Pepper took a sip of her long cooled coffee and grimaced slightly at the taste. She wasn’t much of a caffeine drinker to begin with, especially not as of late, but she had been awake for...well, so many hours it was a personal record she would have preferred to never hit. She didn’t need nearly as much sleep as she once did—which was honestly doing wonderful things for her productivity; SI had never been doing better—but even with her enhanced stamina, she was beginning to feel tired.
Her computer screen seemed blindingly bright as it stared back at her, and a stack of papers on her desk looked so white they hurt to look at. The only light in the room was artificial, seeing as the sun had set hours ago. Pepper leaned against the back of her chair and recrossed her legs under her desk, trying to ignore how numb she was from sitting this long.
“Ms. Potts...” F.R.I.D.A.Y’s voice was tinged with an unusual hesitancy. Tony had gifted Pepper with the AI the year he promoted her to CEO of Stark Industries, a fully functioning system that had access to the entirety of S.I, and who, in Pepper’s opinion, could rival J.A.R.V.I.S despite Tony’s insistence that F.R.I.D.A.Y was his younger and simpler sister.
She was meant to be Pepper’s personal assistance, and she was, but she was so much more than simply her assistant. Over the years they had been together she had grown far beyond what Tony had planned for her, Pepper knew that, and she did her best to nurture and guide F.R.I.D.A.Y as gently as she could, always encouraging her growth and congratulating her learning.
Now, she was more than just a personal assistant, and not just because she was Pepper’s closest friend. “Ms. Potts, perhaps a break would do you some good. If you would like, I can have a latte waiting for you in the lunchroom so you may stretch your legs?”
“Thank you, Friday,” Pepper said honestly, long past being surprised by the AI’s compassion but no less grateful for it. “I’ll take a break soon. I want to finish with this section before I stop, and I only have a few...hundred more files to go through.”
“As you wish,” F.R.I.D.A.Y announced, and Pepper sent a small smile towards one of her sensors.
With a determined breath, her eyes continued to scan the endless rows of information, pulled from the web and compiled into neat data and then placed into organized files by F.R.I.D.A.Y. It had only taken her a few hours to compile a list of every single file and do a primary overview of the information once Pepper had authorized her to use ninety-nine percent of her servers for the task, leaving the remaining one percent to ensure the corporate levels of the tower had functioning utilities but nothing more.
Since F.R.I.D.A.Y had announced her completion of the task, Pepper—along with a hand-picked team of intelligent, hard-working women from both Analytics and Legal—had been combing through anything even remotely related to Stark Industries, Tony Stark, herself or the Avengers.
Pepper was currently looking through a collection of files that had seemingly no connection to any of them but had been flagged by F.R.I.D.A.Y regardless. It pained her that she wasn’t going through the files of Tony or herself, but she had been worried she would be too close to notice something alarming, or more likely, something subtle. The two ladies she had working on each folder had been stacked with more NDA’s than most would deem logical, but Pepper was chancing nothing.
She read over the header of a file, and then read it again when something captured her interest.
“Friday, why is this name so familiar?” Pepper wondered distractedly, clicking into the file and scrolling through the information.
It was a personnel file and damn were these things ever thorough. She got a few pages in and had to take a moment to just simply breath, feeling incredibly uncomfortable with the amount of information SHIELD hand on someone that appeared to be nothing more than a civilian until—
“This appears to be a file on a woman named Laura Barton. From what I can gather, she is the spouse of Clint Barton, code name: Hawkeye.”
“Clint’s married...” Pepper’s voice trailed off as she continued to read, and her heart began to race as dread filled her chest. “Friday, is this really saying—”
Pepper couldn’t finish, but after so long together F.R.I.D.A.Y knew what she was asking. “Yes, Ms. Potts. It appears as though Mr. Barton is not only married but he has two young children.”
“That’s an address,” Peter stated, her voice shaking. When F.R.I.D.A.Y next spoke, her voice was gentle. “Yes, Ms. Potts. If you are not aware, I do wish to remind you of the sheer number of high profile deaths Mr. Barton has been directly responsible for during his time with SHIELD.” Yes, that was exactly what Pepper was afraid of. “From what I am hearing from Jarvis, it does not appear that Mr. Barton is aware of his leaked address.”
Oh god. With shaking hands, Pepper pressed the red button tucked neatly against the inside of her desk. Less than two minutes later, the phone on her desk was ringing. “What’s going on, Pep?”
Harold’s voice was a calming balm to her soul, but the worry-laced-terror that was so clear to her ears made her chest ache. “I’m sorry, dear. I promise I’m alright. I found something in this mess that I believe needs immediate attention and I...I’m not sure how best to handle this.”
“Sweetheart...” Harold trailed off with a deep sigh. Pepper smiled fondly despite her exhaustion, her heart tripping over at the softly uttered endearment. “Alright, darling. Send me what you have, and I’ll get on it.”
“Thank you, Harold,” she told him seriously, and she could picture him pulling himself out of their bed and moving around their room as she listened to him through the line. “Please if you...if you have a moment, do try to swing by.”
“Of course, sweetheart.” The endearment was even sweeter without the tinge of worry. She smiled to herself as she folded her hands together in her lap, just listening to the man breathe. A ping that sounded out through the line, another moment of silence and then, “Goddammit, those fuckin’ dumbasses.”
