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L’esprit de L’escalier

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Tony wakes up feeling like shit. His back hurts because sleeping on chairs is not as comfortable as it was when he was twenty, and his lips are still gummy with sleep. He blinks once, twice to reorient himself. It's probably not that he had a rager the night before, but he's woken up in stranger circumstances.

White walls, white floors, best friend sleeping in an ugly gown. Right. He's in a hospital. Normally, Tony's a big fan of machines that go 'beep', but hospitals are the fucking worst.

He stands up, stretching out the crick in his back, rolling his head so his neck won't cramp up for the rest of the day.

Rhodey's still asleep. His eyes are closed, his face slack. His skin is paler than usual, too pale for Tony's taste (is that racist? Tony doesn't think that's racist).

He imagines Rhodey when he wakes up, imagines telling Rhodey the ending of the whole fucked up story. About the Raft, about Siberia, about learning the truth about his parents' death, about the roles that Cap and the Winter Soldier played in it.

Rhodey had been there, sort of, when it had happened. He'd found Tony at the wake -- in the bathroom of the wake -- and he'd picked Tony up off the shitty, dirty tile floor, and he'd sat next to Tony on Tony's bed that night while Tony ran his mouth because he couldn't sleep. Rhodey would understand why Tony had lost his cool. He wouldn't be happy about it, but he'd understand.

Tony's phone buzzes in his pocket. He pulls it out to check it. A new message from Pepper, asking about Rhodey's condition. It doesn't ask about Tony himself, and that's probably for the best. His chest throbs around the scar tissue where the arc reactor used to be. The loss of her is still fresh, still painful.

Rhodey's machines continue to go 'beep' so he's probably okay (going to be okay, healing up nicely, the doctors said). He's been asleep since Tony first showed up at Columbia Medical. Tony's been sitting here watching the rise and fall of Rhodey's chest and sketching out prostheses on the back of an envelope. He picks up the envelope from where it's fallen on the floor and reads it over, so he can pick up where he left off.

It has to be flexible, something that Rhodey can move in and feel natural--

A cough.

Tony's head snaps up as Rhodey's eyes blink open. Rhodey's eyelashes flutter for a moment, before Tony's staring at his (awake, alive) eyes. "Hey, sugarplum," Tony says, leaning over the side rail of Rhodey's bed. "Welcome back to the good ol' US of A."

"Hey, Tony," Rhodey croaks out. He tries to smile, but it looks a lot more like a grimace. Maybe it's the drugs or maybe it's the pain. Could be both. His head looks small and dark against the giant white pillow.

"Few days from now, we'll be able to ship you back upstate to the compound," Tony says. "We'll have you up and at 'em again in no time." He reaches out, hesitates, then decides fuck it, and grabs hold of Rhodey's hand. Rhodey's hand is dry -- he hasn't been moisturizing -- but his fingers are warm. The callouses are familiar.

"Yeah," Rhodey says. "You know you suck at lying, right? I talked to the doctors after the MRI. I know I'm not going to be walking again." He closes his eyes again and takes a deep breath. His hand is slack in Tony's, limp and tired. He's probably imagining his future, confined to a desk, a wheelchair, retired from his job as War Machine and tossed back into the wider world. For all that Rhodey's brilliant with people in his own way, he still doesn't quite let himself believe that Tony would -- that Tony is willing to go to the ends of the Earth for him, too.

Tony waves him off. Self-pitying isn't a good look on Rhodey, and he won't stand for it. "Maybe that would be true if your best friend wasn't a genius."

"Yeah?" Rhodey asks, voice as dry as ever. "Who is he? I'd like to meet him."

"Ha-fucking-ha," Tony says. The insult is feeble. Rhodey's heart isn't in it. But he's feeling well enough to be taking pot-shots at Tony, and that's something. "It'll be awesome. It'll make Stark Industries a gazillion dollars. You'll have your legs back." Tony squeezes Rhodey's hand. He hopes Rhodey can hear what he's not saying.

Rhodey turns his head away. "Sure," he says. His voice sounds empty and disbelieving.

Tony grits his teeth.

---

He returns to the Avengers Compound later that evening, and it's silent. There's still a hole where Wanda put Vision somewhere deep into the Earth's crust. Most of the rooms are empty. Tony could wander in, peek through all of the things of his ex-teammates, but the thought tastes ashy and bitter. The pain from their betrayal is still sharp.

Vision appears at his side, floating through a nearby wall. "Welcome back, Mr. Stark," he says. He almost sounds like JARVIS when he does that, a memory from a better, simpler time.

