Rhodey has been friends with Tony long enough to know that there are some things you just don’t ask questions about. There are about a billion things going on in Tony’s head at once, which works out fine if you don’t add aliens and super-villains and governments that want to control your every move into the mix; then there’s too much sensory overload. He and Tony have developed this system over the years that whenever Tony is troubled by something he tries to hide it, and Rhodey subtly picks and prods at it until Tony finally gives in and they talk. It makes it seem like Tony has control over the situation when Rhodey really holds all the power.
But the system is faulty. Sometimes Rhodey gets too caught up in federal business to really sit down and talk, sometimes Tony is too busy saving the world or fight off aliens to hash things out. It’s been a crazy world since The Incident (code for the aliens in New York, Tony’s idea) and sometimes Rhodey can’t keep up with what shit his best friend is pulling out next.
That’s why he finds out about Spider-Man purely by accident.
Since The Incident, crazier people are coming out of the woodworks. It seems like now every guy with a gun thinks he can rule the world and go up against the Avengers. Getting called in as Iron Patriot to stop a terrorist is almost routine for Rhodey on a Tuesday. He’s in the suit and flying in pursuit of a hyjacked bus full of civilians in Queens, which is barreling down a street going top-notch speeds that could kill everyone onboard in one single impact.
Flying up next to the driver’s window, Rhodey calls to the masked driver, “Stop the vehicle.” When the view screen of the suit zooms in on the diver’s hand, which is holding a gun to a civilian’s head, he adds, “Drop the weapon and back away.”
The bad guy, like most in situations of this nature, doesn’t listen. Rhodey boosts the thrusters in the suit and swings to the front of the vehicle, catching the bus by the front bumper. He lifts the top half off the ground, the wheels spinning helplessly as it tries to accelerate.
Rhodey drops the bus and almost casually swoops down to the side, blasting through the door and landing in front of the driver. He’s still in the chair, but now has one arm wrapped around the civilian’s throat and the other keeping the gun pointed at his hostage’s side. Said hostage is a kid with swoopy brown hair, looking barely old enough to be a teenager. His eyes go wide when he sees the Iron Patriot suit.
“Whoa,” the kid gasps. “Colonel Rhodes—“
“What did I say about running your mouth?” the masked man snaps, tightening his grip on the kid’s neck so hard that he chokes. “This is what happens to smartasses who try to be heroes.”
Rhodey already has weapons locked on to the man’s head, but he figures he’ll ask nicely again. “Drop him and the weapon, then get out of this bus before I shoot you in the face.”
The man sneers behind the mask and says, “You want him so bad, take him.” He whirls the kid around and kicks him at Rhodey, the gun raised. Rhodey fires from one of the suit’s gauntlets, knocking the man through the other side of the bus and catches the kid, all in one move.
“Everybody out!” Rhodey calls, releasing the kid and backing out of the bus door to make room for people to file out. As other civilians frantically scurry off the vehicle and away onto the street, Rhodey calls in to the governmental comms and says, “Threat neutralized. No casualties but request paramedics to check for injuries.”
It seems he speaks too soon, because a moment later he watches as the kid who was held hostage comes stumbling out of the bus, clutching at his side. His side, which was blooming red across his light blue T-shirt.
He acts fact, darting forward and catching the kid before he falls. He must have gotten shot the second before Rhodey blasted the criminal away. When the kid finds himself being laid down on the ground, his eyes go dazed for a second before they focus on the mask.
“Mi-Mister Colonel Rhodes,” the kid stutters, staring down at his side in bewilderment. “I think I got shot.”
“Don’t worry,” Rhodey says, his tone calm and reassuring, “An ambulance is coming. They’ll help you, just keep your hands right there and try to keep pressure on them.” Rhodey lifts one of the suits hands and presses it firmly over the kid’s own hands, putting more pressure on his wound.
The kid winces and cries out. “I was—I was trying to k-keep him focused on me an-and not on anybody else. Didn’t want anyone to get hu—hurt.”
Something about him seems familiar, but Rhodey can’t quite put his finger on it. Brushing the feeling off, Rhodey says warmly, “You did a great job. Real super work. No one got hurt except you, and you’re gonna be fine, I promise.”
