Pepper was the first person Rhodey called when it happened. It was the middle of the night in the US and any other time she might have been upset about being woken so late when she was supposed to be on vacation, but not this time. This was different.
"What do you mean 'missing?'" she asked, numbness spreading throughout her body as she fought not to panic.
She heard him sigh over the line and felt a momentary surge of pity for him. He was there, had been right there, and Tony was his best friend. There was no way he didn't feel as bad about this as she did, and probably worse.
"I mean they took him," he said after a moment, voice soft and harsh. "We’re not sure who or why, but someone has him. They took him right from under my nose."
A sob forced its way out of Pepper’s chest at that, and she held a hand over mouth, trying to muffle any other noise. This was not the time to break down. She needed to know more first, and she was sure Rhodey was the only one who would tell her. Tony had been kidnapped in the middle of a military convoy, they were sure to try to keep even her out of it as much as possible.
"What now?" she asked once she'd calmed down a little. Her voice still sounded a little too wet to her ears, but there was nothing she could do about that now.
"We look for him," he replied simply. "And we don't stop until we find him."
She believed him.
Rhodey was spending as much time as possible in Afghanistan, personally looking for Tony, but he had military responsibilities and those still took most of his time. Pepper wished she could go at all, though she knew she wouldn't be much help in person. Stark Industries needed someone to keep it from being run into the ground, or to keep the board kicking Tony out in absentee. She couldn't have that.
They met when they could, sharing coffee or lunch and talking about Tony or work. It was comforting for Pepper to know someone else cared as much as she did about Tony and was so affected by his absence.
"What are you thinking about?" Rhodey asked.
Pepper looked up, realizing she'd been staring into her coffee for she didn't know how long. She tried to hold in the flush of embarrassment, but wasn't very successful going by Rhodey’s smile.
"Just about how glad I am you're here," she replied, smiling as well despite her embarrassment. It was a skill she'd learned quickly working with Tony.
“I wouldn't want to be anywhere else. Well maybe Afghanistan, but that's a special circumstance," he said with a laugh that almost reached his eyes.
She considered him for a moment, thinking about how much he was hurting, how much they both were. They could use a little comfort right now, and she even thought Tony would be pleased if they could be the ones to comfort each other.
“Would you like to come back to my apartment?” she asked.
“For coffee?” he asked, glancing down at their mostly empty cups. She shook her head, a little bemused, and decided to let him figure it out. He stared at her for a long moment, heat growing in his eyes, then smiled. “I’d love to.”
They went to her apartment, both smiling and laughing as they stumbled into her bedroom, like they had no worries in the world, and for the first time since Tony went missing, Pepper thought she was actually happy.
And then things changed even more.
Three months after the military convoy was attacked, they found Tony. Rhodey happened to be in Afghanistan at the time, the last day of that planned trip as it happened, and as soon as Tony was spotted, he called Pepper. It was the phone call she’d been waiting for for longer than she liked to think about and had almost stopped believing she’d ever get.
Pepper thought she cried more in the following days than she had in all the months Tony had been gone. When she met Tony and Rhodey at the air strip, she tried to pretend that she hadn’t been sobbing in the car just minutes before, but she knew they could tell. To have Tony back, though, she didn’t really mind so much.
She did mind him dumping the news that Stark Industries would stop manufacturing weapons in front of the media the day he got back, without even talking to her about it, but that was Tony. All she could do was shake her head and try to clean up his mess, as usual. At least she had Rhodey to help berate Tony, for all the good it would do.
She just hoped he’d behave long enough to get him home and in bed before there were any other messes for her to deal with.
“So what’s going on between you and Rhodey?”
Pepper jerked around at the question, eyes going wide. She hadn’t even realized Tony was still awake, but there he was, leaning against the door of the car and looking at her far more lucidly than a man in his condition should be.
“What do you mean?” she asked, hoping she could get him to drop it. Neither she nor Rhodey had thought he’d catch on so quickly, so they hadn’t really planned what they’d tell him. They’d never planned to lie or anything like that, but to be honest, she wasn’t really sure how to deal with that line of questioning on her own.
