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three acts, or: how james rhodes learned to stop trusting tony stark and jump on the good boy/bad girl train

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i.
the set up:

“So I hear there’s a merciless supernatural assassin in town.” Tony drapes his arms over the chest-height foam and plywood cubicle wall around James’ desk. It moves under his weight, nudging at a stack of precariously piled boxes.

“Go away, Tony,” James says without looking away from his computer screen. He needs to get this report in today; he doesn’t have time for Tony’s antics.

“Rude,” Tony sniffs. “We are so offended that my best friend won’t even look at us when we’re handing him all the brownie points he’ll ever need. Ever. In his entire career.”

“The only reason,” James glares at the Additional Notes section of his online report form, “that I even need to dig my way out of the shithouse I’m in with the brass is because of you. So don’t start.”

“We said we were sorry about… all of that.” Tony makes all of that sound like a forgetting to bring drinks to a party instead of half of New York losing power and the trashing of a military base. “To be fair, I wasn’t entirely myself at the time.”

“You still aren’t entirely yourself,” James points out. Which, really, is the whole problem: Tony isn’t alone inside his head and one of his eyes is bright blue when it should be warm brown, and yeah he could always coax machines into doing things they didn’t always want to do, but now he can blow out the entire eastern seaboard and probably remotely activate a nuclear strike from Russia.

And James still doesn’t know if he’s going to have to put a bullet through his best friend’s brain.

“Enough myself that I’m coming to you for this.” Tony’s face goes serious for a moment. “Rhodey. The Black Widow is bad news.”

“The Black Widow, huh?” James sighs. “Okay, tell me what I need to know.”

 

the backstory:

Nobody knows where she comes from. They say she first appeared in Russia nearly forty years ago – a shadow in the dark, a girl with dead eyes, a dancer who left only death in her wake. They say that, like an urban sorcerer, she draws power from cities, from people, from the glow of neon.

They say: to her, magic is not life; life is not magic.

They say: to her, magic is death.

 

the players:

James’ power isn’t like Tony’s, which is a point of some contention between them; Tony doesn’t understand how James uses control, formulas, and incantations to bend the laws of physics; James can’t even imagine opening himself up to the world as Tony does, constantly being scoured raw and remade, at any moment liable to forget that he is a he and not the city, and walk the streets holding a steaming cup of coffee as the sun breaks the horizon and ride the endless subway trains at rush hour and breathe in the sweet warm rot of sewer drains and live a thousand different lives until his body starves and withers and dies. They do agree on one thing, though.

“But,” James says, baffled. “Drawing power from death? Isn’t that… an oxymoron? Magic is a result of life.”

“We think she feeds on the last moments of life. The quiet acceptance, the senseless rage, the confusion, the fear – the thought of what if and if I just had more time--! All of life’s experience, all of the power, contained in that final breath. Of course,” and here Tony shrugs, “if I’m right, then she’s obviously insane.”

“Yeah.” James blows out a breath. “And you want me to come hunt her down with you.”

Tony grins. The air around him sharpens with a faint whiff of ozone. “Duh.”

 

ii.
the conflict:

“You could have said!” James yells as a chair splinters to his right, unable to withstand the impact of a high-caliber bullet. “You could have mentioned when you said you knew who her target was—“

He scrambles, belly to the floor, for better cover.

“—that it was you!”

“I totally thought I did,” Tony yells back. “I definitely remember—“

“You didn’t!” James bellows. He takes a deep breath and says, as calmly as he can manage, “Contego.”

The air in front of him wavers, solidifying in a half-dome that doesn’t quite cover all of his extremities. Tony, to his left, is whispering something incomprehensible with his eyes shut. Two more bullets embed themselves in the wall.

“How come we’re not dead yet?”

…for it is not this day protego therefore the clever combatant does not allow the enemy’s will to be imposed upon him – I have no idea! – and so it was that all objects fell still…

James is unwilling to look an assassin with bad aim in the idiom. He grabs Tony’s wrist and tugs, the two of them eeling over broken glass and plaster dust, around unexpectedly intact furniture, making their way to the doorway.

Tony flicks his fingers; the deadbolt slides back and the door clicks open. They crawl their way out into the hallway.

“…You’re gonna pay me back my deposit for this.”

Tony laughs, high and breathless. “Sure, buddy.” He rises up on one knee, then to his feet, and holds out a hand for James to take.

“I got your back.”

