If Jim was honest with himself, the conversation was almost expected. One could hardly toss on a red, white, and blue suit of armor and not expect a meeting with Captain America at some point. If he was honest, he was actually surprised that it took so long for the meeting to take place. The last time he'd seen Captain America was after the battle of New York, when Jim had joined the Avengers for Schwarma.
But a month after the fiasco with Aldrich and the Trevor-who-wasn't-actually-the-Mandarin, Jim received an invitation to meet Captain America for lunch.
"Tell Captain Stick Up His Ass that we can't make it," Tony said when Jim mentioned it. "I have a house to rebuild, and you have some downtime that you have genuinely earned after saving the President's life. By the way, where was Captain America during that rescue? Besides being a useless fossil?"
"You weren't actually invited," Jim answered, and he bit into his burger to keep from showing his smile at Tony's scowl.
"What? Hey, which one of us is his teammate?"
"The one of us that just called him a useless fossil?"
Tony rolled his eyes. "You're not going to go, are you?"
"I don't know. I kind of think that Iron Patriot has a responsibility to meet Captain America when he calls."
"But War Machine should know better and War Machine Rox, remember? Iron Patriot does not, so you should just ignore what Iron Patriot would do, because he sucks."
Jim just shook his head and finished the rest of his burger. It wasn't as though Tony hadn't always had difficulty in accepting that the two of them had different interests.
"C'mon, Rhodey, you're my military friend. I'm going to design weapons someday. I need to understand the basics of how to shoot a gun. Who better to teach me than my military buddy?"
"I am not teaching a 15 year old how to shoot a gun." No matter how much whining the 15-year-old in question did about it, Rhodey added silently.
"Yes, I'm 15. Thank you for assuring me that someone who got admitted to MIT can count that high. Can you also count as high as 18? Because that's how old you are, last I checked. Like three years makes all that much difference."
"It makes a world of difference, no matter how smart you are, Tony. That's why I'm allowed to vote and you aren't."
"I don't want to vote. I want to learn how to shoot."
"Then you'll have to get someone else to teach you. Isn't your dad some big war time hero or something?"
Tony didn't scowl a lot, so the expression looked out of place on his face. "I don't want to have to sit through one of my dad's wet dreams about Captain America in order to learn how to shoot, Rhodey."
"But really, you're not going, right?" Tony called to ask again the next day, right when Jim was in the middle of trying to decide how formal of a lunch he was having.
"I'm getting ready to leave right now, as a matter of fact."
"Why do you want to hurt me this way, Rhodey?" Tony whined. Rhodey winced as Tony's voice increased in tone. "Pepper! Rhodey is being mean to me... No, I did not do anything to deserve it!"
"See, that's why Pepper is my favorite person living in your house," Rhodey informed him.
"I'm telling you, Rhodey, you will regret this lunch. The man does not know how to unclench."
"Mmhmm." Jim looked at his dress blues thoughtfully and wondered how odd it would be to email Captain America and ask him about the protocol for their impending lunch. No, that might be a little pathetic.
"You sound vaguely unimpressed by my emotional pleas to your senses."
"All those times you told me that I needed to unclench? I haven't forgotten them, Tony."
"And having Captain America defrosted was the universe's punishment for all the times I told you that you needed to unclench. Because the man makes you at your worst seem like a - "
"See, this whole thing about 'you at your worst', that's kind of why I'm not trusting your description of Captain America."
There was a sigh on the other end of the phone. "You need to trust me on this, Rhodey. You will not have a good time. Why would you even want to go?"
"I don't know, Tony. The man's a living legend - "
"Ugh, you sound like Dad."
"- Who happened to part of a very well-known, very publicized desegregated military team - "
"Is this about you fanboying Gabe Jones? So much more acceptable than you fanboying Captain America."
Jim finally decided that dress blues were too formal for a burger. But maybe you didn't just show up completely informal at such a thing, so he went for a suit.
"I can't fanboy them both?" He asked as he slipped on his pants.
