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Muscle Memory

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Rhodey stopped just outside the doors to the shop, arms crossed over his chest.

Tony was slumped on a stool, one hand propping up his chin, the other scrolling mindlessly through his "backburner" project files. He reached the end and stared for a moment, hand hanging in the air. Then he dropped his head into both his hands, the display vanishing.

"How long has he been here?" Rhodey asked softly.

"Since Captain Rogers closed communications."

Rhodey hummed. "Everyone okay?"

"Only minor injuries to the team. There were some… heavy civilian casualties however."

Rhodey's lip curled on one side. "Yeah," he said flatly. "I saw the news."

That was why he'd come, hearing those damn talking heads Monday morning quarterbacking about how many more lives might have been saved if Iron Man hadn't skipped out and speculating on what luxury location he was visiting instead.

For being paid to report the news, they were damn slow on the uptake about Tony's change in lifestyle for the last eight or so years.

Tony's weight shifted so he was supporting with one hand again, the other moving down to grind harshly against his thigh right above his knee. At least he was sitting.

"When did he last take painkillers?"

"When he left his bedroom last night to come down and work. The bottle is still up in his bathroom."

Rhodey sighed and shook his head. "Any chance Pepper's going to be back in town earlier than expected?"

JARVIS sounded as weary as Rhodey felt when he said, "That is why Sir came down to work. She is going to be delayed an extra week and will have very little free time to spare for speaking with him before then. The Ralston Group is being… uncooperative despite their request for these discussions."

Rhodey rolled his eyes and huffed in exasperation. "Does the universe have it out for him today or what?"

"Neither Sir nor I believe in a universal influence on individual lives, however, there might be cause for reassessment given recent events."

Rhodey snorted. "I'm going to let you ponder that. In the meantime, open up. I'm going to see if I can't weigh a little bit in Tony's favor."

"Thank you, Colonel. If there is any way I can assist you, do let me know."

"Always, buddy," Rhodey promised.

The doors slid open and he entered, stifling the annoyance at the way Tony popped up and swiped a random display into existence, fingers shuffling things around aimlessly.

Like Rhodey didn't understand what was on the screen and didn't have almost three decades of experience in seeing through this kind of bullshit.

He reached past Tony, letting his weight press into the curved spine and swiped the window closed. "JARVIS, save and shut everything down."

"What?! No, Rhodey, I was doing—"

"No, you weren't. I didn't buy that excuse in 1987 and I'm not buying it now."

Tony stared at him for a long moment, brow furrowed, then sagged, wiping a hand over his face.

"What's up, sugarbear?"

"I need your help with something."

Tony's shoulders drooped another half inch. He tried to make his voice light, but missed the mark by at least a mile. "Sure. War Machine giving you fits?"

"No. War Machine's fine. Come on, I'll tell you on the way."

"On the way to where?" Tony asked, but he let Rhodey tug him to his feet and shuffled toward the door when prompted. One hand rose to try and rub surreptitiously at his head while they waited for the elevator. Rhodey let him believe that it went unnoticed for the moment.

They rode up in silence, Tony making his lean against the wall look almost casual rather than necessary.

If Rhodey didn't already know something was wrong, the silence would have said it all.

He chivvied the worn down engineer out and down the hall to his bedroom. Once inside, he reached for Tony's shirt, pulling it up.

"Whoa. Hey, buy a guy dinner first why dontcha?" Tony said with a little smile.

Rhodey returned it but said, "You smell like you've been in the shop all day. I don't mind, but other people might. Arms."

Tony didn't move except to tilt his head slightly as he watched Rhodey for a long moment.

Rhodey felt the knot that had tightened his chest start to loosen when Tony gave a minute nod and lifted his arms. The rest of his muscles relaxed significantly and he was much more pliant as Rhodey undid his belt and steadied him while he stepped out of his pants and underwear.

He was herded into the bathroom and Rhodey silently thanked JARVIS when the water started up. Two pain pills were measured out and set on Tony's palm and after they were swallowed and washed down, Rhodey pushed him into the shower.

He left the door open as he went back out to the closet to find fresh clothes, pausing for a moment to breathe in deeply. This wasn't nearly the worst day Tony had had. It didn't even make the top ten, as sad as that was.

