Tony held his hands out toward the golf-ball sized object that hovered in the air between him and Rhodey. As he moved his fingertips, the ball made high-pitched whirring sounds, over the steady background buzz of the motor that was keeping it aloft.
“There. Got it.” Tony snapped his fingers to turn off the holographic grid that had been floating in front of his eyes, and turned to look at the wall of security screens that showed each of the rooms in the Avengers’ training compound. “Tell me, Rhodey,” he began, with the tone of a Very Important Question. “Do you think they’re talking about me?”
On one monitor, Pepper was showing a sheaf of technical drawings to Wanda Maximoff, who regarded them gravely. In another, Steve Rogers sprawled in a chair, with Sam and Natasha seated on either side. Natasha said something, and the men laughed. It wasn’t clear to Rhodey which group Tony was referring to, but he’d learned a long time ago that if he waited for Tony to make total sense before answering him, their conversations would end up (even more) one-sided.
“I dunno,” Rhodey said. “Now that you’ve got your spy cameras in working order, maybe you can program them to send a message straight to Friday whenever someone is talking about you.”
“Like a Google alert in real life? Hmm. I can always count on you for good ideas.”
“No, Tony, that’s not a good idea. And the only thing you’d hate more than everyone talking about you would be if they weren’t talking about you.”
“You underestimate me. Nat’’s jokes are terrible, I have no desire to be involved in them, and I have no problem with Pepper and Wanda passing the Bechdel test in my vicinity.”
“Uh-huh,” Rhodey said, not because he knew what Tony was talking about but because Tony was going to tell him anyway.
“It’s a theory about the depiction of women in film. Or maybe comic books. Chrissie Everhart had a really perceptive thinkpiece about it on Slate the other day. I’ll send you the link --” He blinked. “ I just did. You remember Chrissie?”
Rhodey was quite familiar with Christine Everhart, from all the times she’d called him to fact check some absurd and/or classified thing that Tony had babbled to her, and he was pretty sure she didn’t let anyone call her Chrissie, definitely not Tony.
“Smart kid,” Tony said. “She was the first one to figure out I was Iron Man.”
“Actually, that was me.”
“I gave you hints. Come on, let’s go show the Avengers our new toy.”
Rhodey thought it would be a good idea to warn the trained secret agents before walking in on them with new state-of-the-art surveillance equipment, but Tony got through the door first. From that point, might as well let it play out.
The flying eyeball whizzed by Steve’s left ear and stopped, hovering, right in front of his forehead. Its aperture expanded, showing a luminous red knob.
“Tony,” said Steve. “What is that?”
“It’s for the livestream.” Tony responded, as per usual, to a slightly different question than the one he had been asked.
“And that is --?” Steve prompted.
“Ahh, sorry, Cap. It’s like when you’re filming something, to broadcast in the Internet -- the Internet is, to keep things simple, a series of tubes. . .”
“He knows what a livestream is,” said Sam.
“You do?” Tony gave Steve a skeptical look.
“Sure. Sam had me watch one for that bird thing in Dubai.”
“The Fazza Falconry Championships.” Sam was preemptively defensive.
“You had to stream that?” said Natasha, indignant. “I can’t believe that’s not on prime time.”
“Right? It’s the biggest one in the world. . .” Sam began, then Natasha broke into a grin and he cuffed her playfully on the shoulder. “Shut up, you.” Natasha made a pouty face, and Rhodey knew Sam’s spiel on the topic well enough to say the words along with him: “Raptors are cool.”
Sam raised his eyebrows. Rhodey spared a second to wonder if he’d guessed wrong about whether they were on teasing terms, but then Sam relaxed into a smile. “Raptors are cool,” Sam said, and gave Natasha and Rhodey each a middle finger.
“Keep going, this is great,” said Tony. “Approachable but not too wholesome. The kind of quality content young people will -- not pay for, no one pays for content these days, but. . .”
“Tony,” said Steve. “Are you broadcasting us on Facebook?.”
“I was thinking Snapchat. Facebook is for grandmas. Snapchat is for. . .well, no one’s exactly sure but it’s fast . . .”
“He knows about Snapchat,” Natasha chimed in. “I showed him DJ Khaled’s account.” She started an exaggerated chair dance while singing, badly, the chorus to an overplayed electro-hip hop hit that Rhodey vaguely recognized from trying to avoid it.
Sam shimmied along with her for a second, then said,. “Did you see the see the one he posted today with the Jet-Ski?”
“No, show me.” Natasha moved to the arm of Sam’s chair, and leaned over to look at his StarkPhone.
The eyeball moved along with her, to get a better look at their faces --
Or it would have. But Steve reached up, grabbed the hovering device, and threw it at blazing speed into the opposite wall. The machine made a sad sputtering noise as it smashed to bits.
