Apparently, all the money in the free world won’t buy Tony’s way out of the MIT policy that all freshmen must dorm. Something about “socialization” and “assimilation into the student body.” Sounds like pinko hippie shit to him. To be fair, Howard doesn’t seem to try very hard to get Tony out of it, and Tony won’t have access to his trust until he’s eighteen and has blown this joint anyway, but it still sucks. What kind of self-respecting money grubbers with the dangling carrot of future legacy donations are they?
To be fair again, maybe Tony didn’t really put up a fight. Maybe Tony was looking forward to having a roommate, and doing all the legendary stuff from Porky’s or Animal House, and having friends who were not made of metal, or paid to babysit him, or butlers who were a thousand years old. Maybe Tony actually begged Howard not to stick him in that loft near Harvard Square and pay someone off with a new lab. Maybe Tony’s made this bed, and Howard is only too happy to see him lie in it now that it’s proven lumpy and uncomfortable.
Basically, his roommate, Gene, is a sack of dicks.
He’s a greasy aeronautics monkey who won’t stop making fun of Tony’s age. Have your balls dropped yet, Stark? or Grow some pubes on your dick, not your face, dumbass. He leaves come-crusted tissues everywhere and is occasionally too lazy to get up to pee, so he pisses in plastic cups that balance precariously all over the room. On top of that, the room is the size of a cracker and Gene won’t stop ripping noxious farts. Tony is living in a hotbox of sulphuric ass juice, hentai-inspired bleach stank, and general unwashed teenager, and somehow he’s the one getting made fun of here.
Worse, somehow, is that Gene seems to be friends with most of their floor mates, and Tony is either ignored or snickered at no matter where he goes. By the time spring semester rolls around, the classic they’re just jealous mantra he’s had going is wearing thin, and the fact is, it’s Tony who’s jealous. Everyone else has study buddies and parties and hook ups — he has a lab to hole up in alone, and booze to drink alone, and every other basic human social act to do alone. It’s pretty much like being home again, except at least there everyone’s too busy with their own shit to outright laugh at him. Being here is nothing like what he thought college would be.
He can’t avoid his room all the time, and one blustery day soon after the resumption of classes, he ventures into the Dutch oven of fungal reek to pick up some books. Gene is there, unshowered, watching the tube and smoking hash Tony doesn’t have to ask to know he won’t share.
“Looks like you aren’t the only boy genius here anymore, dork,” he says. “You should go jerk off into each other’s sippy cups.”
“You know, Brent in 8C? Totally burnt out, had a nervous breakdown and didn’t come back. What a fucking pussy.”
“Naw, so they got a new kid in there with Liang, right? Sixteen years old. Fucking ridiculous, too. You know why he even got in?”
“Man, I don’t even know what you’re talking about, much less—”
“I mean, you bought your way in. You might be a pain in the ass, but at least I can respect cold hard. This asshole’s only here because the school’s lost any sense of pride it used to have.”
“If you can’t even say what you’re saying without beating around the goddamn bush, I think MIT’s got a bigger problem than a rash of ‘kids’ who outshine your grandpa’s money.”
Gene blows out a lungful of smoke and snarls. He twists up in his bed to glare at Tony with rheumy blue eyes that make Tony’s insides curdle.
“He’s black, you little shit. He only got in because he’s black.”
This is how Tony learns of the existence of one James Rhodes in 8C.
The door opens, and maybe it’s the fluorescent desk lamp throwing light all around the kid’s head, but Tony is pretty sure he sees an angel.
“Uh,” Tony says.
“Hey?” James Rhodes in 8C says. He’s wearing a t-shirt and ROTC pants, tall and gangly like he grew a foot overnight and the rest of him is still scrambling to catch up. His hair is kept in a neat fade and the lines of his face are strong and high. His brows arch inquisitively over wide brown eyes, and his lush mouth curves upward just slightly in a polite smile.
“Hi,” Tony says.
“I think you already said that,” says James Rhodes in 8C.