And Tony hadn't been drinking. Rhodey grinned fiercely to himself as the pride bubbled up.

He'd be okay. He just needed someone to help him remember that and distract him for a little while.

Rhodey returned and set the folded clothes and a discreet knee brace on the counter, then went back to hunt up a jacket, sneakers, and socks.

He was under the bed fishing out the left shoe when Tony sat on the bed and reached out to slap his ass.

"Anthony Edward, I swear to god," he barked and heard Tony laugh. It was still strained, but it was progress. He smiled into the darkness and snagged a finger in the heel of the shoe, retreating with his prize. He tossed the shoe at Tony and stood.

Tony pushed his feet into the shoes and stood as well, letting Rhodey slip his leather jacket on his arms.

Rhodey felt a little like a dad dressing his kid to go to the park, especially when Tony obligingly put one arm in and turned around to get the other one in range, but he'd be lying if he said that was a bad thing. Tony had been a kid the first time Rhodey had had to do this, barely seventeen and drunk off his skinny little ass, protesting that there was a hot chick upstairs who wanted to "talk" to him, eyebrows waggling, and thankfully unaware of the glares Rhodey had been leveling at the seniors who really should have fucking known better.

Instead of a probably also drunk girl, Tony had spent the night wrapped in a blanket on Rhodey's couch watching Tron and vomiting. He'd missed class the next day and so had Rhodey, but he hadn't ended up in the hospital or at a police station.

Tony didn't support his own weight in the elevator again as they rode down, but he was leaning into Rhodey's side this time, head resting on his shoulder and one arm loosely curled around Rhodey's waist. Rhodey resisted the urge to kiss Tony's head, but it took more willpower than he cared to admit, letting himself have a light side-hug instead.

Once in the garage, Tony angled for a newer Ferrari, but Rhodey used the arm around his shoulders to steer him to the far corner of the garage. Tony's head lifted and he almost bounced in place when he realized which car Rhodey was aiming for.

"Been awhile," is all Rhodey said as he opened the passenger door and nudged Tony toward it. Tony turned out of the grip and tried to go for the driver's side, but Rhodey chuckled and followed, outmaneuvering him.

Tony tried pleading, using every pet name he had and inventing a few more on the spot, but he let himself be manhandled into the car and only gave a half hearted effort at crawling over the gearshift before Rhodey got there and pushed him back.

"You are so rude for someone who is being allowed to drive one of my cars." Tony mock pouted.

"Seatbelt," Rhodey said, fastening his own. "And I bought you this car, so shut up before I take it back."

"Yeah right, like you would," Tony said, but he buckled up and slouched comfortably into the bucket seat.

Rhodey raised an eyebrow and turned the car on.

They both listened to the rumbling purr of the engine and then sighed appreciatively. Rhodey reached out and patted the dash. "That is a beautiful sound."

"Yeah," Tony said.

The silence was more comfortable as Rhodey navigated out of the garage and merged into traffic.

Tony watched the buildings and people slid by for a good three blocks before he said, "So where are we going again?"

"A surprise."

"Honeybug," Tony said, "you know how I feel about surprises."

Rhodey snorted. "I do. Which is why I'm doing this. Now are you going to enjoy a ride in a beautiful piece of engineering or are you going to whine?"

"But Rhodeyyyyyy."

"Do you trust me?"

That cut Tony off cold. He stared for a long moment and Rhodey let him.

Tony shifted in his seat, settling in more comfortably. "If we end up married in Vegas again, you get to explain to both Pepper and Cap that it was all your idea."

Rhodey grinned and held up a hand. "I will accept all responsibility for any and all legal repercussions for this trip—"

"To both Pepper and Cap," Tony reiterated.

"To Pepper, Cap, Coulson, and Congress, so help me God," Rhodey finished.

Tony gave him another look, then nodded. "JARVIS, did you get that?"

"Every word, Sir," JARVIS said from Tony's phone.

"Okay. You're in charge," Tony said.

Rhodey smiled and changed lanes toward the turn for the bridge he wanted. "You get to explain it to the board, though."

Tony shot him a look of betrayal and made a sound that was half distress and half amusement. "You dirty cheater," he breathed as Rhodey laughed with abandon.