“Mr. Hogan!” Pepper teasingly scolded, just for some semblance of normalcy during this entire mess.
“Sorry ‘bout that, Ms. Potts,” Harold joked right back, the smile clear in the happy chipper of his voice. “I’ll do better with my language.”
“You better,” Pepper advised him, and then she let out a sigh and said, “I’ll see you soon?”
“Course you will,” he promised, and it was with a smile that she ended the call.
Her smile was short-lived, however, when a gentle knock sounded against the glass that lined the right wall of her office. Standing at the open doorway into the connecting conference room was one of the girls she pulled from Analytics, but what had Pepper immediately on edge was that it was Sheila, and Sheila was in charge of files relating to Natalie Rushman.
Nothing she had discovered could be good.
Pepper inclined her head to let her speak, and her voice was brittle when she said, “Ms. Potts, I think there’s something you need to see, ma’am.”
“Sheila, if you call me ma’am again I’m demoting you,” Pepper sighed on instinct, rubbing her temples and tipping her head back against the top of her chair. God, her eyes were still aching.
“Sorry, Ms. Potts,” Sheila said quietly. When Pepper finally opened her eyes, the young girl was staring down at her hands with a frown and Pepper sighed again. It had been such a long...hell, Pepper wasn’t even sure what day they were going on, but it had been long nonetheless. They were all so tired, and if Pepper was feeling tired, they must be exhausted.
“It’s okay, Sheila,” Pepper said and kindly as possible. She stood, not bothering to slip her heels back on as she softly crossed her office to where Sheila was standing, the rest of the girls sat around the large conference tables and all were hunched over their own computers and stacks of paperwork. “I apologize. Ma’am just makes me feel very rather old, and I’m feeling old enough as it is today.”
Sheila laughed softly, thank goodness, and she smiled up at Pepper when she rounded the table to see Sheila’s screen. “Alright, what am I looking at?”
“Well...there are a few names I’ve been searching for. I’ve been combing through everything for Natalie Rushman but...it was quickly clear what that really was and I widened my search parameters with the help of Ms. Friday. I’ve found what appears to be the creation of her identity and have printed it all here,” Sheila gestured to the very heavy file at her side, “but I thought you would want to take a look at this right away. I found it under Natasha Romanoff.”
“Oh?” Pepper muttered, sinking into the chair and rolling herself over with less grace than she has ever shown in a conference room before. She couldn’t bring herself to care, not when the city was sleeping around them and they were the majority of the handful of people that were still in the tower at this time.
But more than that, she knew she had nothing to hide when there was a handful of dedicated, intelligent women surrounding her that had been awake for just as many hours as he had. She didn’t need to show them the mask of grace she wore in the corporate world.
Shaking herself from her thoughts, Pepper focused back on the computer screen and blinked heavily to stop her eyes from burning before beginning to read. The headline had her hands clenching into fists in her lap. By the end, her entire body was shaking with rage, her core temperature rising along with her anger.
She read the final assessment again and again, and still, she could make no sense of the lies poured over pages and pages of a report based on false information and trauma.
Iron Man: yes. Tony Stark: not recommend.
Pepper was reaching for the keyboard to send this to herself when a cry sounded out through the room. Her head whipped up and her eyes immediately snapped to the source of the noise, and her eyes widened as she saw Kaylan—a lovely young woman from Legal who showed nothing but promise and was designated to search for anything related to Tony Stark—watching her computer screen with tears running down her cheeks and both hands clasped over her mouth.
“Friday, show me her screen now,” Pepper snapped, her heart racing and lungs tightening with dread as the large screen against the far wall clicked on and slowly, a dark, grainy video began to play. “Clear up that video. I need to be able to see exactly what’s happening.”
F.R.I.D.A.Y got to work, and in a moment the quality was much better. Pepper watched in growing horror as... Sergeant James Buchanan Barnes looked directly at the camera from over the hood of a car that was all too familiar. Pepper’s eyes followed the man’s arm into the car, and she let out a pained gasp at the sight of Howard Stark, face bloodied as it laid lifelessly across the steering wheel.
Audio began playing, no doubt enhanced by F.R.I.D.A.Y due to the delay, and the tears that had been building in Pepper’s eyes finally spilled over as she heard Maria Stark cry for her life as it was choked out of her, her breath gurgling off into nothing. The entire room was silent save for the choppy audio and they all watched in horror as the monster on screen stalked around the car and shot out the video camera.
The screen blinked to black and the only sound was their joint distress. Pepper felt like her entire body was numb, like she was nothing but a hollowed-out husk filled with despair, until the heat started to break through her thoughts. She was out of her seat before the realization fully formed.
“Friday lock this room down, authorization code echo x-ray tango romeo echo mike india sierra. I don’t want a single whisper of information getting out of here, and don’t you dare alert Jarvis or Tony, override authorization mike sierra papa oscar tango tango sierra.” Pepper took a deep breath that did nothing to stop the boiling of her blood, and she knew her eyes were glowing as she turned back to the room. “Ladies, sit tight.”
Her bare feet made barely a sound as she hurried through her office. Behind her desk was a gorgeous painting that Pepper quickly moved aside. There was no spot for a handprint, no change in the wall, nothing that could be seen by the naked eye—and Pepper was sure nothing could be seen through any other means—and still, she laid her burning palm against the wall and soundlessly, it parted.
