Pepper had known Tony for eight months and six days before she ever even met James Rhodes.
She’d heard about him, of course. She’d lost count of the number of times she’d walked in on Tony’s phone conversations with the other man, Tony using them as an excuse to avoid paperwork. She’d hummed sympathetically when Tony whined about how much he missed him, and had listened to probably a thousand stories about their time at MIT while trying incredibly hard not to laugh at the really wild ones, because she had figured out pretty early on that it would only encourage Tony to try and outdo himself.
She had wondered about their relationship, in the beginning. The first time she’d heard him refer to Rhodes as Honeybear, she’d stopped and blinked at him. But Tony hadn’t even looked up, and if he wasn’t phased then she refused to be. And then, as time went on and Pepper started to understand Tony better, she realized that the nicknames and affection were just how he showed his feelings for the people he really trusted, so she stopped reading into it.
Even though she felt a little like she knew him already, actually meeting James Rhodes was nothing short of a relief. It was early in December, and Tony had not been in a good place. He was drinking even more than usual, being downright obstinate with the board members, and Pepper was left trying to contend with all of that while Stane was up her ass about Tony’s behavior, still furious over the admittedly ridiculously high security clearance that Tony had given her without a word to anyone.
She’d been ready to tear her hair out, trying to convince him to get off the couch, and put on clothes that weren’t his boxers and a torn up t-shirt so they could go into SI and at least make an appearance and pretend to have his shit together. Tony had actually pulled a pillow over his face so he wouldn’t have to listen to her, and Pepper was very seriously considering smothering him with it when someone had cleared their throat behind her. She’d turned to find an amused looking man watching their exchange, lips quirked in a faint smile.
“You must be the famous Miss Potts,” he said, holding out his hand to her, somehow settling Pepper’s frayed nerves with nothing more than a warm voice and a bright smile.
“I am,” she agreed, taking his hand, and before he could introduce himself, Tony was sitting up so fast he looked like he’d made himself a little dizzy with it.
“Honeybear?” he croaked out incredulously, and the newcomer’s smile grew even larger.
“Hey Tones,” he replied, voice soft before he turned his attention back to Pepper. “James Rhodes, but please. Call me Jim,” he told her, steering her towards the kitchen. “This is... sort of a bad time of year for Tony,” he added, lowering his voice slightly. “And you look like you could use a break. Why don’t you grab yourself a glass of wine? I’ll handle Tony for you.”
And sure enough, thirty minutes later Tony was heading into the kitchen freshly showered and shaved in a fitted suit, ready with a kiss on the cheek and a soft apology for Pepper.
It would be a few more years before she would realize exactly why this was such a hard time of year for Tony, but as far as she was concerned, Rhodey was literally magic.
Rhodey was clearly a permanent fixture in Tony’s life, one of the handful of people that he trusted unequivocally. But it took her by surprise when she realized that she had become a part of that group too, without ever even noticing. She hadn’t realized at first how distant he kept everyone, how fake most of his interactions really were, until he wasn’t doing it with her anymore. She couldn’t actually remember what she’d been doing when she had first noticed. It hadn’t been anything special -- an errand she’d run, or a phone call she’d taken care of so that he wouldn’t have to -- but Tony had looked so relieved. “Thanks Ms Potts,” he had told her, and his voice was teasing but there was something real in it too, genuine appreciation. “I don’t know what I’d do without you.” And then he’d grinned at her, wide and open and genuine, so different from the press smiles that he always offered up. It was, frankly, beautiful, almost took her breath away, and Pepper was caught off guard by how much it affected her, had wandered into the kitchen without even really knowing why.
“Ohhh.” Happy was there, and he huffed out a laugh at the sight of her. “One of us now, huh?”
Pepper shook herself out of her daze, arching an eyebrow at him. “One of who?”
“The Tony Stark Protection Squad,” he told her, like that was a thing. “It’s really just me and Rhodes -- and well, you now, I guess -- the people who actually care about Tony’s well-being. The people he actually likes, doesn’t play pretend with.”