The kid nods and mumbles, “Wouldda been easier if I—there were too many people, I couldn’t—someone would see—” He breaks off and moans again, taking his hands off his side and weakly trying to push Rhodey away. “’M fine, fine, re-really.”
Rhodey doesn’t budge. He’s just about to reassure the kid again when Tony’s face pops up in the center of his view screen. “Any reason why the War Machine was activated without my consent?”
“Iron Patriot,” Rhodey corrects automatically, “and it doesn’t belong to you anymore, big guy. It’s the government’s. Civilian bus in Queens taken over by a guy with a ski mask and a gun, nothing big. One kid got shot but I’m with him right now waiting for the paramedics.”
Tony’s face hardens as he says, “What kid.”
“I don’t know, some twelve year old—”
Below him, the kid coughs out, “Fifteen.”
“—Fifteen year old—”
Tony scrubs a hand across his face. “Don’t tell me he’s wearing a dorky shirt with a chemistry pun on it.”
Rhodey frowns. That was oddly specific. Glancing down, he looks at what little he can see of the kid’s shirt—which isn't much since there’s so much blood now, but what could be once called a cartoon joke is printed on it. “Um, yeah?”
“Son of a bitch.” The camera screen shifts to a lower angle as Tony starts moving. “Forget paramedics or whatever shitty insurance funded med team the government called, take him to my apartment. I’ll be there in ten.”
Rhodey’s frown deepens. “You’re upstate. Trained medical professionals can handle this better than you. And he’s a civilian, he’s not—”
“Don’t make me ask twice,” Tony snaps. “You know I hate repeating myself.”
Rhodey wants to ask what the hell crawled up Tony’s ass and died, but the screen goes blank before he can. Something still doesn’t feel right, but Rhodey pushes it to the back of his mind. He had to trust that Tony knew what he was doing, even if he wasn’t making any sense. Per usual.
Sighing, he turns back to the kid. “Looks like we’re gonna take a little flight. You think you can handle it?”
The kid nods, or maybe his head just lolls around. Either way, Rhodey sweeps him up and tries not to jostle him too much as he blasts off. The kid groans and closes his eyes, pressing his face against the metal of the suit’s shoulder.
“H-hey Mister Rh-Rhodes?”
Rhodey keeps his focus up on weaving around the buildings but tosses out, “Yeah kid?”
“I’m really tired, c’n I go home?”
“In a bit,” Rhodey assures him. The apartment building was in sight. “First you gotta visit with Iron Man and we’re gonna fix up your side, okay?”
And maybe it’s the way the kid seems to perk up, his face coming out of the suit’s shoulder with his eyes as wide as a startled deer, or maybe it’s the way an expression mixed with guilt and shame spreads across his face. Somehow the pieces fall together in Rhodey’s head and he feels like he gets hit by a freight train because there was no way.
It isn’t until the kid speaks next that seals the deal. Meekly, like a child who knew he was about to be chewed out by a parent, he asks, “Y-you called Tony?”
Oh hell no.
Rhodey doesn’t answer and makes it to Tony’s New York residence after the Tower, landing on the balcony of the penthouse. The doors slide open automatically but Rhodey is already storming through them, not stopping his pace.
Somehow, Tony beat them there. He’s already out of the armor and is pointing to the couch. Rhodey brushes past him and drops the kid down, ignoring the little pained moan that comes out of his mouth.
Turning back to his friend, he lifts up the face mask and says lowly, “Tell me I’m wrong. You better tell me I'm wrong right now because that better not be who I think it is.”
“He’s most certainly not who you think it is,” Tony deflects easily, trying to step around him. Rhodey catches his arm, annoyance prickling under his skin.
“Damn it, Tony, this isn’t a joke! He’s a fu—” He stops himself and glances over his shoulder nervously before hissing quieter, “He’s a child.”
“A child with in enhanced abilities of the arachnid nature,” Tony shoots back. "God, you sound exactly like Pepper."
“Look at him!” Rhodey gestures wildly to the kid, whose eyes are scrunched tight in pain, hands still clutched around his side. “You’d put him in front of the Hulk? This is a new low, Stark, even for you.”
