Rhodey had been hopelessly poking and staring into the engine of his rental car for ten minutes before he gave it up and admitted he had no idea what he was looking at, and needed to start walking. This particular stretch of sunny Malibu road was deserted, and the hills must have been blocking his phone, because he couldn't get a single bar. He straightened up, picked up his uniform jacket from the fender where he draped it, and wiped a hand across his forehead. Fuck, it was hot. The house was about two miles away, and there wasn't another thing on the road between there and here. He'd gone three steps when a shiny dark blue roadster came whipping around the curve in front of him. As it passed, he caught a glimpse of auburn hair, and quickly turned to wave. The roadster spun a hundred and eighty degrees, and came to a neat, sure-footed stop, with barely a crunch of gravel. A woman got out, wearing a pencil skirt, expensive sunglasses, and very high heels. He knew her--Tony's, or rather, Pepper's, new assistant, Natalie?...Natalie Rushman, that was it.
"Colonel Rhodes," she said. "Having some trouble?"
He gestured to the car and held up his useless phone. "Ms. Rushman, today is just not my day."
"Call me Natalie, please." She smiled at him politely, and suddenly, she had a very incongruous switchblade in her hand and was bending into the engine compartment. "Can you try starting it when I tell you to?"
He sat in the driver's seat, staring at the raised hood, and when she called, "now, Colonel," he cranked it and heard the engine cough and kick into life. She dropped the hood. The switchblade had disappeared. She strolled over to his open window and said, "It should get you to the house, but I'll follow you, just in case."
"Thank you," he said. "May I ask...?" and then he stopped, because he wasn't sure exactly how to phrase his question.
She smiled again, and this one was sharper--more real, less polite. "I grew up in a bad neighborhood."
Rhodey woke up groggy in the New York mansion and stumbled toward the kitchen, determined to get to the coffee maker before Tony brewed up his customary gallon of rocket fuel. Tony only thought he made good coffee. Tony had also kept him up half the night, plying him with drinks and showing him the plans for the remodel on Stark--no, Avengers--Tower, which was totally not fair when the plans were so enthralling but his body was still on Kuwaiti time.
He was only moderately startled to find Bruce and Thor sitting at the kitchen table, already holding mugs. He poured himself a cup and toasted them; the surprise on his face when he tasted it must have been obvious, because Bruce said, "Natasha made the coffee."
"Her brew is without peer," Thor added.
Rhodey finished his mug and felt all the synapses in his nervous system stretch and groan in pleasure. "In that case," he said, "the least I can do is make the pancakes." Twenty minutes later, Natasha showed up in yoga pants and a damp t-shirt, her cheeks rosy and her hair in a messy bun. She still could have walked the runway in any Paris fashion show. Natasha was quieter, more contained than Natalie, so she didn't say much but "thanks," when he handed her a plate. But she had two large helpings of pancakes, and Rhodey felt obscurely pleased.
Rhodey got in the habit of showing up for training runs with the Avengers at regular intervals. It was all part of his job as military liason. Things going the way they often did, this meant he ended up fighting with the team on occasion, dealing with aliens or crazy power-mad megalomaniacs or Doom's bi-annual escape from his latest unbreakable prison. And then Natasha saved him that one time. And all of them that other time. Oh, and some of those other times, too.
He blasted the oncoming wave of invaders, and watched her do a double mid-air spin and land on the neck of the thing that looked like a sentient purple rhino, before he swooped in to pick her up and carry her to the next target. Later, as he pulled a single bright coppery hair from the shoulder plate of the suit, and twisted it gently around his finger tip, Rhodey realized he had to stop kidding himself about exactly why he kept showing up for these little training runs.
"Fuck, fuck, fuckety-fuck," Rhodey said. Stark Industries proprietary technology for secure document transmission--Tony's fax machine, he thought rebelliously, and oh, what an earful he had gotten the last time he called it that--was being a bastard.
"Here," Natasha said from behind him, and reached around to punch a few buttons. "I had to deal with this thing's tantrums when I was working for Pepper." The machine whirred obediently, and flashed a green light.
"Thanks," Rhodey said. "Can you hand me that cover sheet?" She did, lifting an eyebrow at the aggressive "CLASSIFIED, EYES ONLY" stamps. He shrugged. "Every six months or so, Ross gets another wild hair and tries to convince the Joint Chiefs that you all are crazy loose cannons and Fury is plotting to take over the world, so I do a little song and dance about how that's not true." The slot happily swallowed up his stack of documents. "Because it's not."
"Well, not entirely, anyway," Natasha said dryly.
He flashed a grin at her. "Yeah, but I usually leave the best stories out."
"Thanks for that," she replied.
The shock wave receded. The smoke started to clear. Natasha's voice, coolly triumphant, came over the comm, "War Machine, do you copy? the package is delivered," and then she dropped down in front him. He flipped up the face plate, and she was--holy shit--leaping onto him, bracing her strong thighs around the suit, her arms holding his shoulders as she kissed him, a quick soft brush of her lips on his cheeks--left, right, left. A comrade's kiss--a soldier's kiss. She drew back slightly, and he took in the streaks of dirt and sweat on her face, the cut on her temple, her bright eyes. She looked like she might be a little surprised at herself. Before she could pull back further, change her mind, he closed his own eyes and leaned in, hoping, hoping. She met him halfway, her mouth parted and generous, gasping a little as she kissed him thoroughly, properly, with intent.
She lifted her mouth from his, just a fraction, her breath warm and faint on his lips as she murmured, "You're good at what you do, Colonel. It's pretty sexy." Muffled by the suit, he couldn't feel her anyplace on his body except his lips, and it was like all the sensation he was capable of had been narrowed into a single, devastating point.
"I could say the same of you, Agent Romanov," he said, and kissed her again.