"You could, but why would you want to?"
"He can't be that bad, Tony."
"Yes, he can!"
"Well, at least he's cute. So I'll at least have something nice to look at for a change when I eat my burger."
"Oh, god, you really do sound like my dad right now."
The thing about studying with Tony around was that it was impossible. The thing about studying was that it was absolutely necessary for all the plebeians who did not have Tony Stark's IQ.
So Jim sat on the top bunk bed of a dorm that Tony didn't actually need to share with anyone but chose to share with Jim anyway, with an abandoned history book spread out over his abdomen, listening to Tony ramble, and wondering if sending him out for pizza so that Jim could actually get some study time in was the work of a bad friend.
"I'm just saying that the man is a complete crackpot, Rhodey. Dad was right. It really is dangerous for MIT to hire professors from places like Berkeley. Too many drugs in the 60s."
"You're basing this on your professor's theory that Captain America might have been in love with his best friend? That's your 'did too many drugs' theory?"
Tony hopped up from the bottom bunk to peer at Rhodey. "I'm basing it on the fact that crackpot wrote an entire book about it. Also, Dad worked with Rogers and Barnes. Don't you think, if Cap was gay, he would have mentioned it?"
"Maybe he didn't know, Tony. It's not like it was the best time or place to come out."
"Please. My dad followed Rogers around like a horny puppy for years. If anyone that was part of Team America had been gay, Dad would have known about it."
"There are some things that you get used to hiding, and you can do that better than someone who isn't used to having to do it," Jim said carefully.
"But my dad and Captain America were friends," Tony said firmly. "I can see not telling Erskine or Phillips, but why the hell would he keep that a secret from a friend?"
"Why would he tell him?" Jim asked, because it seemed like a much more relevant question.
Tony shot him a funny look, but let it drop.
The restaurant that Captain America chose to meet at was small enough that Jim was pretty sure they couldn't even fit the rest of the Avengers into the dining area. Thor would definitely have been out of the question.
The size of the place instantly made Jim regret wearing a good suit. If that wasn't reason enough, the fact that, apparently, when Captain America went for burgers, he didn't dress up, was.
Well, that was sensible, really, because who in their right mind dressed up in order to order a burger?
But the point was that Captain America was sitting in a booth in jeans and a blue t-shirt that was at least two sizes too small - not that Jim was complaining about that sight, because who in their right mind would complain about that?
At least Jim hadn't worn his dress blues, he figured.
"It appears I'm a bit overdressed, Captain," Jim said as he took his seat opposite of Captain America.
"Please, call me Steve."
In truth, Jim had no idea what to do with a Tony Stark who was being serious and he had even less idea what to do with a Tony Stark who was allowing Jim to see his vulnerabilities.
But this night wasn't about Jim or Jim's feelings. It was about the grieving best friend who had lost both of his parents in the same day and who hadn't had a minute alone to process that fact since.
"What am I going to do, Rhodey? I can't run a company yet. What am I going to do without Mom? What's the fun in besting dad when he's not ... not around to see it?"
The words were muffled into Jim's shoulder, and he wasn't entirely sure if they were said because Tony had consumed too much alcohol or not enough.
"Tonight, you're probably going to continue to get drunk," Jim guessed. "And tomorrow, or whenever you are sober again, I am going to take the very qualified head of Stark Industries to the nearest shooting range and teach him how to handle weapons properly."
Steve, as it turned out, ate with a lot more enthusiasm when he hadn't just survived an attack that nearly destroyed New York. And by "enthusiasm," Jim mostly meant that he'd never actually seen someone eat three cheeseburgers the size of their own head before.
"Serum," Steve explained to a question that Jim didn't think he was quite asking. "It did weird things to my metabolism."
"Right. I think your file mentioned that," Jim remarked.
"You've read S.H.I.E.L.D.'s file on me?"
"I was talking about the Air Force's file, but yes, actually, I have read your S.H.I.E.L.D. file. Part of Fury's attempt at recruitment."
