over Rhodey’s side. “This works for me,” he murmured, and Rhodey felt strong fingers close around his dick.
He groaned at the firm, perfect grip, and returned it, giving Bruce’s cock a slow stroke before entangling their fingers together.
Bruce drew in a ragged breath, letting his forehead fall onto Rhodey’s shoulder. “You are— You are more than I ever deserved.”
Rhodey used two fingers to tip his chin up and kiss him, hard. “You are incredible.”
Bruce flushed but didn’t deny it, and Rhodey decided to call that a win.
Just four days after Rhodey had arrived, Bruce stood on the landing pad of the tower and watched him take off in a roar of repulsors, headed back to DC and his job. He’d promised to return at the end of the week, to test out the new suit that Tony hadn’t yet finished, and, Bruce hoped, for other reasons as well.
Bruce enjoyed the warm sun and gentle breeze even after Rhodey disappeared from sight. He had things to do, but nothing urgent, and he had no reason not to allow himself to enjoy the moment. The prospect of Rhodey’s absence for the next few days left him subdued, but even that felt a little bit good. And as he thought again of the sly smile that had graced Rhodey’s lips when they’d said their goodbyes, a tight little thrill of pleasure bloomed in his chest.
He made his way down to the lab, a smile on his own lips, and spent the morning devising and prepping tests that he'd left aside for days. A little past two, JARVIS conveyed a summons to Tony’s workshop, and Bruce took just a few moments to save his work before heading up.
He arrived to find Tony engrossed in the schematics for some new repulsor technology. Bruce couldn't immediately wrap his head around it, but a three minute explanation later he had his hands deep in the holographic specs, eagerly shifting components to illustrate his suggestions.
Tony stepped back and watched, offering an occasional objection or correction with a little smirk on his lips. When Bruce finished his thought, Tony gave no answer, still just looking at him, eyes dancing with amusement.
"You should always be getting laid."
Bruce flushed, and that seemed to satisfy Tony, who launched into a set of alternative options. They debated back and forth, eventually deciding on a couple of sets of specs.
"Shall we send them to fabrication?" Bruce suggested, "see how the rubber meets the road?"
"Pretty sure that's my line. Shouldn't you be suggesting all kinds of ridiculous simulations to run first, make sure nothing explodes in our faces?"
"Your testing area containment is pretty secure," Bruce offered.
Tony looked him up and down and grinned. "Yeah, definitely a fan of the you getting laid thing. Let's do it."
Forty-five minutes later they stood behind thick safety glass, watching their first prototype roar to life. Tony brought up the readings. "Looking good."
Bruce leaned over and magnified the line of the sub-level energy output, which wavered worryingly. "That shouldn't be happening."
Tony frowned. "Could be minor imperfections in the fabrication process, give it a minute to stabilize."
"Yeah," Bruce agreed, and turned back to the prototype.
Tony joined him, and they waited together. "So. You and Rhodey."
"Yeah," Bruce agreed.
"Would not have called that one."
Bruce couldn’t help but smile. "I, uh, guess I wouldn’t have either." He watched Tony's face, unsure whether he saw approval or concern. "So you’re not— you don’t mind?”
“Why would I mind? For starters, you’ve just exponentially increased my odds of talking Pepper into a foursome—“
Bruce opened his mouth, but Tony ignored him.
“—and for another…” Then he did stop, and eyed Bruce with something approaching affection. “You two—“
A loud bang cut him off, and both their eyes fixed on the smoking remains of the prototype on the other side of the glass.
"Huh." Tony pulled up the specs and started to go through the readings, searching for the cause of the problem. "Not what I was expecting."
They spent the better part of the afternoon sorting out the problems in the design, and the better part of the week creating a new one to avoid the issue.
Rhodey called once, two days after he'd left, and he and Bruce spoke briefly. Bruce could have rambled for hours about his projects, or Tony's, could have listened to Rhodey's stories from the capital almost endlessly, but somehow any of that felt oddly intimate, forbidden in a way that went beyond the physical intimacies they'd shared.
So Bruce hung up just a few minutes after he'd answered, having learned only that Rhodey still planned to return to New York for the weekend, ostensibly to finally get the new suit Tony had promised. It was enough that Bruce returned to bed with a smile on his lips, and woke more than happy to put up with whatever ridiculous projects Tony had in mind for the day.
He spent Friday morning on projects of his own, which spilled over into the afternoon before Tony called him up to the workshop, and Bruce went gladly, more eager than he would have cared to admit to see Rhodey's new suit.
