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Solidarity Allows Friendship to Endure

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Rhodey should've expected a nightclub.

He knew Tony long enough. Hell, he knew Tony well enough that nightclub should've been the first thing that sprang to his mind. Nightclub, strip club, casino, drunk tank, or some possible combination of all four should've been at the top of his list of expectations for where he'd end up that evening.

But, somehow, when his phone had chirped with a text ("911!! URGENT!!!!!! GET HERE NOW!!!!!!!!!!!!"), his dumb ass had actually believed the address Tony sent him would lead towards something business related.

Or a battle. Rhodey could've coped with a battle. Though he liked to think that even Tony would've given him the heads-up to come in the War Machine armor if Manhattan was under attack again.

The location was neither. It was a nightclub named 78 - presumably after its address of the same number - with a long line out front, music that could be heard in the street, and a pair of bouncers guarding the entrance who were bigger than Happy in both height and width.

Rhodey felt strongly tempted to turn around and leave Tony to rethink his choices about, in no particular order, his communication skills, his priorities, and his life. However there was the odd chance that Tony actually had gotten himself into some kind of trouble inside of the club and needed a best friend bailout.

Also Rhodey felt a lingering twinge of something for the times when Tony's problems could be solved by having someone haul his drunk ass home. Possibly nostalgia. Or Afghanistan-flavored guilt. Or familiarity tempered by whether or not Tony was not only drunk but doing something stupid with weapons and -

Rhodey decided to head into the club before not doing so seemed like the better idea.

A petite woman with dyed blond hair and a skintight black minidress intercepted Rhodey before he could reach the bouncers. He didn't know if she'd been given his picture or if she'd been told to keep an eye out for a black guy in an Air Force uniform, but either way she smiled at him and said, "Colonel Rhodes, we've been expecting you."

She lead him towards a door that was in the nondescript, hidden in plain sight style of VIP entrances meant for the rich, the famous, or - as in Tony's case - both. From there it was a walk down a long, dark hallway decorated with abstract paintings that could barely be seen in the dim light. The music grew louder until they reached a set of thick black curtains. She gestured for him to go through. "Mr. Stark is waiting for you."

"I'm sure he is," Rhodey said. Then, since it wasn't her fault that Tony could be an asshole, he added, "Thanks."

Rhodey pushed his way through the curtains and into the club. The first thing he saw was the dance floor. It was packed with men and women dressed in clothes that were form-fitting, revealing, or both. At the far right side of the space was a raised DJ booth, behind which a young Korean woman with an artfully ripped T-shirt and pink stripes in her hair took care of the music.

Above this was a level of semicircular booths with plush, red leather seating. Chrome poles were scattered about that connected the two levels together, and which provided a place for dancers - again male and female - to perform acrobatic flips, turns, and jumps from pole to pole.

At the back of all of this was Tony. He sat alone in the centermost booth, wearing his usual clubbing clothes (black pants, T-shirt, Italian leather jacket) and, of course, a pair of purple-tinted I'm Tony Stark and fuck you sunglasses over his eyes. His right hand turned a crystal tumbler of scotch around in clockwise circles, while his head nodded to the beat of the music. Which, given that what was playing consisted of French lyrics mixed with what sounded like vigorously fucking machinery, was naturally something Tony would think had a nice melody.

Rhodey stood in front of Tony's booth and blocked his view of the dance floor. "You know, some people work for a living."

Tony flicked a dismissive hand. "That's overrated."

"Working?" Rhodey asked.

"As a moral high ground," Tony replied. He took a swallow of his scotch. "If a paycheck automatically conveys some kind of higher status of humanity then we're all fucked considering how rich I am. Also? I do work. Sometimes for free, if we count when I'm saving the world. Or is your point that I should charge?"

"I was in a meeting with the Joint Chiefs," Rhodey told him. He took a seat, sliding into the left hand side of the booth. "Your 'urgent' ass better be dying."

