"Bull. Shit." Rhodey said, clipped and hard, and unfortunately not nearly so calmly as he'd intended. "Bull, Tony. You're lying. After all these years, you think I don't know when you're lying to me?"
Tony did his best to look innocent. He also did his best not to let the twitch at the corner of his mouth slip out into the full smile Rhodey knew was lurking back there. Oh, so much bull. So, so much.
"What?" Tony asked, leaning back against the breakfast island casually. "You don't think SHIELD has as much misplaced pride as any other military agency?"
Rhodey ... let the crack pass. For now. He let it pass.
"No," he said, with a little smile of his own that was mostly a cover for his teeth. "But I think you're exaggerating their claims a little bit. Mostly so you'll have an excuse to buzz the Helicarrier, and rub their faces in it. Which I am not helping you do. Got it?"
Tony dipped his head, fiddled his fingers in his glass, and all of Rhodey's bullshit-and-manipulation meters redlined. He was going to walk away. He really was. He'd already turned, when Tony said it.
"So, you think they're right, then?" the billionaire asked, lightly. "That a SHIELD pilot can outfly a washed up USAF colonel in a tin can with more guns than lift any day?"
And Rhodey knew, he knew, that Tony had an agenda. He knew Tony was probably lying through his teeth, that Tony could make up stories all damn day to talk someone into doing something he wanted them to. After Cuba, after Colorado, after Vegas, Rhodey knew.
But there was a tinge, as Tony said 'tin can'. A snap of temper, a touch of honest insult. Enough for Rhodey to maybe think that someone had said something. That some SHIELD so-and-so had opened his damned mouth, and insulted Tony's tech, and Rhodey's skills, and the entire US Air Force in one fell swoop, and, well, fuck that shit. Nobody got away with that.
He turned. He turned back to Tony, and tried not to wince at the flash of hope, of triumph, of smugness in his friend's face. Because starting this by punching Tony in the face would probably jinx it. But.
"We do this right," he said, raising a hand warningly. "You understand me? We schedule a demonstration, we make sure the airspace is clear, we make sure they do not get twitchy and shoot us down because they weren't expecting us. Got it?"
Tony grinned. That dangerous, devil-may-care grin that had gotten Rhodey into so much trouble, over the years. The one he should really have learned to run the hell away from. The one that, even still, just pumped his adrenaline instead. "You know they couldn't hit us if they tried, right?" Tony asked, idly, and grinned into Rhodey's flash of temper. "Got it! No, no, I got it. No surprises. Fine."
"Fine," Rhodey agreed, squinting suspiciously at him. "I'll make the arrangements myself. Do not make me have to disown you over this."
Tony grinned at him, about as innocent as the devil, and with the beard to match. Aw, hell. Why did Rhodey let himself get talked into this shit?
"Hey, Rhodey?" Tony said, looking down again as Rhodey made to leave. "I don't give away state of the art tin cans to just any old washed up USAF colonel, you know." He raised his head, his eyes dark and glittering, and that beautiful savage edge to his grin. "I just want to maybe rub their faces in that a little bit." He held up his hand, two fingers a touch apart. "Tiny bit. Just because. Yeah?"
And Rhodey stared at him, long and hard, because every time, every fucking time, Tony did that to him. Turned around, and said that shit. And look what Rhodey ended up doing as a result?
"Yeah," he said, after a minute. Too soft, waaay too soft, letting way too much show. But fuck it. You never hid anything from Tony for long anyway. And because of that ... He grinned, wide and with teeth, and a little devil-may-care of his own. "Lets go rub their noses in some fully-sanctioned shit, yeah?"
And god, he needed to stop feeling that thrill, when Tony's grin went wide and delighted, and the man looked at him like Rhodey looked at the long, sleek lines of a Raptor.
See, this? This was why he always ended up in trouble.
And that was why, four days later, he ended up standing in full armour on the Helicarrier's angled flightdeck, Tony bouncing beside him like an exceptionally flashy and lethal terrier, surrounded by most of the carrier's complement of pilots in varying states of annoyance or amusement, and Nick Fury standing with his arms crossed and a truly epic scowl on his face.
"Wow," Tony's voice came over the comm, humming with amusement even across the electronic interference. "I thought you said you were going to arrange things so they didn't shoot at us?"
Rhodey scowled behind the faceplate. "I may have been a little ... undiplomatic in explaining things to the department," he said. "Apparently, the Air Force has been wanting to stick the finger to SHIELD ever since they got clearance to dump this floating monstrosity in our airspace." He didn't quite snort. "Not that I disagree with them, as such."
"Huh," Tony said, bouncing casually on his toes. In armour. "Guess that was lucky, then."
Rhodey resisted the urge to slap him upside the head, if only to prevent the echoes over the comms. "Tony," he said, exasperatedly. "If I find out you had another agenda behind this, besides trumpeting your tech ..."
"Hey, would I do that?" Tony shot back, and Rhodey didn't need to see the grin to know it was there. And then, because Tony didn't need to see Rhodey's worried scowl to know it was there, either, the man sobered. "It wasn't me, Rhodey. Swear. Although ..."
