"This is not about Tony," Pepper says the first time, even though there's no value in pretending that this is something other than what it is. Nobody hesitates and nobody cries, but this is about comfort, about reassurance, about the promise of something, anything at all to replace what they've lost.
"This is not only about Tony," Rhodey says the second time, already unbuttoning her shirt, and Pepper doesn't argue with him, knowing he's right.
"I want you to stay over," Pepper says the fifth time.
"I think you wear this skirt just to tease me," Rhodey says the tenth time.
"What would you do if he came back tomorrow?" Pepper says, as they lay in bed after the fifteenth time. He has his arms around her, holding her close, but she's not looking at him, addressing the ceiling instead.
"Thank every god I know of," Rhodey says.
"What would you do the day after that?" she asks. "What would you do about us?"
There's so much behind that question that it's uncountably, almost unknowably big, but it all comes down to the hole between them, the one that nothing can mend, nothing that can be found, the silent sucking wound that won't goddamn heal.
He lets out a heavy sigh. "No idea at all."
Pepper gets the call in the middle of the night, Rhodey's calm voice shaky as he tells her that Tony's alright, he's okay, he's in Germany in the hospital but they'll be home soon, baby, it's okay, it's really okay this time.
She hangs up and lays there for a long time, just to make sure she's not dreaming, just to make sure that it's not the way it is then, that he doesn't come walking straight into the door wearing a crisp suit but smelling like death.
Then she takes off her clothes and gets in the shower, because if this has happened then her day starts now, there will be media to wrangle and preparations to be made, the house restocked so that Tony comes back to what he wants, what he needs, what he deserves after all that.
Four hours later she's still sitting on the floor of the shower, her knees drawn up to her chest. She didn't think she had four hours of crying inside of her but apparently she does; her eyes dried up a while ago but it still hasn't stopped.
Somehow she gets up and she makes it through, she does everything that needs to be done somehow, despite the fact that it takes far more strength than she has.
What feels like an eternity passes, and they step out of the plane, clutching each other. She sees everything she ever wanted, right there in front of her.
Things go a little haywire after that.
She and Rhodey start to have little discussions, clipped and heated, that they refuse to acknowledge in any way are fights, followed by sex that isn't make-up sex, no matter what it might look like. Then they start to have fights, not followed by make-up sex; the difference is immense.
They're both mature, rational adults, and this is the place where it ends. This is the place where they acknowledge that something is driving a wedge between them, a thing that will eventually lead to them hating each other if this doesn't stop now.
It's just that, to be perfectly frank, mature and rational has been dead and gone for a long time. There's nothing like love to kill it.
They don't keep it a secret, but Tony knows without being told; Rhodey doesn't know how but Tony knows automatically, knows Rhodey knows he knows. Tony doesn't seem shocked or unhappy about it, just seems resigned to it. Rhodey almost hates him for that, for how he doesn't even try, no matter how much of a bastard that would make him.
"Am I supposed to give you the 'treat her right' speech now?" Tony asks him one night, completely out of nowhere. "I haven't even threatened you with bodily harm. I hear that's customary."
"Tony," Rhodey says, tired and frustrated. He's never been so frustrated in his entire life, and he's spent a good long portion of that life with Tony Stark.
"I just don't want her to feel unloved," Tony says, and now he's getting snide, on the edge of saying things that he'll loathe himself for later. Before he can say anything else, Rhodey grabs him by the shoulders and crushes their lips together. He didn't know it was possible to angrily kiss somebody, at least not this angrily, but Rhodey just wants to take all of it out on him, every bit of everything that's pent up inside of him. It's not fair, but he does it anyway, and Tony doesn't stop him.
They finally part, panting, and Tony stares at him, more shocked than angry. "I've been back, what, a month, and now you're ready to cheat on her?" Tony says. "You're fucking better than that, Rhodes, I can't believe-"
This time he kisses him just to shut him up.
"Don't be such a fucking martyr," Rhodey says, putting his hand on Tony's chest, beside the reactor.
Tony purses his lips. "Don't be so fucking cryptic."
Rhodey takes a breath. "We were waiting for you," he says. "We've always been waiting for you."
Tony's eyes widen, his face changing. "I thought you were too smart to get involved with me like that."
"Apparently not," he says, and that's what breaks the tension, somehow. "All we ever wanted was for you to come home. To us."
"Have you actually been waiting in the sense of holding off, or has this waiting been more emotional in nature?" Tony asks.
Rhodey lifts an eyebrow. "Would you wait?"
"Point taken," Tony replies. "You and her have talked about this?"
"Uh," Rhodey says. "Not exactly."
"Gotta admire your initiative," Tony says, giving him an amused look.
"We did a lot of not talking about it," Rhodey explains. "It's complicated."
Tony shakes his head. "You know how much I hate to be the voice of reason, but let's talk to her before you go changing your facebook status."
"I don't have a facebook, Tony," Rhodey says; there's still a nervous feeling twisting up his stomach, but his heart feels so much lighter.
"Yeah, you do," Tony says. "I set it up for you. You never check your messages." Rhodey shakes his head, but Tony takes his face in his hands, kissing him intently.
The discussion is long and takes a lot of frowning, mostly conducted by Pepper and Rhodey, as Tony just interjects ever more anatomically improbable sexual positions. Called on to be serious, he actually is, which is a stunner to everyone involved, and that more than anything seals it.
Months later, Tony finds them on the couch, sitting close together, a bowl of popcorn in between them, the opening credits just starting to roll.
"Did I interrupt date night?" Tony asks, not even pretending like he's going to leave them alone.
"If you're actually going to sit quietly and not talk to the movie, you can join us," Rhodey says.
"You won't be disappointed," Tony assures him. "I'm the best third wheel in the business, believe me." He takes a handful of popcorn and chews on it. "I've seen this one already."
Pepper narrows her eyes at him. "I swear to god, Tony, if you ruin this movie for me-"
"The kid lives, but the dog dies," he says.
Rhodey gives him a look. "I don't think Guy Ritchie is even allowed to work with children."
Tony just shrugs, but he's mercifully quiet, though he can't help squirming a little. Pepper puts a hand on his thigh to calm him down, but he just puts his over it, lacing their fingers together, which is in no way a bad outcome. Pepper lets herself sink lower into the couch, and Rhodey puts his arm around her shoulders, stopping to scratch Tony's head a little before he settles in.