Tony holds out the six pack. “Wanna get illegal?”
James Rhodes in 8C lets out a huff of a laugh and shakes his head, but he steps aside and Tony takes that as his cue to slide in. Jun Liang is nowhere to be found, and 8C is miraculously clear of urine and tissues.
“Tony Stark, right?” James Rhodes in 8C says. “I’ve been warned about you.”
“Lies,” Tony says, “all of them.” He grins past the punch to the gut, but it’s not that hard, because James Rhodes in 8C is smiling at him and taking the beer to put in a mini-fridge.
“You’re the only one around here younger than me,” James Rhodes in 8C says. “That stays with a guy.” He sticks out his hand. “Jim Rhodes. Nice to meet you.”
The hand in his is hard and dry, and Tony pumps away at it, probably too long.
“No no no,” he says. “Jim? That’s the worst, man, who did that to you? We need to brainstorm this.”
“What, like Tony’s so much better?”
“Well, yeah,” Tony says, throwing himself on what is probably Liang’s bed. “Gym is the class everyone with a brain hates most, but a Tony is an award, you know? Like. I am the prize you get for being cool. Congratulations!”
“Oh, and you already know I’m cool, huh?”
“Definitely,” Tony says. He slants his most charming grin James Rhodes in 8C’s way, and James Rhodes in 8C smiles back. “We’ll get the little statue made later. What kinda pose you want?” Tony arranges himself on his side, one foot planted on the mattress, one hand on a hip, eyes big. James Rhodes in 8C throws his head back and laughs. The corded muscles of his neck and the way his eyes squeeze shut and the gleam of his white teeth and the deep rumble of his voice all make Tony pop a semi right there. He clears his throat and rolls back to a sitting position, hunching over to hide what the sight of this guy is doing to him.
“Man, no one said you were funny,” James Rhodes in 8C says.
Tony forces a smile and rolls his shoulders inward.
“Everyone here is a dweeb,” he says. “They don’t know what’s good. What’d they say about me anyway?”
James Rhodes in 8C tilts his head, and his eyes are warm and clear, and something in Tony feels cracked and exposed, but somehow free.
“Nothing important,” he says with a dismissive flick of his wrist, and that’s when Tony knows there’s never gonna be anyone for him but James Rhodes.
So it’s only thirty years after that first meeting that Tony finds out Rhodey might be a little more equal opportunity than Tony had originally thought. And, of course, it’s Cap’s ass that causes the realization.
It’s the Fourth of July, Cap’s frigging 97th birthday, there are fireworks in the sky, and Barnes is wrestling Cap into a headlock during the roof party at the tower. Tony looks over to where Rhodey is standing behind them, nursing a froo-froo drink and smiling at something Romanov says, and he sees Rhodey’s gaze slide down Cap’s back, land on the truly majestic sight of that ass, and glaze over as if hypnotized.
Could be a fluke. Who wouldn’t have a momentary gay outburst about the junk in Captain America’s trunk? But Tony can’t just let something like this pass; it’s a scab he can’t resist picking. So he sidles up to Rhodey and Romanov, and he makes a show of standing back to bask in the good old-fashioned homoeroticism of a Rogers-Barnes roughhousing event, and whistles out a low falling note of admiration.
“Can’t beat the view, am I right? God bless America.”
Romanov rolls her eyes. “Somehow the pining and the inability to communicate like adults prevent me from lusting after either of them.”
“That’s the difference between you and me, Red Menace,” Tony says. “No force on earth can stop my lust monkey, even obtuse nonagenarians.” Tony bumps Rhodey with a shoulder, and apparently he’s just tipsy enough to stick his tongue out at Tony in retaliation. “Where do you come down on this very pressing issue, cream puff?”
“Some things are designed for window shopping only,” Rhodey says. “Look but don’t touch.”
Tony raises his hands in surrender.
“No touching,” he says. “No one’s touching anything without all necessary consent forms signed and notarized.”