It was impressive—the new alloy, now safely stabilized, made the suit stronger and lighter at once, which meant the repulsors could give twice the maneuverability with no loss of power. The potential uses ranged far beyond armor, and he and Tony traded ideas for longer than he realized. Bruce’s eyes flicked to his watch in surprise when Pepper arrived in the workshop, her usually impeccable suit a little rumpled, and slight bags visible under her eyes. She slid one arm around Tony's waist and leaned against him, watching as Tony put the finishing touches on the schematic for modified shoulder joints.
"It's almost seven," she murmured when he'd finished. "Are you ready to take me to dinner?"
Tony returned a look of mock consternation. "Uh, I would, but here's the thing— technically, I did promise Rhodey I'd have his suit ready for him, and he's going to be here in—" he looked at his watch, "half an hour. So if I were to go off gallivanting now..."
Pepper pretended to consider. "He'd have to find something else to occupy himself tonight," she concluded.
"Which would be terrible. Very rude. On my part."
Pepper laughed and shifted her weight towards the door, tugging Tony along with her. "Well then." She took a few steps, and Tony followed along behind, shrugging his shoulders as if to indicate that he had no choice in the matter. "Tell James we're terribly sorry," Pepper told Bruce. "I'm sure Tony will upgrade his suit first thing tomorrow."
"Sure. Whatever. First thing," Tony agreed. "I mean, unless he's got something better to do first thing. In which case—" he drew her in for a quick kiss before grinning back at Bruce. "In which case second thing would do. Or third thing. Third thing would be fine."
Rhodey arrived about fifteen minutes after Tony and Pepper had left, and Bruce met him in the living room of the penthouse. Rhodey raised an eyebrow to see him standing there alone, and Bruce offered a sly smile.
"Tony send his regrets. It turns out he's got other plans for the evening."
"Hmm," Rhodey mused, covering the space between them in three strides. "Well in that case, I guess I've got a little time to kill."
Bruce slipped one arm around his waist. "Whatever will you do?"
Rhodey chuckled. "I'll think of something."
Their lips barely parted as they found their way to the elevator and down to Bruce's floor. Bruce managed to get Rhodey's shirt up and off him, and dropped his lips to one nipple, letting his teeth rasp over it while Rhodey let out a series of little whines that made Bruce chuckle low in his throat.
Rhodey’s hands roamed over Bruce's body, slipping under his shirt, sliding down to his ass, where he gave a quick squeeze.
Bruce froze. Rhodey's hand rested directly over the passport in his pocket.
Rhodey pulled back, his brow furrowed in surprise. But he relaxed quickly, and smiled. "You know,” he teased, “your ass would look better without all the stuff you keep in your pockets." Bruce could feel his fingers dipping in, drawing the papers out. "Not that it doesn’t look pretty damn—"
Before he could think, Bruce closed his hand around Rhodey's wrist. The startled look on Rhodey's face told him that his grip was too hard, and when he looked down he could see his knuckles had gone white with the strain.
He took a breath and released Rhodey without loosening his hold on the passport.
Rhodey let it go, his eyes hard now, searching Bruce's face. "Wanna tell me what that was about?"
Bruce returned the passport to his pocket, careful to keep the front hidden so the nationality wouldn't show. "Nothing personal," he murmured.
Rhodey just stood there for a moment. "Nothing personal," he repeated, his voice suddenly wary.
Bruce ached at the tone, and tried to relent, a little. "Sometimes I need to stay under the radar. So I've got a couple of IDs that aren't exactly in my name. That's all."
"And you think if I get a look at it, I'm going to—what? Sell you out to the highest bidder?”
“Not the highest one, no.”
Bruce wished he could take the words back the instant they left his mouth. Rhodey’s head jerked back like he’d been slapped, and Bruce took a step towards him, reaching out, before he realized with a cold certainty that Rhodey wouldn’t welcome the gesture. “I didn’t— I didn’t mean that.”
“Yeah? What did you mean?”
Bruce couldn’t quite force himself to speak at first. When he finally did, he kept his voice quiet, hardly more than a whisper. “You’re in the Air Force. And Ross is a superior officer.”
“And you think I’m going to give you up to him, is that it?”
Rhodey fixed him with those intense brown eyes, and Bruce dug inside himself for an answer, but found none. He considered chalking his caution up to an old habit that hasn't quite died, but that would be a lie. A few good nights—even nights as improbably, absurdly good as these had been—could hardly be expected to trump the loyalties of a lifetime.