"My ass is, as always, phenomenal, but thanks for your concern." Tony saluted him with his drink. "And what's with the pout? Excuse me for thinking that quality time with my best friend should be a high priority. An urgent priority, if you will."

"What's amazing is you speak these words, and I think you genuinely believe them to be true," Rhodey said.

"I mean I certainly value our friendship more than a meeting with certain members of government," Tony continued. "Heck, any members of government. I mean I, personally, would walk out of a meeting with the President if my BFF needed me. But if those aren't your priorities - "

"You would walk out of a meeting with God if it meant you could blow off your responsibilities," Rhodey told him. "Hanging out with me would just be your excuse."

"Still, you over God. Some people would consider that a compliment." Tony held his hands up as though giving up all other claims in the conversation. "I'm just saying."

"Is everything all right, Mr. Stark?" A silver-haired gentleman who Rhodey estimated to be in his mid-50s showed up at the table. Based on his age, dark blue suit, and the way he looked to be ready to stab himself with a fork if Tony asked him to, Rhodey guessed he was the manager.

Tony sat forward. "We need drinks."

"What's this 'we'?" Rhodey asked. "Also this guy - "

"Andre," the man supplied.

"Andre," Rhodey said, giving him a nod of acknowledgment, "isn't the waiter."

"We need significantly more scotch," Tony said. "Bring another glass for my friend here."

"All I want is water," Rhodey said.

"What he wants is a burger," Tony said. He mimed stacking ingredients on top of one another. "Can you whip up one of those ones with the brioche bun, Vidalia onions marmalade, Muenster, pickled Daikon - "

"I realize I'm mostly talking right now to hear my own voice and not with any expectation that you're listening to me," Rhodey said. "But is any of that on the menu or are you doing the douchebag rich guy thing where you order whatever the hell you want?"

" - and give him the fries with the mango mayonnaise," Tony concluded.

"With the what now?" Rhodey asked.

"It's delicious," Tony surprised him by actually answering his question. "I'll eat it if you won't."

"More than happy to, Mr. Stark," Andre said. If he had any problems with Tony treating him like a lower member of the staff, he didn't show it. He gave a slight bow before moving away from the table. "We'll get those things for you right away."

"I bet he'd blow off the Joint Chiefs for a meeting with me," Tony said, once Andre was gone.

"I'm sitting right here," Rhodey reminded him.

"Without bitching about it then," Tony amended. He finished off his scotch. "Why play hooky with me if you're not going to let yourself enjoy it?"

"So you admit this is about you fucking around and not actually about any problem?" Rhodey asked.

Tony grimaced. Whatever answer he might have been about to give was cut off as a woman in a red and black miniskirt and low-cut top showed up. She gave Tony a bright smile. As she placed their drinks on the table, she bent over so Tony had a perfect view down her shirt. "More scotch, Mr. Stark. Is there anything else I can do for you?"

She gave Tony a look which made it clear Tony was welcome to lick the scotch directly off her body if he wanted to. Rhodey had spent a lot of time with Tony and attractive people, so he knew that look well even if it had never once been aimed in his direction. It was an easy look to translate when, more often than not, Tony took up the invitation. On special nights Tony even remembered to go somewhere more private before starting in on anything involving nudity.

Tonight Tony simply gave her a flash of the Stark grin. "We're good. Unless you want to, Rhodey?"

"I just need my water," Rhodey said. He caught the flicker in the waitress's eyes as she tried to guess if Rhodey was rich or famous enough to be worth turning her charm on. This, too, he was used to. That moment when people realized that scoring Tony Stark might be unobtainable, but maybe his friend wouldn't be a bad option number two. Sometimes Rhodey indulged in the opportunity - not that he needed to, it wasn't like he lacked for options of his own. But sometimes the best way to enjoy an evening with Tony was to get caught up in the Tony of it all, spontaneous offers of sex included.

It didn't matter this time, though, because she simply gave him a polite nod and placed a glass of water on the table. "Here you are. If there's nothing else, Mr. Stark?"

Tony shook his head, and she vanished back into the swirl of dancers and performers that filled the club space.