"He mentioned that he tried to get you to join the Avengers, but you declined." Steve grinned in a way that made Jim think of a stolen kiss on a base two thousand miles away, six years before Jim had been able to tell anyone who might have asked. "We scare you away that badly?"
"Tony needs you more than I do," Jim said with a shrug.
He watched Steve consider that between bites of his hamburger. Eventually, Steve said, "He played an important role in saving the world, the last time we were together. Something tells me you're a better team player, though. No reason we couldn't have two guys in suits on the team."
"Is this another recruitment effort?"
Steve's grins were ridiculous. Mostly because Jim had been around military men for the majority of his life, and he knew that the grins rarely came that easy to anyone.
But then, in some ways, Steve Rogers was still a baby when it came to military service, wasn't he? Give him another ten years, and maybe the smiles wouldn't come as easy. Then again, if you could lose everyone you care about and still smile that easily, what would make you harder around the edges?
"Nah," Steve said. "It's just me being - what did Coulson call it? - a fanboy."
Jim wasn't sure they should actually be practicing in Tony's house, but after the last incident with the reporters, it was probably a safer option than going to a public shooting range.
"So Obie thinks I don't need to know how to operate the weapons," Tony mentioned, and Jim tried not to wince at the way that Tony missed the target entirely. Tony noticed, of course, and flashed him a grin. "That bad?"
"Your left hand's too low," Jim commented. "You should lift it, if you ever want to actually hit the target."
"I could be distracting him. Giving him fair warning shots."
"And Obadiah could be right, too, but neither of those things are true."
Steve had the good taste to pick a restaurant that wasn't far from the river. Jim found himself feeling pretty grateful that he'd skipped the formal attire and gone with a suit.
Steve's informal jeans and ridiculously tight fitting blue shirt would have been an even better match, Jim thought. Though there were definitely better places that the shirt and pants could end up.
Which was a thought that Jim was pretty sure would horrify Tony - though he'd been wrong about that in the past.
A year after the death of both of the elder Starks, Jim had the Air Force career he'd always wanted, and Tony had a career he'd never really wanted.
"Obie loves it more than I do, so he can take care of things," Tony said dismissively while he stretched out on the yacht with a glass of champagne in one hand and the bottle in the other. While a yacht was ridiculous, at least it was better than the sky diving trip that Tony had wanted to take initially.
"There's a reason I didn't join the navy, Tony," Jim said, because sometimes being Tony Stark's best friend meant telling him straight up that his lifestyle was ridiculous, and other times, it required a more subtle approach. Jim figured that the first anniversary of his parents' death probably deserved the latter, instead of the former.
"The best thing about the ocean is that it doesn't judge you if you puke in it. Though I don't remember you being sick the last time we were on a boat together."
"Do you remember anything from that trip?" It was a fair question. There'd been multiple bottles of champagne on that trip, and Jim just knew that some day, when his Air Force career was better than it currently was, he was going to be dodging accusations on his character that came from having photos snapped of him alongside a drunk Tony Stark.
"I remember that you didn't take advantage of all those handsome men I filled our boats with," Tony informed him. "After I went to all that trouble, too."
He'd been friends with Tony since freshmen year, but they'd never discussed that. Because Tony may or may not have been homophobic - most signs pointed to no - but the last coming out hadn't exactly been a bed of roses and Jim had no real desire to repeat the process anytime soon.
"Why should I have 'taken advantage' of them?" Jim asked slowly. He didn't have to turn his head to see the exaggerated eye roll that Tony gave him.
"I don't know, Sugar Bear. Maybe because you took not one, but two courses with a professor whose primary contribution to Academia has been publishing a book about how Captain America obviously liked dudes? Maybe because your idea of reasons to have a bar fight include correcting some jackass' facts about Stonewall? Maybe because there was no reason for you to put up with that Eric bastard unless you were fucking him."
This really wasn't how the last coming out discussion had gone. But then, Tony never did anything the way everyone else did. "Technically not fucking," Jim said, in a desperate bid to gain control of the situation again. "At least not by your definition."
