Disclaimer: I don't own them. I'm not making money from them.
Author's Notes: This is a companion piece to "Spectacular Ignorance" – or rather, to future chapter(s) of that piece on which I am currently working. This isn't written in the same introspect style as that, however, so I'm considering it a separate piece (series maybe – we'll see).
"Much has been written about her enemies. She picked them with care, and God knows they deserved her." ~ Jules Feiffer
"Thanks for meeting me, Rhodey."
Lieutenant Colonel James Rhodes – Rhodey to his friends – looked up from where he'd been working on the Sudoku puzzle in the Los Angeles Time. "Pepper," he greeted his long-time friend and co-conspirator in the 'keep Tony Stark alive' project. Standing from the corner table at which he had been waiting in the small Malibu coffee shop, he gave Pepper what was meant to be a warm hug; she was strangely stiff during the embrace, however. Ignoring it for the moment, he pulled out her chair out for her and then sat himself back in his own seat, moving the newspaper off to the side.
"So," he said once they had both become situated, "what's Tony done now?"
He knew immediately it had been the wrong this to say. Pepper's face closed down into the emotionless, professional façade she wore when dealing with the Stark Industries board.
"I knew this was a mistake," she muttered, picking up her briefcase and drink and starting to stand. "Sorry to have wasted your time, Colonel."
Rhodey stalled her with a light touch to her wrist. "Shit, Pepper. What's wrong?"
Pepper paused, but didn't retake her seat. She stood still for several seconds, looking down at Rhodey, her mask firmly in place. Finally she sat down again, but she remained overly tense. "JARVIS and I thought you might like to be part of the upcoming… welcoming event we have planned for Tony's new teammates."
"You heard me, Colonel –"
"Come on, Pepper, stop with the formal crap. You know I love Tony like a brother. But nine times out of ten when you ask to meet up with me when you're here and he's back east it's to complain about some crazy stunt that he's pulled. It wasn't disrespectful of me to assume that's what you were here for this time, too."
Pepper sighed and relaxed slightly, though he could tell she was still upset. "You're right. I apologize. These 'Avengers' have me defensive."
"What have they done?"
The incredulous look Pepper sent him spoke volumes. "What haven't they done?" she inquired angrily.
"Romanoff watched Tony slowly dying; she knew full well what was happening. And yet she did nothing but lurk in the shadows and judge him for how he handled being poisoned by the only thing keeping him alive. She was perfectly content just leaving him to… If Fury hadn't needed SI's funding…" Pepper's voice choked up slightly as she remembered that terrible time in their lives, and how close they had come to losing Tony.
"Barton is the closest thing Romanoff has to a friend," Pepper continued after she had regained her composure. "He's also been one of SHIELD's best agents for years. It's fairly obvious that his loyalties – first, last and otherwise – are with them.
"Thor's loyalties lie with Asgard. I'm not saying he hasn't been helpful in their fights, but if he had to choose between the Earth and Asgard, it's pretty obvious which way he'd go. If he had to choose between Tony and Loki, it's obvious what his decision would be. He sees Tony as a fellow warrior, nothing more.
"And as for Captain America," she spat out the name viciously, "he thinks Tony is nothing but a waste of space that needs to stop 'pretending to be a hero' and let better men shine. I have a very special welcome speech in mind for Captain Rogers."
"What about Banner?" he asked, somewhat at a loss. He'd known about Romanoff, but Tony hadn't mentioned having any trouble with the rest of his teammates. Then again, they'd only briefly spoken once since the invasion, and that conversation was mostly Tony to reassuring Rhodey that he was still alive and more or less in one piece.
Pepper contemplated her answer for a handful seconds, then slowly spoke, "Doctor Banner is less, and at the same time more, of a threat than any of them. You haven't seen Tony with him. When they're playing around in the lab together Tony's gleefully, unrepentantly childlike in all the best ways. And yet he'll turn around in a second and become serious or comforting or protective – whatever Bruce needs at that moment. Tony's practically adopted him; he'd honestly try to if he thought he'd get away with it."
"So it's the Hulk you're worried about, then?"
Pepper just laughed. "The Hulk is absolutely the least of our concerns. Not only is there every indication of him being supremely fond of Tony, but the fact is that the Hulk would only ever be able to attack Tony physically. He might injure Tony. He might even kill him. But you know it's not the physical injuries that hurt Tony the most. The others, they could all cause Tony to slowly wither away from the inside until he's just as dead, but only after suffering emotionally for months beforehand. That is why Bruce is the biggest threat of them all. Tony's already become attached to him. Bruce's opinion matters to him, more than the others combined, I think."
Rhodey folded his hands in front of him on the table, meeting Pepper's implacable gaze head on. "So you're planning on getting them all together, I'm assuming while trying to keep Tony in the dark, and letting them know exactly what they have to look forward to if they do hurt Tony?"
A slow, wicked smile spread across Pepper's face. "Exactly. Between responsibilities to SHIELD and SI, Tony's been kept too busy to do any repairs on the suits since the invasion. He's only just caught up with everything."
"Which means he's going to be spending the next five days or so holed up in the lab, ignoring the rest of the world and focused exclusively on Iron Man. Allowing you and JARVIS to have your meeting without any interference from him."
