Who: Rhodey, Tony, Pepper What: Rhodey returns from talking to Ross. Where: Penthouse. When: after the storm.
Tony owed a lot to Rhodey for all those D.C. trips. It was tempting to fly down there and give Ross two big metal fingers, but Rhodey knew how to deal with temperamental military officers and career politicians. Ross was both. Which was the worst combination ever.
While Pepper was handling some calls with Damage Control in her home office, Tony made arrangements for Happy to take Morgan and Peter out for a more casual dinner at a pizza place. Between Happy and Peter, Morgan would be safe. Them not being there meant the adults could talk shop, which sorely needed to be done. No matter how nice the meal was.
Tonight it was from Masseria Dei Vini, which meant it was a selection of some damn fine Italian food. He'd been eating salad and lean proteins all week. It was his splurge night.
Rhodey was tired. He'd spent the entirety of the storm dealing with crises in the airways of NYC, with, as he'd mentioned, air traffic control in one ear and Ross yelling at him in the other. He'd barely had time to get a decent night's rest in before he'd been summoned to DC for a reading of the riot act from Ross. Ross had told him the last time they'd talked that he needed to get the Avengers to straighten up and fly right.
Ross had a lot of opinions about the Thorstorm. All of which Rhodey had heard about in great detail. Fortunately neither Ross nor Rhodey knew enough to fix further blame because the idea of Strange rescuing Loki out of the the Raft might have been enough to start who know what kind of trouble, and Rhodey had enough of a headache dealing with things as they were.
He was having a lot of wine with dinner. At least for when he might have to be on active duty. He was declaring it an off night.
"So," Rhodey started, "I don't want to know anything about what the Avengers are doing to support Thor and the Asgardians. Like if they were to show up in the tower from a portal and lawyers were to take statements, I would really not want to know about that. Capisce?"
"Gotcha. Conflict of interest." Tony looked Rhodey up and down and whispered not so covertly,"Are you wearing a wire?"
He leaned in a little and grudgingly told Rhodey's chest "I don't know shit about any of that stuff" before standing upright again. "Covered the bases. Come in, it's Italian night. I'm paying you back for the cannoli run. Pep will catch up with us later, when she's not dealing with a supplier failboating our order for some phone components."
He nodded toward the dining room, walking and talking at the same time.
"Any other topic limitations that I shouldn't poke with a stick?"
Rhodey followed Tony into the dining room, looking for the wine, or something else that might ease the pain of thinking about Thaddeus Ross and their last run-in. "I don't want to talk about what an asshole Thunderbolt Ross is, because it will ruin what's left of my mood, and yours and Pep's too.. But he is one, a giant one, and if I had as much hair as you do, it would be all standing back from my head like the dude in the tape ad.
"I have about fifteen messages I'm supposed to pass on to you about what a dumbass you're being and how you need to stay out of this Asgard thing, for real, and if you personally or any of the Avengers or any of our assorted hangers on, like your daughter who is Jane Foster's BFF, step so much as a toenail out of line, Ross is going to come down on us all so hard were going to be dangling out of China with our butts in the air. I'm passing them on even though I know we're going to ignore most of them, except making sure Darcy doesn't get caught up in all this to the extent we can."
Secretly Rhodey thought Ross would have approved of Darcy if he knew that Darcy's reaction to Thor had been to tase him. Not that he thought using a taser on Thor would work now.
The dining room table was laid out with a spread of various pastas and a couple of artisan pizzas. There was also enough antipasto to make someone slap someone senseless and yell 'Mangia!'
"He pissed in your Wheaties. I get it." Tony was pouring some wine for them both while listening to everything that Ross said. He only barely managed to hide a wince at that. "I like Chinese food. I mean, mainstream stuff. No chicken boner soup and I draw the line at bird spit. There are some things you just don't cross into."
Once he finished pouring, he handed a glass to Rhodey and sat down, picking up his own.