 

the lull:

They go to ground in Ms. Potts’ apartment, a cozy one-bedroom that contains worn couches and two genuine Mondrians on the walls. Tony calls her Pepper; he’s the only one who can get away with it. (He trained her, after all, which gives him a certain leeway.) She asks James to call her Pepper too – James will get around to it one day. Possibly after he figures out how she can afford to fund her art habit.

“Thanks, Pepperpot,” Tony says when she opens the door, and leans in to kiss her cheek. Pepper bears this with patient tolerance. After she waves them past the threshold, the deadbolt slides into place behind them.

“You look terrible.” Pepper has her hands on her hips, lips pursed; she eyes them up and down once and nods. “I’ll get you some towels and a change of clothing. My shower has about an hour of hot water – try not to use it all.”

James calls dibs, not only because he is (unfairly) filthier than Tony, but also to avoid an awkward fifteen minutes alone with Pepper. He can hear the rise and fall of their voices over the running water as he sluices the plaster muck off his face, his arms, his neck.

“…shot at!” Pepper nearly shouts. “The last time—“

Tony says something, most likely “sorry, sorry,” from the cadence of it, and James makes sure to slide the shower door open with as much rattle and bang as possible. He pulls on boxers – he’s going to have to buy some new ones if they’re going on the run for the duration – and a shirt and sweatpants provided by Pepper. The shirt is too tight in the arms and loose in the chest, but it’s not terrible, and James can knot the strings of the sweatpants at his waist so they don’t fall off his hips.

“Hey, kids.” They’re in the kitchen, Pepper making a pot of tea and Tony eating bread straight from the loaf. “Do we have a plan? Yeah, thanks,” he says to Pepper when she gestures at the tea.

Tony shrugs, slumped over and chewing. Pepper sighs.

“Lie low,” she says, cups clinking as she sets them on the counter. “Rest up, and then Tony will act as bait.”

James looks between the two of them.

“That’s a terrible plan,” he says.

”I know.” Pepper rolls her eyes. “It was Tony’s idea. Obviously.”

“Ah,” James says, nodding. “That explains everything.”

“I’m honestly feeling so attacked right now,” Tony says, the words coming out slurred through a mouthful of bread.

“That’s disgusting.” Pepper practically reads James’ mind. “Finish that and go wash off.”

Tony salutes, taking a huge bite of his (still plain) piece of whole wheat grain, and brings the entire loaf with him as he leaves.

“So what,” James says after a moment of silence. “Is he going to eat that in the shower?”

“I wouldn’t even be surprised,” Pepper says.

 

the meet-cute:

Naturally, their plan (such as it is) goes to hell in approximately no time at all.

James thinks, resentfully, that it’s all Tony’s fault for co-sharing his body with a magical entity of unknown power, and also for being rich and sort of an asshole. That’s just asking for an assassination attempt. He’ll probably feel bad about it later, but at the moment he’s being choked out by the Black Widow’s thighs and doesn’t have any brainpower to worry about Tony’s feelings. Her hold on him is too secure – he can’t throw her off, and he falls into darkness still thinking: if I die I’m going to haunt that asshole so hard--

He comes to with the Black Widow straddling his waist with her gun pointed at his head.

“Don’t move,” she says. At another time, in another place, James would find her voice soothing – attractive, even, low and a little bit throaty, tinged with the guttural buzz of a Russian accent. Now it’s just another thing to pay razor-sharp attention to, mind working in overdrive to find a way out of his imminent death.

“Not moving,” James says. His eyes keep wanting to stare at the muzzle of her gun, the shine of metal and the hollow darkness behind. He forces himself to look past it into the Black Widow’s face instead. “Believe me, I am definitely not moving.”

“Good,” the Black Widow says pleasantly. “I would hate to have to fire this gun.”

“I’d hate it too,” James says, sincere.

The corners of her lips twitch.

“Where are Tony Stark and the Intelligence?”

“I honestly have no idea,” James says. “I told him to run. That’s the last I saw of him.”

“You’re loyalty is admirable,” she says. She sights along the gun; James tenses. “But it’s going to get you killed.”

James makes his move hard and fast, bucking up to throw her off balance and yelling “Contego!” -- but his concentration is off, he’s too panicked, and the shape of the spell comes out wrong; just makes the air syrupy and thick instead of creating a shield. Surprisingly, the Black Widow doesn’t shoot him in the head.