"Tell Natasha that I'll be in the workroom if she asks," Tony says. Rhodey's new legs won't make themselves.

Tony's always at his happiest when he has work to do. Work is easy and people are difficult. But he stares at the undecorated concrete walls of his workroom, the scattered remains of the suit he was working on before he left, and he decides that he has something else to do.

Tony's not one to claim he has no regrets -- they stack up, like his old cassette collection -- and he's got his own ways of dealing with it. He doesn't talk to therapists because he knows they'd give him the riot act. Tony's brilliant. He can figure this shit out himself.

He grabs BARF off a nearby bench, switching the visual interface off from projection mode (not like he has an audience this time). It's not cheaper than therapy, but it's easier-- maybe.

He summons up the first memory that comes to his mind.

---

An early morning in Cambridge, just after finals and just before summer break. Senior year for Rhodey and the second year of Tony's doctorate program. They've been living off-campus together for a year at this point. A year full of annoyed but ultimately forgiving Rhodey when it comes to girls, illegal substances, music blasting after midnight, and dirty dishes in the kitchen sink.

Rhodey is sprawled out on the living room couch with an arm thrown across his face, blocking out the morning sun as it pours in. The window cracked open just enough to let in a breeze coming in from the Charles. Rhodey's wearing a white shirt that a discolored pinkish-reddish splotch right in the center of it where he spilled pizza sauce on it a week ago. Rhodey's lips look soft, parted as he snores lightly.

Then-Tony is inhaling a mug-full of disgusting coffee, and now-Tony can taste it like he's there, black and bitter as it slides over his tongue, down his throat. Then-Tony is a mess of hormones and confused feelings, still jittery with the idea that there's someone out there-- an actual person -- who will voluntarily spend time with him. Now-Tony pities him a little bit for his own naivete.

"Hey," then-Tony says.

It takes Rhodey a minute to roll over and pull himself awake. He hasn't had to do the whole military discipline thing yet, so he doesn't snap to attention immediately. A smile spreads across his face, a bright flash of white teeth that makes his eyes shine. "Morning," Rhodey says, his voice still fuzzy with sleep.

Back then, Tony only had the guts to hand Rhodey another mug full of gross coffee and grin back, too chickenshit to go after what he wanted. But the point of BARF is that it doesn't have to end the same way this time that it did for Tony then.

Now-Tony nudges then-Tony to step forward, to put the mug of coffee on top of a nearby bookcase that's already ringed with brown coffee stains, to cup Rhodey's cheek and draw him into a kiss.

In the fake memory, Rhodey melts into it, closing his eyes and opening his mouth. Then-Tony moans a little, sliding into Rhodey's lap.

Because it didn't happen this way, Tony doesn't have a visceral memory of it, of the way Rhodey's lips taste or the way Rhodey's neck smells. He can't fix this any more than he can save his parents or tell them he loves them before they go.

Now-Tony closes his eyes and ends the simulation.

When he opens them again, he's standing alone in his lab, surrounded by concrete walls and metal parts, and he still has to build Rhodey some legs.

---

It turns out that Pepper isn't the first one to interrupt Tony's work; it's Natasha. Well, maybe it's not as much of a surprise as it could be, because Pepper doesn't like spending time in the same room as Tony all that much anymore. She'll be at board meetings, and she'll do public events, but any sort of privacy between the two of them becomes stilted and uncomfortable.

Natasha flits in and out of the compound, disappearing for days at a time without saying anything, and then appearing in the kitchen eating lunch like nothing happened at all. She rarely seeks Tony out, so it's a surprise when Tony catches a glimpse of her red hair just outside the door.

She slips into Tony's workroom without a sound and stands next to Tony, surveying Tony's work.

"He'll like it," she says, sticking her nose where it definitely doesn't belong -- inside the outer skeleton of Tony's new legs. "He might be stubborn about it, but I think he'll like it."

"He's not going to have a choice," Tony says. He folds his arms across his chest and tries not to stick out his chin. Pepper used to tell him that expression was unbecoming for an adult. Tony suppresses the instinct out of habit, now.

He glances up in time to see the faintest glimmer of a smile pass over Natasha's face. She straightens. She says, "Maybe you should give him one. He'd probably like that, too."