One side of Rhodey’s mouth comes up, and he looks at Tony the way he always does: too fond to be exasperated like he wants to be. Tony thought he had gotten his physiological reactions to that under control decades ago — namely, the way his heart and stomach swoop in tandem when Rhodey smiles at him — but here he is, forty-five years old and as rife with adrenaline in the face of his teenage crush as ever.
“Oh, Lord,” Romanov says suddenly, and she’s gone quicker than she can roll her eyes. Rhodey frowns at her retreating back.
“I don’t even think you said anything offensive,” he says. “What’s her problem?”
“Can’t imagine,” Tony says quickly. “Get you another drink?”
Rhodey shakes his head and sets his empty glass down. “I’m good for now,” he says. He faces Tony with his eyebrows raised, and somewhere in Tony’s peripheral vision, he sees Cap and Barnes part ways and wander off, probably to have a serious think about their heterosexuality.
“So is that a thing you do with guys?” Tony asks, casual. “Look but don’t touch?
Rhodey’s eyebrows draw together and he purses his lips.
“That’s what I do with those guys,” he says.
“Like an exception. Like they’re so hot it doesn’t matter they’re in possession of some very compelling Y chromosomes.”
“Tony, what is this about?” Rhodey shifts and crosses his arms together. It makes his arms look like they need a judicious application of Tony’s tongue.
“Just trying to figure you out, lemon meringue,” Tony says with a tap of his shoe against Rhodey’s. The thunderclap look on Rhodey’s face doesn’t dissipate. “I mean, what am I supposed to think? I’ll have you know this is a world-class ass, buddy.” Tony shakes his hips a little and waggles his eyebrows. “And you’ve never looked once, which I could put down to a debilitating case of the straight, but now you’re on my roof ogling the good captain? It hurts my feelings, lovelump. It gets my goat. It makes me pout.”
Rhodey doesn’t smile, or do the thing with his eyes where Tony can tell he’s not really mad. He just clenches his jaw, and his lips go tiny and pinched.
“Not everything’s about you, Tony. Especially who I ogle.” He sighs and breaks eye contact to scan the roof. Tony follows the line of his vision and lands, once again, on Cap, who is now talking animatedly to Sam Wilson, hands flying everywhere. Obviously that Asgardian mead Tony hoarded on the last visit has been a resounding success.
“Oh,” Tony says. His heart is flopping around in his ribcage like a dying fish, and he feels vaguely nauseated. Rhodey’s never been really serious about anybody, not like Tony was with Pepper, and it’s always selfishly been something Tony could use to keep the tiny embers of his torch going. But now — well. Don’t Ask Don’t Tell was repealed years ago, and Cap is finally getting the hang of not being a sad sack in the twenty-first century, and if Rhodey really does want him, there is no better time. Unless, of course, Steve is hung up on Barnes, like Tony and the rest of his team-mates have high-stakes bets on. “Hey, maybe it’s nothing,” Tony says. “You know. Friends. Who are close. Barnes is always flirting with women. You should go for it.” How is his mouth even still working? Tony wishes he had a drink to slam back.
Rhodey turns back around and pins him with a hard look.
“What are you talking about, Tony?”
“Your crush on Cap, obviously. Can’t exactly fault you for your taste and all, but you should keep public sex to a minimum, I mean, I remember that time sophomore year, you and what was her name, Larissa something? Yeah, I mean, congrats and stuff, man, but my virgin eyes, you know—”
“Jesus Christ, Tony, I don’t have a crush on Steve.” Rhodey’s arms come uncrossed and he brushes past Tony, making for the exit. Tony trails after him, but Rhodey’s legs are longer than his and that’s not exactly fair. Rhodey’s closing the elevator doors by the time he catches up, and he’s got just enough time to slip in and earn Rhodey’s scowl for real.
“You are so goddamn oblivious, Tony,” Rhodey says. “I mean, I cannot believe the words coming out of your mouth sometimes.”