Rhodey waited until Tony started to take another swallow of scotch before he asked, "So what are you about to screw up?"

"Why is that what your mind automatically goes to?" Tony put his drink back down. "Why is that even your suspicion?"

"Because you called me," Rhodey said. When Tony looked at him with incomprehension, he went on to explain. "You call Happy when you want to screw something up and you're looking for someone to enable your dumb ass. You call Pepper when you've already screwed something up and need somebody to bail your ass out."

"You're awfully obsessed with my ass tonight," Tony said. "I'm just mentioning it in case there's a conversation you'd like to be having."

Rhodey ignored him. "And you call me when you're about to screw something up and you have a vague memory that maybe you could avoid it with some adult supervision. Not that you ever listen to what I have to say, but at this point I'm in it just to see how much you'll avoid doing what I tell you."

"That is so not - " Tony caught the look Rhodey was giving him and gave up his protest. "All right, fine. Occasionally partially true. Somewhat. But to be fair it's not as though I could call Pepper right now."

"All that means is you could be hoping I'll help you fix something you already screwed up," Rhodey said. He frowned. "You better not be asking me how to make things up with her."

"No." Tony scoffed. "Please. Well, yes if you do have some advice but that's not why - "

"I'm not helping you with Pepper," Rhodey told him.

"It's not like I know!" Tony threw his hands up in defeat. "I don't even admit to knowing! Don't I get credit for that? C'mon! It's not flowers, jewelry, a car, a house. At this point I'm stuck with singing telegram."

Rhodey raised his eyebrows. "You actually think Pepper wants a singing telegram?"

"I was going to pay Shania Twain to do the singing," Tony said.

"Does Pepper like Shania Twain?" Rhodey asked. He kept his face schooled in a careful neutral as Tony studied him for any clue as to what the answer might be.

"Y… n…. Oh like you know!" Tony folded his arms and slumped in his seat.

"Actually, I do," Rhodey said. When Tony opened his mouth to speak again, he immediately added, "And no, I'm not telling you. You can unfuck your situation with Pepper all by yourself, cowboy."

"Fine," Tony sighed. "But it's your fault if I make it worse while I'm trying."

"That is not actually true," Rhodey told him.

The waitress returned with a tray of food. She laid out the plates and condiment bowls with a smile, and a stance that let Rhodey be the one who got to see down her shirt this time. Between that and the winking looks she gave him and Tony both, Rhodey figured they were at the stage where she was wondering if she could make herself the filling in a Tony-Stark-and-the-guy-sitting-next-to-him sandwich.

Rhodey felt no need to point out that the odds of him agreeing to something like that tended to increase when people bothered learning his name.

Instead she left them alone when her silent invitation and her repeat offer of "Anything else?" got no positive response beyond Rhodey's murmur of thanks.

The food she'd brought actually looked good. Rhodey could smell the char on the beef, and the tang of the onions. The fries, crinkle cut with the skin still on, were piled as high as the burger was tall. Next to the plate were small bowls filled with ketchup, relish, mustard, and a pale orange tinted spread that had to be the mango mayo Tony had mentioned earlier.

"Eat it while it's hot," Tony suggested. He reached across the table to grab one of the fries. He flinched when Rhodey slapped his hand away. "Hey!"

"Get your own," Rhodey told him.

"You didn't even want them," Tony said.

"I didn't know if I wanted them," Rhodey replied. Figuring he may as well go for it, he dipped a fry in the mayo and tossed it in his mouth. It was surprisingly good. "Huh."

"See?" Tony looked smug. The told you so was evident behind his sunglasses. "So. On a scale of one to Justin Hammer, how bad is it that I slept with one of my teammates?"

Rhodey choked, because Tony was an asshole who had waited until Rhodey was about to swallow a bite of the also surprisingly tasty burger before throwing that question at him. Tony at least had the decency to push a drink in Rhodey's direction. It was one of the tumblers of scotch, but Rhodey figured they'd reached the part of the evening where maybe he didn't want to be sober.

