Tony was barely awake, still focused on reaching The Place Where The Coffee Was, when he heard the crash.
It was followed by a yelp and a lot of yelling, followed by more crashing. With a sigh, he staggered into the communal kitchen. It was probably Natasha; she got really angry when…
Oh. Not Natasha.
Rhodey was in the kitchen — oh, yay, Rhodey! — pressed up against the fridge. The edge of Captain America’s shield was under his chin, and the rest of Captain America was looming over him.
“Boys,” Tony drawled, taking in the tableau. “Did I interrupt something?”
“Call SHIELD,” Steve said tersely. “Intruder in the Tower.”
“He was tampering with the food!”
“YOU ARE A CRAZY PERSON, I WAS MAKING FRENCH TOAST,” Rhodey yelled, struggling against what had to be a pretty firm grip.
“AMERICAN TOAST NOT GOOD ENOUGH FOR YOU?” Steve yelled back.
This was so much to deal with before coffee.
Tony shuffled across the kitchen towards the mug rack. He had a mug rack, what kind of person was he becoming? Once upon a time he’d had a mug he washed when his coffee started tasting metallic. He’d been happy. Simpler days. Now he had a mug rack that Bruce had installed, next to the tea towels that Clint had bought. Tea fucking towels.
“Tony, a little help here?” Steve asked.
“Sure. I am going to be super-helpful. Put him down, he’s not a spy,” Tony yawned, pouring coffee. “That’s Rhodey. Rhodey, Steve, Steve, Rhodey.”
“Who’s Rhodey?” Steve asked, at the same time Rhodey choked out, “Steve Rogers. Shield is explained.”
“How do you know my name?” Steve growled. Tony turned around, put out a hand, and tugged on the shield. It didn’t move.
“Rhodey. Friend,” he repeated, throwing his weight into it. Steve, reluctantly, allowed the shield to be lowered.
Rhodey immediately saluted. Steve, as if it had been so deeply ingrained he couldn’t help it, saluted back.
“Now all we need is a bald eagle,” Tony observed. Both of them looked at him.
“You want to explain this?” Steve demanded.
“He’s not a this, he’s a him. Hi, Rhodey, howya been? I’ll hug you when I’m done making out with the coffee.”
“I’ve had better mornings,” Rhodey said, lowering his arm. “Captain Rogers. It’s an honor. Kind of. Lieutenant Colonel James Rhodes, Air Force.”
“Friend of his?” Steve asked. Tony glanced up to find Steve gesturing at him.
“Friend is such a dangerous word,” Rhodey replied.
“I am hurt,” Tony said. “I am — ” he slurped his coffee, ” — so wounded by you, Shiny Butt, honestly.”
“Shiny…” Steve asked, looking lost. Tony took a moment to cherish it.
“Rhodey pilots War Machine. It’s like my armor, only slower and uglier.”
Steve’s mouth formed a round ‘o’, and he turned back to Rhodey.
“Okay, you know not to listen to most of what comes out of his mouth, right?” Rhodey asked.
“Yep, you must be friends,” Steve said.
“Because War Machine is totally more awesome,” Rhodey continued.
“Why so much hate from you two? Why? I’m a delightful person,” Tony said. It was true. He was a garden of delights. Brains, looks, and light artillery in one shiny Ferrari-red package. Something for everyone. “When’d you get in, sugarcane?”
“Landed half an hour ago.”
“And you are making french toast?” Tony prompted hopefully. Rhodey’s french toast was the stuff of hung-over legend. It would probably taste even better without the hangover.
“I’m not making you shit, now,” Rhodey replied, sitting down and stealing Tony’s coffee. Tony groped ineffectually for it, but Rhodey held it out of his reach. Giving up, he turned to Steve.
“Steve, you make omelets, you should — “
“I’m going for a run,” Steve announced. He was always going for a run. Tony felt he was probably sublimating something but was too much of a gentleman to remark on it.
Well, saving it up for the right psychological moment was almost like good manners.
He noticed, as Steve left, that the other man turned to Rhodey and made the timeless “I’m watching you” gesture — fingers pointed at his own eyes, then at Rhodey’s. Rhodey gazed back calmly with his “I am deep and mysterious” face on.
“I will give you ten thousand dollars if you will make me french toast,” Tony offered.
“I don’t want ten thousand dollars. I want heat-seeking bullets,” Rhodey replied.
“Oh baby, talk dirty,” Tony murmured into his coffee.
“You make my bullets, then I’ll make you french toast.”
It became obvious fairly quickly that Rhodey was here on orders, and wasn’t going to go anywhere until Tony made him some heat-seeking bullets. Tony forced him to swear three times that he wouldn’t share the tech with anyone else in the military, then went down to his workshop and spent two days trying to cram a missile’s worth of technology into a metal tube the diameter of a highlighter. When he finally came up for air and a shower, he asked JARVIS to find Rhodey.
