“Rhodey, I need your help.”
Jim dreaded those five worse more than anything.
He was buried in physics—no, he was drowning in it, he’d scattered loose leaf notes and spiral notebooks and highlighters and pens and textbooks on every available surface of his dorm room and he was going to fail his midterm anyway, he knew it. He could see this inevitable future looming on the horizon, and he could see where this was going. After he failed this test, he’d fail this class. After he failed this class, it was obvious his GPA would plummet. And after that, he’d be certain to lose one scholarship at least, he’d have to leave MIT with half a degree and stories to tell, oh yes, stories about nights spent not studying because he’d gone to college to make a friend like Tony Stark.
Who was currently the last person Jim felt like seeing right now.
Who was currently hovering around the desk, and repeating, “C’mon, Rhodey, I said I need your help.”
Tony looked dumbfounded, and he was faking, because Jim told him no all the time. “You have to.”
“Go away, Tony.” Jim reached across the table for a pencil, and his eyes dropped back to his work. His practice questions weren’t even half done, and at the rate he was going now? They wouldn’t be half done by tomorrow morning, either.
For a second—a short, hopelessly optimistic second—he thought it’d worked. Tony walked away without a word.
But then that second was over, because now Tony was back, this time with a chair. He dropped it next to Jim’s, and he leaned entirely too close. “I will do anything you want,” he said, earnestly. “I swear. Do you want to pinky swear on it? I’ll pinky swear.”
“I want you to let me study.”
“No, you don’t, no one wants to study. And that’s wrong.” He reached out and tapped on Jim’s paper, and he must’ve looked at it, at some point, but only for a second and he wasn’t looking at it now. “That problem right there. And the one before it’s not really wrong but—”
Jim dropped his pencil and folded both his hands behind his head, rolling his eyes up to the ceiling. “What do you want?”
Tony grinned and sat back. “My dad’s sending someone.”
In the last two years, that was the first evidence Jim had ever seen that Howard Stark even existed—beyond the television interviews and newspaper articles, anyway. Tony liked to tell a worn out joke about how he’d been grown in a lab, so mentioning his father, that was significant. “Okay,” Jim said. “And?”
“To see how I’m dong.”
Tony hesitated, and that was something Tony never did. “Want to meet him, too?”
The thing about being Tony’s friend was he didn’t usually ask for much, except attention. Rhodey, you hear what happened to me this afternoon? Rhodey, wanna come with me to the party tonight? Rhodey, Rhodey, I’ll do all your homework in every class if you just listen to me for five seconds, except six hours later he wouldn’t be through yet and Jim would’ve found himself on the other wide of Cambridge in a stretch limo headed nowhere—being Tony’s friend was interesting, all right. And time consuming.
And it required all of that attention. “What for?” James asked.
“What for what?”
“What would I meet him for?”
Tony shrugged. “It’s going to be a meeting, so it’s going to go on for forever. It’ll be boring, I’m going to be going out of my skull, Rhodey, you gotta help me out.”
Jim rolled his eyes for the second time in this conversation. “You’re such a kid.”
“You’re sixteen,” Jim reminded him, just in case Tony had forgotten. He usually gave the impression that he had. “You’re a kid.”
Tony drummed his fingers impatiently on the desk. “Are you going to help me or not? Oh, you’ll need a suit.”
“A suit? Tony.”
“My father’s big on that stuff. Being professional, I mean. But don’t worry, I’ll buy you one. Okay?”
“I have a suit.”
“Then you’re coming?”
Jim hesitated. That was something he did all the time.
“I’ll help you with this, you know,” Tony said, quickly. He leaned back in his chair and gestured around the whole room. “All of this. Really. It’s not a problem.” He looked down at Jim’s study guide. “Not even hard, really.”
“I don’t think you know what that means.”
“No. Help.” Jim started doing math that had nothing to do with physics. It was five in the afternoon now. The midterm was at eight o’clock tomorrow morning. He had about six hours worth of work. If he didn’t value his sleep too much, then maybe—
“Rhodey, I really—”
“Need my help, I know.” Jim sighed another heavy sigh, this time a suffering one. He took one last mournful glance around at the mountain of work, and then he reached out to flip his textbook shut.
