(Not) Out of Your League
“—And then Tony accidentally set it on fire,” Jim explained, showing a worrying lack of concern by grinning like the engineer he truly was.
“So then you had to start over,” T’Challa said.
Jim tilted his head. “Well, we’d documented everything up to that point so not really? I mean yeah we had to rebuild the model but to be honest it was probably better we find out the fire-hazard before we presented in class.”
“But it’s whatever—” Jim checked his watch and yelped. “Ah! I was supposed to meet him for lunch, did you wanna come?”
T’Challa watched Jim scramble to get his books packed up. “Where are you going?”
“I’m going to try and get a vegetable in him today, so Chinese.”
“I will pass.”
Jim shrugged. “Your loss. See you in Calculus.”
T’Challa watched him go. He wasn’t looking forward to it. Jim either complained about homework or bitched about how Tony had tested out of the class and how he wished he had too.
He was… quite tired of hearing about Tony, actually. He’d heard about the Starks. Hell, his father still got a little heated when he thought about the stolen vibranium and the fact that even if Howard Stark hadn’t been the one to steal it, he should have sent that stolen ore back. He assumed that Anthony Stark would be just as loose with his morals. It was no secret that up until recently he’d sleep with anyone.
“Hi!” Tony said, sticking his hand out, then noticed the oil on it and pulled it back awkwardly. “Um. Sorry.”
“It’s alright,” T’Challa replied, trying not to show how shell-shocked he felt.
Anthony Stark was just barely an adult. It kind of made him sick, knowing that he’d slept with people when he was younger, on a campus where almost everyone was at least four years older than him. No wonder Jim had crushed his soda can and threw it at one of their classmate’s heads when he bragged about ‘tapping that when he first got here.’ T’Challa kind of wanted to find that guy and strangle him.
“Rhodey you didn’t tell me you were coming here,” Tony hissed, obviously trying to be secretive, so T’Challa did the polite thing and pretended he couldn’t hear him, instead turning to examine the robotic claw tucked up against the opposite wall. “I would have left if I’d known!”
“Why would you need to leave your own dorm, you idiot?” Jim asked, not even bothering to stay quiet, but T’Challa stopped himself from nodding in agreement anyway.
“I just—I know I’m embarrassing. Um. With—with my sketches and—Dum-E.”
T’Challa approached the robotic arm. He wondered if Tony would let him see inside so he could examine the mechanisms.
“Listen, your sketches aren’t a problem. Dum-E isn’t even a problem, as long as he minds his own—”
T’Challa touched the claw of the robot. Then he yelped and scrambled backward when the claw spun menacingly and lunged at him, tripping over a toolbox and landing on his ass. He was distantly glad none of his family was here to gloat about his poor reflexes.
“DUM-E NO!” Tony shouted, scrambling over his bed and desk to crawl on top of the robot and grab his arm, reaching out for the still-spinning claw.
“Nice going,” Jim scoffed, helping T’Challa to his feet. “Ruin all my hard work.”
“What?” T’Challa sputtered, looking back and forth between Jim and the robot (and Tony, who was… cooing to it?)
“I know he didn’t ask for permission, and that was wrong of him, but we can’t have an international incident over this, okay? He’s sorry.”
“I am sorry,” T’Challa added when Jim gave him wild eyes.
Tony stroked the robot’s strut gently. “See? He’s sorry. You can forgive him just this once, can’t you, buddy? He didn’t mean to molest you.”
“What,” T’Challa said, before Jim grabbed him by the shoulder and leaned in to threateningly whisper at him to shut the hell up.
“You know how it feels when you’re sorry but people are still mad at you, right?” Tony continued, and the claw stopped spinning slowly. “He’s sorry and he won’t do it again. Okay?”
The robot bowed its… claw. And beeped morosely.
Morosely. T’Challa was boggled.
“I’m teaching them about consent,” Jim explained over their chemistry homework. “Dum-E’s a rudimentary AI so he learns things, and he keeps waking me up by pulling me out of bed, so I’ve had to teach him that he can’t touch me without asking.”
T’Challa actually considered not asking the question, but Jim had said ‘them’ and he was… concerned. “And Anthony?”