“Hey!” Tony yelped. “I spent a lot of time . . . that cost a lot of money. Pepper will be very upset.”
Pepper’s voice floated in from the next room. “Don’t drag me into whatever this is, babe.”
Tony’s gaze went to Rhodey, who started talking before he was certain that he should. “Chill out, Steve. He obviously wasn’t going to show that to anyone without you guys’ permission.” He hit hard on ‘obviously,’ to make the point to Tony as much as anything.
Unfortunately, Sam, who had jumped to his feet, seized on the same thing. “Is that obvious to you, man? Because all of the ‘Tony would never. . .’ that I hear from you feels the opposite of obvious after the last few months.”
Steve moved up behind Sam and put a hand on his shoulder. “It’s cool, Sam, this doesn’t need to be a thing, let’s just . . .”
“Why is this about me all of a sudden?” Tony said.
Steve whirled on him. “Are you kidding me right now?”
“Depends on who’s laughing.”
“I’m not laughing,” said Steve. “We don’t even know what your relationship is with this team. You were supposed to step back and for a while you did and then you didn’t and now you mostly show up whenever you’ve got a new toy to show off.”
“This kind of sounds more like some kind of weird abandonment issues that you’ve got more so than anything I --”
“Howard!” Steve broke in. “Just let it go. You never know when it’s time to. . .” His voice trailed off and he raised a hand to his forehead. “Yes, I just said that. I’m sor. . .” He stopped and looked toward Pepper, who, along with Wanda, had come to stand in the doorway. “I’m sorry I broke your boyfriend’s toy, Miss Potts. I’ll pay for it.”
“You can’t afford it,” Pepper said with a shrug. “Which is fine, because we don’t really need another one.”
“Sorry,” Steve said again, and somehow managed to direct the apology to the room in general without looking at Tony. “I think I need to . . .not be here right now.” Sam started to follow him but Steve shook his head. Sam folded his arms and frowned, but he didn’t try to follow.
“That was awkward, right?” said Tony, once the door had closed behind Steve. He looked around at the others, and rested his gaze on Natasha, still poised on the arm of a chair.
“If it was awkward, it’s because your timing sucks,” said Natasha. “If you’re going to spy on us all the time, you could at least learn to read a fucking room.”
“What? You were all out here pal-ing around, having a few laughs -- ”
“Steve was in a shitty mood,” Natasha answered. “He’s been in a shitty mood for the last two days, for good reasons that you wouldn’t know anything about, and we were cheering him up. Then you had to come in here and be all Stark about everything.”
“I am so confused about what is happening. You all did hear him call me by my father’s name, right? I don’t even look like him.”
“Tony,” said Rhodey, and he tried to do as much as he could with the two syllables of his friend’s name. The voice of reason, of ‘Calm the hell down,’ of ‘How did we even get to this point?’ -- all without explicitly or obviously reprimanding him in front of the rest of the team.
Tony turned to Rhodey and snapped, “Whose side are you on, anyway?”
This brought all of the eyes in the room to Rhodey. Everybody was interested in the question. Rhodey crossed his arms. “Nobody’s,” he said. “Because whatever this is, it’s stupid. Y’all didn’t ask me when you started it, and I’m not gonna solve it for you.”
“That’s one way to handle it,” said Sam, managing not to address anyone in particular.
“The man’s a diplomat,” said Natasha, and it didn’t sound like a compliment.
“Yeah,” said Rhodey. “Cap had the right idea. I’m heading out to the hangar to check on some suits.” He started to work through what he would say when Tony tried to stop him. But Tony didn’t. As the door closed behind him, Rhodey heard everybody’s voices raised in an argument that he did not, at the moment, care to try and understand.
Rhodey didn’t go to the hangar. He went to the workout room, where Steve Rogers was inflicting grievous bodily harm on a punching bag.
“Lemme guess,” Steve said, without letting up on the barrage. “Tony sent you after me.”
“No,” said Rhodey.
Now Steve stopped punching, slowed the bag with one arm, and leaned against it, taking a long look at Rhodey before responding. “No, you say, like that question offends you, like Tony never sent you after anyone before.”
“What, like, to apologize?” Rhodey tried to sound non-committal even as he thought, for the second time today, of Christine Everhart. You have to understand, ma’am, when Tony says that sort of thing, he doesn’t actually mean. . . This was not an argument that Rhodey wanted to be having, right this moment, with Captain America. So he said, “Yeah maybe. Once or twice.”
“Once or twice?”
“Maybe more,” Rhodey admitted. “Keep in mind, I’ve known him for a long time.”
“I get it.” Steve stretched his arms upward and pressed his palms to the top of his head. “Sometimes I feel like I’ve known him a long time, too.” He winced. “I guess you noticed my little slip in there.”