“I’m just a little offended you two thought you had to wait until I was missing to sleep together,” he said, shrugging his shoulders as he wedged his way into the corner between the door and the back of the seat and slurped at his soda obnoxiously.
“We didn’t- that’s not- how could-” Pepper sputtered frantically, trying to come up with a defense since that was certainly not the way it had happened. She was sure she was red as a tomato by now. “Tony…”
Tony burst out laughing, almost dumping his drink into the floorboard, and Pepper froze. “You really thought I was angry?” Tony said between deep bouts of laughter that eventually tapered off into hoarse coughing.
“Anthony Stark,” Pepper hissed, panic displaced by a more familiar sense of mixed annoyance and exasperation. “Why would you do that?”
“Rhodey’s my best friend and you’re, well, you,” Tony said with a shrug, like that was any sort of answer at all.
Pepper narrowed her eyes, looking at him intensly as she tried to figure out what exactly was going on in his mind. “Were you testing me?” she asked. She honestly wasn’t sure what answer she was hoping to get.
“I.. I don’t know,” Tony replied, frowning. He looked so suddenly lost and unsure that Pepper just had to reach over and give his hand a reassuring squeeze. She had to remember that he’d been stuck in a cave for the past three months and things were certain to be strange for him, especially such a big change like this.
”How about we talk about this with Rhodey when we get to the house,” she suggested after a moment’s pause. Tony slowly nodded his head, still looking confused.
It didn’t take too long to get to the house, for which Pepper was very grateful. She wasn’t really sure what to do about Tony, so she hoped Rhodey had some ideas. He had known Tony longer after all.
“What’s wrong?” Rhodey asked as soon as they stepped inside the front door.
Pepper grimaced a little, not realizing she’d been so obvious about her worry. “Tony was asking about us,” she told him, giving him a quick kiss. It was enough to calm them both a little and gave Tony something to catcall about. Close enough to a win.
“Are you mad, Tony?” Rhodey asked, turning toward his friend.
Tony had recovered much of his usual bravado on the ride over, but there was still an undercurrent of that strange uncertainty. It probably wasn’t obvious to someone who didn’t know him so well, but both Pepper and Rhodey had had plenty of time to figure out his expressions. It was a necessity with someone as unpredictable as him.
“Can’t a guy just be surprised that his best friend got with his assistant while he was missing in a freaking cave?” Tony asked with a pout. Pepper felt the corner of her lip turn up, betraying the exasperated fondness she was feeling about finally having him back again.
“Sure, sure,” Rhodey said, rolling his eyes. “That doesn’t really answer the question though. Are you mad.”
“No,” Tony replied, huffing and crossing his arms. He didn’t say anything more, but glanced between them, a strange look in his eyes. Despite plenty of practice in Tony interpretation, Pepper couldn’t figure out exactly what he wasn’t saying.
Suddenly, an idea hit her.
“Tony… are you jealous?” Pepper asked, looking at him intently enough that there was no way she could miss the way he jerked at the question.
“Course not, that would be ridiculous,” he blustered, waving a hand wildly in front of him like he could swipe the idea away.
Pepper and Rhodey glanced at each other, eyebrows raised. It was obvious to her that Tony was lying and she was pretty sure Rhodey was thinking the same thing.
“I think,” she said slowly, keeping an eye on Rhodey to gauge his reaction, “that wouldn’t be such a bad thing.” Rhodey nodded and she smiled, turning her attention on Tony. “We’d like it to be the three of us, if you want.”
“I- uh…” Tony stammered, eyes going wide. “What?”
“You heard us,” Rhodey said, a self satisfied smile on his face as he stepped close enough to touch the other man. “And I think you like the idea. We had enough threesomes back in college that I should know.”
Tony let out a startled laugh, a smile growing on his own face. “That’s fair,” he replied. There was a moment of silence as he looked between them, then threw his hands up in the air. “Screw it.”
Before Pepper could blink, she was pulled into a kiss. She blinked, a little dazed, as he pulled back and moved to pull Rhodey into a kiss as well. “Yep,” he said smugly as they broke apart, panting a little. “I do like that idea.”
Well, that solved that. Pepper couldn’t help but smile.