"Exactly. I'm sure he'll find out eventually, at which time he'll throw one of his usual temper tantrums, but it will be after the fact."
"I'm still a little cloudy on what you're wanting from me," Rhodey admitted slowly. "It sounds like you've got everything handled."
Pepper's mouth tightened as her head tilted up slightly. "JARVIS and I do have it handled. We simply thought it would be polite to offer you a chance to participate, should you be so inclined."
And then Rhodey knew what this was really about. It wasn't just the Avengers that were on thin ice. No, it was him, too. Tony had forgiven him for taking the suit and letting it fall into Hammer's hands pretty much as soon as the dust from Vanko's attack had cleared. Because in the end Rhodey had only done what Tony'd wanted him to do. Well, except for the turning the suit over to Hammer, but Tony had understood that given the situation, Rhodey hadn't had much choice.
Tony understood and had forgiven and let it go. Pepper and JARVIS? Not so much.
He understood their reticence. Really. Hell, he'd known Tony longer than either of them; he knew how protective a person could get of him, once they'd managed to get past the shallow, obnoxious front he put up.
It wasn't like he was proud of what he'd done, that he'd caved in under the pressure of the situation. Him, a trained Air Force Colonel, who'd been under fire in actual combat situations. He'd just been so damn frustrated! There had obviously been something wrong, but Tony'd refused to tell him anything, and he'd had the military and U.S. government breathing down his neck, and then suddenly Tony was drunk and in the Iron Man suit and jeopardizing the lives of civilians – it was just about every worst case scenario his superiors had thrown at him except Ross' delusions of Tony using the Iron Man armor and Stark Industries' influence to take over the world.
So yes, he'd decided to throw a tantrum of his own; he blamed years of exposure to Tony. He took the suit and did what he was asked and let Hammer study it and take it apart and learn as much as he could from it. Again, he wasn't proud of that. But he couldn't change it now. He was just thankful it hadn't lost him Tony's friendship, even if it'd lost him Pepper and JARVIS'.
"I would, but I doubt I'll be able to get permission."
Pepper nodded, a distant look on her face. "That's exactly what we thought you'd say."
Rhodey could tell that Pepper didn't think his reasoning had merit, which upset him. He was an officer in the Air Force; he couldn't just take off whenever he wanted to. "That's not fair, Pepper. I have commitments –"
"And what about your commitments to Tony?" she asked bitingly, interrupting him.
"Tony and I have already talked about this. He understands."
"Of course he does. He's used to people abandoning him once they get what they want."
"Just what the hell do you mean by that?" Rhodey demanded, eyes narrowing as his own temper started to fray.
"Just that when Tony was making you weapons, you seemed to be around all the time. Now, suddenly, you can't be bothered – wait, I'm sorry – you have 'other commitments'. Whatever your excuse, he never hears from you anymore."
"I was the military's envoy to Stark Industries. Of course I was around all the time!"
Pepper raised one eyebrow, unimpressed. "SI still has billions of dollars of military contracts."
"But none of them are important enough to merit a constant presence, at least not in the minds of my superiors!" Rhodey yelled, leaning forward slightly in his chair, both hands flat on the table.
"Which gives you an excuse for no presence?"
Rhodey paused, taking deep, measured breaths in an attempt to calm down. "Tony is my best friend; he has been for years. He knows this. I don't need to justify myself or my actions to anyone. Not even you and JARVIS."
"He's inviting them to live in the Tower."
"What?" Rhodey asked, thrown by the apparent non sequitur.
"The other Avengers. Tony's designing them each a floor in the Tower. He's planning on inviting them to live there. These people, who have thus far shown themselves to have no respect or tolerance for Tony. He's inviting them into one of the few places he has where he can relax and be himself."
Rhodey collapsed backwards in his chair. "I… didn't know that."
"Obviously," Pepper sneered.
Which meant that Tony was keeping things from him. Things that he was telling Pepper. Granted, it might just on one time thing, because she also had a stake in the Tower – but it might not. What if Tony hadn't understood? What if Pepper was right and Tony thought… No. No fucking way. "What about a video conference?"
Pepper considered him silently for a long moment. Then she nodded once, decisively. "I'll have JARVIS send you the details."
"Thank you," he replied, not just meaning including him in the upcoming meeting.
Pepper nodded again, then picked up her things and started to walk away. Before moving more than a few steps, however, she turned back around. "And Rhodey? Wait until after we talk to the others to call him, yeah? We don't want to tip him off."
Rhodey didn't want to wait. He found himself suddenly desperate to talk to Tony, to make sure that he knew that Rhodey did still consider him a friend, a brother. But he knew that Pepper was right. Any unusual behavior would have Tony's curiosity spiked. And so he slowly, reluctantly agreed.
With that, Pepper continued out of the coffee shop. Rhodey watched her until she was out of sight, then let out a deep, weary sigh as he rubbed his hands over his face.
"Fuck," he muttered to himself, mind whirling in a hundred different directions with a hundred different worries. He let himself wallow for a few seconds, then took a bracing breath, grabbed his coffee and paper and left.
He had a shovel speech – or variation thereof at least – to write.