Tony thinks about it for a moment, the idea that Rhodey would just want to-- retire or something. Maybe go find himself a nice boathouse next to a lake in the middle of some forest somewhere. Rhodey would probably last three days of solitude before he would be crawling up the walls. Tony's really doing this for his own good. "Sure," he says to Natasha. "Whatever." He lifts the skeleton off the table. It feels heavy in his hands, the weight of it finally sinking in.

"I went to see him the other day," Natasha continues. She wanders around the workroom, looking at some of Tony's other half-finished projects with an air of nonchalance that is definitely some kind of spy trick that she's using on him.

"Yeah?" Tony asks. He pulls out a screwdriver, so he can loosen some of the bolts in the skeleton.

"He doesn't blame you, you know," she says. "Not for any of it." She pauses to give Tony a level look, raising one eyebrow.

Tony says, "Is there a point to this conversation or are you going to keep making vague comments?" He always gets irritable when people interrupt his work time, but Natasha's cool regard is especially grating.

"I'm just saying that you don't have anything to atone for. Not in this particular situation, anyway."

"Well," Tony says, and he doesn't bother to hide the sneer in his voice, "thanks for your expert advice, but I have work to do."

"You should just talk to him," Natasha says. Tony really doesn't like her smirk, but whatever.

---

Another memory. BARF brings it up in vivid detail.

It's fuzzy around the edges, washed through with noise. A bar, somewhere in LA, full plastic tables and brightly colored lights. Then-Tony is drunk, probably a little bit high on something. Now-Tony can still feel the phantom buzz of it in his system. Then-Tony is planted face-first into the plasticy cushion of one of the booths. An array of pint glasses is spread out on the table in front of him.

Now-Tony leans over to take a look at his younger self, face smooth, eyes half-closed, mouth open as he drools a little onto the booth.

"Jesus." That's Rhodey, grim and annoyed. He pulls then-Tony upright. Rhodey's face is blurry, but his hands are strong. Rhodey's face comes into focus a moment later. His lips are pulled into a grim, angry line.

"Heya, Rhodey," then-Tony slurs out. "You missed most of the party."

"Not here for the party, Tony," Rhodey says, in that disappointed tone of voice that Tony's become very familiar with over the years.

Then-Tony lists forwards on his feet, landing with his forehead against Rhodey's shoulder. "You should be. It's a really great party."

Rhodey sighs. "You're a goddamn mess. You know that right?"

Then-Tony looks up, meeting Rhodey's eyes, and with the benefit of hindsight, now-Tony can see the concern and annoyance and frustration in Rhodey's expression. "I know, okay?" then-Tony says. "And I'm glad you're here to clean me up, because I don't know that I could have done it without you. I'm glad-- I don't know what I did to deserve it, but I'm glad that for whatever stupid-ass reason, you decided to stick with me for the last thirty years."

Of course it didn't happen that way. Tony threw up on Rhodey's jeans and shoes, and Rhodey fireman's carried Tony all the way back to his car, then drove him home, then dragged Tony's ass into Tony's bedroom, and then dumped him unceremoniously onto the bed. In the morning, Tony had started working on his next project, and Rhodey had rolled his eyes, and they never talked about it again.

---

Tony shows up early to pick Rhodey up from the hospital.

He knows, because FRIDAY is good about keeping track of these things, that Rhodey has one last PT session before he's ready to be discharged. After cajoling a few of the nurses into giving him directions, he finds the sports therapy department.

The door has a little window in it. Tony peeks through it, just to make sure he's in the right place, and not because he enjoys spying on people when they don't know he's there. It's a simple room, full of exercise equipment and covered in mirrored walls.

Rhodey is sweating hard. They've put him in a wheelchair, and he's navigating himself between two lines marked off on the floor in neon green tape. Tony's not-- okay, that's a lie. Tony's a total pervert, which means he spends some time admiring the way Rhodey's thin t-shirt clings to his chest and biceps and imagining what it would be like to lick some of that sweat off of Rhodey's neck.

"Good!" a bubbly Asian woman says. She applauds as Rhodey makes two round trips, turning without stuttering or hesitation. "Now you just have to do that another ten times!"

That's as good a cue as any Tony's heard. "Hello," Tony says, throwing the door open. He flashes her his biggest 'I am being nice to you because I am expected to' smile. "I'm here to pick up my friend?"

Rhodey rolls his eyes and wheels himself over to the doorway. He almost runs over one of Tony's feet with his left tire, but he doesn't seem particularly bothered by that. "You always have to make an entrance, don't you?" he hisses under his breath.

"She's cute," Tony whispers. "Have you gotten her number yet?"

"She's engaged. She's getting married next month." Rhodey says.