Pepper had rolled her eyes at him and then yelped when he’d tossed a lemon at her and things had gone back to normal. But she couldn’t really deny that he was wrong.
It also didn’t escape her notice that he hadn’t included Obie in that very short list.
And as the four of them grew into more and more of a team, she could see why. There was something about Obadiah Stane that she couldn’t quite trust. She couldn’t put her finger on what it was, exactly. He was always pleasant and professional with her, but it was just a little too professional, a little too practiced. And the few times she’d seen him lose his temper over a business deal gone wrong, or some other problem, watched him yell, and throw things, and throw a full on tantrum, she couldn’t help thinking that was the real Obie.
The way he was with Tony set her on edge too. Tony seemed to trust his godfather completely (the father, Rhodey had confided in her one night over too much wine, that Tony had never really had himself). But the way Obie spoke to him, the borderline manipulation, the “Tony m’boys”... it just didn’t sit right.
She knew she wasn’t the only one. Happy was always perfectly polite and respectful, but it didn’t have the same familiarity that he used with the rest of them. And more than once she’d caught him rolling his eyes or making an exaggerated face when he turned away from Obadiah -- or pretending not to understand and even ignoring his requests altogether, if it went against what Tony wanted.
Rhodey, on the other hand, Rhodey hated Obie. Sure, he hid it well when actually interacting with him, but once she knew to look for it, Pepper didn’t miss the way he tensed up when Obie entered the room, the way he was almost too formal. How every few seconds his gaze would flick over to Tony, checking in and making sure he was okay. The more she got to know him better, the more easily she could see how much he absolutely despised the other man. He only put up with him for Tony’s sake, and even then, it was probably only because he knew enough to realize that Tony wouldn’t be able to hear a word against him.
But even if Tony didn’t recognize it himself, he was different with the three of them. He was more easy going, more relaxed. He smiled more, and it was his real smile, every time. He was still a snarky asshole, because that was just Tony, but it was so clearly from a place of love and affection that more often than not it made Pepper go all soft and warm inside. Some days it felt like it was really just the four of them -- plus JARVIS, of course -- against the world.
But of all of them, Rhodey clearly held the top spot in Tony’s eyes. Really, Pepper should have seen it sooner. Tony lit up whenever Rhodey came into the room, and Rhodey’s was the only opinion he really listened to. He had twelve thousand nicknames for him, and seemed to be constantly showing off for him. He even had Pepper schedule all his suit fittings for when Rhodey was in town, because he “needed his opinion.”
And yet, despite all that, she hadn’t put it together. And so, when Rhodey had come back from a few months away, and Pepper had popped into the workshop to drop off some paperwork that Tony absolutely had to sign, she nearly had a heart attack when she found Rhodey sprawled back in a leather desk chair, Tony straddling his lap with the two of them lazily making out and rocking together.
“Holy shit!” she blurted out before she could stop herself, spilling the files all over the floor in a rare show of fluster. There was a long, drawn out pause, both men freezing for a long minute.
Rhodey was the first to recover, giving her a smile that was somewhere between sheepish and smug. “Hey Pep.”
This made Tony snort, and he waggled his eyebrows at her. “Can I help you with something, Ms Potts?”
“Uhh…” Uncharacteristically thrown, Pepper scrambled for an answer. “I just had some paperwork for you to sign. but it can wait. I’ll come back later. Let you two get… Reacquainted.” She almost started laughing at that, and made a quick turn for the stairs before she lost her composure completely, catching a glimpse through the glass of Tony burying his face in Rhodey’s chest as he laughed hysterically.
Happy was in the living room, sipping a cup of coffee, and he arched an eyebrow when Pepper made it to the top of the stairs and lost it completely, holding on to the wall she was laughing so hard.
“They, uh…” Pepper covered her hand with her mouth, trying to get control of herself. “I mean, Jim and Tony, they’re um…”
“Ohh…” Happy’s expression cleared as he clued in, and he grinned at her. “You didn’t know about that? I expected more from you, Pepper. That’s been a thing forever.” He gave her a wink. “Welcome to the team.”