"Just blowjobs then? Can't go wrong with blowjobs, really."
It wasn't as though Jim wasn't thinking about dear old Professor Perkins and his books during his lunch meeting with Captain America, because Jim really was. But it wasn't as though Jim could just suddenly blurt out his questions.
He wasn't Tony, after all. Given the time period that Steve was from, somehow Jim thought that Steve would value the concept of discretion a lot more than Tony would - a lot more than Tony did.
So he walked alongside Steve, casually answering questions about Iron Patriot's mission and comparing notes on what it was like to wear a uniform for an organization when you didn't one hundred percent approve of their actions - the Air Force in Jim's case and S.H.I.E.L.D. in Steve's case. Steve wasn't at all the mindless drone of a soldier that Jim knew many people expected, and by many people, Jim mostly meant Tony.
"I'm sorry I wasn't there to help. Not that I'm saying you needed it, but - "
"Oh, no, there were several times that I definitely could have used the help. We could have used the help," Jim clarified. "Fortunately, Pepper was able to save everyone's ass, but you know, up until that point, things were looking pretty grim."
Jim was far too old to be as smitten about the way that Steve bit his lip as he was.
"The right woman saving your ass does always improve the situation," Steve agreed.
"And I'm sure that S.H.I.E.L.D. had their reasons for not letting you interfere."
"Actually, I had my reasons. I was in Russia at the time ... visiting an old friend."
"An old friend, huh? How old are we talking?"
Steve was quiet for a moment, and Jim wasn't entirely sure that Steve was going to give him an answer at all. Jim watched Steve shove his hands into his pockets and look out over the water as he answered.
"About four years younger than me, actually." Steve looked like that hurt, and Jim supposed that was a rational way to respond to the fact that someone who was only four years younger than you suddenly looked a lot older.
"Was it one of the Commandos?" He'd thought they were all dead, and he had no idea what any of them would be doing in Russia, but it was obviously a close friend, or Steve wouldn't have looked that distraught. That was the kind of distraught that Jim had felt when Tony had been missing, only this time it was splashed all over Steve's face.
"Yeah. Actually ... " Steve sighed. "Can you keep a secret, Colonel?"
"You could say that."
"I don't get it," Tony said honestly, and it was rare that he ever sounded that sincere - even when he was - so Jim looked up from the newspaper that he was trying to read to see if Tony had miraculously rediscovered the ability to have a hangover.
It didn't look like it, but Tony was scowling at him.
"What don't you get?"
"I keep having parties."
"Yes, I've noticed."
"On the rare occasions that I am able to actually get you to show up, not only do you not look like you are having an awesome time, but you also refuse to even smile at the pretty boys I make sure are there for you."
It wasn't through lack of wanting. Tony had very good taste in pretty people, who just happened to be ... incredibly willing.
"Your parties aren't very discreet," Jim told him. "Some of us need to be."
"So you're basically dealing with a best friend who has come back from the dead with a complete personality makeover?" Jim asked, following what should have been a pretty unbelievable story.
It would have been one, a few short years ago.
"He's ... still Bucky," Steve insisted stubbornly.
"Just with a stronger case of PTSD than you are used to?" Jim supposed.
Steve gave a short nod. "I've read Stark's file. I suppose you know something about that?"
"I know that I was angry at him and angry at myself for being angry at my best friend, and confused about what to do to help him out," Jim revealed. "That sound about right?"
Steve's shoulders finally relaxed, something that he hadn't been able to do since the conversation about Bucky had begun. "But he's my best friend. I'd do anything for him. I hate the feeling of ... being so impatient with him. "
"You'll get used to the changes," Jim promised. "And in time, you'll even start to see the good man that he used to be."
"That he still is," Steve insisted.
The Iron Man deal explained a lot, actually. Part of Jim felt pretty silly for not being able to see it right away, but in fairness, who would have ever expected an outcome like that?