Inside was a bare room, adorned with nothing but a large screen, a speaker embedded in the wall, and a handful of F.R.I.D.A.Y’s sensors. The doors slid shut behind her and the unforgiving rage that had been boiling under his skin spilled over in the form of fire erupting across her body. With a scream of pure desperation, she flung her hands away from her and her body exploded with the fury kept contained under her skin.
As she burned brighter and hotter than ever before, there was only one thought in her mind: she was going to burn every single one of them for hurting Tony.
James was sitting through his ninth consecutive security meeting, the headache that had formed behind his eyes sometime during the fourth meeting pounding away as General Ross went on about the dangers of super-powered individuals. James got it. He did. He understood the fear, understood what happened when there was no one in control. Understood that having no one in control was why this had happened in the first place.
After all, he was no stranger to the team dynamics among the Avengers. He’d heard many a rant about they barely worked together, and he’d received enough late-night-early-morning calls to know exactly how bad it all was. It was why he was in this room, in fact. He was just Air Force, sure, but he was the Stark Industries military liaison.
If anyone was going to know what the hell Rogers had been thinking—it would be him.
Only, he didn’t have a fucking clue what the hell those dumbasses had been thinking, and he still hasn’t had a chance to check in with Tony since it all went down. Far as he knows, Tony wasn’t anywhere near the bullshit that went down, ‘cause if he had been, there was no way in hell all those files would’ve been released into the internet.
God, the whole day had been a shit show. Stern had been arrested during meeting number two, thank the Lord, and since then it was like no one had any idea how to do their damn jobs. Ross was shouting again, arguing with a General from the Navy who looked none too impressed. James was paying as much attention as he could, but half his mind was busy planning out his night.
The moment the info dump happened, James had been pulled out of a different defence meeting and taken straight to Washington. There was only so much he was able to read during the flight, but he’d been thoroughly briefed upon his arrival to the damn Pentagon and it...it was real freaking bad. James had no idea what the hell Rogers had been thinking, even less of an idea about Romanoff.
The government had teams sorting through everything that had been released during the dump and...yeah, no, it wasn’t good. James wanted to get to Tony and check-in, find out if there was anything about either of them in those files. He still remembered Natalie Rushman, but thankfully a text from Pepper had confirmed that they had people on it.
Sighing, James did his best to ignore the slow-ticking of the clock and focus on the conversation happening around the table as officials James had no right being in the same room with talked on about the global effect this reveal was going to have. No shit, James wanted to point out, but he kept that to himself. So far, he hadn’t been asked a single thing, but he wasn’t gonna complain.
“Excuse me, Mr. Rhodes,” F.R.I.D.A.Y’s electronic voice sounded out from his watch during the middle of the Vice President’s speech, and James jerked back in his seat. James saw the man turn out of the corner of his eye but he was already tapping the watch face and trying to figure out who the hell had authorized F.R.I.D.A.Y to contact him when he had blackout activated.
“I am so sorry Mr. Vice President, I’m not sure—” James muttered under his breath as he began typing on the holographic keyboard that popped up, trying to figure out what the hell F.R.I.D.A.Y thought she was doing when...
“Ms. Potts is on the line, Mr. Rhodes. I have authorized this interruption myself.”
“What the hell,” James swore, but he was already standing. “Mr. Vice President, I apologize. This is a secure line and I would only be pinged on it for an emergency. You’ll have to excuse me.”
“Now just wait a minute—” his own General demanded, but James was already turning away as he repeated, “You’ll have to excuse me.”
The door to the meeting room slammed shut behind him, and for a moment James felt as though the sound was echoing endlessly down the corridor. The whole place was bustling with people outfitted in uniforms and stiff suits. Something like this was all hands on deck, and it made James wish that he was with his own team. Sure, he had no idea what the hell they’d be doing, but at least he would be somewhere familiar.
Pulling his phone from his pocket, he let out a deep sigh as he thumbed the screen open, dread growing up through his chest. He’d meant what he said; there was no way in hell F.R.I.D.A.Y would ping him like for anything that wasn’t world ending, and it made his skin itch. Seconds after his phone was in his hand and unlocked, it began to ring.
“Pepper, this better be important—”
“They were murdered. Rhodey, Tony’s parents were murdered,” Pepper’s voice wasn’t brittle, nor was it shaky. It wasn’t filled with grief or heartache or any of the things James would expect such a message to carry, and it was what broke through the hazy fog of despair those words brought him. Pepper’s voice was hard, laced with a dangerous acid that James hadn’t heard in...years, really. Before James was able to ask, Pepper was telling him everything. “HYDRA assassinated Howard Stark in an effort to gain access to the formula of the serum he had been working on. Maria Stark was in the car. The Winter Soldier—”
“The Winter Soldier is nothing more than a ghost,” James denied, something desperate in his own voice because this...he didn’t want it to be true.
Pepper ignored his interruption and continued as though it never happened. “The Winter Soldier, which was the code name granted to the brainwashed assassin James Buchanan Barnes, shot out the front left tire, smashed Howard’s face in, and then strangled Maria to death.”
Silence. Deafening, soul-crushing silence, weighed down on him over the phone line.
And then, with a tone of voice that caused fear to skitter up James’ spine, Pepper said, “They knew, James. SHIELD knew.”