"Well..." Tony starts.

Rhodey raises an annoyed eyebrow at him. "Don't even." It's a little disconcerting, what with Rhodey no longer being the same height as him. Tony can't quite look him in the eye the way he's used to.

"What?" Tony asks. Usually Rhodey will at least let him finish his sentence before shutting down his ideas. Well, okay, maybe not all that often. But come on. It's been about one minute since Tony stepped into the room. Rhodey should at least have given him some leeway because Tony's here to bust him out.

"I'm not going to pretend like I didn't know what you were going to say," Rhodey keeps his voice low, and Tony bends down to hear him better. Rhodey smells like a locker room, like an air force base filled with unwashed recruits.

"Aw," Rhodey's physical therapist says. "You two are so cute together." She's beaming from ear to ear like a creepy pod person or a Midwesterner.

"Thanks," Tony says. "It's been a long thirty years, but it's been worth every second, hasn't it, honeybunches?" He rests a hand on Rhodey's shoulder and grins back.

Rhodey sighs, but the corner of his lips twitch, like he's holding back a smile.

---

Not all of the memories Tony chooses to relive are ones he wants to change.

It's a rainy afternoon in Hawaii. Rhodey's on leave from Hickam. The weather's not good enough for surfing, so they're spending the whole day inside. The house that Tony is renting doesn't have a workshop (really a grievous mistake on Tony's part), so the only other option is finding (or making) a party.

Rhodey's dragging his heels a bit, saying that he was hoping for a nice quiet weekend. Tony's had enough quiet already. He's been spending time putting the final touches on his JARVIS AI, weeks and weeks slaving over the programming until it would stop trying to make tea instead of coffee when Tony asked for it and send bizarre 418 error codes whenever Tony tried to change things..

They're sitting on the couch in one of the living rooms, one of the ones that was designed by someone who enjoyed the 80's too much, lots of tacky neon and lava lamps and disastrous carpeting. They're staring at the giant (for the time) TV -- there's some kind of football game on -- and they each have their own bottles of beer. Tony's never quite understood dude-bonding. He's always been too young for the people around him. But this seems like what it must be like. Or, at least, that's what TV tells him.

"I get that you're, like, made of money," Rhodey says, "but seriously, I'm glad you came out here to see me." Rhodey gets softer when he's buzzed, and he looks that way now, grinning a little, eyes wide and earnest. He's wearing a boring white polo shirt and khakis, and he hasn't yet made the awful realization that he's slowly turning into his father.

"Yeah, going on vacation in Hawaii is the worst. Why couldn't you have been stationed in Montana or something like that?" Tony says. He's not even the slightest bit tipsy yet, but he's still feeling looser than usual, relaxed and unwound. Maybe that's vacation or maybe that's Rhodey himself.

"You know," Rhodey says, "you don't have to say anything. I can read between the lines just fine." He laughs, and his eyes sparkle a little, the way he looks when Tony drags him into his lab to see his latest invention. "You're not as opaque as you think you are."

"I'm an open book," Tony says. He shifts his arm, and it brushes against Rhodey's, arm hair against arm hair.

On the television, the team wearing white scores a touchdown. Rhodey looks away first, but the warm feeling in Tony's chest doesn't fade.

---

Tony gives Rhodey three days of stewing around the (fully wheelchair accessible, thank-you-very-much, give or take the giant hole in the middle of some of the rooms) Avengers compound before dragging him (semi-literally) into his workroom.

Tony has been working on the new legs non-stop. He's been subsisting on black coffee and beef jerky and whatever Vision has been making in the kitchen. It's not exactly Michelin Star quality, but it's not like Tony's really tasting it anyway.

The legs are not quite done, yet, but he can still have Rhodey try them on, make sure they fit okay.

"So," he says. "I've got most of the structural stuff figured out. Light poly-carbon material. Plenty of joints. The big thing we're going to need to work on is how to get it to move along with you. You'd be amazed at how--" He pulls the latest prototype off the table and props it up at the foot of Rhodey's wheelchair. He totally bribed a nurse to get Rhodey's measurements, so it should fit. "-- how much work we do to stay balanced while standing and walking."

Rhodey eyes the contraption warily. "Have you tested this on anyone or anything yet?"

"Nope," Tony says. "You're my first guinea pig. Wellllll, maybe except for Evan."

Rhodey shoots him a poisonous look. "I still haven't forgiven you for that, you know."