Last time Tony had said those words—Rhodey, I need your help—he’d been bleeding. Yes, bleeding, at Jim’s door, bleeding from the nose and a deep cut on his lip. He didn’t know what to do, he’d said.
Jim had had no idea what that even meant and his response had been along the lines of holy shit, Tony, what happened? Tony hadn’t said. Hadn’t ever said, actually, and Jim still didn’t know. He’d let Tony ramble while he went to find a towel, and when he’d come back Tony was still bleeding, and on closer look, shaking almost imperceptibly.
Go to the clinic, Jim had said.
People talk about that kind of thing, Tony had answered.
Talk about how you got jumped? Jim had been incredulous, not only because it seemed like such a bizarre thing to worry about when you probably had a concussion or something, but also because Tony never seemed to worry about what people would think of him.
He’d gone to the clinic, eventually. Four stitches and a generous tip later—you don’t tip the nurse, Tony, James had told him—no one had ever heard about it.
A few months before that, the five words had been a plea for help with a girl, of all things. Her name was Cindy, a senior, majoring in mathematics, and Jim had found himself obligated to say that he doubted Cindy’s … intentions. Sure, maybe he’d been flirting, but she was twenty-one and Tony had been fifteen at the time, and couldn’t he see what was probably going on?
Tony had thrown Jim out of his penthouse and sulked for almost a week.
And he’d gone out with Cindy for almost a month, and he bought he everything she wanted. When the relationship had come to a dramatic end Jim heard the five words again—this time, they were delivered via a late night phone call and they’d been followed by a dozen more: dunno where I am and think I just puked on m’self or something happened.
Cindy’d bought him the alcohol after she’d told him to get lost, which had been awfully sweet of her.
In Jim Rhode’s sometimes tiring experience, Tony liked to make demands, he liked to boss people around and be the guy in charge, and when he actually asked for help, if he actually said those words, then something was definitely up. Jim had no idea why Tony would be so dramatic for something so minor as meeting one of Howard Stark’s business partners.
But then he met Obadiah Stane.
“Wish I’d gotten one of those kid menus,” Tony said. He was half draped over their table, propping his head up with his arm and tracing a pattern on the tablecloth with his fingers. “With the puzzles and stuff. And crayons. Told you this would be boring.”
Jim wanted to say that this restaurant probably didn’t have kid menus—Tony had lied about the suit, what Jim really had needed was a tux. Instead, he leaned over to glance at Tony’s watch. Almost seven. “Is this guy always late?”
The meeting wasn’t technically a meeting, because even though it’d been scheduled for six they hadn’t met anyone yet. The two of them had been twenty minutes late themselves, Tony had said he didn’t care if he made anyone mad, but he’d been squirming—and in the end, it hadn’t mattered.
“He’s weird,” Tony volunteered, suddenly. “Sometimes. I think he’s late on purpose, just, you know…”
“Screwing with you?”
“No.” Tony looked surprised, and he shook his head. But before he could argue—
Tony had barely climbed out of his seat when he was wrapped up in a giant bear hug, given by a bald man in a nice suit. “Tony, good to see you,” the man continued, grinning, slapping the kid on the back, and Jim tried to figure out where he’d seen this guy’s face. Television, maybe.
Tony returned the hug, but without as much enthusiasm. “Hi, Obi.” He pulled back, politely removing himself, and he gestured at Jim. “Obi, this is—”
“James Rhodes.” The man turned that bright smile on Jim, stepping towards him and extending a hand, which Jim took. “Good to meet you, son, I’ve heard all about you.”
Over Stane’s shoulder, Tony was pointing at himself and shaking his head. Not from me, he mouthed.
The man chuckled. “Of course, but let’s not worry about that, now. Tony, why are you sitting down?”
“I thought we could—”
“I’d rather walk,” Stane said, still smiling. “You don’t mind, right?”