JARVIS led him to the gym, where Rhodey and Steve were sparring with the kind of bitter, vicious animosity normally reserved for Steve’s vendetta against the heavy bag.
“How long have they been at this?” he asked Natasha. Rhodey was fighting without the suit. Tony knew he had an impressive command of hand-to-hand, but Steve had to be pulling his punches.
Natasha didn’t take her eyes from the two sweating, grunting men. “About a day and a half, off and on.”
“You didn’t save me any popcorn?”
“No, but I do feel like I owe you a thank-you, in some obscure way,” she replied.
“For bringing Rhodey here? He came on his own.”
She looked up at him from the bench, amused.
“What?” he asked. On the mats, Steve lunged and Rhodey grabbed him by the waist, flipping them in midair so that Steve landed with a hard thud.
“Don’t kill him, it’s probably treason,” Tony called.
“Just a little fun ‘n games,” Steve said, getting to his feet.
“Wasn’t talking to you,” Tony replied, and left with a grin on his face.
It was nice, actually, that Rhodey and Steve were making friends. The next time he stepped out of the lab, they were sitting on either side of Bruce on the couch in the living room, watching a movie. He made himself some lunch (open cuppa soup, insert hot water, add shot of vodka, consume) and perched on the armrest of the couch.
“What’re we watching?” he asked, forking noodles and rehydrated bits of something into his mouth.
“Robocop,” Rhodey replied.
“Why?” Tony asked.
“It was a compromise,” Bruce said, which was…obscure. There were odd little tension lines around his eyes.
“Okay,” Tony said. “Rhodey, I am like one breakthrough away from finishing your ammo.”
“Thanks,” Rhodey said, and smiled at him. Bruce looked tenser. Steve looked sullen. Tony gave up on understanding human beings and betook himself and his lunch back to the workshop.
At some point that evening, Steve came down to the workshop as well. They’d been doing that, lately, this thing where Steve came and sat in the corner and sketched or read while bitching about Tony’s music but not ever actually in a way that made Tony feel like he had to turn it off. It was companionable, Tony supposed.
Then Rhodey came down, which, Rhodey was always hanging out in his shop when he was in town, so that was fine too. Tony preferred when his friends came to him; it allowed him to keep working.
It only got weird when Natasha showed up. Because Natasha had once been forced to pretend to be interested in Tony’s work, and was still making up for it by totally ignoring his function as an engineer unless she needed a new gun.
“You two, out,” she said, turning to Steve and Rhodey, who were on opposite ends of the couch, Steve with his nose in a book and Rhodey practicing his aim by throwing balled-up paper at Tony.
“Excuse me?” Tony asked, raising his head from his work.
“I need to talk to you without an audience,” Natasha said.
“So send me a text. This is my workshop, I say who stays and who goes.”
Natasha’s fingers tightened on her belt. Steve and Rhodey glanced at one another and then hastily retreated.
Tony tossed aside the shell casing he was working on. “Yes, what is it, what?”
“You have to put a stop to it.”
“No I don’t,” Tony said automatically. “Stop to what?”
“Steve and James.”
“Since when is he James to you?”
“Putting up with you creates a bond. Normally,” she said.
“So what’s wrong with Steve and Rhodey? They’re bonding.”
“They’re not bonding,” Natasha said. “They’re fighting over you. It was cute at first but now it’s getting old.”
“But they were sparring — “
“Trying to kill each other,” she pointed out.
“And they watched a movie with Bruce — “
“Who had to sit between them so they wouldn’t strangle each other.”
“But they were just here together — “
“Because one of them will not let the other one get more time with you,” Natasha said impatiently. “You seem to be having a moron moment so I’ll make it very clear to you. James is threatened by your new best friend. Steve is threatened by your oldest friend. The rest of us suffer because of it.”
Tony stared at her for a minute, processing this.
“What is this, high sch — ” he said, and then broke off. “Fuck!”
“So you have to stop it.”
“This is awesome!” Tony said.
“I can help y — what?” Natasha asked.
“This is high school! This is high school drama. I never went to high school, I went straight from tutors to a gifted school to college. High school drama is best friends and fights behind the gym, right? I just jumped into the college thing, you know, is she pregnant? and Does he have a drinking problem?”
Natasha raised an eyebrow.
“For the record she was not and I do not. Anymore,” he added, when she opened her mouth to argue. “This is great! I feel so loved. It’s like a big metaphorical hug.”
“You know, every time, I fail to consider the size of your ego,” she said. “Every time, I expect you to act like a human being.”
“That’s not my fault,” Tony pointed out. “So what do I do? Are they going to fight over who’s taking me to the prom?”
She grabbed him by the hair.