After Rhodey got his breath back, he said, "So that's why Pepper broke up with you."

"Yeah." Tony rubbed the back of his neck. "Well no. I mean yes it's a reason. It's not the only reason or, let's face it, the last reason. But it was definitely up there. Call it a catalyst. Straw. Camel. Just noticeable difference between my obnoxious yet tolerable self and my full on obnoxious self. Whatever."

Rhodey thought it over. "Was it Natasha?"

"Please." Tony gave him a look, then gestured towards his crotch. "Still attached, thanks."

"Cap?" Rhodey asked.

"Ew, no." Tony made a face of disgust. "Why would you - "

"With your daddy issues?"

Tony cocked his head to the side, then nodded. "Okay, fair point. Not invalid concept. But no, not him either."

Rhodey thought back to the group Tony had introduced him to after the battle of Manhattan. "Then who?"

"Can we skip names for a sec?" Tony made a broad gesture with his hands. "Bigger picture. Fucking members of your team. You're probably going to tell me it's a bad idea because…?"

"Because of unit cohesion," Rhodey said. He wondered where Tony was going with this, but figured he may as well start with a straight answer. "If you're asking me because you're looking at the Avengers like the military, then it's because you don't want to break the trust. You need to know the people you're working with would put their lives on the line for you, and vice versa. It's a bond unlike any other. Sex confuses it. Whether it's going well or not, it changes your instincts. It puts the whole team out of balance."

"Well, or not." Tony drummed his fingers on the table. "Already we're not ruling out option number two."

"You just broke up with Pepper," Rhodey reminded him. "Plus, and I'm saying this as your best friend, you tend to burn and salt the earth behind you before the sheets get cold. And that's before you were in rebound city."

"Does it count as a rebound if the sex happened before the breakup?" Tony asked. His voice lacked the usual sharpness that would've made the question insincere. He shook his head before Rhodey could reply. "Okay. Good. Great. This is what I needed to hear."

Rhodey wondered how much of Tony's response he was willing to believe. "But did you listen?"

"I heard every word." Tony used his free hand to made a slicing motion in the air. "Fucking team members? Bad idea. You're right. 100% agreement from me to you."

"So you'll stop?" Rhodey asked.

"Absolutely." Tony took a swallow of his scotch. "I was never fully sold on the whole Avenger concept anyway."

"And he misses the point by a mile," Rhodey said. He grabbed his tumbler of scotch again. He was definitely too sober for this.

"Sorry, I was sitting right here." Tony pointed towards his seat. "I heard your point loud and clear. You said I can't fuck somebody who's on the team with me."

"So stop fucking the guy," Rhodey said.

"So quit the team." Tony looked at Rhodey with disbelief. "Stop fucking the - no. Not an option."

"No, see, much as I know this is going to shatter your worldview?" Rhodey said. "It turns out not fucking people is always an option."

"I'm not doing it," Tony said.

"It's actually pretty easy," Rhodey said, talking right over him. "Billions of people manage to not fuck other people. There are some who spend their entire lives not fucking other people."

"How very sad for them," Tony said. "But it doesn't apply to me."

"Tony, listen to me." Rhodey fought the urge to grab Tony by his shoulders to force him to pay attention. "You need a team. You need backup."

Tony shrugged. "I have backup. I have you."

"Yeah," Rhodey said. "But when the Chitauri hit where was I? Oh right. Hong Kong."

"Still backing me up," Tony pointed out.

"On the other side of the damn planet," Rhodey said. "Even if I wasn't already knee deep in that other shit it would've taken me over an hour to get to you. Plus, as I've already reminded you, I have a job. I'm supposed to be serving the country, remember?"

"So I'll handle it on my own." Tony twisted his glass around in circles again. "Iron Man didn't start out with a sidekick."

"Iron Man didn't start out fighting alien invasions either," Rhodey replied. He rubbed a hand over his eyes. "Hey, if you want another option, great. Stop being Iron Man."

"Ha!"