“…I’m teaching him that people can’t touch him without asking, either,” Jim said shortly. Then he gave T’Challa a glare. “Don’t get any ideas about him either. Just because you’ve got diplomatic immunity does not mean I won’t fucking drop-kick your dumb ass.”
This was why T’Challa liked James Rhodes. So many people tiptoed or walked on eggshells around him. Jim was perfectly willing to beat his ass if he offended him. (T’Challa liked to think he would put up a worthy fight but Jim was so full of righteousness that T’Challa got the impression that any ass beating received from him would be rightfully deserved.)
Tony answered the door and blinked up at him, surprised. “Oh. Um. Rhodey’s not here.”
“I did not come for Jim,” T’Challa assured him. “I came to make peace with your robot.”
“Oh,” Tony said, eyes wide. “We—I thought I fixed that with him already—”
“I did not know what I was apologizing for when I said that. I would like to let it know that I am honestly remorseful,” T’Challa explained. Also he hoped to earn some good will with Jim. He wanted to ask if Tony was willfully single or if Jim was scaring people off. He assumed it would not be a pleasant conversation.
“Oh,” Tony repeated quietly. “Oh, well, I guess. Um, come in then.”
T’Challa stepped into the dorm and nearly ran back out when he saw Dum-E was holding a butcher’s knife and there were red stains on the floor.
“Ah!” Tony exclaimed, blushing, and rushed over to the robot. “Dum-E, here, give me—we were learning how to cut a watermelon,” he explained hurriedly.
Well. There was a mutilated fruit that could have been a watermelon in a bowl, he supposed. “Okay,” he said, swallowing down the residual fear. It was indeed too bright to be blood anyway. He cleared his throat and came to stand in front of the robot. “Du—Dum-E?” he asked Tony, just to be sure, because… why.
“It’s a thing,” Tony said lamely.
T’Challa decided it was not his place to judge, instead turning toward Dum-E and saying, “Dum-E, I would like to apologize for touching you without permission the other day. That was wrong of me. I should have asked first, and I hope you will forgive me. I will do better.”
The robot whirred for a few long moments before letting out a cheerful beep and nodding his claw. Then it delicately grasped probably the only decent piece of cut watermelon and shyly held it out to him.
“Aw,” Tony said, smiling. “He likes you!”
“Oh,” T’Challa said, overwhelmed. “Thank yo—”
Dum-E squeezed too hard, and the watermelon splattered all over T’Challa’s face.
Tony squeaked and grabbed a roll of paper towels, hurrying to dab at his face. “We—we’re still working on his fine motor skills.”
“You’re off to a good start,” T’Challa said, helplessly charmed.
Jim cornered T’Challa later that week. “You gave Tony some tips on making Dum-E’s touch sensors more accurate.”
T’Challa tried to remember whether Shuri said she’d avenge him or not. “I… did.”
“I thought you didn’t like Tony,” Jim hissed, and when T’Challa sputtered, continued, “I’ve seen the way you sigh or roll your eyes when I talk about Tony. You don’t like hearing about him.”
“I don’t like listening to you gush over him!” T’Challa exclaimed. Shuri would definitely not avenge him over this.
Jim glared at him for a long moment before frowning. “Wait. Do you have a crush on me? Man, I hate to be the one to tell you, but I’m straight—”
“No, my affections are for Tony,” T’Challa blurted out, and then wished immediately to take it back.
Jim stared at him a long, long moment before he clapped a hand on his shoulder and leaned in, whispering, “Tony’s out of your league, man.”
“What,” T’Challa said, because he had literally never been told that. Ever.
“Way out of your league,” Jim repeated, and then turned, walking away without another word.
“Baba, can someone be out of my league?” T’Challa asked during their next Skype call, honestly curious.
T’Chaka blinked at him slowly. “Of course. You’re not the be-all, end-all. Although being a prince certainly gives you a leg up on the competition.”
T’Challa sighed, leaning his chin on his crossed arms. Tony only noticed he was a prince when he realized if T’Challa got hurt he could cause a diplomacy issue.
“Just because someone is out of your league does not mean you shouldn’t try,” T’Chaka continued.