The day after the press conference Jim and Pepper had lunch and they took turns complaining about the way that Tony had chosen to reveal himself to the world.
"We should be thankful that he's finally taken responsibility, I guess," Jim said over his chicken Parmesan.
"But now he's gone the other way," Pepper replied, her voice full of the kind of frustrated amusement that only the two of them had a right to use. "Now he spends hours in his lab."
Jim thought of the teenager he'd first met - the one who had been so determined to show his father exactly what he could do, and how that teenager had turned into a drunk practically overnight once Howard Stark became a better ghost than he'd been a father.
"Be careful what you wish for, right, Pepper?"
Steve was still brooding over his best friend and his own guilt - not that Jim blamed him - when a woman who had to be at least half of Jim's age came up to them. The red streak in her braids was bright as Captain America's shield, and she wore gold hoops that were bigger than her own hands. She nodded politely at Jim, then turned her attention towards Steve.
"You're Captain America, aren't you?" she said brightly. Steve gave her one of those grins that emphasized just how red those lips of his were, and nodded. She took this as a sign to continue. "I wanted to thank you. I'm sure you get that a lot, but ... well, I'm not quite sure how to say it, now that I'm here."
Steve shook his head. "There's no need to thank me, ma'am. I only did what anyone in my position would have done, and I had a lot of help."
She looked at him in confusion for a minute. "Oh! No, I don't care about the invasion." Steve raised an eyebrow at her and Jim bit back a chuckle. "Well, obviously I care, but you know, that's not why I'm here. I just wanted to let you know that I never would have survived my teenage years without you. My family and neighborhood - it wasn't the easiest environment to come out in."
Jim felt something tighten in his throat, and he wondered if Steve even knew what that meant or if anyone had bothered to get him caught up on the biographies that had been written about him.
He didn't have to wonder very long.
"You read Dr. Perkins book, then, I take it?" he asked her.
Steve's voice was quiet, but otherwise impossible to read. Jim wanted to ask a million questions right then, but none of them were appropriate with an audience.
She nodded. "You don't need to - I get that it probably seems invasive and everything. And I don't even care if it was true or not. All I know is that I spent two years thinking I was a freak, and suddenly I had proof that it wasn't just me. You were someone everyone loved, and the idea that you could have been the same kind of person that I was ... well. It made a difference."
Steve extended his hand out to her and shook the hand she offered him. "I'm sorry you ever felt like a freak, Ma'am, and if I was able to help you realize that you had no reason to feel that way, then I'm glad to hear that."
It wasn't at all the kind of response that Jim expected from Tony's stories about Captain America. But then, sometimes Tony misjudged things.
Of course, so did Jim, sometimes.
They were sitting on the sofa, in the very same room in which Obadiah Stane had revealed himself to be a terrible person. Tony was sitting pretty close, his head relaxed lazily on Jim's shoulder, and the amount of "Honey Bear" and "Sugar Bear" and assorted terms of endearment had been particularly numerous tonight.
Besides, Tony had finally grown into the man that Jim had always imagined he would become. There was every reason to lean over and casually kiss Tony.
Except for how that didn't appear to be such a great idea, after all.
"Okay, whoa. Hold up. What was that about?" Tony asked. "Not that I'm freaked out. I am not freaked out, because I was only a Republican in the sense that I made weapons. Now I don't even do that anymore, so I'm not Republican anymore at all. But I'm ... also not gay."
"No, but I thought you were - " Bisexual was on the tip of Jim's tongue, but suddenly what Tony was trying to say sunk in and he felt pretty stupid. "Okay, never mind. This is awkward, and I should go."
"You thought I was bi? Everyone thinks I'm bi. Do you know how many handsome, quality men I could have had sex with if I swung that way?" Tony asked him. "It's almost a shame that the science didn't shake out that way, really. But anyway, no, this isn't awkward. I mean, it doesn't have to be, right? You're going to stay and continue watching this shitty movie and finish this very expensive bottle of wine with me, right, Honey Bear?"