Tony holds up a finger in Rhodey’s face, instantly on the defensive. “I never did that. Not planning on it either. Now get out of that thing before you hurt somebody.”
Rhodey doesn’t, and prods his former friend’s chest with a metal finger in accusation. “But you’re gonna. I can’t fucking believe you would even consider—”
“I’m not considering—”
From the couch, the kid warbles, “Wh—where am I?”
Tony finally shakes off Rhodey and goes over to the couch, dropping down next to it. Rhodey starts getting out of the Iron Patriot suit, watching as Tony gently takes the kid’s wrists and pries his hands away from his side.
“Chuck E. Cheese,” Tony answers breezily.
The kid’s eyes widen. He’s dazed and clearly delusional, staring at a spot just on Tony’s forehead rather than his eyes. “You’re in Chuck E. Cheese?”
“Kid, I invented Chuck E. Cheese.”
“He’s the rat,” Rhodey snaps, but at this point his anger is boiling down to a simmer of frustration, overridden by the sight of a child seriously injured. He’s out of the suit and already moving to get one of the first aid kits out of the wall that he knows must be there. He’s bringing it back over when Tony peels the kid’s bloodstained shirt up, revealing a bleeding hole that’s smaller than it should be for a bullet wound.
“Enhanced healing,” Tony says, but to who Rhodey’s not sure. He leans down in the kid’s face and says louder, “You’re closing up, Underoos. Did the bullet come out of you?”
The kid’s eyes go impossibly wider. “I got shot?”
“He’s lost a lot of blood,” Rhodey supplies warily. “Side wounds always bleed the worst.”
“F.R.I.D.A.Y,” Tony calls, tapping on the inside of his ear. “Give me a diagnosis.”
The AI instantly replies, “Metal shrapnel detected in three areas of the liver.”
Tony curses. “Looks like we gotta go digging.” He gets up and snatches the first aid kit from Rhodey and begins searching through it. Rhodey moves closer to the couch and kneels in the spot Tony was a moment ago.
“You should call somebody,” he says, examining the kid. His hands are starting to tremble. “I think he’s going into shock.”
“D-Don’t,” the kid chokes, shaking his head wildly. “No-not May.”
“Aunt Hotie is definitely going to be involved,” Tony calls from behind. “You sealed that deal when you put yourself in bodily danger without the suit.”
The kid looks like he’s going to burst into tears. “But—”
Hoping to break the tension, Rhodey changes the subject. If the kid was going to stay awake, he needed to keep lucid to avoid going into shock. “What’s your name?”
“Danger,” the kid responds dreamily.
“Peter,” Tony supplies at the same time.
Rhodey nods and glances up as Tony comes back over. He’s got on a headset for when he tinkers with his suits, gloves, tweezers, and a scalpel. Moving to the side of the couch, Rhodey leans over and cups the back of Peter’s neck and holds his head in place on the cushions.
Tony kneels next to the couch again, scalpel raised. “Gimme an x-ray, F.R.I.D.A.Y.” The screen in front of his eyes lights up, and Rhodey turns his attention back to the kid.
“Peter, can you talk to me?” Rhodey says, keeping his tone as soothing as possible. He glances up as Tony cringes and cuts into the kid’s side, reopening the wound. Peter’s face contorts and his whole body goes taunt, arching off the couch. “Peter, I need you to focus on me. Can you do that? What’s your favorite color?”
Chest heaving, he grunts through gritted teeth, “B-blue.”
“What’s seven times seven?”
Rhodey starts rubbing little circles into the base of Peter’s skull. “How about fifteen divided by three?”
The kid makes a pathetic little whimpering noise and frowns up at him. “Mis-Mister Rhodes? Th—this really hurts, I—I think I—I’m gonna throw up.”
“Algebra makes me sick too, kid,” Tony offers. There’s a plink on the coffee table and a soft, “Got one.”
As if forgetting Tony was there, Peter tries to lift his head to look down at him but Rhodey catches his chin and holds him in place. “Eyes on me,” he says firmly. “So you’re the Spider-Man, right?”