Rhodey reversed the car into the parallel spot and cut the engine.

Tony had fallen asleep before they even hit the state line and hadn't moved much since then. He'd had one bad spot when a soft whimper prompted Rhodey to put a hand on his leg and rub gently until he quieted again, but mostly it had been peaceful.

Rhodey considered turning around and going back right now, but then shook his head. The team wouldn't be back to the Tower for hours yet and Pepper's day had just started. There wouldn't be even a chance of a phone call until morning came back for them.

Instead he reached over and popped the glove compartment, digging out the baseball caps and sunglasses Tony kept there.

Tony woke with a snort when the hat landed on his head and pushed up, blinking and looking around. He froze with a hand on the door when he saw what restaurant they were parked in front of.

"Kidnapping across state lines is a federal offense."

Rhodey just tugged the bill of the hat down into Tony's face and got out of the car. Tony scrambled to follow, slipping the sunglasses on and adjusting the hat, then falling into step at Rhodey's side.

The door opened as they stepped up to it and a group of students high off what must be post-midterms spilled out in a blast of noise and energy. Rhodey let them go past, then guided Tony in with a hand on his back.

The hostess looked up and did a double take, then grinned wide.

"Rupert! Eddie!" she circled the little stand and swarmed them both in a hug. "God, it's been years!"

She punched Tony in the shoulder making him yelp and pull back, rubbing the spot with a wince. "That's for making us worry. I see you on the news flying all over in that robot of yours—a superhero!—and you can't even fly down here and let me feed you?"

"I've been busy, Andy!" Tony tried to defend, but got a stern glare back. He wilted under it, but he was smiling when he bent to kiss her cheek. "I'll come by more often."

"You better," she warned. Then she turned to Rhodey. "And you! Still letting him talk you into his crazy stunts. Didn't spring break junior year teach you anything?"

Tony laughed and Rhodey glared at him, but also obliged and bent to kiss the offered cheek when she tapped it with a cardinal red fingernail.

"You know I was never good at that, Andy."

"Lord, no, you never have been." She sighed and shook her head like she always did. "Well, it took you far too long and it better not be another ten years before I see you two again, but you're here now. Come on, your old booth is open."

It wasn't until after they sat down that Rhodey realized they'd done so the way they did back in the day. That wasn't unusual. They'd been here almost every day and muscle memory could be persistent. What was odd was that it put Tony's back to the rest of the room, a habit he wasn't much in since Afghanistan.

But Rhodey could see the entire room, a fact Tony was no doubt aware of. The knot in his chest loosened further, almost completely unraveling.

"Tony," Rhodey said.

Tony was hunched over, fiddling with a couple of sugar packets he'd pulled out of the dish. He looked up, but didn't straighten. "What's up, Buttercup?"

Rhodey reached out and squeezed Tony's forearm, holding it until Tony visibly relaxed. When he pulled back to slouch against the padded seat, Rhodey let him go.

"Do you remember when you blew up our table in Porter's lab?"

Tony's eyebrows rose and his lip curled on one side. "I think you mean when you blew up our table, because I remember asking you if it was supposed to be smoking like that and you were staring at Erin Cassidy's ass."

Rhodey snorted. "Oh like you weren't."

Andy came back then, bearing a tray with two burgers, a ridiculously large basket of steak fries, and two shakes.

"One mint cherry," she said, putting it in front of Rhodey, "and one triple chocolate with espresso syrup for the kid," she said putting the other in front of Tony.

Tony shot her a look. "I'm hardly a kid these days, Andy."

She tweaked his cheek and said, "You'll always be a kid to me, Eddie." She ignored the tongue he stuck out at her and said, "Holler if you need anything else, boys," with a wide grin and then left them to their food.

Tony watched her go and distractedly ate a fry.

"So, Erin Cassidy's ass?" Rhodey said.

Tony blinked back to the present and smirked. "The cause of many a fire at lab table seven," he said, raising his shake in a toast.

Rhodey clinked his glass against Tony's.

"And she damn well knew it too."

Tony laughed out loud and Rhodey was able to find his own comfortable slouch.

Some things you never forgot how to do.