She does something though, and suddenly her legs are back around his neck, putting pressure on his windpipe. James gropes for another spell, impeto or jectus or anything, but none of the formulae are correct in his mind and he can feel the pressure in his head—

“Get off him!” Tony yells, and James is free. The Black Widow rolls to her feet, thrown up against a wall by Tony’s instinctive magic.

“I can shoot you before you kill me,” she says. Her breath is still even; she sounds like she’s asking somebody to pass the salt at the dinner table. “My bullets are spelled. You won’t be able to block them.”

“Everything we know about the Black Widow says she doesn’t talk to her targets,” Tony says. “At least, not after they know they’re her targets. Usually because they’re dead. What makes me so special?”

James has made it to his knees. He needs to get ready to run, or fight – he needs to get to his feet.

“Because you refer to yourself in the plural sometimes,” the Black Widow says. “People have noticed. And… because I’ve switched employers.”

A sharp pain in James’ knee makes itself known as he tries to stand. Fuck it.

“Who?” He sounds winded, voice rasping in his throat, but the word comes out clear. “Who are you working for?”

“Interested parties.” She looks over at him, indulgent, like he’s a particularly dumb pet. “I won’t tell you until we get to know each other a little better.”

“So… you aren’t going to kill us?” Tony asks. His weight is still on the balls of his feet; sparks crawl their way over his skin.

“The cute one, no,” she says, and actually grins at how long it takes James to figure out who she’s talking about. “You and your tag-along, only if you become a danger. Run mad with the power of a god, decide to start World War III, that kind of thing.”

“We’re really not planning on doing any of that.” Tony actually sounds like he has to assure people of that fact a lot. “We just want to eat cheeseburgers and get lost in Ikea and ride the subway and live, you know? Just live.”

“And if you’re telling the truth,” she lounges against the wall, “I’ll even help you with that.”

James realizes that this? Is going to be a disaster.

 

the second lull:

“Okay, seriously,” Tony says. “This is ridiculous. Give us anything, it doesn’t even have to be your real name! Just something to call you other than ‘Black Widow,’ because I’m starting to feel like we’re in a spy movie and I am so over that.”

“But we are enjoying it immensely,” he adds a half-beat later, and James twitches a little. That’s more creepy than when he just refers to himself in the plural.

“If you can stay quiet for the next thirty minutes,” the Black Widow says, giving James a look that plainly says I’m going to kill him if he opens his mouth one more time--

“Okay, kids,” James breaks in, and is rewarded with a glare that practically freezes his balls off. “Er. Kids and very mature assassin. Let’s focus on what we came here to do.”

“Worst plan ever,” Tony sing-songs.

“This is literally the same plan we had when we still thought Widow was the bad guy, so shut up,” James rolls his eyes.

“My estimation of you all is dropping by the moment,” the Black Widow says.

 

the rising action:

“This seems really familiar!” James shouts. He is – surprise, surprise – once again crawling around on the floor to avoid being ventilated by bullets.

“I am going to kill that man,” Natasha says.

“Get in line,” James grits back. He squints at where the walls and floors are pockmarked, mapping a way to better cover. “Where is he, anyway?”

Natasha shrugs.

“So helpful, thanks,” James says. He thinks he’s figured out where the shooter is: three buildings away to the northeast, probably around the twentieth floor. Which means…

“Come on,” he says. “This way.”

Natasha makes her way across the floor like she just got out of boot camp, where you flopped and scraped and panted through cold, seeping mud with sergeants roaring invective against your mother, your intelligence, your face; she practically slides over the glass-covered carpet. Meanwhile, James winces as little pieces of shattered glass embed themselves in his forearms.

The shooter gets off five more rounds as James takes them to a bedroom with no windows.

“You need bandages?” Natasha brushes a loose bit of hair out of her face. At James’ blink, she nods at his arms. “You’re bleeding.”

“Oh.” James brushes a hand over his skin. Most of the glass comes off – the rest he picks at, dabbing his fingertips red. “Nah, I’ll be fine. Thanks.”

“I would have told you to tear up your shirt.” Natasha shrugs, but there’s a smile turning up the corner of her lips. “Just because you’re—DOWN!”

James gets the breath knocked out of him as she tackles him to the floor. He misses most of what happens next because the apartment has a shitty carpet and doesn’t cushion his head at all – but when his daze clears, it’s pretty clear that Tony has blasted the door open.