“I know I’m frequently wrong when it comes to my interpersonal relationships, just ask Pepper, but I’m really at a loss right now and could use a tiny hint, I swear I’m a genius and I’ll get it if you give me a little clue—”
“Friends,” Rhodey says in a snotty, mimicking tone. He smacks the button for the ground floor, but Tony calls out for JARVIS not to obey. “Always flirting with women. So it must not mean anything, huh, when someone looks at someone else the way Bucky looks at Steve?”
“I am so confused right now. You’re mad about the staggering emotional constipation of the Wonder Twins, but you don’t want either of them?”
“What I want, Tony, is for you to have a little respect for how other people operate. I know you don’t want me and never have, but goddamn, I am allowed to look at someone else once in a while. You don’t get to act like the moment my attention’s not on you, you’ll have a meltdown, but the moment it is, you’re not interested. You have to— you have to stop jerking me around, okay? It’s been a long damn time. You have to let me go.”
Tony’s throat closes, and he swallows against the dryness there. He flicks his eyes up to the camera and jerks his chin at it. The elevator whooshes to life and begins a steady descent. Beside him, Rhodey is clenching his fists, spine ramrod straight as he stares hard at the elevator doors.
“You never told me you were even interested in men,” Tony says, quiet. “I didn’t know you were… I didn’t know."
Rhodey snorts ruefully and gives a minute shake of his head.
“You never seemed to need a written invitation about it with anyone else. Look, Tony, it’s fine. Really. You’re my best friend. I’ve had a long time to get used to how things are. I just need to regroup, or something. I think I had more to drink than I thought I did, and everything just… got to be too much, for a second.”
Tony takes a deep breath.
“Look, you need to know that I’ve… I’ve loved you since the first second I saw you. I went back to my awful room that night with a smile on my face for the first time since I got to school, and I thought, that’s who I’m gonna marry. That — that hasn’t changed.”
Rhodey looks at him, finally, but instead of joy, all Tony sees in that face is an empty haunting.
“Why are you telling me this now, Tony?”
“I thought…I mean, we’re having elevator confession time. I couldn’t let you hang your ass out all by itself. I mean. It’s a very nice ass, you know?”
“Stop it.” Rhodey’s voice is harsh, and one hand comes up as if it can stopper Tony’s words in the air. “Just — stop, Tony. This is the exact definition of ‘too little, too late.’ I can’t do this right now, okay? You should go.” He hits a button on the elevator, and they come to a stop at the next floor, where the doors open and Tony, feeling like the world is dissolving around him, steps out.
“Rhodey,” he says, and stops the doors from closing with a hand in the jamb. “I’m sorry, okay?”
Rhodey’s mouth twists up in a poor imitation of a smile. “You don’t even know what you’re sorry for,” he says. He hits another button, Tony pulls his hands back, and then he’s gone.
Tony does know, actually. He’s sorry he didn’t kiss James Rhodes in 8C that very first night.
Tony, surrounded by colleagues and friends who definitely value him even though he’s a pain in the ass, feels exactly like he did his first semester of college: alone and unmoored. Even Sad Sack Steve starts sending him pitying looks with those All-American baby blues, and Tony can’t even muster up the indignation with which to hate him for it.
He’s ass-deep in the specs of a new suit — Spring Collection, 2016 — when Rhodey walks into the lab easy as you please, hands stuck in his pockets. Tony, on his back doing some welding, flips up his mask and gapes at him.
“What?” he says, and he wonders where his famed wit and charm went. Rhodey just sighs and seats himself on the edge of a worktable, crossing his arms. Tony figures he should get up or something, but somehow his bones have become noodles.
“Steve Rogers plays dirty pool,” Rhodey says.
“Coulda told you that years ago, pancake,” Tony says in a croak. He clears his throat. “Behind that innocent apple pie look lies a filthy, filthy hustler.”
“He called my mom, Tony.”
Tony barks out a laugh. “Oh my God, what?” Tony might have a newfound respect for Steve.