"Anyway, yeah, we're ignoring what he says. Good call," Tony took a loooong sip of wine and looked off to one side for only a few seconds. "Like I said in the texts, the only way Darcy is going to get caught up in this is if she yells it or does something dumb. And she's my kid, so she's not dumb. I got Friday covering tracks. Any speculation is getting scrambled like a troll farmer during harvest season. Did he say anything threatening about my daughters? Because one phone call and I'll slap a restraining order on his ass for my whole family, right now."
If there was one thing the feds were afraid of, it was his legal team. And Tony knew it. Hell, even Maria Hill knew it, since she was hired on as a Stark employee and used it to keep herself safe after SHIELD fell apart.
As a side note, the funny thing about this universe was that a taser would still work, and Darcy could taser away to her heart's content. Indeed, a small electrical shock device could drop even a God of Thunder, which should be a double negative, but there it is.
"If he knows, he didn't tell me. But there are a lot of things he knows that he doesn't tell me," Rhodey told Tony sourly. "He's not stupid enough to issue direct threats that he can't back up, either. What he threatened you with was just what I said: if you're caught sending money to terrorists, you're going to be in extremely deep--doo doo." This last he said while looking round to make sure little pitchers didn't pick up bad language from Uncle Rhodey. It was kind of a reflex now since Morgan was old enough to repeat things, even if he was pretty sure she was neither listening in from the next room nor with the tech equivalent of Extendable Ears from Harry Potter.
He took the glass from Tony. "I never thought I'd be this kind of torn about Loki. I get that he was under the influence somehow because of Thanos, and I get that he's gotten over his issues with Thor or whatever. I still think it's justice that he suffer some punishment for leading the Chitauri against New York, and not just because it's where I keep half of my stuff. But nothing makes me want to bust him loose, or help the Asgardians somehow, as listening to Ross bluster on about how great it is he got Loki. He and Hammer."
Tony rolled his eyes, but not at Rhodey or what he was saying. It was all Ross related, and he took a big drink of wine, before he reached for a slice of tartufo nero pizza.
"Got it. Hands are tied. Or the bank account is, whichever." He pulled over a container of frisee salad, to balance out the amount of cheese and black truffle he was about to eat. When it came to Loki, he had to take another drink of wine.
"I get it. The whole Loki thing. But I'm also looking at it like..." He paused, feeling his appetite knock down a few notches, but he powered through. It was old news. "...look at Barnes. Sure, he did it. He knows he did it, but he didn't have both hands on the steering wheel. If we can get Loki off, there might be some foothold for Barnes there too. It'd be case by case, but I think the worst place for either of them is under Ross' thumb. There's no telling what sort of stuff he'd let do with a magic space alien and an ex-assassin. Or if he threw them to his army buddies."
Those were the thoughts that kept him awake at night.
"I get that, too. Ross is the last person I want to see in control of Barnes. In any way, shape, or form." It was easy for Rhodey to feel for Barnes. Barnes was like him: had come in with great hope and trust, performed to the best of his ability, and still ended up with his body trashed--down an arm, in Barnes' case--and also, for Barnes, with his mind trashed. "And while I don't think he could use Loki the same way, I wouldn't be surprised if someone used him as a magic battery or something. So: Loki needs, ultimately, to be out of there. But I can't be involved or even hear a whisper of what's going on. Clear?"
"Steve said we should keep those two way out of the spotlight," Tony responded, looking like he was trying to sip his way past an incoming migraine and fight off a shudder. Using Loki as a magic battery would be bad news, and likely piss off Thor even more. "And now look what happened. One's caught, and Ross is going to start rolling a tank down the war path, so to speak."
He took a big bite of pizza to pace himself from drinking too much wine. Barnes killed his parents, and it hit particularly hard losing his mom and learning what happened around that. New York was also his home turf, just as much as Mailbu ever was. And so the attack on the city, resulting in a whole lot of post-traumatic aftermath from that suicide mission, left a more recent scar. Neither were entirely at fault, and there was no telling - other than what he had been told before - the extent of how messed up Loki was either. But from the sound of it, his case of sibling rivalry didn't unexpectedly come out of left field either.