"Then be Iron Man but with a team," Rhodey said. "Stop being an idiot who thinks he's got to do everything on his own. Keep the team, swap this guy for one of the billions of people on the planet who can fuck you without these issues - "

"I thought billions of people weren't fucking?"

" - and stop obsessing about it just because you're being told no."

"That's not why I'm obsessing," Tony said. "Also? I'm not obsessing. Why does it have to be obsessing just because there's one guy - "

"A guy, Tony," Rhodey said. "One of many. You saw him, you fucked him, move on."

"I don't want to!"

"For God's sake, why?"

"Because he's smart!"

Rhodey stared at him. "Come again?"

Tony's shoulders slumped. He pulled his sunglasses off and tossed them onto the table, finally looking Rhodey in the eyes. "He's smart. He's crazy smart. You talk about backup with aliens - how about in a lab? I can throw stuff at him - literally, figuratively - and he gets it."

"You let this guy in your lab?" Rhodey asked.

"And that's not even talking about his own stuff," Tony said. He held his hands out, pantomiming holding something round and about as big as a bread box. "He showed me this thing the other day. Water purification system. Could - hell, will save millions of lives in the Third World once it goes into production. Entire concept wasn't even on my radar but for him it's a back of the napkin sketch while we're having lunch.

"It's not the sex." Off of Rhodey's skeptical look Tony added. "Okay, not just the sex. The sex is amazing, don't get me wrong. All the usual desired features are there. He's hot, he's funny, his mouth alone is like months' worth of spank material. But seriously, Rhodey, his brain."

Rhodey took all of this in. A smirk touched his lips as he began to realize that coming to see Tony tonight might turn out to be one of the best decisions he'd ever made.

Tony's brows drew closer together. "What are you looking at?"

"Are you listening to yourself?" Rhodey asked. "Better yet, are you hearing yourself?"

"Yes. No. Why?" Suspicion dawned on Tony's face. "What? No. Whatever you're thinking, just no."

"You could've just said," Rhodey told him. He was grinning now and he so did not care. "I wouldn't have argued with you if you'd just said - "

"Said what?" Tony shifted in his seat. "There's nothing to say. You're hearing things."

" - you were in l - "

"Shut up!" Tony folded his arms on the table and buried his head in them. Muffled, but still audible, he said, "Fuck you. Shut up. And no."

"This is the best night ever," Rhodey decided.

"I am not - " Tony sat up again. He glared at Rhodey. "This isn't why I brought you here. You're not supposed to be gloating. You're not supposed to be smug."

"What am I supposed to be doing?" Rhodey asked. He had more of the fries. The mango mayo was even better when mixed with some of the ketchup.

"Lectures!" Tony flung his hands up in the air. "Giving me the 'Tony, you're being an immature dick' speech or the 'Tony, remember you're too focused on sex to function' speech. I would've even taken the 'Tony, you're too much of an asshole to be allowed around people' speech. But this - this - no. Nuh-uh."

Rhodey wiped his hands on a napkin. "Tony, you're an immature dick, possible sex addict, and definite asshole. All of which has nothing to do with the fact that you've apparently been writing this guy's last name next to yours all over whatever high-tech version of a Trapper Keeper you've got in your arsenal."

"You're not my BFF anymore," Tony told him. "Turns out that last F was more of a suggestion than a hard rule."

"If you're freaked out because of Pepper, I get it," Rhodey said. "Hell, I'm not completely sure this isn't you doing some kind of panicked fuck up because you were getting too close with her."

"It's not - " Tony grimaced. "It's not that. I liked Pepper. I like Pepper. I like her to an exponential degree I've never had with anybody before. She's a good woman. A great partner."

"And smoking hot," Rhodey added.

"Insanely hot," Tony agreed.

"But this guy's different," Rhodey said. He turned his plate so Tony could have some of his fries.

"When I'm around him I want to vomit." Tony snagged a few fries and dipped them in the mayo. "Is that a thing? Like I want to vomit but in a good way."

"Please tell me you haven't started writing poems about him or anything," Rhodey said. "Lie if you have to."