"Although?" he asked, trying to ignore the itchy feeling in his spine, like he'd walked into a trap.
"Now I'm wondering if that SHIELD pilot wasn't just saying shit idly," Tony mused, his heels clanging into the deck, and shifting a little to put his back more protectively to Rhodey's. "I wouldn't put it past Fury. He's sneaky like that."
"Wonderful," Rhodey muttered. "This isn't going to turn into the Expo all over again, is it?"
"Nah. Fury wouldn't pull a fast one just to shoot us down." A long, worrying pause. "Well. Probably not, anyway."
Rhodey shook his head. For some reason, between the adrenaline and the offense and the worry, he felt a grin start to split his features, and something slow and ready uncurl in his gut. Tony fucking Stark, ladies and gentlemen. Only Tony could get him into this shit.
"Hey, Tony," he said, and the Iron Man helmet swung his way at the tone, the rough, anticipatory humour. "First one to get tagged by a SHIELD weapon is buying the drinks afterwards."
There was a pause, and then Tony's voice, rich and dark and oh, so ready. "You ain't got that kinda money, Rhodes. You're just the washed up colonel, remember?"
"Lieutenant colonel," Rhodey corrected lightly, crouching slightly as he brought his repulsors online. "And watch me."
He heard a whoop from Tony as he powered skywards, a breathless laugh from the world's worst adrenaline junkie behind him as the HUD lit up like Christmas, and weight/lift ratios, power readings and weather warnings pinged out around him. The suit moved like rhino, the drag around the shoulder cannons knocking him off like a bitch, but this suit was Tony's design, and Rhodey'd flown worse fucking bitches in his time.
Alright boys. Lets see what a washed-up USAF colonel can do.
He angled himself down the flightdeck, a mock strafing run that would have been pretty damn devastating had his shoulder guns been firing, rolling smoothly sideways as Tony divebombed him from his left, switching out beneath him with not even a kiss to the surface. Powering out into the open sky over the massive rotor beneath the end of the deck (and seriously, what the hell? Did SHIELD subscribe to the land-the-bitch-first-try-or-be-mincemeat school of flying? Did none of them ever come in shot or what?), Tony hot on his heels, and acting the idiot in that oh-so-flashy armour.
Oh yeah. Lets get this party started.
"Fifteen mile radius, Tony," he barked out, more from adrenaline than temper or any attempt to actually command the man (on that one, at least, he had learned better), banking up and over the carrier with Tony spiralling behind him. "Flares and tracer rounds only, do not hit anyone except me, got it?"
"Sir, yes sir!" Tony laughed, and seriously, Rhodey was gonna shoot him one for every crack, he totally was. "Meep-meep! Catch me if you can!"
The Iron Man rocketed in front of him, cutting right across his flightpath and forcing Rhodey into its wake, a flash of red and gold across the HUD and Tony's metaphorical tongue stuck out at him. Rhodey swore once, rolling out of the wake with a flare of repulsors, and slipping in under Tony to catch him in the underbelly.
"Why am I the coyote in this arrangement, Mr Acme-is-honestly-my-middle-name!" he hollered, reflexes wired to the max as he attempted to follow Tony as the crazy idiot set to ping-ponging himself around the sky, cursing under his breath as the War Machine point-blank refused to corner the way the other armour did. Tony, the son of a bitch, just laughed back.
"No reason, Wiley," he grinned, and turned sleek as a seal to loop-the-loop around Rhodey, breaking off to spiral upwards as Rhodey retaliated with shoulder-mounted tracer rounds at pretty much point-blank range. "It's not like you're flying the B-52 to my Raptor, or anything."
Rhodey grinned darkly, breaking off the chase to drop altitude, flipping onto his back to bring his chest armaments to bear, trusting the HUD to give him the time in freefall to pull this off. "Yeah, but Tony? The thing about Big Ugly Fat Fuckers?" He grinned, and opened up his shoulder ports for a wide angle spread, and the precision launchers on his forearms for the denouement. "We bring the noise."
The shoulder-mounted flares spat out in an expanding cloud of self-propelled armaments (nice, Tony, very nice), funnelling the smaller armour into the airspace directly above Rhodey. Right in the line of fire for his missiles. Rhodey, laughing a little, keeping his eye on the altimeter as the speed of descent leapt suddenly, drew down on a suddenly cursing Tony Stark.
"Oh, you are so dead, Rhodes," the billionaire spat, deploying chaff and dropping directly into deadfall to get them to overshoot, splaying out one arm and jaunting sideways out under the flares.
Rhodey, altimeter hitting critical, didn't wait to see where he ended up, righting himself and dodging sideways himself, gaining altitude again and veering side-to-side in a ragged pattern to dodge the divebombing Rhodey just knew was coming. Bouncing inwards off the imaginary edge of their perimeter, piling on the speed and aiming for the Helicarrier's underbelly. Bringing the game back in range of their temporarily forgotten audience.