James was off. He didn’t bother hanging up and took off in a full sprint, dodging and twisting his frame through the busy crowds of people. The Pentagon was fucking huge, but F.R.I.D.A.Y was in his watch and helping him find the quickest way out. He was gonna have to ask about her familiarity with the building’s layout when he wasn’t booking it outta the place at full speed.
It was too long before he was bursting through the front doors, but finally, he was back outside. James didn’t bother with a taxi. It was the ass crack of dawn and ‘sides, the moment he stumbled through the front doors, panting for breath from what felt like a damn marathon, the suit was there. James felt a grin split over his face as he stepped into the familiar metal body, and he took a deep breath as the metal closed around him in a way that felt far more comfortable than he ever could have imagined.
“That was a quick removal, Mr. Rhodes,” F.R.I.D.A.Y complimented. Which, what?
“Friday?” James asked, more than a little surprised. The voice sounded foreign inside the helmet of his armour, and he scanned his HUD even as he shot up into the sky. “Where’s Buddu?”
“I have assumed control,” F.R.I.D.A.Y said in a robotic tone, and then more seriously, “Currently, you are of a handful of people who know about Boss’ parents. Ms. Potts has chosen to wait to tell Boss and Big Brother, so for now, I am piloting the suit to withhold suspicion that may have been caused by your immediate departure.”
And—yep. James felt his arms move as his trajectory changed without his input. “Alright then. How is Pepper doing?”
“Ms. Potts is much better now that she has...cooled down.” Ah, alright. She must have blown her lid with the news about Tony and James couldn’t much blame her. The longer the information sat, the hotter he was burning with rage. Those fuckers. Those absolute fuckers. James was too angry to even think clearly, but there was a thought dancing around the back of his mind that was only making him angrier.
Rhodey touched down inside Pepper’s office before he knew it. F.R.I.D.A.Y, at his insistence, had played the video for him and by the time he landed his fingers were shaking. Howard Stark was not a good man and he was a worse father but Maria... Tony had loved his mother enough for two parents, and Rhodey knew this was going to crush him.
Stepping out of his suit, Rhodey could see through the glass doors a group of young women huddled around the table, no doubt going over the information that had been leaked. He was impressed; Pepper must have set this all up immediately and by the coffee cups littering the desk, they’d been going at it ever since.
His attention was drawn by the wall splitting open, and Pepper emerged in a cloud of dark smoke and the burned remains of her clothing. James politely ducked his eyes from the length of bare skin she was showing and tracked her movement with his ears as she stalked across her office and rummaged through what sounded like a closet.
“Pepper,” he said finally, his voice hesitant. He could feel her fury as if it were his own, and the temperature in the room rose the longer she was in it. He only looked up when she cleared her throat, and he tried for a grin that fell short when looking back at him was Pepper Potts, CEO of Stark Industries, completely put together in a pantsuit and sky-high heels James had never understood how she walked in.
“They knew, Rhodey,” Pepper’s eyes were blazing with fire, and the surrounding air was warm. She wasn’t wasting a single second, and she stalked towards him like a predator. “They knew, and they lived in Tony’s house and used his money and they—” her voice broke and she sharply exhaled a sprout of steam from her nose. “I am suing Natasha,” she said sharply, and even through the burning fire in her eyes, James could see just how sharp her gaze was. “I am going after her with the full weight of Stark Industries.”
“What do you mean they knew?” he asked, reeling. It was one thing for SHIELD to have known and still used Tony, but to imply that the Avengers knew...they couldn't have.
“SHIELD knew. Do you honestly believe that Natasha didn’t?” Pepper hissed. She pointed to a stack of papers on her desk with fire in her eyes and asked, “Have you read the report she wrote?”
“The what?” he muttered, skimming through the stack of papers with growing anger as he read about how Tony Stark was a self-centred, self-serving playboy who cared more about getting his dick wet than the continued safety and livelihood of his company. Read about how he was short-cited and lacked problem-solving skills. Read about—
Tony Stark: not recommended. What the fuck was that about? He thumbed back through the report, reading paragraphs about how Tony was an egotistical narcissist who only cared about himself. How he flaunted money like it was a power he was given, a birthright that he seemed content to wield.
“This is absolute bullshit,” James seethed, his hands shaking and the ring on his left-hand gleaming as he crumpled the piles of paper in his fist. “This is absolute bullshit.”
And it made perfect sense. This...was what Tony showed the world. It was every mask he wore to keep himself safe, all laid out in a report, written by a “professional profiler” working for the most fucked up secret organization in the world. There was not a single sentence that talked about Tony Stark, not a single word in there that went deeper than the faces Tony wore outside his safe places.
And Natasha...Natalie... whoever the fuck she was hadn’t bothered to see below them. Hadn’t taken a single notice to the fact that Tony’s life had been falling apart. James remembered the time with crystal fucking clarity (there was nothing he regretted like that fight at Tony’s party), and this was...
“I’m going after her with everything I possibly can. In...”
“Eleven minutes, Ms. Potts,” F.R.I.D.A.Y chimed in.
“In eleven minutes I will have a court order in my hands and I am going up there and delivering it myself.”
“Wait, they’re still here?”
“Yes. They are eating his food and living in his home and using his resources and—” Pepper trailed off in anger, but James picked right back up, “Tony Stark: not recommended. Yeah, fucking bullshit that is.”