"I was sort of hoping it was radiation sickness but turns out that's not really an issue." Tony shrugged. "So, hit me. How am I supposed to handle this? Is the team still off the table?"

Rhodey gave it a lot of thought. He liked Pepper, and had thought she would be a great partner for Tony. But he'd be lying if he'd said the breakup had surprised him, and part of that was due to how there were huge parts of Tony's life Pepper couldn't share. Hell, he couldn't fully share them, and he had the advantage of Tony giving him his own suit. If Tony had found someone who could join him in science and superheroing, maybe it was worth a shot.

"I think you try to make it work," Rhodey said. "I'm not telling you it'll be easy. But if you really, genuinely think you and this guy could have something - then Hell. Do the you thing. Have it all."

Tony grinned. "Should I be making a record of the day you said it was okay for me to do that?"

"A team is good for you," Rhodey said. "A grown-up relationship is good for you. If you've found a way to get both I say great."

"Thanks." Tony raised his glass to Rhodey in a toast.

"You're welcome." Rhodey clinked his glass against Tony's. He took a sip of his drink, then got back to eating. "So who are we talking about anyway? It's not Captain America. Is the archer into science or was it the guy who said he was a - "

Rhodey froze as he realized who Tony had been talking about.

"Banner?"

"See this?" Tony pointed at him. "This is not the conversation I wanted to have."

"He's the Hulk," Rhodey said.

"Amazingly I did know that before I put his big, green cock in my mouth," Tony said. "But thanks for the update."

Rhodey stared at him. "Tell me you didn't actually - "

"No, God." Tony threw his hands up. "Why does everyone keep asking me that? Even my body's got limits."

"Everyone?" Rhodey frowned. "Who'd you tell besides me?"

Tony shrugged. "Well, everyone for a factor of you and Bruce. So, you know, 100% of the people who could've felt a need to mention it."

"I can't believe you," Rhodey said.

"Two seconds ago you were completely behind this idea," Tony pointed out.

"Two seconds ago I didn't realize you were trying to find out if you could deep throat a nuclear bomb!"

"We had to work up to that, actually." Tony took another swallow of his drink. "Also? He's not a nuke."

"Fine," Rhodey said. "He's a walking weapon of mass destruction. How's that?"

"So am I!" Tony said. "So are you! Or did you forget that, War Machine?"

"That's different!" Rhodey said.

"I don't see how."

"Do you actually need a diagram?" Rhodey asked. He leaned in closer so he could lower his voice. "We put on suits to fight bad guys. One of us is actually trained in how to do that."

"Considering I built the suits my very existence is my training," Tony said.

Rhodey ignored him. "Banner turns into a monster. A mindless - "

"No."

" - thing - "

"Really no."

" - who does nothing but destroy!"

"You haven't even met him!" Tony said.

Rhodey frowned. "Banner?"

"Hulk!"

"You want me to meet the thing that single handedly ripped up New York?" Rhodey asked.

"Okay, A) he's not a thing." Tony held up fingers as he counted off his points. "He's - he's a he. He's a Hulk. He's got emotions and thoughts and he's not a bad guy. B) He only ruined Harlem because C) he was trying to take down Blonsky who D) was also ripping up Harlem but, you know, worse. And - "

"Tony, even if that's true it doesn't matter," Rhodey said.

"And," Tony continued, talking over him, "He doesn't just destroy. He saved my life."

Rhodey sat back. He knew what had happened. He'd seen the footage. He'd watched, his stomach tight and his mouth tasting of copper, as shot after shot showed Tony dropping - not actively falling, too far gone to be falling - to the ground.

"What about the next time he gets pissed off?" Rhodey asked.

"It doesn't work like that," Tony said. "He's got more control now. He can change on purpose."

"Can he not change on purpose?" Rhodey asked. "Because last I heard it wasn't a real good idea to startle the guy."

"Says who?" Tony asked. "Ross? Sorry, did I miss the memo where you no longer think he's a limp penis in an Army uniform?"