Asgard really needed to think about hiring a therapist. As it was, it was going to take a lot to keep Asgard from springing Loki out, if they ever found out where he was.
"I get it. If we do anything, keep you outta the loop," he added, to reassure his best and oldest friend. "I'll do what I can with legal help, and that includes Jane. Targeting her was beyond wrong. But donations and aid to Asgard? I know he'll crack down on our business and contracts. The only one who can really act without too much fall out is Wakanda."
He made a shhh signal like no one heard that, holding up one finger to his lips before reaching for his wine glass.
"I wouldn't know anything about it, not that I'm doing any work with Wakanda myself," Rhodey told Tony, utterly deadpan, and reminded himself to check into the vulnerability of Wakandan NGOs to terrorist declarations. "Not that I think Wakanda has any patience with colonizer b.s." The thought of Ross having to suck it up to play nice with an angry T'Challa to keep access to vibranium and everything else Wakanda could bring to bear made Rhodey grin.
Pepper walked in the room, one hand putting her smartphone in her back pocket, the other hand massaging at her temples. With everything going on, she was working later and later, and at this point, didn’t even know what day it was, which was a weird feeling for her.
She prided herself on knowing what was happening at all times, so this? No good.
Entering the kitchen, she gave a tired smile. Did she know Rhodey was coming over? It was unlikely, but she wasn’t going to say that. Instead, she popped an olive in her mouth and looked at Tony. “Sanyo wants to talk to you about some microchip proposal they sent over a few weeks ago. I glanced at it, didn’t like it, and put it aside but they said they’ve made some changes that I think you’d be interested in.”
And then she actually read the room and realized why Rhodey was over.
“But business is the last thing you want to talk about, I’m sure. Who wants to catch me up?”
"Ok, I'll take a look at that before bed. In other news, Ross is pissed off and on the warpath." Tony paused in mid-drink and looked between Rhodey and Pepper. "I don't know if that's not a PC term anymore but he was a General so I think it counts. Warpath. He's on it. And we're in the crosshairs if we help Asgard, or so much as fart without submitting a permission slip, we're scrrr...hey, you look like you need some wine. Take this."
Tony handed her his glass, which was probably a good thing before he drank it all in one go.
"So whatever you do, basically, I need to be a dumb patsy. Like don't even tell me where I need not to be. Especially if it involves helping Wakanda help New Asgard," Rhodey completed the explanation. "Sorry to dump this on you, Pepper. But this is news you need to keep the Stark businesses safe, because Ross is threatening everything and everybody with suits and investigation for aiding terrorists. Even though Thor's not a terrorist in any sense that means anything, just a dude with an affinity for lightning and a bad temper."
Pepper gave a slow nod. Of course TChalla would reach out and help Asgard. The country was no stranger to sanctions. It made sense for a variety of reasons, and Pepper only hated that she couldn't offer any help.
"Although Stark Industries is a multinational company, we are firmly an American one first, even paying our taxes to this country. Why would we ever do anything against our government?" The tongue was firmly in the cheek while she enjoyed the cup of wine. Quickly. And then refilling.
"My only concern is with how quickly Dr. Foster is being vilified. If only there was some type of positive campaign that could be run to counteract the smear job…." A pointed look at Tony. "Otherwise, I have no comment and oh wow -- Tony, you brought out the Iberian ham? Que delicioso."
"Why'd you look at me? I mean, I could shoot my mouth off on Twitter and battle the twitter-bots, if you really want me to? But you're the one that usually talks to the PR department about damage containment when I fuck up. Since I'm not allowed to go on press junkets anymore without a handler. Which is, by the way, massively unfun."