Peter nods dumbly. “Yeah.”
“I was in Berlin with you. Do you remember me?”
The kid looks a little offended. “’Course I do. Yo—you’re War Machine.”
Iron Patriot, Rhodey wants to correct, but who the hell cares, that was a bad PR decision all around.
“You’re cool,” Peter goes on, and it’s like somebody hit a switch because now he’s not shutting up. “So, so cool. All of it was awesome, the plane ride and—ow—fighting the Win-Winter Solider—he has a metal arm, but you’ve got two metal arms, so I guess it’s not that tight. Then I punched a v-vulture guy and—ah—went on a date with his daughter an’ cut a ferry in half.”
Rhodey frowns. He doesn’t remember that part of Berlin. “Um, okay.”
“Different mission,” Tony explains. Another little plink on the table. “Two.”
“I got crushed by a building,” Peter whispers, his eyes wide in rapt excitement. “Then I stole Flash’s car!” Confusion filters across his face and he mutters, “Wait no…that was before…”
“Who’s Flash?” Rhodey asks helpfully. “Is he your friend?”
“No,” Peter answers weakly, his eyes closing. “He punches me sometimes.”
“Open your eyes,” Rhodey urges, his fingers pressing a bit forcefully into the back of Peter’s head.
Louder, Tony overlaps him. “Some kid punches you?” Rhodey shoots him a sharp look, but Tony has his eyes on the kid, a storm brewing on his face.
“Only sometimes,” Peter says innocently, grimacing but opening his eyes obediently.
“That doesn’t make it okay,” Tony refutes, worry coloring his tone in a way Rhodey has never heard before.
“I c’n take it,” the kid garbles. “’m Spider-Man.”
Tony opens his mouth like he wants to argue, but Rhodey snaps, “Tony.” The billionaire grumbles something under his breath but goes back to what he was doing.
Rhodey looks down. The kid’s eyes are bright and red around the edges. “Yeah?”
“You can’t tell anybody I’m Spider-Man,” Peter says earnestly, his voice lower like he was certain someone was listening in. “It’s a secret.”
Despite everything, Rhodey finds a smile tugging on his lips. This secret identities thing was kind of adorable, like something straight out of a comic book. “I won’t, kid. I swear.”
Evidently satisfied, Peter mumbles, “Kay.” A beat, then, “Mister Rhodes?”
“I’m r-really tired.” His head bobs once as if trying desperately to stay awake. “C’n I go to sleep yet?”
“Three,” Tony announces promptly, dropping the last piece of the bullet on the table. He sits back up and peels off one of his gloves before patting Peter on the leg. “Knock yourself out, Spidey. Literally.”
A breath whooshes out of Peter once he’s given permission and his entire body goes slack. Rhodey lets go of Peter’s head and frowns as he says to Tony, “Shouldn’t you stitch that?”
Tony replies, “Enhanced healing.” He takes off the headset and points it at Peter’s side. “Look.”
Rhodey stands and glances at where Tony is pointing, surprised to see the incision on Peter’s side slowly closing on its own. At that rate, it probably wouldn’t even have a scar in a few hours. Rhodey is kind of impressed. He looks back up at his friend and briefly wonders if he has done something like this to the kid before. Lead fills his stomach when he realizes Tony probably has.
“Look,” he starts, but the billionaire cuts him off.
“I know,” he says, suddenly looking very tired. “You don’t think I know how dangerous it is to have him swinging around out there in spandex by himself? The twerp is stubborn as fuck.”
“Doesn’t that sound familiar?” Rhodey mutters.
“Hey,” Tony says sharply, “he was gonna do it with or without my help. At least I gave him a suit that can protect him a little better than the shitty homemade pajamas he was wearing.”
“He’s fifteen,” Rhodey stresses. “A baby. He can’t even drive. You can’t suit him up like an adult and send him webbing around. What if someone bigger and badder notices him? What if they make him sign the Accords? What if you’re busy one day and he gets nabbed by Hydra? What then?”
Tony rubs his eyes, his shoulders sagging. “Don’t,” he warns softly. “I’m not at liberty to think about that.”