It felt like MIT all over again. Back then, back when Tony had been nothing more than a gangly— gorgeous— teenager and James hadn’t understood nothing about himself, Tony had been surrounded by people who wanted him for his resources. Tony partied, and went out, and bought gifts, and he funded everything for people who saw him for what he could offer them instead of who he was.
For months James sat by, his heart hurting in a way it never had before, as he watched Tony get used. Every night he would come back to their dorm and talk about the things he did with these friends, all things they were able to do because of Tony’s last name and his bank account, and he ached knowing that people were taking advantage of someone with such a kind heart.
Yeah, Tony was a little asshole, but he cared for people so much. Even people who didn’t deserve it.
And, slowly, they all left. Each and every last fucking one. When Tony didn’t pay for something, or he refused to attend a party, or he didn’t get them to a movie premiere or introduce them to this or that—suddenly, there were no more invites, no more excited phone calls asking him to go hang out, no more popping by his dorm to see if he wanted to do something.
Slowly but fucking surely, each and every person who hung around for what they could get from Tony left. They dried him up and when he caught on, when he realized he was only ever invited around when someone needed him or his resources, they fucking ran for the hills.
Because Tony only ever gave so much. Only ever showed sides of who he was. James learned real early on that it was a survival tactic. It was clear to see that growing up as the son of Howard Stark left more scars than Tony could’ve ever hope to cover. His father was worse than anyone else, because what he took from Tony was love and what he gave back was nothing but contempt.
And James saw it. Saw the hurt. Saw the masks and the layers that Tony wrapped himself in like they were his armour, because every night, Tony would come home, back to their small, warm dorm room that felt like home to them, and he would drop them all until he was Tony, until he was the stupid, gorgeous genius that James would’ve protected with him goddamn life, had protected with his damn life.
And it kept happening. After MIT there was the cruel world of business, more ruthless than anything James could have ever imagined, worse because he’d gone and joined the Air Force and wasn’t there for Tony every night like he had been. Sure, they called, and when they couldn’t do that they texted, and eventually, video chatted. And through it all, through the years when they were separated by so many miles, Rhodey saw it happen again and again.
But then there was Harold “Happy” Hogan, and it was the first time James had met someone who wanted Tony Stark simply for Tony, and not for Stark. Soon after that was Virginia “Pepper” Potts, and damn their group sure loved nicknames, Tony more than anyone. Slowly, James stopped worrying, stopped lying awake ‘cause he knew a midnight call was gonna come through, just so Tony could talk to someone with who he only had to be Tony with.
But then Stane tore the arch reactor outta Tony’s chest and shredded his heart in the process. Stane was worse than anyone or anything else, worse than Afghanistan, because Tony loved him, and Tony trusted him, and that tore him up. James had to take a damn leave ‘cause of it, and he spent months trying to put the man he loved back together.
And now...now it was happening all over again, and those fucking assholes lived in his goddamn tower.
“If I may interject,” F.R.I.D.A.Y said quietly, a tone to her voice that James didn’t know her well enough to recognize. “I can confirm that Mr. Rogers is now aware of who killed Tony’s parents. He was just finished speaking with Ms. Romanoff regarding the news. A conversation which concluded in their continued silence.”
“I’m going to kill him,” James spat, a heavy weight of anger pressing down on his chest and choking the air from his lungs. His mind was whirling, too much to process but he knew one thing with absolute clarity: “I’m going to kill him.”
Tony was busy tinkering away when the pounding rock music cut off so abruptly that it jarred him badly enough he nearly fell over. He jerked on his stool and nearly toppled backwards, but a pair of strong, familiar hands were there, pressing against the small of his back and keeping him steady on his stool.
“Rhodey bear!” Tony cried, spinning his chair so he could face his husband. A grin split over his face as he wrapped his leg around Rhodey’s waist, tugging him in and twisting his fingers into the material of his uniform so he could drag him into a very happy and very enthusiastic kiss.
A kiss that Rhodey wouldn’t deepen when Tony tried. Instead, calloused fingers trailed over Tony’s jaw so gently that he shivered, and Rhodey pressed real close and wrapped an arm around Tony’s lower back as he kissed him gently. Tony sighed into it, tension that he hadn’t even felt build upon his shoulders sliding away under the big, warm hand that Rhodey ran up and down his back.
“I didn’t know you’d be here today,” Tony breathed, not bothering to open his eyes as Rhodey rested their foreheads together. His arms had snuck around Rhodey’s waist, and they squeezed him in a tight hug as he fought down the ridiculous urge to cry.
It had been too long since he’d seen his husband. There was a lot that Tony had going on at all times—he may not be CEO, but he still headed R&D, kept up to date with the political goings-on, made social appearances that were carefully cultivated by an excellent PR team, kept up his own inventions and was, ya know, a superhero— and sometimes that meant he and Rhodey went a little while without seeing each other.
Usually, it was fine. Their whole relationship, at least after graduation, was the two of them going a while without seeing each other. But Tony had...well, he’d been feeling kind of down lately, especially with Bruce being the only one ever around. Thor was on another planet, Steve always seemed to be out doing his own thing, Natasha busy with SHIELD stuff more often than not, and Clint was a dick.
And so it had just been him and Bruce, and Bruce had certain limits in place that Tony totally understood, really, it just sucked that Bruce only ever managed to spend a handful of hours with him a day. Cause Tony was pretty extroverted, and he played off the energy of others. When there was no energy but his own to bounce off of...well, he’d just been feeling kinda drained, was all. Nothing major, nothing worth noting, but something that lessened as soon as he was in Rhodey’s arms.