Rhodey had to be honest. “It wasn’t subtle. Though. . .I knew the old man a little. Went out to their bigass house in the Hamptons for one summer, had awkward conversations over some really bland food. Does Tony remind you that much of him?”
“Some days? Not much. Today? Yes.” Steve sighed. “I’m not mad at Tony.”
“Okay.” Rhodey tried to keep his tone as neutral as possible.
“I mean, yes. I am. I’m mad about the whole Ultron thing. Which, by the way, aren’t you mad?. . .” Steve shook his head and, before Rhodey could start to put an answer together for that, kept going. “I’m not mad about that today. It’s just -- Howard had that way of barging in like a bull in a china shop, and if you didn’t want to get knocked over you had better be bolted down.”
“Wait,” said Rhodey. “You’re telling me you actually knew Howard Stark. . .like, knew him knew him? I guess I always assumed the old man was exaggerating. Just to drop a name.”
“No, you’ve got it all wrong. Howard Stark never dropped names, and if you don’t believe me, you can ask WIlliam Holden and Myrna Loy.” Steve frowned. “That joke may not have aged well. But yeah. I met Howard in Europe; Peg -- Agent Carter introduced us. He was one of the last people I talked to before. . .With Bucky, awful as that was, I had time to get used to him being gone. And -- other people. I’ve gotten a chance to see them while they’re still around. Or they were soldiers and I expected every time I said goodbye to them it might be the last. But Howard -- some days I just can’t get over the idea he’s going to walk in the room and start talking about transistors and which movie magazine I should give an exclusive to.”
“That’s why you’re mad at -- I mean, if you were mad at Tony today, which you’re not, it would be because of his dad.?”
“Not Howard,” Steve said. “Peggy. I just found out, she’s -- she doesn’t have much longer. Could be days or weeks. It’s probably not months.”
“That’s rough, man. Sorry.”
“Obviously, she had a long life. She had a good life. All that stuff you’re supposed to say about someone like her, and I know it’s true. But . . . I wasn’t there, I didn’t get to see it.” He shook his head, and both men stood quietly for a moment, until Steve continued. “I’d been carrying this around for a few days, and I only just started talking to Sam and then Nat came along and . . .you can see I wasn’t really in the mood for the bull meets china shop routine.”
“Yeah. Unlike his toys, Tony doesn’t really come with an off switch. At least you didn’t throw him into the wall.”
Steve grinned for a second, like maybe he could just imagine it -- Rhodey could imagine it, not in a sadistic way, but maybe for entertainment value? Tony had bounced back from worse. “The thing is,” Steve said, “If he was like this all the time it would almost be easier. But a couple weeks ago, he showed up at my door, told me we were going to the city. Two hours later, we’re at the transit museum on Boerum and Schermerhorn, and we spent literally all day talking about the Brooklyn I grew up in, and the sociology of trains.”
“Tony love trains. I mean, he hates to ride them, but loves the idea of them.”
“I kind of got that,” said Steve. “It made a weird kind of sense at the time. And that’s the thing. I had a whole day of thinking, ‘Tony and I maybe really do get each other.’ And for a second there I forgot how he made a sentient computer that almost destroyed Sokovia. And I don’t know if I want to forget that.”
“I’ve definitely had those days with Tony, over the years,” said Rhodey. “I’ve had the other kind, too. And yes. To the question you asked earlier. Yes, I’m angry at him about Ultron. Maybe not as surprised as I should be, because it’s a logical extension of the out-of-control control freak shit he’s been pulling all his life.”
“But you’re still here.”
“It’s why I’m still here. Tony needs someone keeping an eye on him. To be honest with you, Cap, I think we all do.”
Steve said, “Hmm,” and nothing else. He had been very quiet throughout the debates and arguments about the proposed Sokovia accords. Certainly, he’d had other things on his mind -- the Bucky Barnes problem and, Rhodey knew now, the situation with Agent Carter. What Rhodey was also beginning to realize was that, just because Steve wasn’t talking about something didn’t mean it wasn’t on his mind.
For now, though, Steve seemed to have decided that he’d said enough. “I got a pretty good workout in. I think I’m gonna hit the shower.”
“Good talk,” said Rhodey, and because his meaning hadn’t exactly been coming across the way he wanted it to for most of day, added, “For real.”
“Same goes for you. I’ve probably needed to open up more than I realized.” He started toward the door, then turned around like a TV detective remembering ‘one more thing.’ “Rhodes,” he said, “Do you think this team is working?”
Steve had been honest, and he deserved honesty back. “Too soon to tell,” Rhodey said.
“Yeah,” Steve answered. “I think so, too.”