Knowing Pepper, she wouldn't let Peter Quill be that handler either. Public Relations always made sure he had the best team in the bizz to jump in and cut an interview off, if things started to get heated or derail. Which they very often did.
He looked between her and Rhodey, and then down at the plate with nearly translucent slices of ham artfully arranged on it.
"Yeah well, Rhodey's been listening to Ross yell and gloat. I wanted to take him out on a nice date. Bestie style. Fancy wine, Italian food. Truffle pizza. And I slipped in some ham. " He pointed over at the bevy of pasta and antipasto. "Our hands are tied with Janey, though. Lawyers said to be careful about official endorsements. If anyone else has any ideas, start spewing. I'm all ears."
"My hands are tied where Jane's concerned too. They're treating her like she joined the Taliban or something, and while that doesn't pass the smell test, it does mean anyone who says or does anything supportive where she's concerned is going to get a very close look from three letter agencies." Rhodey found an appealing antipasto and chomped it for visible emphasis.
He turned his attention back to Pepper. "What I told Tony is that whatever people do, I have to be out of the loop. Ross is on the warpath and he doesn't care who he takes down over this as collateral damage. If he can get the Avengers shut down or thrown off of American soil over this, he'll do it. And while he's not in my chain of command, exactly, formally, while he's Secretary of State, he could replace me as Avengers liaison, in which case things get a lot hairier for all of us."
There was nothing they were saying that surprised her. It was just annoying to be right, like always. Hands tied was not the way Pepper liked things. She wanted to take control, and seize the situation. Instead, she was standing in her dining room, eating antipasto, drinking wine and trying not to think of others who were dealing with lesser luxuries.
“I learned a long time ago to never mix business with pleasure. As much as it pains me to have to stand back, there’s little I will be able to do.” Of course, that was the official stance. She’d talk to Tony after Rhodey left, find some way to at least get Jane a car or some mode of transportation. Maybe she’d casually drop it in conversation with T’Challa.
Reaching down, she massaged her calf for a moment before straightening up. “Now if you gentlemen will excuse me, it’s been a long day, and I want to take my shoes off.” Reaching out to Tony as she passed by, she gave him a kiss and a quick caress of the back. “Don’t stay up too late you two. I’ve cleaned enough of your messes over the years. Give me a break, or else I’m releasing some pictures I have saved to the media.” She cocked a brow. “And no, I’m not telling you which ones. Just suffice it to know that they are two separate events and in the event of my untimely death, there’s strict orders on how to deal with that blackmail material.”
Tony smirked up at his wife after returning that kiss, like he was just as smitten with her now as he was all those years ago.
"I love you, and I love that you've got blackmail pics. That's so hot. I hope you take them out and look at them, every chance you get." He grinned over at Rhodey. "We better give the missus a break. If there's no further shop talk, we can maow down on this and clean up. Which means you'll be giving me some disapproving looks while I act like I know what cleaning is. Past a nice spritz of Lysol and a layer of hand sanitizer, because that stuff kills everything."
"I didn't even do anything this time, Pep," Rhodey called in mock despair after her as she left. He turned back to Tony. "And having compressed several hours of yelling and posturing to a short couple of speeches, I think I'm ready to be done thinking about Ross. He puts me off my feed and it would be a shame to waste all this effort and your diet cheat night thinking about him."
"This time? Please, she knows better. You've been to too many of my parties and flew with me on my private stripper jet," Tony pointed out. "I hear you though. No more shop talk. Drink up so you can pass out on the couch, like a good family friend. Morgan will probably doodle on your face with washable markers. Oh, and I'll make you breakfast!"
Being hungover was probably the only way anyone could survive one of Tony's omelettes.
Overall, there was enough to think about and take care of. Ross was but one part, and Tony knew better than to let that guy suck up all of his thoughts and turn them into a toxic stew. He didn't want that for Rhodey, either.
It was probably the one time that Tony knew to shut up.