“Ow, ow ow,” he said, leaning the way she pulled.
“Fix it, before Steve ends up in a permanent sulk or James forgets how to make french toast. I want his french toast,” she hissed.
“Let go of my hair, you are a monster,” he replied, rubbing at his scalp as she released him. “When did you have his french toast, anyway?”
“He made it for me after the Vanko incident.”
Tony wasn’t going near that one with a ten foot pole. He was nosy, not stupid. “Fine. You couldn’t let me have two minutes to gloat?”
She threatened the hair again, and he held up his hands.
“I will fix it, I will procure Rhodey’s special french toast.” Tony considered the matter, rotated it mentally a few times, and nodded. “What time is it?”
“About nine o’clock.”
“Too late to take Rhodey to dinner?”
“I will even make you the reservation,” she said, with the old Natalie smile.
“No, not for me. You and him. Get him out of the tower,” he said. “I need to talk to Captain Sulkypants first.”
“What’s your plan?”
“My plan is oh look how that’s none of your business,” Tony replied. “Go. Give me the high sign when you’re out of the building.”
Once Rhodey was definitely cleared out, Tony headed for the kitchen, where Steve was picking away at a typing tutorial on a laptop.
“Hey,” Tony said, pouring himself a cup of coffee and scouring the kitchen for any interesting leftovers.
“Hey,” Steve answered, distracted by the tutorial. Tony leaned back against the counter and watched him for a few minutes, until Steve looked up self-consciously.
“You know,” Tony told him, “he’s going away again in like, three days. Honestly, I feel used. He only loves me for my bullets.”
Steve growled. Actually growled. Still, Tony had talked over worse.
“See, the thing is, Rhodey has pulled me out of more gutters than you ever will, and you should be thankful for that,” Tony said. “I am a difficult person now, but I was impossible when we were younger. What’s funny is that he is apparently still trying to beat the snot out of you. And I’m charmed, really, flattered that you both think Daddy doesn’t have enough love in his heart for two of you, but — “
“Are you going to make a point?” Steve asked.
“Touched a nerve. Sorry. Look, here’s my point,” Tony said, setting his coffee aside. “Rhodey and I go back, fair enough. But we go back so far that we can only be certain kinds of people when we’re together. I am never not gonna be an alcoholic sixteen year old around him, secretly, and he’s never not gonna be the older sibling who picks on me because I get him into trouble. We have baggage. You and me, okay, we had some issues, but we get to be adults.”
Steve gave him a pointed look.
“Believe it or not, I can be one,” Tony said.
Steve crossed his arms.
“Look, that’s all I got,” Tony added. “He’s gonna go away. You’re gonna be here. I’m on your team. But to be on your team I quit his team, I stopped building weapons so I could be one of the good guys. I’m not going to be sorry for hanging out with Rhodey while he’s here, because he’s my friend, and this is so high school by the way, I am loving every minute of it.”
Steve sighed and let his arms fall. “He’s obnoxious.”
“He’s really not. He’s just trying to get to you because you are obviously my favorite Captain America of all the Captain Americas I know.”
That drew out a small smile, quickly schooled. “So are you giving him this talk as well?”
“Well. No. Like I said. Differences. He and I are probably going to go out and get trashed in order to fix this, that’s more our thing. See? I am already being more mature with you.”
“Fine. I won’t permanently damage him,” Steve said, closing the laptop.
“You’re all heart,” Tony informed him.
He didn’t see Rhodey again that night, which was probably just as well. In the morning he did catch a glimpse of him sneaking out of Natasha’s room, and manfully restrained himself from giving him the biggest high-five ever.
Instead, he went down to his workshop, perfected the bullets, and came back to the kitchen in time to claim french toast as his brunch prize. If he had to share with Natasha, well, it was a small price to pay. Steve even pronounced it edible, grudgingly. On the one hand he’d lived off canned rations in the war, so edible was relative, but on the other it was progress, of a sort.
That night, around seven, Tony and Happy and Tony’s classic Rolls, the one he knew Rhodey loved, abducted Rhodey for a night out. He really didn’t remember much of the rest of it, but they must have talked at some point because he did have a blurry image of Rhodey saying “Captain AMERICA, man, for REAL” and himself nodding knowingly.
Rhodey left the next morning, hung over as fuck, with a bro-hug for Tony and at least a respectful salute for Steve.
“You keep an eye on him,” he said, as he folded himself into the War Machine armor, tucking the heat-seeking bullets into a storage compartment.
“He can look after himself,” Steve said.
“I wasn’t talking to you, Army,” Rhodey said with a grin.
Steve made a low ‘hmm’ in his throat, not quite a growl but close.
As War Machine took off and Steve turned to go back inside, Tony took just a moment to privately bask in being the Popular Kid.