After a long moment of silence, Rhodey turned abruptly to retrieve his shirt from the floor.
“I’m sorry," Bruce managed. And he was. God he was. "But—“
Rhodey paused. “But what?”
Bruce drew in a long breath and forced himself not to think of what he'd just lost, of the small miracle that he'd just ruined. “You’re an officer. You swore an oath. And if somebody orders you to—”
He couldn't finish the sentence. Not that there was any reason to. Rhodey could hardly mistake what he meant to say.
Rhodey’s eyes turned hard. "Nothing personal," he echoed again, an anger in his voice that sounded almost like disgust. “Yeah, I swore an oath. And under that oath it is my solemn obligation to disobey any unlawful order. So if Ross or anybody else comes to me trying to track down a civilian who poses no threat, what I’m sworn to do is tell him to go to hell. Are we clear?”
Bruce felt a little swelling somewhere in his chest. The phrase poses no threat echoed through his mind, but he couldn’t quite get a grip on it, couldn’t find any response to Rhodey’s anger.
Rhodey watched him for a moment, waiting for an answer, and when none was forthcoming he turned on his heel and made for the door.
Bruce struggled to find voice, to come up with something, anything that he could say. But his vaunted mind, as ever, proved hopelessly fallible just when it mattered most.
He could do nothing but curse himself and watch Rhodey go.
Rhodey slept badly, and woke just before dawn. He spent half an hour trying to get back to sleep before giving up and heading for Tony's gym.
He found it empty, as expected at that hour, and went straight for one of the punching bags. His form was shit, muscles too tense, concentration shot to hell. He managed to tire his arms and bruise his knuckles, but his restless frustration didn't even begin to abate. He gave that up too, and grabbed a shower and a change of clothes before heading for the workshop. Maybe Tony would have his suit ready so he could head back to DC. Not something he'd usually look forward to, but today he wanted nothing more than to be far away from Stark Tower and Bruce Banner.
He arrived in the workshop long before Tony, and tried to find some specs to review—anything to keep himself occupied—but nothing held his attention. He made himself a cup of coffee, black and stronger than he usually liked it, but this morning it suited him. He drank half of it before abandoning the mug in favor of pacing from one side of the workshop to the other.
Rhodey had nearly decided to screw the upgrade and head back to D.C. immediately when Tony finally walked in. He stopped dead and tried to adjust his posture to hide his agitation. There was no point in getting as worked up as he was, and if he couldn’t do anything about that, he could at least avoid being obvious.
“Surprised you’re here already. Why aren’t you still screwing Bruce, or spooning, or whatever you two crazy kids get up to? You look…” Tony paused, and his voice softened slightly. "You're looking a lot less post coital than I'd have expected.”
Rhodey couldn’t quite bring himself to respond to that. "Is my suit ready or what?"
Tony ignored the question. "Honeymoon’s over, huh? You and Big Green have a fight?"
“Tony." He tried to make his voice a warning, but it came out as more of a plea. “Can we just—“
Tony looked him over and shrugged. “You’re good to go. Suit up.”
Rhodey tried to concentrate, but for a moment found himself too distracted by Tony’s assessing look to even try calling the first parts of the suit.
“Are we having a little performance anxiety? Wait, is that what’s got you—“
Rhodey activated several pieces of the suit at once, and one gauntlet and both boots whizzed just past Tony’s head on their way to form neatly around Rhodey’s body. To Rhodey’s satisfaction, that shut him up. For the moment, anyway.
He called over the other gauntlet next, and the leg armor, all of which did just what it was supposed to, locking together with the boots and readying itself for the next pieces.
But before he gave the signal to bring them over as well, the workshop doors swished open.
Pepper stepped in, and Rhodey quickly put out of his mind his relief—or possibly disappointment—that it was her, and not Bruce, joining them.
“I trust Tony apologized for running out on you last night. I’m sure you found something to occupy yourself.” Pepper’s delighted smile was almost more than Rhodey could take.
“Ixnay on the Ucebray talk,” Tony muttered to her, sotto voce.
Pepper’s face fell, and that really was more than Rhodey could take. He called the remaining pieces of his own suit and felt them lock into place around him.
"Not bad," Tony approved. "Good to know your sexual frustration hasn't thrown your game. Then again, if that was going to happen, you'd have been off your game for—"
"You know, I could use some air." Without another word, he took off, shooting up and out through the open sunroof Tony had put in for the purpose.