"He came out of the experience perfectly fine!" Tony insists. Rhodey may be considered the 'nice one' out of the two of them, but he carries a mean grudge and has the memory of an elephant.

"You gave my baby sister's guinea pig PTSD! He whimpered any time someone tried to pick him up afterwards!"

"I'm not sure guinea pigs get PTSD, and there's no way you can tell me that it was my fault. Besides, the point is that we need to get you strapped into this thing to get a sense of how it moves."

Rhodey's face scrunches up when he's annoyed. His brow furrows. His lips purse. His eyes narrow. Tony's spent far, far too much time around that face over the years. "Fine," Rhodey's says.

Rhodey insists on handling his left leg, so Tony handles the right. It does fit perfectly, because Tony's a goddamn perfectionist on top of being a genius. Rhodey's legs have lost some of their muscle mass. Not super dramatically, but enough to be noticeable. Tony resists the urge to feel him up a bit. See? He can be professional when he needs to be.

Soon enough, everything's ready to be tested.

"You ready?" Tony asks.

"I guess you could say that," Rhodey says. He doesn't look ready or sound ready, but he's willing to try, and that's enough for Tony.

Tony slides an arm around Rhodey's back, and Rhodey throws his arm around Tony's shoulders. Rhodey's heavier than Tony expected, even with the weight loss, but they manage to get Rhodey mostly upright.

"I'm going to let go," Tony says. He wants to test the stability of the legs without any power. He can't have Rhodey toppling over just because of a bad battery. "Any second now."

"Yeah, yeah, yeah," Rhodey says, wheezing. "Promises, promises." He leans onto a table on the other side of him for support.

Tony pulls away, slowly so he can watch Rhodey's reaction. Rhodey's still tilted sideways, one hand still pressed against the table next to him. He's upright, though. The new legs should be stable enough.

Rhodey takes a deep breath. Tony watches as his chest and shoulders rise and fall. Then Rhodey pushes himself up to standing. He wobbles for a moment, arms outstretched like he's on a balance beam or tightrope, but he straightens, slowly, until he's standing on his own two feet. Just on his two feet. And Tony's new legs, of course.

"I'm standing," Rhodey says. His voice is hushed, full of awe. He turns his head to look at Tony with big round eyes, mouth half open.

"You're standing, tiddlywinks," Tony says, swallowing around the lump in his throat. "You'll be walking again in no time at all."

---

This memory feels like a bucket of ice water dumped over his head.

They're on the first Air Force flight from Afghanistan. Rhodey's in his finest dress blues, scrubbed clean after a shower, and sitting across from Tony so that they're face-to-face. The plane shudders a little, rocking back and forth. The roar of the engines echoes in the small space. It's dimmer than most commercial flights, casting long shadows.

Then-Tony is covered in bruises, full of aches and pains that the ibuprofen can't fully mute. His right arm hangs heavy and awkward in its sling. He's dressed in a nice suit, but it feels -- weird. Too soft, too constricting.

"We've been looking for you for months," Rhodey says, shouting over the noise, "ever since we couldn't find your body in the wreckage of the convoy."

Then-Tony just nods. He's exhausted still, and his mind is buzzing with the memory of a cave, of Yinsen's blank, unmoving face, of stacks and stacks of Stark Industries weapons. His chest throbs in muted pain around the arc reactor that he's implanted there.

"Everyone's been frantic," Rhodey continues. "There's going to be some fallout when you get home--"

"It's fine," then-Tony says. He closes his eyes.

Rhodey moves over to sit next to him, dropping his voice just low, but still yelling a little bit to be heard. "How many times have you gotten us both into deep shit?"

Then-Tony sighs. "A lot," he says.

"And how many times have I pulled us out of the deep shit you've gotten us into?" Rhodey's voice has that undertone, that I-am-a-goddamn-Air-Force-officer tone, that probably makes the cadets wet their pants when he walks by.

Too bad Tony's immune that voice. "Well, there was that one time in Barbados--"

"Still doesn't count, Tony."

"A lot," then-Tony says, opening his eyes to meet Rhodey's. He wants-- he wants to badly to have something to hang onto. Something to keep him sane. But he doesn't know what that is -- probably wouldn't even know it if it hit him in the face.

"So can you at least trust me to do what needs to get done for you now?" There's a softer timbre to Rhodey's voice now, thick with emotion that they don't ever talk about.

"Fine," then-Tony says, because he doesn't want to say anything else.

At the time, they'd spent the entire rest of the trip in manful silence, though Rhodey had grabbed his hand as they exited the plane.