Tony was wrong. Stane was screwing with them. Jim was surprised Tony hadn’t picked up on it, but then again, the kid was sixteen, and when it came to people, he wasn’t smarter than anybody else.
A fifty on the table took care of the time they’d spent there, and then they were outside.
The conversation puttering along amiably, as pleasant as the weather—in fact, it was mostly about the weather. They took a turn towards a nearby park, Obadiah was the one that steered them, and he said, “How about you give me a couple minutes with your friend, Tony?”
Tony opened his mouth and shut it again, and then he glanced at Jim, who shook his head just slightly. “Why?” Tony asked Stane. “I thought—”
“Can’t very well check up on you when you’re here, son, now, can I?”
Tony had no argument to that.
He left them with a dejected look on his face, wandering up the sidewalk. Jim watched him go, and actually saw the exact moment all was forgiven—the kid spotted and approached a group of giggling coeds with a sudden spring in his step.
Then Jim turned back and said, “Sir, Mr. Stane, I don’t really feel comfortable with—”
“To start with, call me Obdiah, Jim.” Stane—Obadiah, he pulled a cigar out of an inside pocket and followed it with a fancy lighter. “You smoke, son?”
“Want to start?” Obadiah chuckled, then he turned his head, twirled his lighter and smoke leaked out of his nose. “Don’t worry, I’m just kidding you, Jim. How old are you?”
“And you’ve been friends with Tony since…”
“Isn’t that interesting,” Obadiah said, not sounding interested at all. “So, tell me, why would an eighteen-year-old version of the fine man I see here bother making friends with a kid Tony’s age?” He pulled his ciar out of his mouth, and he blew smoke thoughtfully. “Which was fourteen, right?”
Jim shrugged again.
“You don’t know? Oh, come on, you’ve gotta have a hunch.” And then Obadiah lowered his voice and said, “You knew who he was, right?”
The answer was yes, he had—of course he had, everyone had—but that wasn't what Obadiah was implying and Jim found himself bristling. “That had nothing to do with it,” he said, flatly.
Obadiah raised an eyebrow, and waited.
That wasn’t entirely true. Tony being Tony had a whole lot to do with it, because if he wasn’t so smart, he never would’ve ended up at college so young, and if he wasn’t so rich he wouldn’t have made the kinds of friends he had right off the bat. A lot of frat boys had thought pouring liquor down a willing kid’s throat was the most hilarious thing they’d ever seen, and Jim had really thought the boy genius might not survive his first year away from home.
“I thought…” Jim started. “I thought he needed a friend.” A real one. That was entirely true.
Obadiah laughed, loudly, genuinely, and dropped an arm around Jim’s shoulders. “That he does, son, that he does.”
Jim stood stiffly under the sudden embrace, but he couldn’t help but feel like he’d just passed a test.
“And Tony takes care of his friends, too.”
Jim snorted, he had half a mind to mention just how much looking after Tony required—he checked himself. He was going to rat the kid out, after all, wasn’t going to mention every last escapade that had Jim tearing out his hair. And he wasn’t buddies with Obadiah. “You’d be surprised,” he said.
Obadiah clapped him on the back, and dropped his hands. “No, son. But you will be.”
Obadiah dropped his cigar on the ground, though it wasn’t even half smoked, yet. “I’m not going to lie to you, Jim.” He ground the smoldering embers out with his shoe. “I pulled you aside for a reason.”
“Yeah,” Jim said. “To talk about Tony.”
Obadiah smiled. “I know what Tony’s up to, son.”
“Really?” Jim asked, copying the disinterested tone Obadiah had used on him earlier. “Like what?”
Obadiah sighed. He reached for another cigar, even though he’d just thrown away the last one, and Jim found himself idly wondering, gee, don’t those cost money?
“Remember when you almost lost your scholarship, Jim?” Obadiah lit the cigar. “The Candon scholarship, right? You need that money to go to school, of course you do.”
Jim stared at him. He nodded.
“Remember how you got a letter at the last minute, they said they’d keep you on?”