It felt good to fly, alone and without any destination at all. The new suit could move. It felt oddly light around him, almost as if he were flying under his own power, but when he tried a couple of quick burns of the repulsors, they sent him shooting up, further and faster than he expected. Any other time he would have had a blast, but today he didn’t feel like playing with a new toy.
He headed due east, and soon found himself over open water, nothing but sea and sky anywhere in his field of vision. Nobody around to expect anything from him. Or to expect nothing from him.
He'd been an idiot to hope for anything with Banner, to read far, far too much into a little flirting and a few charmed nights. Most people would have known better—would have done this before, when they were young enough to chalk ridiculous mistakes up to hormones gone haywire. But he'd never really had the chance. And so he'd let himself get drunk on champagne and pleasure and what he'd thought might have been the start of something real.
But even more than the disappointment, it was the insult that stung. That a guy like Banner would think he lacked for loyalty. He took a sharp turn, straight up, and activated full thrusters to fly straight for the sun. He didn't stop until his heads' up display turned red in warning, and only then leveled out, flying just at the upper limit of the suit's tolerances.
He didn't see the other suit coming until it almost reached him, the red and white flashing in the sunlight as it leveled out beside him. "Mind a little company?" Pepper asked over the com.
Rhodey considered a polite refusal, but couldn't bring himself to make it. "Nah."
They flew together in silence for a while, darting away and catching up and imitating one another's maneuvers, as they had when he'd taught her to fly. But eventually he grew bored of the games and evened out, flying parallel to the horizon.
She matched him, and after a few minutes, spoke. "What happened?"
He briefly considered playing dumb and discarded the idea as a waste of time. "Nothing. Well— nothing that matters. We just, uh, I guess we don't really see eye to eye."
She was quiet for a moment, and then spoke slowly, carefully. "I figured you must have worked things out. I thought—do you still worry about the Hulk?"
Rhodey laughed bitterly and wondered why he’d ever thought Bruce would trust him. Why he’d assumed that a little casual conversation, a couple of rolls in the hay, meant anything to him at all. “Not exactly. I just—” he sighed, feeling again the sharp pang of what he’d thought he had. “I misread the situation.”
“That’s too bad. I haven’t seen Bruce look so happy since….“ She trailed off, and at first he thought it was because she didn’t want to mention the last time Bruce had had a good time, but when she finished, her voice sounded sad. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen him look so happy.”
Just what he needed to complement anger and disappointment—a generous heaping of guilt. As if he should feel like a piece of shit for expecting that the guy he was sleeping with actually thought something of him.
“I’m sorry,” Pepper added. “That was insensitive. Sometimes these things don’t work out. You want to show me that stall turn you were talking about?”
“Yeah, sure.” Stall turns were frivolous, more something you did to show you could than anything you’d need to get around. It wasn’t even properly evasive, but ordinarily it could be a lot of fun. He walked her through it, describing how you ascend, when you cut power, which way you twist. He found little joy in the stunt as he demonstrated it, but the little whoop she let out when she imitated the maneuver, a hair late on the turn but otherwise perfect, cut through his bad mood and brought a little smile to his lips.
By the time they touched down and let the Tower strip away their suits, he felt almost normal. Pepper gave him a quick kiss on the cheek and murmured something about catching up on paperwork, and Rhodey made his way back to the workshop to say goodbye before he headed back to D.C.
He’d just reached out to punch his access code into the panel by the door when he glanced through the clear glass door to see Bruce. Rhodey turned to leave, but Bruce caught his eye before he could manage it, and he froze.
Bruce said something quick to Tony—Rhodey couldn’t hear what—and very nearly ran for the side door to the lab. Rhodey stood there like an idiot until side door closed behind Bruce, and only then entered.
Rhodey walked up behind Tony to see what he was doing. He stood in front of a computer screen, but didn’t seem to be doing anything with the project displayed there. “Look, I was an ass earlier. It isn’t your fault—“
“What the hell happened with you two?”
Rhodey flinched and tried to come up with an answer, but nothing really came to mind.
“Seriously, you were in here this morning ready to break someone’s face, and Bruce looks like he just drop-kicked a whole litter of puppies. Do you have any idea how much guilt it takes to show up against Bruce’s baseline? What the hell did he—” Tony cut himself off with a stricken look. “The Other Guy didn’t—“
Rhodey shook his head. "Nothing like that. We just— look, we screwed around for a few days. No big deal."
Tony stilled, dropped his hands to his sides, and looked Rhodey up and down. The quiet appraisal felt uncomfortable—so different from Tony's usual manic demeanor—and Rhodey couldn't really say why.
