He notices before Tony because Tony is his best friend, is the smartest person he knows, always has been, but Tony is his best friend and Rhodey has no illusions that sometimes Tony is a dumbass.
The thing is—Peter is different. He has been since the first time he pinged on Tony’s radar. Rhodey was there, watching YouTube videos on his tablet and throwing a ball for Dum-E while Tony argued with Pepper, in the weeks before they split up again, and he showed Tony the video of Spider-man catching a bus when Tony threw himself on the couch next to Rhodey, burrowing into his side.
They watched the video a dozen times, and when Rhodey finally left, drawn away by the brass calling, Tony was still watching, entranced and mumbling to himself.
So the fascination wasn’t a surprise.
The age thing—that startled Rhodey, but he watched Tony put distance between himself and the kid, watched him worry.
“What are you afraid of?” he asked, once, when Tony stared at a holo of the Iron Spider, worry heavy on his features.
“Of letting him fall,” Tony said without ever looking away.
The truth about Tony and the kid was complex and simple—they loved each other.
Before Titan and the Decimation, it was hero worship and reluctant mentorship that shifted because it was Tony and Tony didn’t know how to love halfway, and Peter wasn’t just a junior Avenger, a small time vigilante, he was family, filling up space in the workshop and building a bot that was tiny and adorable and at home with Dum-E and Butterfingers.
Before Titan and the Decimation, Tony looked at the kid and Rhodey relaxed, because that look, it was warm and affectionate, and proud, the kind of look Tony should always wear when looking at his kids, bot and AI and human.
But then—everything changed.
Tony came home, with dust on his hands and grief in his eyes and those words that Rhodey couldn’t unhear slipping off his lips.
He wondered, after, what would have happened, if Peter survived.
If Tony hadn’t been crippled by the journey home and the unrelenting grief and guilt.
He wonders if Pepper would have stayed.
It doesn’t matter—she didn’t and he was, and Peter died.
Morgan was the bright light shining through it all, the one thing that kept them tied together and—Rhodey will never say out loud, but he knows— the one thing that kept Tony alive.
Tony is different.
So is Peter, everyone who came back—they come back scarred.
They come back older, scarred, marked by their time away.
Peter is settled, calm in a way he wasn’t, before, and ancient in a way that scares Rhodey.
Tony is broken by the battle, by wielding the Stones and decimating Thanos’ forces, by the months spent in a coma and the loss of his humanity, of the blank spot he wakes up to where his arm is.
“You’re alive,” Rhodey tells him, fierce and protective wrapped around him when Tony sobs into his shoulder. “You’re alive and you can fix anything you put your mind to, peacock. This is not the end of the world.”
The thing is—he’s been friends with Tony since he was in his late teens, since Tony was shy and pimply and dreaming about building an AI in the MIT basements.
He knew when Tony fell in love with Ty and when he fell in love with Sunset and he knew when he was depressed over Ana’s failing health and when his behavior tipped toward self-destructive in the months before the anniversary of the accident.
He knows Tony, knows that even before Titan, Peter was special to him, and after—
After, Peter was everything he’d ever done wrong.
It scares him, because now Peter is back, and smiling and ancient at Tony’s side and Tony is a shell of what he was, Extremis humming in his veins, and schematics for an arm displayed in front of him, and he doesn’t know how the kid can ever live up to everything Tony needs him to be.
He notices this—the way Tony watches Peter.
The way his eyes are soft, softer than they ever were with Pepper.
The way he never touches Peter, hands reaching and stalling before they can make contact.
The way he smiles, soft and fond and full when Peter rambles about MIT.
The way his gaze flicks between full pouty lips and bright bright eyes, and can’t quite look away from Peter’s ass, tight and round, in his suit.
He notices, long before Tony does.
“You deserve to be happy,” he tells Tony once, when Tony is drinking and conflicted and Peter is sleeping unaware on the couch.
Tony watches him, eyes bright and Rhodey doesn’t say anything else, doesn’t nudge him toward Peter like he wants to—he just smiles and gives them space.
They come together slow.
It’s one of the ways he knows Tony is serious. When he fell in with Stone and Sunset, it was quick, a whirlwind of drugs and drink and fucking and falling apart.
Tony, when it matters, moves slow. He danced around Potts for almost a decade, danced around Rogers for over five years.
Even with Rhodey, it took two semesters before Tony began to trust him.
Peter is the same. They’re friends now, a deep abiding thing that’s different from the hero worship before Titan or the crippling grief and guilt of the Decimation.
This is a friendship that is that of equals. Peter gets Tony in a way that few people ever have, a way that makes Rhodey breath out in relief.