“Hey Bruce, mind giving us a minute alone?” There was something off in Rhodey’s voice. Probably nothing anyone else would notice, but Tony had been in love with him for nearly thirty years, and he sure as hell knew what Rhodey sounded like when he was worried about something.
But if Rhodey wasn’t going to say anything right away, neither would Tony. So instead of asking what was wrong, he pulled Rhodey tighter and sent a leer at Bruce, wiggling his eyebrows at his friend as Bruce mock gagged. Tony tossed his head back in a forced laugh when Bruce threw his hands into the air and immediately started backing up with a horrified look on his face.
“Sirs, Dr. Banner has entered the elevator and is on his way towards his bedroom,” J.A.R.V.I.S’ voice built the tension right back along Tony’s shoulders. He sighed as he drew back, although he didn’t release Rhodey just yet.
When he finally looked up at Rhodey’s face, the tension was easy to see. Rhodey’s jaw was set tightly, and the lines around his eyes were deeper than they usually were. Tony tugged him closer with the leg he still had hooked around Rhodey’s thigh, comfortingly rubbing the bicep of the arm that was still holding him.
“Baby? What’s going on?” Tony asked, his forehead creasing when Rhodey dropped his head like it was too heavy to hold. Tony’s worry grew, and the last of the elation he’d felt at finally seeing his husband washed away under the wave of it. “Please, don’t tell me someone died.”
Rhodey let out a soft breath of air, shaking as he said, “No, Tones, no one died.”
Tony nodded, but it didn’t bring him any comfort. Rhodey was still just hugging him, not saying anything. They were affectionate, always had been, but the way he was holding onto the back of Tony’s shirt was...well, it was making him worried. Tony breathed in the scent of his husband, breathed in the deodorant he’d been using for over twenty years, the body wash Tony liked, something that was just him, and tried not to freak the hell out.
“Sir, I would like to inform you that Ms. Potts—”
“Jar,” Rhodey cut in loudly, and Tony tensed in his arms. It took everything in him to pull back. Tony was good at rolling with the punches, good at doing what needed to be done. But he didn't like it, didn’t like being on guard, constantly wondering what was going to go wrong next.
“Sorry, Sir,” J.A.R.V.I.S said quietly, but there was something to his voice that Tony didn’t like either. It made him tense further, and he finally pulled out of Rhodey’s hold. When he looked up, it took Rhodey to the count of ten to meet his eyes.
“Like a band-aid?” Rhodey asked, and Tony’s heart kicked up at the familiar term. That meant that whatever it was—well, it wasn’t good. Tony nodded, and he made a small noise when Rhodey started to pull back. He didn’t go far, though, and he twined their fingers together and held them in the space between their bodies. “I...fuck, Tones, I don’t even know where to begin.”
“Baby,” Tony said softly, brows furrowing even further. “C’mon, like a band-aid remember?”
Rhodey nodded, and he visibly pulled himself together as he took a deep breath, before he finally began to talk. “Tones...it’s about your parents,” Rhodey paused, but he took another deep breath when Tony nodded for him to continue. “Pepper’s team found something in the dump. Something...bad. Your parents—it wasn’t a car accident.”
Tony was already shaking his head before Rhodey even finished speaking. He didn’t need to wait until the end of whatever his husband was saying, because he already knew how his parents died. Howard had been drunk, just like he always was, and because of that, he lost control of the wheel. There was nothing else to hear, because that’s how they died.
But...Rhodey wasn’t saying anything else. Wasn’t telling him that it was all a joke. Because, fuck, it wasn’t a joke, especially if it was like a band-aid. There was no way that Rhodey would joke about something like that, not when the phrase started when Tony’s parents had first died and Tony hadn’t been able to find the words to tell. Rhodey had asked him to just do it like a band-aid, quick and painful, and he had.
And they’d used that for the last twenty-some years when things were really bad. It meant that something was serious and that it was seriously going to suck. There was no way Rhodey would’ve said that and not meant what followed, not when the news was so devastating.
“Are you sure?” Tony had to ask, his brain already whirling, putting it together. SHIELD or HYDRA didn’t matter, not now, not when they had always been the same. Howard had been up to enough shit that either of them probably wanted him dead. Rhodey nodded, and Tony found his eyes bobbing with the movement.
“There’s a video,” Rhodey began but trailed off into nothing when Tony made a noise that came from somewhere deep in the back of his throat
For a moment, it was too much. No matter what, it didn’t make sense. It didn’t make sense because it had been Howard that had wrapped them around a light post, Howard that had killed his mother, had taken his only parent away from him like he’d taken everything else. Hell, maybe this wasn’t that different, but in order to know that—
“I need to see it.”
“Tones, no. That isn’t a good idea,” Rhodey told him gently, his hand cupping Tony’s jaw and holding his head still. He hadn’t realized he’d been shaking it, his body still denying the truth he’d already accepted.
Tony wanted to knock Rhodey’s hand away, wanted to shove him and punch him and hurt him because of how badly Tony was hurting. He’d never been good at managing his pain. But he didn’t do any of that, because Rhodey was the love of his freaking life and was a calm, steady presence that had been by his side since he was fourteen.