“You’d take issue with his father,” T’Challa mumbled, because that was also something to worry about.
T’Chaka’s face did something strange before he asked, very gently, “My son, are you—are you speaking about Anthony Stark?”
T’Challa inwardly cursed, because there weren’t a lot of people his father took issue with, and even fewer that had children going to MIT. “…Maybe.” He sat up, ready to defend himself. “But! He’s nothing like his father. He has integrity. And a learning robot. And a friend that is willing to murder me.”
T’Chaka was silent so long that T’Challa began to sweat, wondering how harshly he’d be scolded.
“My son,” he said after another moment. “Anthony Stark is so far out of your league that you’re not even playing the same sport.”
“BABA,” T’Challa gasped, offended, and yelled as his father laughed and laughed.
(T’Chaka did insist that he was only joking later. “Mostly,” he’d said. “You should still try.” Mostly. Ugh.)
“If I ask Anthony on a date, will you murder me?” T’Challa asked as Jim scribbled an answer on his econ homework.
“What? No. Probably.” Jim paused, then slowly lifted his head to narrow his eyes at T’Challa. “…Are you gonna ask Tony on a date?”
T’Challa thought about it. “I suppose it depends on whether or not you murder me before I’m able to.”
Jim stared at him for a very long time before letting out an angry noise and turning back to his homework. “You could have asked when I was working on any other class. Whatever. Tony will murder you first.”
“…Is. Is that permission?”
“Or Dum-E. Dum-E might murder you. It would be an accident though.”
“J-James? Is that a yes?”
“Fuckin’ spring this on me during econ WHAT yeah, whatever, sure, your funeral.”
T’Challa felt unreasonably pleased with the permission.
Tony squeaked and slammed the door shut in T’Challa’s face when he asked for a date.
Jim laughed and laughed. T’Challa supposed he deserved it though.
Tony did mumble an acceptance from the other side of the door, so it was okay. (T’Challa didn’t even mind that that made Jim laugh harder.)
“Should I bring him flowers?” T’Challa asked after Jim had caught his breath.
“…Yeah,” Jim answered after a moment, then began giggling.
T’Challa understood when they came back from their date (Tony was way out of his league, actually, but T’Challa was holding onto this with both hands) to find that Dum-E had plucked all of the daisies. Tony looked both mortified and devastated.
“…So does she love you, or not?” T’Challa asked, for lack of anything better to do.
Dum-E let out an excited beep and spun in a circle.
“I think that means she loves him,” T’Challa informed Tony.
Tony snorted and covered his face. “Oh my God, I thought he grew out of his crush on Jane.”
“I’ll get you more flowers,” T’Challa said after a moment.
“No,” Tony sighed, letting his hands drop to his sides. “No, you better not. Not until I can teach him that they’re just for looking at.”
“Alright.” T’Challa hesitated before leaning in, just a little. “May I kiss you goodnight?”
“Um?” Tony blushed. It was adorable. “R-really? Yeah!”
T’Challa was thrilled. He lifted a hand to cup Tony’s cheek, watching as his eyes fluttered shut, and began to lean in.
Jim kicked the door open. “NOPE.”
T’Challa made a very unattractive noise and flailed away from Tony immediately.
“Wh—Rhodey!” Tony whined. “He asked first! You said-!”
“I know what I said, and now I’m saying nope.” He advanced on T’Challa menacingly. “Not until the fifth date.”
“Alright,” T’Challa said immediately.
Tony squawked. “Rhodey!”
“Fifth date,” Jim hissed.
“You’re not the boss of me!” Tony exclaimed.
T’Challa raised his hand a little. “Alright, but—I am afraid of Jim.”
Tony paused, looking back and forth between them, then sighed. “Yeah, that’s probably for the best.”
Jim beamed at the younger man before whipping back toward T’Challa with a scowl. “Say goodnight, your highness.”
“Goodnight,” T’Challa said obediently, and then gently took one of Tony’s hands so he could kiss the back of it. He paused to glance at Jim.
Jim sighed. “Yeah, alright.”
T’Challa smiled and pressed his lips to the back of Tony’s hand. When he stood back up, Tony was flushed darker than he’d ever seen him.
Well. This was definitely a fine alternative.