Another deeply aggrieved sigh escapes Rhodey’s mouth. He uncrosses his ankles and recrosses them the other way.
“Apparently someone has been moping so hard the Earth’s gravitational force has been affected, and it seems I am the party responsible for said moping, therefore it is my duty as a decent human being to put an end to it. Direct quote.”
Tony rolls out from underneath the new suit and stands, brushing off dust and debris. He takes the mask off altogether, and he meets Rhodey’s eyes for the first time since July. It’s only mildly devastating.
“Hey,” he says.
Rhodey’s mouth twists, but his eyes are warm, and it looks like he’s drinking Tony in.
“Hey,” he says back.
Tony swallows and steps forward. Rhodey stands, and then they’re hugging, and Tony’s breathing in the dark sweet scent of him, and he feels almost drunk off it.
“Rhodey,” he says into the juncture at Rhodey’s neck and shoulder, and Rhodey goes still before stepping back out of Tony’s arms.
“I have some very important information,” he says, looking grave.
Tony can take it. Whatever Rhodey has to say, he can weather it, and not even be a little bit of a baby about it. He’s 97% sure. 85%. 60%. Tony stands up as straight as his spine will allow, angles his chin up in his best Cap impression, and says, “Right. Let’s hear it.”
“Steve and Bucky have been a couple this whole time.”
“After my mom gave me my whuppin’, Steve called me and initiated a very awkward heart to heart about acceptance and forgiveness and allowing myself to be happy and let me tell you, Tony, there’s nothing quite so mortifying as talking about internalized homophobia with someone who will never actually say those words and oh, was born a hundred years ago.”
“You know this only raises more questions,” Tony says.
“Who gets the pot? No one guessed ‘those two have been fucking since the Great Depression.’”
“Seems a serious oversight.”
“So.” Tony steps into Rhodey’s personal space, tilting his head up so he could look him in the eye. Rhodey raises his eyebrows. “Are you internally homophobic? Do you need the guidance of our big gay fearless leader? Or will just a solid application of dick do you?”
Rhodey sighs and grips Tony by the wrists, but instead of yanking him up against his hard strapping chest like Rhett Butler and plundering Tony’s nubile body, he holds him steady and puts space between them.
“What I need is to talk to you like a person. Can we do that, Tony?”
Tony shrugs out of Rhodey’s grasp and turns back to his latest suit. He fiddles with a gauntlet. Behind him, Rhodey sighs.
“Yeah. Yeah, we can do that,” Tony says. “I’m slapping a disclaimer on it though: I’m no good at this. You know that, Rhodey.”
“This what? This having a discussion like an adult or this navigating interpersonal relationships at all?”
Tony scoffs and sends a joyless smile Rhodey’s way.
“Let’s go ahead and check both boxes, moonpie.”
“How about this: we can have this one awkward conversation and fix our shit, or we can go on like we have been, which is torture, but hey, at least we’ll have our pride.”
“Fine.” Tony turns around and stops pretending he’s even looking at the suit. He looks Rhodey full in the face. “I’ll go first. I’ve been gone on you for three decades. I never said anything because all signs pointed to your heterosexuality, and I never tested it because you were the one person I could never afford to lose. What’s your excuse?”
Rhodey’s lips part for a moment before closing again.
“You weren’t kidding, then. Or, whatever, humoring me.”
“Jesus, Rhodes, what does it take?” Tony says, throwing his hands up in the air. “Are you like this with everyone? It’s kind of hard to have one of these ‘real conversations’ when one half of the party refuses to believe the other half, you know.”
“What everyone, Tony?” Rhodey says. “I am pathetic enough never to have had any long-term relationships because in the end I can never forgive anyone for not being you!” Rhodey seems to realize abruptly that he’s shouting, and he deflates. He swipes his face with one hand, and when Tony can see his eyes again, he looks tired. It hits Tony then, maybe for the first time, that Rhodey is pushing fifty. Someday soon, the two of them are going to be old, and they’re going to wonder where the time went.