And then Tony turned away sharply, back to his display screen. "Look," he said, not actually looking at Rhodey, "I'm the last guy to give romantic advice. Ask Pepper. So if you tell anyone about this, or bring it up in the future, or any crap like that, I'm going to deny it until the day I die. But you two—" he stopped again and turned back to Rhodey as his voice hardened with what almost sounded like anger. “You two were not just screwing around. I don't know what the hell you were doing, but fix it."
Rhodey started to deny that there was anything to fix, but Tony cut him off.
"I'm serious. I'm not gonna put up with the two of you moping at me for weeks."
Rhodey knew it for a joke, but lacked the energy to respond in kind. "I should get back to D.C. anyway."
"Stay another day. We can get ridiculously drunk. They're not expecting you in D.C. until Monday."
He had to admit that the idea of getting a little blitzed sounded pretty damn good. And the prospect of sitting alone in his quarters, or going out for a beer with any of the guys he hung out with in D.C., only made the sick little knot in his stomach worse. He could always try his luck at one of the very discreet gay bars in town, but he couldn't muster the slightest interest in screwing some random guy. "Yeah, sounds good."
Tony had a few more hours of work in the lab, and Rhodey helped out a little. Mercifully, the conversation stayed on the tech and didn't veer back to the subject of Rhodey's sex life even when Pepper joined them for dinner and drinks. They'd finished the meal but hadn't started drinking in earnest when JARVIS announced that Dr. Banner hoped to join them.
Tony glanced at Rhodey with one raised eyebrow, seeking permission, and Rhodey drained his wine glass and gave a short nod.
“Tell him to come on in,” Tony told JARVIS.
Bruce appeared almost immediately, and Rhodey felt a bitter pang at the sight. Bruce's posture had gone back to the way it had appeared when they first met—head bowed, shoulders slouched in defeat. He approached the table and looked up without shifting to stand upright, watching all three of them almost through his eyelashes. Or, no. Not at all three of them. Rhodey met Bruce’s eyes and realized that he wasn’t looking at anybody else.
“Can we— can I talk to you? Privately?”
Miraculously, Tony offered no comment as Rhodey nodded his agreement and stood to lead Bruce back to his guest room.
Even when the door slid shut behind them, Bruce didn’t speak. Rhodey considered a few opening lines, but something petty inside him insisted on waiting to see what Bruce had to say for himself.
Finally Bruce gave him a rueful look. “’Poses no threat?’”
Rhodey blinked at the non sequitur, his mind connecting the dots only when Bruce took two steps to stand inside Rhodey’s personal space, smiling in much the way a shark might seem to smile. “You really think I pose no threat?”
Rhodey forced himself not to back down from the deliberate menace of that smile. “Absent provocation, yes.”
“And in the presence of provocation?”
“Better to avoid that, don’t you think?”
Bruce studied his face. “Is that your call?”
“I’ll make it my call.”
Bruce glanced away, and back. “Because we’re—”
“Because I don’t put my people at risk. And because I don’t betray my friends. I don’t know what part of that wasn’t clear, but—“
Bruce brought one hand up to cup his face, and Rhodey stopped talking, far too tempted to lean into the caress, into a kiss, into more.
But he couldn’t—not without figuring out what he was getting himself into.
“I’m sorry,” Bruce told him softly. “I didn’t—“ He shook his head. “I’m sorry.” He pulled a thick bundle out of a pocket and handed it over.
Rhodey took it without a word and watched Bruce turn and pace away, as if he couldn’t bear to look.
“Tony hasn’t seen them, you know. Or Pepper. S.H.I.E.L.D. might know the details, but I doubt it.” He turned, and looked back. “It really wasn’t personal.”
Rhodey looked down at the papers in his hand. A German passport, with something stuffed inside—cash probably, and maybe other IDs. Another passport in the stack, and a handful of other documents. Rhodey considered. “So why show them to me now?”
Bruce turned back. “Because—“ His voice turned thick and he stopped himself. He took a moment before continuing. “Because you know what I am. You understand what I’m capable of.”
Rhodey opened his mouth to object, but Bruce shook his head.
“You know. And under the right— Well, under the wrong circumstances… it’s better if you have all the information.” Bruce met his eyes and held them. “I trust that you’ll know what to do with it.”