“Wait.” Jim shook his head sharply. “How can you—my mother doesn’t know that.” Because if she found out he’d lost his scholarship, she would’ve had a heart attack. “How do you know that?”
And Jim felt his chest sink to the ground. “I’m going to kill him,” he said, hollowly. “I’m going to kill him.” The feeling got worse, and for a second, Jim was sure he was going to throw up. “He’s giving me—”
“The money’s nothing to him and you know that.” Obadiah put a sympathetic hand on Jim’s shoulder, he gestured with the cigar in his other hand. “See, you and me, and any other person—normal person—we know what that money means—”
“It’s a lot.”
“Tony doesn’t understand, son. And he likes you, wanted to keep you around, you see how his mind works?” Obadiah twirled his hand, making the drifting smoke rise in coils. “Tony doesn’t get it.”
If Jim had a dollar for every thing Tony just didn’t get, he’d be well on his way to being as rich as, well, Tony Stark. Hilarious. He rubbed his temples. “I know.”
“Do you want me to fix this?”
Something was stopped him from actually saying that, though, and that same part of his brain was suggesting that maybe, just maybe, he should talk to Tony. Or yell at him. It didn’t really matter, did it?
Maybe it was a good thing that Obadiah didn’t wait for an answer. “Tell you what I’ll do,” he said. “I’ll talk Tony out of his … generosity, we’ll call it, never let on that you knew about it, and next quarter you get an offer from Uncle Sam.”
“You don’t have any moral objections to a loan, do you?”
Jim shook his head.
“Then I’ll take care of it.”
It takes Jim a second to realize what he’s supposed to say, here. “Thank you, sir.”
“Don’t mention it.” Obadiah grins with his cigar clenched between his teeth. “Tony, he needs looking after, right? You and me, we can do that.” He dropped his arm around Jim’s shoulder, again, and he said, “That’s what you want, right?”
“Yes, sir.” Jim turned his head and looked. Tony was standing further away than Jim had last seen him, and the coeds were gone. Tony had his hands in his pockets, and he was looking up, at the sky and the first stars of the night.
What the hell was he seeing up there?
“What’d you and Obi talk about?”
Jim tossed his coat onto his bed, and then he dropped back down into the same place he’d started the evening—right in front of his desk. “The hookers.” He pulled a book off his shelf.
“I told him it was just that one time.”
“Rhodey…” Tony sat down next to him, taking the book out of Jim’s hands. He started flipping through it, not stopped at any of the chapters of interest. “What’d you and Obi talk about?”
“Nothing.” Jim took his book back.
Tony took the book again. “Bogan puts trick questions on his tests, he loves it. And the test doesn’t follow the study guides, either. Half the class failed the midterm when I took him last year.”
“This formula?” Tony pointed. “He never even taught it, right? It’s on the test, I promise.”
“Am I supposed to read the entire text book?”
“Pretty much. Guy’s a jerk.”
Jim copied down the formula. “We didn’t talk about anything, Tony. He asked me to watch out for you, that’s it.” Jim shouldn’t have felt bad, because yeah, he was lying, but that part, it was pretty true—and even without Obadiah Stane’s nudging, watching out for Tony is what he meant to do. Was planning on doing. Until the smartass graduated, anyway.
Tony frowned. “Look out for what?”
“For you, Tony. Give me my book back.”
It was hard to study with Tony just … sitting there, watching over his shoulder, probably mentally correcting every mistake that Jim was making. Tony sat still for a couple minutes—which was a miracle all on its own—before he finally broke the silence with, “Are you?”
“Am I what?”
“Going to, you know—”
“What do you think?” Jim shut his book and glanced at the clock—four minutes until midnight, which was just great. It wasn’t like he was planning on sleeping, anyway. “Of course I’m going to.”
Tony hesitated. Again. “Because we’re friends, right?” He smiled, with only one side of his mouth, and Jim wondered if this was the first time he’d seen Tony looking so far away.
Or maybe he just hadn’t noticed.
“That’s right, Tony,” he said. “We’re friends.”