Tony lets the moment lie. The workshop seems big and echoey without the whir of machinery and the blare of music, with nothing to listen to but Rhodey’s harsh breathing and Tony’s own thundering heart.
“Well,” he says after a while. “That’s all our cards on the table. Isn’t there supposed to be a symphonic swell of music and feelings? I want my money back.”
Rhodey looks away, and Tony wishes they were the kind of people who could erase all the hurts with a touch. He wishes he could go over there and cup Rhodey’s face in his hands, and whisper about how everything was going to be okay now. But he can’t, not least because he knows if he tried, Rhodey would slap his hands away. So much for the power of honest conversation.
“I’ve been on my own a long time,” Rhodey says, voice quiet. “I don’t know if I’m even capable of having something real with you.” A humorless laugh escapes him. “Look at me. I just blamed you for why my other relationships never went anywhere, and I’m supposed to be the mature one? Wait for something your whole life and have no idea what to do with it when you get it. Figures.”
Tony hates that Rhodey looks more wrung out now, after they’ve supposedly been sincere with each other for the first time in pretty much ever, than he did when he first walked in. He racks his brain for a way to salvage this.
“We could try it like normal people who didn’t have their heads up their asses for thirty years,” Tony says. Rhodey looks up. Tony slaps a fist into his hand and bounces up on his toes. Rhodey favors him with a half smile.
“Yeah?” he says. “And how’s that?”
“You could let me take you out on a date. A good one, too, none of this weak-ass dinner and a movie shit.” Tony’s mind whirs: a picnic, and then a trip to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, and maybe restoring a classic car over beers, and then some dirty touching.
Rhodey smiles for real now and says, “You know, I think that might be just the thing.”
Tony’s lying on his stomach over Rhodey’s hips, naked and sated after some vigorous celebration sex, and Rhodey is idly petting the curves of his ass. Tony’s a total slut for it, and he arches into each sweep of Rhodey’s palms as if he doesn’t have an ass full of lube and balls empty of sperm already.
“Tony?” Rhodey says.
“Remember in the elevator that night, when you said you knew you were gonna marry me when you first met me?”
“Uh huh.” Tony wriggles his ass a little, and Rhodey obliges him by sliding a finger inside him, just to tide him over. He sighs and buries his face in his arms.
“Were you exaggerating, or did you honestly think that? In 1985, no less.”
“Scout’s honor,” Tony says, clenching around Rhodey’s finger.
“You weren’t a scout, you total liar.” Rhodey’s free hand comes down to smack Tony lightly on the swell of his ass. Tony groans and pushes back into the penetration, even if the twitch of his dick is feeble and he probably can’t come again tonight.
Tony pulls off a complicated maneuver that lets him get up to straddle Rhodey’s hips without ever dislodging what is now two fingers up his ass. He leans down, hands planted flat on the mattress on either side of Rhodey’s head, and he gets in close enough that their noses touch and his lips catch on Rhodey’s when he speaks.
“You, James Rhodes, my puff cake, my sniff biscuit, are the only thing I was never wrong about in my entire life. You bet your ass that dumb kid thought he could get you to take a trip down the aisle with him. And look at me, I was right. Again.”
Rhodey curls his fingers gently against the walls of Tony’s ass, and his other hand slides down Tony’s back as if memorizing the feel of his skin. Tony gasps and sits up to throw his head back, eyes falling shut.
“I’m glad you’re a stubborn fool, then,” Rhodey says.
“Yeah, yeah, you love me.”
“God help me,” Rhodey says, but he pushes himself up to catch Tony’s lips in a kiss. Tony wraps his arms around Rhodey’s neck, and it’s better than it ever could have been when they were just a couple kids too young to know what they had. Maybe in some other universe, Tony Stark kissed James Rhodes in 8C the night they met, but right here, right now, Tony’s happy to have Rhodey look up at him like Tony’s his own personal miracle. It’s been worth the wait.