But this time around, Tony closes his eyes, leaning over to press his forehead against Rhodey's shoulder. This time, Tony lets himself cry.

---

"Mr. Stank," Rhodey says. They're eating breakfast in the kitchen. Rhodey's sitting in one of the high stools that face the counter, still in his new legs, one foot kicking out. He's wearing the biggest grin that Tony's seen on him in forever.

"Jeez, what are you, five years old?" Tony grumbles. "I would have thought that would stop being funny days ago."

"Some things never stop being funny, no matter how old you are," Rhodey continues, his expression mock-serious. "A wise man once said that."

Tony rolls his eyes. "I was twenty-two at the time, give me a break!" He vaguely remembers that it happened during a fight about potatoes or something like that, and Rhodey's refused to let him forget it ever since.

Rhodey raises his eyebrows at him. "Some wisdom lasts forever," he says. "Also, we're almost out of Cheerios." He shakes the mostly-empty box in Tony's direction.

Tony looks down at his bagel, half slathered with cream cheese, and says, deliberately casual. "Saw that you left your chair in your room. Did you walk down here by yourself?"

"Yeah," Rhodey says. "I almost don't believe it myself. " There's a brightness in his eyes that makes Tony's heart flip over in his chest.

Loving Rhodey's not like loving Pepper. Pepper lights up every room, fills up every empty space. She's everything Tony's wanted and doesn't ever deserve.

Rhodey-- Rhodey's his rock. Rhodey keeps Tony tethered to the ground. Every time Tony spins out of control, Rhodey's there to drag him back down to earth.

Tony opens his mouth, but he can't find the right words. His version of therapy sucks. "Well, you should," he says eventually. "I'm your genius best friend, after all."

---

A memory of a cool fall day. The leaves have changed color, yellows and oranges and browns.

Now-Tony watches as his younger self runs down Mass. Ave. towards the MIT student center. His backpack is bouncing as he runs, and he's got a stack of books in his arms -- the ones that didn't fit. He's grinning, excited and happy about having challenging classes. Now-Tony mostly just wants a drink. Jesus, kids are the worst.

He almost doesn't need to replay the scene as it is. He knows what happens next.

He looks towards where Rhodey is heading in the opposite direction. He's got his nose stuck in a campus map, all of seventeen years old himself and looking every bit of it. His own plain black backpack is slung casually over one shoulder.

"Oh hey," then-Tony says, because he was such a fucking earnest brownnoser back then. "Are you looking for something?"

Rhodey looks up. "Yeah, Building 33. It's got to be around here somewhere, right?"

"Oh yeah," then-Tony says. He points across the street. "It's that one over there."

"Alright. Thanks, man," Rhodey says. He turns to walk in the direction that Tony's pointing and gives Tony an absent wave.

"You know, it's usually customary to give someone your name when they help you out," then-Tony says, because he was an earnest brownnoser back then, but he was also had a pretty good instinct for people -- or maybe he already had a crush on Rhodey already. It would figure, wouldn't it? "For example: 'hi, my name is Tony Stark. It's nice to meet you.'"

"No shit," Rhodey says. "My name's Jim Rhodes. I think I'm in Orgo with you."

Then-Tony shrugs. "Big class. I guess I stand out."

Rhodey snorts. "And I don't?"

"Point taken," then-Tony says.

"You know, you're a lot less annoying than people say you are," Rhodey says. He shifts his backpack from one shoulder to the other.

"Hey!" then-Tony says, indignant. Now-Tony tweaks the scene, just a little. "Maybe you won't be saying that in thirty years when I make you some new fucking legs after you get your dumbshit self shot out of the sky."

Rhodey rolls his eyes, laughing like he hasn't heard then-Tony, and he probably hasn't. This is how it happened the first time around. "Come on, man. I'm just playing with you. You need any help with those books?"

Now-Tony finds himself smiling despite himself. He takes off the glasses, tossing them onto a nearby table. He doesn't want to change it. He doesn't want to change any of it.

---

"What the hell are you doing here?" Tony asks. He wanted to spend some quality time in his workroom building a newer version of War Machine suit and listening to the Who, but Rhodey's already there. He's sitting on a stool with his (fake) right leg laid out on the workbench.

"It was squeaking when I went out for a jog this morning," Rhodey says without looking up. "It was starting to piss me off."

"You know, you could have just asked me to fix it." Tony's almost a little insulted that Rhodey didn't come to him first.