"Please say that louder," Rhodey said. "Because I would love to get court martialed at this stage of my career. Really."

"Ross couldn't get what he wanted with tech so he went with gamma," Tony said. "Only, once again, he didn't get the weapon he wanted. Instead he got Bruce. He got Hulk. Yeah, okay, probably not the first guy I'd want to throw a surprise party for. But Hulk's not a monster. Not if you treat him fairly."

"And you're the one who treats him fairly?" Rhodey asked.

"C'mon." Tony spread his arms out. "He's been with me for eons now and hasn't accidentally turned once. Tell me that's not willpower."

Rhodey thought it over. "I'm not thrilled with this."

Tony immediately put his hands up, palms facing forward. "I don't need thrilled. All I'm asking is you give him a chance."

"What if you're wrong?" Rhodey asked.

"Then you can lecture me to your heart's content." Tony helped himself to another of Rhodey's fries. "I'll even listen."

Rhodey gave him a look.

"I'll listen to at least 83% of it," Tony amended.

"I want at least 90% and the ability to quiz you after," Rhodey told him. "Plus at least a sixth month grace before the next bad idea you try to talk me into."

"Done deal," Tony said. "Mark it, sign it, consider it law. Oh hey! We should celebrate. With tequila."

"No," Rhodey told him. "No we should not."

***

They had celebrated. With, apparently, all of the tequila. That was the conclusion Rhodey came to when he woke the next - morning? He checked his watch. Yeah, morning. Granted past 10am but still morning in the broad, non-military, non-anything-past-sunrise-is-pretty-much-night sense.

Rhodey had no idea how he kept letting Tony talk him into these things. Especially when he was the one who felt the worst of it the next day. Not that Tony never had a hangover, but he seemed to have a preternatural ability to never have one whenever Rhodey did.

For his part Rhodey had a dull, throbbing headache behind his eyes, a god awful feeling in his mouth, and the strong belief that eating anything other than maybe some dry toast was pushing it.

Nothing for it but to go on and face the day. Rhodey hit the showers first, grateful the ones attached to the guest bedrooms in Tony's penthouse were as good as the one in the master bath. From there he got dressed - his uniform cleaned and pressed by whatever rich boy magic made that possible while Rhodey was sleeping - and headed out in search of coffee.

"Good morning, Colonel Rhodes," JARVIS said when Rhodey reached the living room. Rhodey didn't know if it was an overcast day or if JARVIS had deliberately dimmed the windows to keep out the bright light, but he was happy with the results either way. "There are refreshments available by the bar. Mr. Stark is currently in his personal lab, should you wish to speak with him."

"I'm good," Rhodey said. He went to the bar and poured himself a large mug of dark coffee. It was good post-night out stuff. The warm scent of it made his head feel less like something he wanted to detach from and pick up later.

He thought back over the night. In spite of the tequila - multiple bottles, his memory helpfully told him - it hadn't been too bad. Sure Tony had put away enough booze to fell a medium sized cow, and he'd danced with more than his fair share of attractive hangers-on. But in the end they'd come back here. No hookups for him or Tony, and they'd gotten home in time for Rhodey to wake up in the morning, rather than pass out by noon.

Sure, some of it was that neither one of them was in college anymore, but still. Things were changing. Things other than age.

"JARVIS, show me everything I can see on Dr. Banner," Rhodey said.

"Of course, Colonel," JARVIS said.

Rhodey wasn't an idiot. He wasn't Tony Stark levels of genius, but he had gone to MIT. He'd earned as many of his medals with his brains as with his fighting skills. He could in no way create something like JARVIS - nobody but Tony could. However that didn't mean Rhodey didn't understand.

JARVIS was a program. An incredibly sophisticated, almost lifelike program, but still a program. And programs, even snarky ones made by Tony Stark, ultimately did exactly what they were told to do. If you wanted to program a robot to go forward twenty feet you told it to, with specific directions and measurements and explanations of exactly what a foot was and what it meant to go and also to stop and at what speed all of this should be accomplished in and so on.