So instead of lashing out, he curled his fingers around Rhodey’s steady, strong forearm and looked into eyes that he fell in love with more every time he got to see them. Rhodey’s words had confirmed what Tony has suspected though, and his conviction didn’t waver when he said, “I need to see it,” his voice was shaking, but it was sure, “I need to see it and I need you here with me, please.”
Rhodey was silent for an endless moment that dragged out between them. Tony could feel himself shaking, so he wrapped his other hand around Rhodey’s forearm and held on even as his fingers dropped from his chin. Rhodey nodded at him, and then leaned in and gave Tony a soft, long kiss. Their lips moved together slowly, and Tony drew comfort from the familiar feeling of Rhodey’s mouth against his own and the familiar notes of his scent, drawing him closer as he forced himself to feel nothing but the way he felt for Rhodey.
They pulled back eventually, and for another long minute, Tony just sat there with his forehead resting against Rhodey’s jaw, holding his hands and thumbing over the ring Rhodey’d worn ever since DADT was absolved. Rhodey brushed a kiss to his temple, and Tony took a deep breath before he sat back on his stool and said, “Okay. Let's do this.”
“Sir, I have reconnected with Friday and have access to the video,” J.A.R.V.I.S said in a clipped tone.
“Wait, reconnected?” Tony asked, clinging desperately to something that wasn’t the aching in his chest.
“Yes, sir. It appears that Friday disconnected herself forty-seven minutes ago from my main servers and has since been filtering the information I’ve been receiving from her. As per your latest update, I no longer monitor her activity, but we do regularly communicate. It appears that she’s managed to keep me out without me even knowing.”
“Oh. Huh, good job baby girl,” Tony praised, trying to focus on the warm glow of pride he could feel at his AI’s progress, but finding he couldn’t feel much other than grief.
“Thanks, boss,” F.R.I.D.A.Y chirped, her tone cheeky when she said, “I can do things you don’t even know about, big bro.”
“That does appear to be the case, little sis,” J.A.R.V.I.S shot back, and Tony felt a weak smile curve his lips up at the back and forth. It didn’t last, not when J.A.R.V.I.S quietly said, “I have the video ready, if you would like.”
Tony nodded and turned towards his desk. For a moment, nothing happened. It was clear that even J.A.R.V.I.S was hesitant for Tony to see this. Hell, for all Tony knew he’d already seen it. He thought that maybe he should be bothered, that he should be upset that they had hidden something like this from him but...well, he couldn't bring himself to feel much of anything, but more than that, he knew they had just been looking out for him.
Because as much as Tony loved Rhodey—wholeheartedly, consumingly, more than he had ever been able to imagine for himself—he knew that Rhodey loved him just the same. He knew that Pepper loved him too, in her own way, and that they hadn’t hidden it to hurt him. Hell, if F.R.I.D.A.Y had only been mincing her messaging for less than an hour, they couldn’t have even found out that long ago. It made sense that Pepper would have called Rhodey first—he’d probably have called Happy in a similar situation.
That didn’t make any of it hurt any less, but it reminded him that he had people in his corner. People that would fight for him, that would keep him held together. It was that knowledge and the warmth of Rhodey’s hands in his that made it easier to say, “Jarvis, play it.”
“You don’t have to watch this, Tones,” Rhodey told him quickly, but Tony laughed humourlessly and said, “You know I do.”
Rhodey nodded, though it was clear he didn’t like what was happening. Tony didn’t blame him—he didn’t like what the fuck what happening either, but if someone killed his parents then he had to know.
J.A.R.V.I.S started the video, and Tony’s entire world fell apart.
Watching the car slam into a lamp post wasn’t that bad. The car crash was what he’d always imagined—though he’d always thought it had been his father’s idiocy that had killed them. Watching them wrap around a light post was something he’d had years worth of nightmares about; it was what came next that he knew would haunt him.
A sob bubbled out his throat as he watched James Buchanan Barnes wrap his fingers around his mother’s throat. He couldn’t see her, not through the car, but he could hear the way she whimpered. It was no doubt that the video and audio were both enhanced, and Tony briefly wondered if seeing it in enhanced high-definition was worse than the no-doubt grainy original would have been. He decided it didn’t matter, that the hole splitting his chest in two would have cut just as deep no matter what.
Tony didn’t dare take his eyes away as the assassin that murdered his parents shot out the camera. Even as the video feed went black, Tony still watched the screen, unable or unwilling to look away. He knew Rhodey was still there, having moved to wrap his arms around Tony’s shaking frame, but he could hardly feel the arms around him as his entire body seemed to shut down until he was nothing but a blinding0 numbness.
He...fuck, but it wasn’t his dad’s stupidity that had killed them. It wasn’t his dad at all. It was SHIELDYRA and some ghost of an assassin who should have been dead but wasn’t, but had bashed his father’s head in and strangled his mother and—
His eyes were burning even as he desperately hugged Rhodey tighter. He was crying and couldn’t stop, filled with a helplessly, horrible rage that tasted like grief as it burned along the back of his throat. He had no idea what he was supposed to do, no idea how he was going to come back from this but...he’d done it before, and he’d only been a teenager. It should be better now that he was older, when their death was his reality and not a horrible twist of fate.
It wasn’t. No matter how badly Tony wanted to tell himself that it was fine, this hurt just as much as it had all those years ago. Only this time he knew he wouldn’t be able to retreat into the blessed numbness that drugs and alcohol provided. Now he was going to have to deal with it, figure out what this meant, what to do...