"No, I couldn't," Rhodey says. "Some things, I just have to do myself." He pulls a wrench out of a haphazard pile of tools that Tony left behind on his workbench yesterday and gets to work tightening some of the bolts.

Tony looks down from that and stares at his feet. Oh, hey, there's an interesting screwdriver on the floor. He was wondering where it had gone. "You know, you can ask for help sometimes."

"Wow," Rhodey says. "I think that's the most clueless thing that I have ever heard you say, and I've known you for a really long time." He spins around in his stool to face Tony. "Do you even listen to yourself talk?"

"No?" Tony says because he thinks it's what Rhodey wants him to say. What is that even supposed to mean?

"Look, I get that you blame yourself, and I get that you want to fix things, but sometimes shit just happens, okay?" Sometimes it's easier to let Rhodey rant it all out, especially when he's been bottling it up like this, but Tony isn't sure he wants to hear what Rhodey has to say.

"I--" Tony starts.

Rhodey just steamrolls through Tony's objections. "You don't have to keep hovering like a sad mama bear just because I got banged up in the line of duty." He waves the wrench in his hand in Tony's face.

"Rhodey--"

"No, shut up. I'm not done. I'm a goddamn grown man, and I'm fully fucking capable of fixing my own goddamn prosthetic leg without your help. You don't need to do your emotional constipation thing in order to prove anything, you got that?" He throws the wrench onto the metal workroom table with a punctuating clang.

"It's not-- it's not about that." Really, Tony knows Rhodey is perfectly capable of tinkering with his leg just fine, but it's just that Rhodey shouldn't have to do it if Tony's around to do it for him.

"Trust me, Tones, you're really not in any way subtle. And I get it, okay? I get that you care about me as much as you're capable of caring about anyone. But maybe, you know, lay off the helicoptering?" Rhodey's mouth is twisted into an annoyed grimace that reminds Tony of the first time he looked at Rhodey and knew he wanted him. In his life. Forever. If at all possible.

"I'm kind of in love with you." It comes out of Tony's mouth in a kind of verbal diarrhea. This is what he's been trying to say with BARF. He's always had the words. They've been on the tip of his tongue the whole time.

Rhodey's mouth drops open. "Wait, what?"

"Just a little bit, or maybe, like, a lot?" Tony shrugs and shoves his hands into the pockets of his jeans.

Rhodey covers his face with a hand. "You know, just when I think I've figured you out..." He sighs. "How long?"

"Since that time you broke me out of the chem lab after hours without calling up the police. Or my parents. Or Jarvis. The real one."

"Jesus," Rhodey says. "You were what? Sixteen? And I was eighteen? What about Pepper?"

Tony shrugs again and kicks the stupid screwdriver. It skitters away from him and rolls underneath a nearby table. "It's complicated, and I did -- do -- love her, but you know, you and me. I just wanted you to know because of the whole 'almost dying' thing and how it can happen at any moment these days."

"Fuck," Rhodey says. He was already sitting down, but now he sits down heavier in his seat, his shoulders slumping, back slouching in a distinctly un-military posture.

"Look, you can have your heterosexual freakout here, and I'll go back upstairs and, I don't know, play parcheesi with Vision or something." Tony spins on the ball of his foot and makes a strategic retreat before Rhodey can say anything else. Good thing one of Rhodey's legs is still on the workbench. He can't exactly chase afterwards.

---

Tony's spends most of the rest of the day sulking in his office and deleting useless e-mails. He's pretty sure Rhodey will get over it. He's always been pretty chill about brushing off the advances of other guys who have hit on him before. And he's forgiven Tony for much worse.

They'll just-- do what they do every other time Tony has a major fuckup, which is get annoyed at each other, hug it out at the end of it, and then go out for nachos together with the promise that they won't talk about it again until the next time Rhodey feels like lording it over him.

The problem with reading e-mails is that it's super, super boring. Tony's so bored his eyes start drifting shut. No one will mind if he takes a little nap, will they? He's still recovering from all this bullshit, and no one will bother him.

Of course, that's when Rhodey decides to kick the door to Tony's office in.

The wooden door flies off its hinges, collapsing inwards and landing with an echoing thump in front of Tony's desk. "Hey!" Tony says. "I liked that door!"

"You can definitely afford to replace it," Rhodey says. He shrugs. "You weren't answering when I knocked, and I decided to see how powerful these legs are." He holds up the right one in the air. His balance with them has improved dramatically over the last week. "Not bad."

"Come on, man. I wanted to have some quality shut-eye in here." Tony wonders if he vomits all over the floor, if Rhodey might let him out of this conversation.