Rhodey stares at him for a moment, then sighs. He recognizes when not to push Tony, who looked like he was teetering dangerously close to a panic attack as it was. Glancing back over at Peter, he watches for a moment how the kid’s chest rises and falls steadily. He hadn’t really talked much to Spider-Man when they were in Berlin; he’d been distracted by the whole fighting-Team-Cap thing and it seemed like the second the fight was over the spider had disappeared. Plus, the whole new legs thing, which worked itself out in the end. Rhodey guessed by the sound of his voice and the Star Wars comment that the hero was young, but this young…
On the other hand, the kid fought well. He was smart and fast and resilient. He wasn’t afraid to put himself in danger to protect the ones he loved, or as he showed today, complete strangers. He was tough. And it had been a long time since Tony had shown any kind of affection or worry about anyone who wasn’t Rhodey himself, Pepper, or Happy.
“You really care about him, don’t you?”
Tony scoffs, instantly going on the defensive again like he did whenever someone pressed him to talking about feelings. “I care about that suit. And if he fucks it up said suit. And his aunt, lordy you gotta see her. She’s one piece of absurdly hot Italian bread.”
Rhodey raises an eyebrow. Tony exhales and caves a little, “Yeah okay, the kid’s grown on me.”
“Was that so hard?”
“Yes,” Tony quips, grimacing in mock pain. He gathers up the scalpel and rest of the ruined first aid equipment and moves into the kitchen. “I think I’m having a heart attack.”
“Ham it up, tough guy,” Rhodey shoots back. “Your heart grew three times bigger just now.”
As Tony is out of the room, Rhodey notices small tremors are running through Peter’s body. He reaches behind the couch and grabs a blanket. As he’s throwing it over the kid, a pair of brown eyes squint open.
“Mister Rhodes?” Peter mutters, still delirious. “Am I still at Chuck E. Cheese?”
“Yep,” Rhodey says, and really, it’s a wonder this kid is even able to form words at all without the help of morphine. “You’re gonna be here for a while longer. Maybe you’ll remember this. Can you do me a favor?”
The kid’s head jerks up and down once and he says, “An-anything.”
Rhodey leans down over him and annunciates, “Repeat after me: Mister Stark is a bad, bad man. Your heart is too pure for him. Don’t let him corrupt you.”
Peter’s face scrunches in confusion and opens his mouth, but before he can speak Tony comes barreling back into the room. “Hey, hey, hey! Don’t be implanting poisonous thoughts into his head, Rhodes.”
“I’m protecting him,” Rhodey teases, smirking. “It’s better he figures it out now than later.”
Tony glares at him. Peter glances uncertainly between them. “I…Do I ha—have to…”
Without breaking his stare, Tony points a finger at Peter. “Close your eyes, pipsqueak. I’m calling May so you better rest up now before she gets here. And don’t think you’re getting out of talking about this Flash kid, either. I can’t wait to open up that can of squiggly worms.”
The kid groans and he aims a weak glare at Tony over Rhodey’s shoulder. He hardly looks threatening with the blanket pulled up to his chin. He breathes, “Traitor,” and is out again.
“That’s right, I’m big, bad, and terrible.” Tony whips out his phone and starts tapping on the screen. “Are you sticking around to see Hot-Pants-May or are you leaving?”
“Unlike you,” Rhodey says, standing and walking back to the Iron Patriot suit, “some of us have real jobs that don’t involve harassing single parents.”
Tony doesn’t look up. “Sorry, I can’t hear you over all your patriotic pride.” He does pause in his tapping, though, when he asks, “We still on for Chinese on Thursday?”
Rhodey gets into the suit and clicks his tongue. “’Course we are.”
Tony nods and goes back to whatever he was doing. Rhodey starts striding out to the balcony, but pauses for a moment in the doorway to look at the two of them and the quaint picture they made—Peter in the need of a hand and Tony willing to provide it. They both clearly cared about each other, and maybe one day Tony would be brave enough to get his head out of his ass and tell the kid to his face.
“I can feel your judgement!” Tony shouts. “Get out!”
Rhodey rolls his eyes and blasts off. One day was still too far away.