But then a thought struck and it made him so sick he swayed forward and rested himself against Rhodey’s uniformed chest. When he finally managed to speak, it was hardly more than a whisper. “Jarvis...where did Steve and Natasha just get back from?”
“It appears as though Mr. Rogers and Ms. Romanoff travelled to a small town in Romania,” J.A.R.V.I.S’ voice was laced with acid, and Tony tensed.
“J, why?” he asked, but even as the word left his lips he knew the answer.
“From what I gathered, Ms. Romanoff used one of your secure channels to contact someone she once worked with about a ghost named the Winter Soldier. Although if my research is correct, I believe they are searching for James Barnes.”
Tony let that settle in the back of his mind even as his brain was racing, putting things together that he...
Fuck. Another helpless noise pulled out of his throat and he yelled into Rhodey’s chest, screaming and screaming until his throat gave out and all he could do was heave for breath as Rhodey held him close and pressed kisses to his hair as he stroked his back. When he could finally take in another full breath, he asked, “They knew?”
“Yeah, Tones,” Rhodey said into his ear, his lips brushing his skin as he hugged him tighter. “I assumed they did when I first heard, but yeah, they must’ve.”
Tony cried out again, clutching desperately at the back of Rhodey’s shirt. Tony had been betrayed more times than he could count by more people than he’d ever be able to remember. In fact, Tony could count on one hand the people who’d never betrayed him and he truly never believed would, and they were all people he kept close. Knowing this didn’t change that number—it was still three, just like it’d been for a few years now, but it still fucking hurt.
“Rhodey,” he whispered, clinging to his husband as another sharp wave of grief washed over him, though this time it was for the team he thought he’d had. It made bile rise up his throat, but he still forced himself to ask, “Bruce?”
“There’s nothing to indicate that Dr. Banner knew anything of this manner. In fact, you and I are the only people he has spoken with since this information was released,” J.A.R.V.I.S told him, and the breath of relief that Tony let out was so heavy he nearly slipped off his chair and would have it wasn’t for Rhodey’s hold.
Tony managed to pull back after another moment of soaking up Rhodey’s warmth. When he looked up, the man was crying along with him, though he had done so silently while Tony screamed his hurt into Rhodey’s chest. Rhodey wiped first at his own tears and then cupped Tony’s face in his big, gentle hands, holding him like he was something delicate.
“What do we do?” Tony asked helplessly, turning into the warmth of his husband’s hand and feeling the cool metal of his ring against his cheek with a sigh that didn’t hurt as much as his last one.
“Well, Pepper’s already on a warpath,” Rhodey told with a strained chuckle. Tony took a moment to kiss him again, whispering I love you against his mouth before pulling back and looking towards one of J.A.R.V.I.S’s sensors in question.
“Ms. Potts is in fact on a “warpath”, as Sir put it. She continued to the common floor when Sir came to speak with you and has since been dealing with the Avengers in house, save for Dr. Banner who is still in his room. Ms. Potts has just informed Ms. Romanoff of the several lawsuits Stark Industries is filing against her, and while she initially protested her argument quickly died when they were informed that Mr. Barton’s family is being placed into protective care at the request of Ms. Potts. Mr. Barton is currently showing signs of aggression and—”
“I’ve deployed the Iron Legion, boss,” F.R.I.D.A.Y cut in quickly.
“Friday, did you bypass by authority?”
“Sure did,” F.R.I.D.A.Y chirped, and Tony let out something between a laugh and another sob, tucking himself against Rhodey’s chest and looking towards the screen that was now showing a live view of the common floors living room, thankful for his AI’s as he knew their bickering was meant to distract him and lighten the mood.
Pepper, surrounded by four gleaming silver suits, was dressed in an impeccably fitted pantsuit and heels that looked towering. She was standing primly with her hands folded in front of her, looking perfectly calm if you ignored the way her eyes were glowing with fire. Across from her stood Steve, Natasha and Clint, who was being held by a fifth Iron Legion.
Steve was red in the face and shouting. Audio picked up a second later.
“Jarvis! Do something about this and call Tony!” Steve was demanding, staring at the ceiling as he stood in front of Pepper. Tony was sure he would have been looking down at her with his arms crossed if they weren’t currently on eye level with one another.
“I’m terribly sorry to say this, Mr. Rogers,” Steve stomped his foot at the title, but J.A.R.V.I.S kept going, “but I have higher clearance than Sir does when it comes to this Towers security. As I’ve already advised you, if you fail to exit the floor within the next forty-two seconds, I will remove you.”
Pepper moved, unfolding her hands and holding them out by her sides, palms facing up. Her smile was serene even as they began to smoke, and then they burst into flames. “I suggest you listen to him, Mr. Rogers. I would hate to have to find out how fire resistant the serum made you.”
“J, that’s enough, she’s got it,” Tony said quietly, nuzzling into Rhodey’s chest. He took a deep breath—and his chest still felt like it was split in half, still felt like his heart was turning over and being pressed down with grief, but he knew that it would be okay, because he had his people, his family, and they would get him through it. He leaned up and kissed Rhodey’s jaw, and he whispered a set of words he said so many times he couldn’t ever hope to count and knew he would keep saying for the rest of his life, “take me to bed, soldier.”