Rhodey crosses his arms across his chest. "Now, is that any way to talk to the love of your life?"

"I definitely did not say that," Tony says. He buries his face in his hands. He's not really someone who does shame very often, but when he does, it's a bitch.

"You know," Rhodey says, "sometimes after you drop a bombshell, you really should stick around to see what happens in the aftermath. I know it's not really your style, but it really might behoove you to give it a shot from time to time."

Tony looks up. Rhodey is somehow a few feet closer. "'Behoove'? We're really at the point where we're using 'behoove' non-ironically now?"

"Stop changing the subject," Rhodey says.

"You're the one who just decided to drop a 'behoove' into the conversation like it was nothing."

"Tony--"

Tony waves off the objection. "Fine, fine, fine. Get whatever it is off your chest, and then I can go take a nap."

"I love you, too. You know that, right, asshole? This whole thing where you nobly suffer in silence with your feelings is getting super fucking old."

Tony swallows. Is this what he wanted? Rhodey's pity? Some meaningless words about the power of friendship? Maybe it's more than he really deserves. "Yeah, but that doesn't change anything, does it? You're still--"

"--still what? Still here to get your stupid head on straight? Yeah, you could say that I'm still doing that." Rhodey walks forward. (His leg isn't squeaking, so that probably means he managed to fix it up.) He wraps a hand around Tony's neck, leans in until their foreheads touch. He smells like Tony's workroom, dust and steel and grease. "You listening to me? I have not spent most of my goddamn life pulling your ass out of the line of fire just because of your net worth, okay? I did it because you're important to me, even if you are a disastrous motherfucker half the time." His hand slides around Tony's neck until he's cupping Tony's cheek.

Tony leans forward, letting his lips brush against Rhodey's, the way he should have on a Sunday morning in an apartment in Cambridge. Rhodey pulls him tighter, arms wrapping around Tony's shoulders.

Tony lets himself sink into the kiss, sliding his hands down Rhodey's back as he opens his mouth against Rhodey's, tongue flicking out to taste Rhodey's lips. They're softer than Tony expected, not tasting anything like lipstick. Tony can almost feel the steady thud-thud-thud of Rhodey's heart in his chest, and Tony's so happy for that, so grateful, especially after pulling off the faceplate of Rhodey's suit, demanding that FRIDAY read Rhodey's vital signs, willing him to still be alive.

While Tony's mind is still whirring away, Rhodey bites down -- hard -- on Tony's bottom lip. Hard enough to hurt (and not in the good, sexy way), but not hard enough to draw blood.

"Ow!" Tony yelps, yanking back. He tries to give Rhodey his best hurt-puppy look, but just like Tony's immune to most of Rhodey's tricks, Rhodey is immune to most of Tony's tricks, too.

"That's for making me wait thirty years, you self-absorbed prick," Rhodey says, wearing a smug grin that definitely does not look good on him. "Good thing I'm here to kiss it better."

---

There's an empty field further out from the compound. It makes for a good launch zone when Tony's playing around with new suits and he's afraid of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service serving the Avengers anymore new complaints.

Today, it's quiet out there except for the chirping of the birds. Rhodey's standing next to him in the newest iteration of the War Machine suit. His faceplate is pulled back. His eyes are clear and steady. Tony's grateful for that.

"You ready for this?" Tony asks. He remembers the flashbacks he got after the Battle for New York, the way every weird little thing would set it off. He doesn't want that for Rhodey. Rhodey deserves better things than Tony could ever give him, but he sticks around anyway.

"I've never been more ready," Rhodey says. He looks up, squinting a little bit in the sunlight.

Tony says, "Ready like that time I asked you if were ready to catch that bottle of hydrochloric acid?" He's not sure he's entirely ready himself. James Buchanan Barnes still killed his parents. Pepper is still refusing to speak to him. Cap is still a fugitive roaming free out there. Tony's still kind of a massive fuckup. But this moment is something that's right here right now. It doesn't really matter if he's ready.

"Do not even go there, Stark," Rhodey says. He glances over at Tony, grinning as his faceplate slides down. The eyes light up behind the mask. Rhodey continues, "I'll race you around the Catskills." He runs and takes off before Tony can even respond.

"Cheater!" Tony yells over the comms. He chases after Rhodey, launching himself up, up, and away, into the cloudless blue expanse of the sky.

The sound of Rhodey's bright, brilliant answering laugh is music to his ears.

 

FIN.