Pepper tried and Tony wanted Steve to, but there was always a little bit of a disconnect—something his partners couldn’t understand.
Peter isn’t like that.
Peter understands the suit and the self-sacrifice, the demons and the towering intellect.
It’s reassuring, and relaxes Rhodey in a way he never quite expected.
When they finally do get together—neither of them say anything.
Tony doesn’t tell Rhodey.
He knows. Of course he knows—Tony is sleeping and singing in his lab and his smile is downright dopey and he touches Peter now.
But Tony doesn’t tell Rhodey.
Peter is twenty six, and it’s been years since Thanos and the Extremis that seemed to rewind the clock for Tony—but there is: Peter is twenty six and Tony Stark is on the wrong side of fifty.
He doesn’t mind, really, and does what he can to keep the rest of the team from noticing.
It doesn’t happen often, but occasionally, he catches them.
Tony sleeping on the couch, his head in Peter’s lap, so peaceful it reminds Rhodey of when they were children at MIT.
Peter curling bare feet and long legs around Tony’s hips, sleep soft and smiling down at him.
The quick clutch of their hands, and the way neither of them shy away from the other--how they lean into each touch, into each other , comfortable in each other’s space.
Peter isn’t as hesitant, more comfortable speaking up.
Tony--Tony is healthy , his eyes bright, the dark circles under his eyes all but gone.
They’re good for each other, and happy.
Sometimes he thinks Natasha would have figured it out--if she had been around. She isn’t though, hasn’t been since Thanos, and it hurts to think of her.
They keep it a secret for six months, and in the end, it’s Peter getting hurt fighting a pack of oversized rats that breaks the secret.
No one can really deny it, when they spill into medical, and find Tony curled in Peter’s bed, lips locked, hands tender and possessive on the nape of Peter’s neck.
He goes red, and his eyes--
His eyes dart to Rhodey of all people, wide and scared and oh.
Rhodey sighs, heavy and exasperated, and leans back as the Avengers collectively loose their shit.
It goes exactly as bad as Rhodey thinks it will, all shouting and accusations and Bucky’s metal hand flexing and earnest are you ok, did he force you bullshit. And the entire time, Tony is getting quieter and quieter, curling into himself while Peter tries to argue, getting cut off by their well-meaning team, frustrated tears in his eyes, hand impossibly tight on Tony’s where he’s clutching it like a lifeline.
“I want this,” Peter says.
“I love him,” he argues.
“We didn’t do anything wrong,” he snarls.
Tony doesn’t say anything.
He looks--beaten. Scared. As he carefully pulls his hand away from Peter, he looks--he looks almost sick.
“How long has this been goin’ on,” Carol demands and enough.
“Six months, four days,” Rhodey says and the whole room goes still. “But they’ve been dancing around each other for years. Maybe--Peter’s freshman year at MIT, Tony? About the time he fought the Vulture again, you finally realized what what happening?”
Tony is staring at him--the whole fucking team is, but Tony is the one who matters, is the only one who has ever mattered.
“You knew?” Tony whispers and it’s echoed, angrily, by Hope and Kamala.
“Course I knew. I’m his best friend--I knew before he did.”
“Then why the hell didn’t you say something?” Hope demands.
“Because Tony loves Peter. Tony loves him enough to risk his life to bring the kid back and half the universe with it--or have y’all forgotten that? Tony loves him, and Peter is old enough to know what he’s doing. None of us have any fucking business in that,” Rhodey says, and he’s calm, still, the anger in his voice his only tell.
“It’s wrong,” Scott says, “Peter is--”
“Peter is a fucking adult,” Rhodey snaps. “An Avenger and the best biochemist SI has, and old enough to make his own decisions. Tony didn’t scoop up and seduce a sixteen year old, Scot. Just because you don’t approve, don’t make it wrong.”
Peter is grinning at him and Tony looks so shocked Rhodey is a little worried so he shifts, wraps himself in his position and his rank and he orders the room clear.
Tony finds him.
He’s waiting for Tony to find him, in their spot, the roof where they fly most often.
“You knew,” he says, softly. “I thought--I knew they’d be angry--but I thought--”
“You thought I wouldn’t approve,” Rhodey says, gently and Tony flushes. Looks away.
“That kid--he’s the best thing that’s ever happened to you, peacock. And you love him enough to rewrite the universe. He loves you just as much. How the hell could I disapprove of that?” Rhodey asks, helplessly and fond, and Tony makes a choked, hurt noise in his throat.
When he throws himself, sharp bones and metal limb, into Rhodey’s arms--Rhodey’s waiting to catch him.