“This,” Tony says as he takes in the scene in front of him, “is not what we expected to happen when I told you about the Widow.”

“You—“ Natasha hisses, sitting up. James is suddenly aware that she was covering him with her own body, that she’s still pinning him to the floor.

“I really need to work on my shield spell,” he says to nobody in particular.

“You really don’t.” Tony leers. “Not if hot – competent! Scary!” he waves his hands in a warding gesture at Natasha’s glare, “Women throw you to the ground whenever you’re in danger.”

“Your gross lechery is showing,” James groans. A dull ache is starting to radiate through his skull. “Where the hell did you go? We lost you when the shooting started.”

Natasha leans over and uses a thumb to pull back his eyelids. “You’re fine,” she says after a moment, and swings to her feet. James takes the hand she offers; she hauls him up with ease.

“We were scouting.” Tony is smug, which is either very good or completely disastrous. “And I totally know who our nemesis is.”

They wait. Tony continues to look smug.

James gives in first, because he’s used to Tony and he knows from experience that a pointed silence can last for hours. In one instance, days. Ain’t nobody got time for that.

“Who?” he says.

“Justin Hammer!” Tony says brightly. He’s grinning.

Disaster.

 

the climax:

“No,” James says. His voice is full of disbelief, though he has no idea why – he’s known Tony for years now.

“Yep,” Tony says, popping the ‘p’ with a smack of his lips. “One nemesis, coming up.”

“You,” Natasha breathes, rage curling around the edges of the word. She continues in what sounds like very inventive Russian curses.

“It solves all our problems!” Tony flails his arms a little bit. “He comes here to kill us, we stop him, assassins leave because their employer is gone, boom. Done. And we can all go home for dinner.”

“And you know he’s going to come here in person because…?”

“He hates us a lot. A lot,” Tony emphasizes. “Plus his car has GPS. He’s on his way right now.”

“That is so freaky,” James says.

“You’re just jealous.”

“Right.” James snorts. “Unbelievably jealous.”

“…chush’ soboch’ya!” Natasha concludes.

“What she said.” James jerks a thumb at her.

Tony gives him the finger.

 

They spend the next forty minutes preparing. James draws wards and sigils on the walls and floors with an increasingly tattered and squeaky sharpie; Tony paces around touching electrical sockets and whispering to the walls; Natasha stands very still in a corner with her eyes closed.

Suddenly Tony freezes mid-step, head cocked like he’s listening to something.

“He’s here,” he says, eyes unfocused and darting, looking at something invisible to the rest of them. The blue eye is glowing, subtly, like a dimmed computer screen. “His car just stopped outside.”

“Right,” James mutters mutters under his breath. “Showtime.”

After all that buildup, Justin Hammer is disappointing in person. He’s kind of short, for one, and looks like a flashy used car salesman in a better cut suit. A bad first impression is only compounded by the way he holds his gun – careless, loose, sloppy. At least he has his finger on the trigger guard and not the trigger itself, though it would be poetic justice if he shot himself in the foot.

“Oh, wow,” Hammer says. He grins the blinding grin of the chemically whitened teeth. “Is this all for me? I’m flattered, I really am, Tony. Who are your two, ah, friends?”

“Looking second rate as usual, Hammer.” Tony crosses his arms. “But what can you expect from a warlock, really? I mean, all of you get the higher powers to do the heavy lifting, but you take it to a new level, you know that?”

James wishes Tony briefed them better about Hammer. His three-sentence description (“He’s a warlock. Not too powerful, but definitely cunning. And a dick.”), in hindsight, isn’t particularly helpful.

Natasha, James notices, has taken the posture of somebody frightened and trying to hide it. He wonders what she’s up to.

Hammer grins wider, but his nostrils flare and his face tightens. “You always were arrogant, Tony,” his says through gritted teeth. “I’m going to enjoy this.”

What happens next more than makes up for Hammer’s unexceptional entrance.

“Holy fuck,” James blurts out as Hammer throws his head back and changes.

“This is why—“ Natasha begins.

“Oh my god, can you not do anything original?” Tony yells.

“Can you do that?” James yelps.

“—we can’t have nice things.”

“Maybe, and I’m the only one who gets to reference bad internet jokes in this group,” Tony says.

“Sh                                                                                                 sh

                     u                                                                              ut                                                         tt                                            t

                  u                            p.”