Oh, hell yeah, he had missed this. He hadn't gotten to play like this in way too long.
He powered in close to the carrier, Tony having vanished off the HUD, with equal chances that the sneaky son of a bitch had found a blindspot, or had jammed Rhodey's radar. Rhodey was so focused on finding him, on playing cat-and-mouse with Tony's decidedly questionable sense of humour, that he almost missed the radar signatures detaching themselves from the shape of the Helicarrier, and heading right the fuck towards him.
"Shit!" he spat, knocked spinning through the air as something sleek and black and fucking fast blitzed him from underneath. Just a kiss on his underside, nothing more, but he spun half a mile laterally and dropped two hundred meters before he could catch himself, the HUD stuttering as it tried to compensate for the wildly spinning armour. "Fuck, what the fuck was that!"
"SHIELD," Tony barked back, a flash of gold on the edge of Rhodey's stabilising HUD as the Iron Man dropped out of the sky between War Machine and the interlopers, firing off a warning burst to give Rhodey time to get back in the game. "Fucking Fury, I knew he was up to something!"
"I'm flattered," came the dry, amused voice, breaking into the comms. "You gentlemen did tell us you wanted to show us what the War Machine could do, didn't you?" There was a smile under there, Rhodey could hear it. "You don't mind if we take the opportunity to test our new UAV defenses while we're at it, do you?"
Rhodey swore silently, waiting for the raw adrenaline peak to die off, for his breathing and heart-rate to stabilise long enough to start thinking tactically again. Tony, though, Tony'd been a little more prepared.
And one hell of a lot more vindictive.
"... Only if you don't mind if I blast them out of the sky, Nick honey," Tony growled, several ports flaring open on the Iron Man for the first time in this little jaunt. "Rhodey only said I couldn't shoot people. Remote control doesn't count."
"No!" Rhodey cut in, bringing himself up beside Tony as they held in a stationary hover, surrounded by the sleek, deadly little bots. Now that the adrenaline had subsided, he was thinking more clearly. "Tony. Private comm, now."
Fury stayed silent, and the UAVs didn't move, while Tony's helmeted head turned angrily his way, and the billionaire's clipped voice sounded over the comm.
Rhodey almost smiled. Yeah, Tony didn't like people messing up his games.
"It's a sound idea," Rhodey interrupted, lightly. "Seriously, Tony. He's got a point." Tony huffed, the armour dropping a couple of feet in silent skepticism. Rhodey did let himself grin, then. A little bit. "Fury has to know UAVs haven't a hope against either of us, let alone both. So ... either he's going to do something really sneaky and blast us out of the sky ... or he honestly wants us to test out his defenses for him." A small, soft smile. "Grandstanding with a point, maybe?"
Tony didn't answer, for a second, hovering silently with his weapons ports still belligerantly open. And then, huffily: "My grandstanding always has a point, I'll have you know." Rhodey chuckled a bit, and Tony flipped him the finger. Harder than it looked, when your flight stabilisers were on your hands. "So, what? You want to menace the Helicarrier, let him see what his boys can do?"
Rhodey looked the carrier over, thinking about it the way he would an enemy vessel (and boggling, a little, at how massively impractical it was, in that sense), taking in the numbers of UAVs visible, allowing for hidden resources still undeployed. Allowing, also, for Fury's reputation as a sneaky, ruthless son of a bitch, and the fact that he'd already gotten the drop on them once.
And then thinking, even still.
"I think," he said, slowly, "that the poor bastards need all the help they can get." Grinning faintly. "We've got electronic tagging, right? So ... 10 points per UAV, 30 for shipside ordinance, 50 for the rotors, engines or anything else keeping Big Bertha over there in the air?"
Tony was silent for a second, a hushed pause that Rhodey figured was that look the man got, gleeful respect, like Rhodey was that sweet piece of gravity-defying machinery that Tony so loved. He grinned, a little, behind his own helmet.
"You know, there are times I think I love you," Tony said, conversationally. "You take shipside, BUFF. I'll keep the little guys off your back." He grinned, gunning his leg-repulsors suddenly, climbing fifteen feet in a rapid burst and drawing the twitching attention of their entire escort in the process. "Oh, and Wiley? You got tagged, remember? Better win this, or you're paying my bar tab, and I don't think you've got the GNP of a small country handy, do you?"
He broke sideways with a laugh, breaking the UAV formation around them in the process, and Rhodey dropped and turned himself after him, growling viciously.
"You are a cheating son of a bitch, Stark," he grinned into the comms, before flipping the channel back to public, and shooting off a message to Fury. "Better look lively, boys. We're tagging your hotspots, and if you're down within ten minutes, SHIELD's buying the Air Force dinner."
Hell with it. Fury was a sneaky bastard, but when you insult the USAF, not to mention Stark tech, to lure your pigeons in, well. You'd best be prepared to pay the price, hadn't you?
See, this? This was why he still hung around with Tony after all these years.
Stark got you into all the best trouble.