Granted, part of the beauty of JARVIS was that Tony had built in the ability for all of those details to be extrapolated from common speech. But even so it also meant Rhodey had chosen his words carefully. Thus, when he had asked for everything he could see he knew the results weren't going to be limited to everything he had seen.

Instead JARVIS produced every record on one Dr. Robert Bruce Banner that JARVIS could fetch and Rhodey was capable of laying his eyes on. Some were from SHIELD, which Tony had gotten either deliberately or simply helped himself to. Some were Army records Rhodey had skimmed in the past.

Still others were government records Rhodey hadn't been aware of and, in all likelihood, a civilian like Tony wasn't supposed to know existed. But Tony wasn't in the room, JARVIS was a program, and Rhodey had security clearance so high he could walk into the Oval Office without anybody frisking him. He figured this more than covered his need for both information and plausible deniability.

Rhodey read, going through two cups of coffee as he tried to absorb it all. He'd known the gist of it. Troubled childhood, gamma research, accident, monster. File after file just colored in the details. And while sure, finding out Banner had been engaged to Ross's daughter sure put a whole new spin on things, it still didn't feel like enough.

"Are you searching for anything in particular, Colonel?" JARVIS asked after Rhodey had shut another holographic window in frustration.

"I'm not sure," Rhodey admitted. He felt like he was trying to define porn - he'd know it when he saw it. Then he wondered if he was trying to find something he couldn't see. "JARVIS, what's Dr. Banner's security clearance around here?"

"Dr. Banner has been given complete access to all of Mr. Stark's research and any area of this or any other building in Mr. Stark's possession," JARVIS said. There was a pause. Then, as though not sure if it should be mentioned, JARVIS added, "Also to Mr. Stark's music playlists."

"I don't have access to Tony's playlists," Rhodey said.

"Mr. Stark has expressed the opinion that Dr. Banner's musical tastes are far superior to yours."

"This can't be good." Rhodey rubbed a hand over his face. He wanted Tony to have a mature relationship but this felt… too soon. Too much. Too something. "JARVIS, do you think - " Rhodey stopped himself. It was pointless to ask what JARVIS thought when Tony could program any kind of thinking he wanted to. Then again, Tony seemed to enjoy when JARVIS had a contrary opinion to his. "If it was up to you, is that the kind of clearance you would've given Dr. Banner?"

"I have seen no evidence to suggest Dr. Banner is a danger to Mr. Stark," JARVIS said.

"None?" Rhodey asked. He wanted to believe, and yet. "He's been on the run for years. When he's been chased down, it's by guys wielding StarkTech weaponry. Now he's got access to all of Tony's stuff. You don't think that's cause for concern?"

"Dr. Banner has given no indication of a grudge towards Mr. Stark's connections to General Ross's efforts," JARVIS said.

Rhodey folded his arms. "You sure about that?"

"Dr. Banner is not known for subtle indications of his displeasure."

"Fair point," Rhodey admitted. "But fine, what about that? You trust that green guy around Tony?"

"I have not had occasion to speak with The Hulk personally," JARVIS said. Somehow the electronically generated voice managed to make "The" sound like a title, like "Mr." or "Colonel." "However, my observations have led me to conclude his presence is a net benefit to Mr. Stark."

"The guy ripped up Manhattan," Rhodey said. He was willing to grant there'd been good reason, but still. "Twice."

"Quite true," JARVIS said. "However, it wasn't Dr. Banner who caught Mr. Stark when he fell."

JARVIS was just a program. Rhodey knew that. But he couldn't stop himself from wondering what JARVIS must've thought when he'd come online again and seen the same footage Rhodey had: Tony nearly dying and neither one of them there to save him.

"I need to talk to Banner," Rhodey said. "Where is he?"

"Dr. Banner is in his apartment, which is one floor beneath this one."

"Is Tony likely to leave his lab anytime soon?" Rhodey asked.

"Mr. Stark has given no indication of such."

"Good."