And suddenly Rhodey felt, deeply, and with a sharp pang of guilt, how presumptuous it had been for him to expect this kind of trust—how little he’d done to earn it. “I don’t want this. Not if it’s just to prove that you—“
“It’s not.” Bruce took a couple of steps away, turned to look out the window at the city below. “When we met— Most people have the reaction you did. When they know about me, I mean. Most people see the threat, and they keep their distance.” He gave a little snort of what Rhodey couldn’t quite call laughter. “Can’t blame them for that. And then there are people like Tony, and Pepper too, in spite of herself. They like me, and sometimes that means they can’t see— They don’t always see me for what I am.” He turned back. “But you haven’t forgotten.”
Rhodey regarded him solemnly. “No.”
“But you, uh— you like having me around anyway.” He tone wavered a little, like he couldn’t be sure of Rhodey’s answer, and Rhodey could hardly keep himself from drawing him into an embrace.
“Yeah, I kind of thought I made that clear.”
“So that’s why.” Bruce glanced away. “And, um, if I do have to run… I wouldn’t mind if you could find me.”
Rhodey may not have deserved Bruce’s trust, but he couldn’t decline it now, whether he felt worthy of it or not. Very deliberately, he opened the first of the passports and let his eyes scan over the information it contained. Bruce watched as he read through each of the documents, quietly committing them to memory. When he’d finished, he looked up. “Thank you.”
For a moment Bruce just watched him, with soft, grateful eyes. “I do need them back. I, uh, might have to use them.”
Rhodey held them out, and watched as Bruce tucked them away in a pocket. He ached at Bruce’s softly resigned tone, and remembered words Bruce spoke months ago, long before Rhodey really knew him. I tried to run. I always tried to run. Whatever it cost him—whatever it cost either of them—given a choice between leaving everything behind and risking more deaths on his head, Bruce would run every time.
Even so, Rhodey could hope that it wouldn’t come to that—that he could keep it from coming to that. “I hope you never do. ‘Cause, I was kind of hoping you’d stick around.” He took a step toward Bruce, close enough for an embrace, stroking the side of his face with one hand.
Bruce smiled, all warmth and satisfaction, and brought his own fingers up to caress Rhodey’s. “Me too,” he murmured.
Rhodey could feel Bruce melt into his embrace, oddly, breathtakingly vulnerable. He tilted Bruce's chin up for a kiss. Bruce's hand dropped down to Rhodey's waist, and dipped lower to skim over his ass before grabbing hard and pulling his hips tight against Bruce's. Rhodey chuckled a little. "Impatient," he chided.
"I just— I missed you."
Some rational part of Rhodey's brain managed to point out that their stupid fight had been just yesterday, that they'd only been apart before that for as long as they'd strictly speaking been together. But most of him just wanted to kiss away the note of regret in Bruce's voice, to touch him everywhere, to drive him crazy until neither of them could even remember fighting.
He went with his gut—or possibly his dick—and kissed down Bruce's throat, slipping one hand down along Bruce's hip to the back of his thigh, curling fingers around to trace up between his legs. Bruce made a small sound, rough and desperate, and Rhodey could feel it blazing through his veins. He sucked at Bruce's clavicle, trying to get him to make that noise again, until a soft ping interrupted them.
"Mr. Stark wishes to have a word," JARVIS informed them in his usual even tone.
Bruce huffed out a laugh and let his head fall against Rhodey's shoulder. "We're busy," he called out.
"Busy fighting or busy fucking?" This time Tony's voice came through the speakers.
Bruce raised his head. The wry amusement in his eyes was so damned adorable that Rhodey almost ignored Tony entirely in favor of kissing him again. But that wasn't likely to result in Tony actually going away, so he restrained himself. "Busy fucking," he answered.
Bruce laughed again, almost a giggle, and glanced toward the speakers near the ceiling as they awaited a response. It didn't come for long enough that Rhodey started to think that Tony had done the sensible thing and left them alone. But obviously that was too much to hope for. "Hate-fucking or make-up sex?"
At that Rhodey joined in Bruce's laughter.
"Ignore that." Pepper's voice sounded as though she were laughing too. "It's none of our business."
"It could be our business," Tony suggested.
Rhodey exchanged a look with Bruce, who gave a quick little nod. "It's make-up sex," he clarified. “Or it was going to be, until—“
“Good,” Tony approved. “Have fun. Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do.”
“Goodnight,” Pepper told them, firmly, and with affection. “Do have fun.”
Rhodey waited another moment, glancing from Bruce to the speakers and back again. “The com’s off?”
“Yes, sir,” JARVIS confirmed.
“Good.” He slid his hand back around Bruce’s waist and drew him in. “Now. Where were we?”