It was Tony's way of letting him down gently, Jim supposed, and to assure him that nothing had to change. It was a good reminder to have.
Jim waited for the fan to leave, before he remarked, "I guess I didn't expect that you would have read Professor Perkins' book."
Steve shrugged. "Another old friend of mine had it stuffed in a box of mementos she's kept over the years. She apparently was quite fond of it."
"Were you?" Jim asked bluntly.
"I ... used to think it was pretty invasive. The twenty-first century doesn't really do the concept of privacy very well, but I'm a bit old-fashioned in that regard." Steve sighed. "I'm glad it helped her. I ... could have used something like that. Once."
His cheeks were flushed as he made the confession, but the meaning was pretty damn clear.
"I could have too," Jim admitted, low and quiet.
"Oh, you're ... you and Stark, then?" Steve asked. "I thought he and Miss Potts were - but you're pretty close, right?"
"He's my best friend," Jim said firmly. "He's also very straight, no matter what the media thinks."
"Sorry I'm late," Jim said as he sat down at the table across from Pepper.
"It's okay, so was I. I already ordered your usual. I hope that's alright?"
"It's fine," Jim assured her. Nodding at the tabloid in her hands, he asked, "So who is Tony having an affair with today?"
Pepper grinned and held up the cover for him to see.
"Oh, Hawkeye and Black Widow. That's a lot of Avenger to have to deal with. Especially for a straight guy." As Pepper laughed, Jim squinted at the picture of Hawkeye. "My friend Carol thinks he has a fabulous ass. I just don't see it."
"Didn't you tell me you were more of a face man than an ass man, once?" Pepper teased.
"There is that."
"Sorry," Steve apologized.
"For assuming you were sleeping with your best friend?" Steve offered.
"I assure you, people have thought much worse things about me than the idea that I have been fucking Tony Stark," Jim assured him. "Don't worry about it."
"Okay." Steve shoved his hands into his pockets. "So ... are you seeing anybody?"
Jim tilted his head at Steve and grinned. "Why, Captain America, are you trying to ask me out?"
"Trying, yes. Not doing so good?"
"You're doing terrible," Jim admitted. "But that's not a no."
"I know, but I never actually got around to asking people on dates. Usually the art school guys and I would just - wait, did you say that's not a no?"
"I did," Jim answered. "How do you feel about Italian?"
He didn't say "and you do you mind wearing that shirt again so I can peel it off of you," but he did think it. Loudly.
Fortunately, telepathy was not one of Captain America's powers.
Jim supposed he was just getting too old to deal with the new recruits these days, but some of them just made him nervous. The damn law hadn't even been repealed that long and they were just so ... casual about everything.
Or maybe Carol and Jessica were right, and Jim was just bitter that he hadn't been able to be that open when he'd been a young recruit.
Either way, he was shamelessly eavesdropping on the conversation taking place in the locker room.
"If I was going to do an Avenger, it would definitely be Thor. The hammer jokes alone."
"The size queen thing you have going on? Not attractive. Next you'll be saying you'd do the Hulk."
"Rough isn't really my style, otherwise yes, I would."
"Ugh. Now Captain America? Much more sensible."
"Captain America is the product of steroids. Man's treasure chest is all shriveled up and you know it."
"Fine. I'll have to make do with Tony Stark, then."
"Let's be honest: we'd both have to make do with Tony Stark. He's the only one of the bunch who would even remotely swing that way."
Jim rolled his eyes and continued onto his office.
Jim was not surprised to see that he had no less than sixteen messages from Tony when he checked his phone after lunch.
"You are the most impatient man I know," Jim informed him when he called him back.
"How was your lunch with Captain Boring?" Tony asked. "Did it suck as much as I told you it would?"
Jim thought of the way that Steve's entire face had brightened at Jim's agreement to go out on a date, and he thought of the wet kiss that Steve had offered at the end of their "lunch." Jim liked to think of it as a nice hint of things to come.
"I'm sure you'd think it was dreadful," Jim answered. "But I didn't."