Hammer's voice stutters and crackles like a broken power line. He’s – the only word James can use to describe it is wavering, bits and pieces of him fading in and out of focus like a badly tuned radio station or a flickering computer monitor. What isn’t invisible or in another plane of existence is covered in neon fire, and Hammer’s shadow writhes like a live thing under his feet.

James can see neon reflected in Tony’s eyes; only it’s not a reflection, it’s a spark, and as the light behind his friend’s pupils brightens James thinks—

—he says—

“Tony, d—“

—And Natasha pulls out her gun and shoots Hammer, a neat one-two in the chest. A third bullet goes into his head before he hits the ground.

“Thanks, boys,” she drawls. There’s a completely unnecessary hip cock when she holsters her weapon. “Your assistance was appreciated. You’ll be getting a visit from S.H.I.E.L.D. soon.”

“What,” James manages.

“The fuck,” Tony finishes. His glow still hasn’t fully faded, but his eyes grow dimmer with every passing moment.

“What’s S.H.I.E.L.D.?” James says.

“Were you playing us the whole time?” Tony says.

Natasha laughs.

“I’ll see you around,” she says. “You might not see me, though. Buh-bye.”

She waggles her fingers and jumps out the window.

“That complete bitch,” Tony breathes.

“But seriously,” James says. “What’s S.H.I.E.L.D.? And – there’s still the sniper.”

“I am so pissed off right now,” Tony says.

 

 

iii.
the coda:

In the end, it turns out Natasha took care of the sniper too. James finds out about this when Tony calls him at 2:07 in the morning ranting about how “she left a note, Rhodey, a mocking note in my bed--

“Okay,” James groans, and hits the ‘end call’ button. He stuffs the phone under a pillow as it starts to vibrate again.

A week after Tony Stark & Creepy Body/Mind Sharer (Who Is Maybe Named Jarvis) Incident # 2, James is grabbing some coffee at Starbucks (and he’s heard the rant about Starbucks, okay, but he’s a fan of their Hazelnut Macchiato and there’s a store right by the office) when two people in generic black suits come up to him by the door.

“Excuse me, Lieutenant,” one says, nodding to her partner. He starts to subtly steer them away from anybody who might overhear. “Agent Cho. I’m here to speak to you about the incident that happened a week ago with Mr. Hammer.”

“Yeah?” James raises an eyebrow. “Are you with S.H.I.E.L.D.?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Well, one of yours was there. I don’t know what you want from me.”

“It’s standard procedure to debrief any non-civilians after an incident,” Agent Cho says.

“Yeah?” James crosses his arms. “How about you tell me what S.H.I.E.L.D. actually is first?”

“Agent Romonov didn’t…? Well, she can be unorthodox,” Agent Cho says. “S.H.I.E.L.D. is an organization created to deal with extraordinary threats. Most of the time that means magic. So we’re sort of like a magic-focused FBI, or police.”

“And you’re not affiliated with the Unusual Phenomenon branch of the CIA,” James says.

“No.” Agent Cho smiles blandly. “We deal with things on a larger scale.”

James blows out a breath. “Okay,” he says. “Debriefing. What do I need to do?”

“Sign the nondisclosure forms.” Agent Cho’s unnamed partner pulls out a stack papers. “Then we’ll take you to HQ and interview you. It shouldn’t take more than three hours.”

“Have you been to Tony yet?” James is imagining the chaos. He’s a little bit worried they already have and locked Tony up, to be honest, because he hasn’t gotten an angry phone call about government conspiracy theories in three days.

“No, sir,” Agent Cho says. “We were hoping to leave that to you.”

 

the epilogue:

“You are such a traitor,” Tony says when James walks in with his new suit and new partner. “I can’t believe you signed up to join The Man.”

“I was already serving The Man, Tony,” James says, dry. “I was in the Air Force, remember?”

“And the head of S.H.I.E.L.D. is currently a woman,” Natasha adds. She smirks at Tony’s glare. “Hello again.”

“Not the point,” Tony says to James. To Natasha: “You better not get him killed, or we’ll just steal him back. Best friend rights.”

“Like I would let an ass as cute as his get shot,” Natasha scoffs. James winces.

“No hitting on him either,” Tony points accusingly. “I saw him first, even if he is straight.”

James covers his face with a hand.

“Too late,” Natasha says.

“’Tasha!”

“Wha—Rhodey, you have a pet name for her? How could you? Bros before—“

James thinks: how is this his life?