Tony's spine releases a series of loud cracks as he stretches. He's been hunched over his desk far too long working on the next iteration of the StarkPad and his body is displeased. It's so late that it might as well be morning. He should go to bed, but he's close to finishing and the urge to power on until daybreak is winning. He tips his coffee cup and yep, still empty. He needs to fix that.
"Friday, note current progress and save all open documents."
"Sure thing, boss."
Tony yawns as he walks through the dark halls of the mansion. This late at night, the house seems lifeless. It feels too big with him as the only occupant, but Jarvis and Ana are content to stay in their own house on the grounds and Rhodey's not due back on leave for at least another month. Pepper refused his offer of free housing, insisting that she has to deal with him enough at work and she'd rather go home to her nice Midtown apartment. He's pretty sure there's a thing going on between her and Happy, so he really doesn't blame her, even if the empty house makes him a little sad and lonely sometimes.
He misses his mother. It's been five years since she died—fuck cancer—and he misses her so much.
He's tired. That's the only reason for these maudlin thoughts. In the daylight, the shadows won't seem quite so severe, like some grumpy man frowning at him from the corner of the kitchen.
Wait. Backtrack. Tony blinks owlishly at the corner next to the glass doors that lead out into the garden. One of the panes is broken. Jarvis is going to be annoyed about having to clean up the glass but Tony doesn't trust himself not to cut himself if he tries. And yes, that's an actual person standing there, scowling at him murderously.
The shriek that comes out of Tony's mouth is high-pitched and very undignified. "Ack!" He flings his empty mug at the intruder.
The guy has the absolute gall to catch it. He sets in down on the table and takes a menacing step toward Tony. "Don't scream."
Now that the guy's moved into the little bit of light cast from the nightlight in the kitchen, he seems kind of hot, in a scowling murder-hobo kind of way. His hair's a mess but his muscles have muscles and Tony bets the murder-hobo would be able to pick Tony right up and pound him against the wall. In the sexy way, of course. Hopefully.
"Who? What? How?" Tony's not his most eloquent at fuck-o'clock in the morning. "Are you robbing me? Is this what a robbery is like? You're way too hot to be a robber. Isn't there a porno that starts out like this?"
Murder-Hobo stares at Tony, obviously confused by the spew of words coming out of Tony's mouth. That makes two of them. The guy shakes his head. He takes another step forward and holy shit, is that blood? "You will fix my arm."
It comes out less of a question and more of a pronouncement, but Tony's never been a go-with-the-flow kind of guy. "Dude, what? I'm a mechanic, not a doctor. You're in the wrong house."
Murder-Hobo shakes his head. He grabs his left arm with his right and lifts it. Something glints in the dim light.
"Holy shit! Friday, lights! Also, cancel the cops."
The kitchen lights obligingly turn on. Murder-Hobo has a gun out, waving it in the air like there's someone else in the room. Which, valid. Most people don't have AI controlling their homes but Tony's always been eccentric that way. He pushes the gun aside to grab the guy's arm and Holy Tesla, that's a metal arm.
"This is so cool!" Tony says as he twists the arm and himself to examine it.
It's obviously damaged, hanging off the guy like twenty pounds of dead weight that can't be comfortable. Even damaged it's a miraculous piece of tech, years ahead of anything currently on the market. Tony's a little turned on right now, way more than he should be given that there's a presumably loaded gun in close proximity.
"What the hell did you do to this beauty? Did you get hit by a truck? Challenge the Hulk to an arm-wrestling competition? Who made this? I thought Stark Resilient was the only company working on assistive tech this advanced but holy shit, this thing is gorgeous."
The guy's scowl gets more severe with each word that falls out of Tony's mouth. It's the kind of look that promises imminent death if Tony doesn't shut up and do what was asked. Unfortunately for both of them, Tony's never been good at holding his tongue. He can at least do the fixing part.
"You know what? Never mind. Fixing. You're here for fixing and that's what we'll do. Follow me to where the magic happens."
Tony turns to leave and realizes he's empty-handed. He came into the kitchen for something, before he got distracted by the whole stranger in his kitchen thing. What was it he needed? He stares at his empty hands until a fresh cup of hot coffee is pressed into one.
"Oh!" Coffee is definitely what he wanted. He smiles at the murder-hobo. "Thanks!"
Murder-Hobo looks somewhat exasperated as Tony downs the entire cup without pausing to breathe and goes back for a second refill before leading the way down to his lab. He'd take the whole pot but Jarvis insists on him coming up for air regularly, hence why he's not allowed a coffee maker in the lab.
"So," Tony says as they walk down the steps into the basement, "do you have a name or should I just keep mentally referring to you as Murder-Hobo?"
"What?" The guy sounds incredulous and a little offended at the nickname.
Tony shrugs. "Maybe don't break into people's houses when you look like a deranged trash heap. You've got this whole homeless person in need of a shower thing going on here." Tony circles his hand in front of his face. "Like you haven't seen a shower and a hot meal in far too long. Also like you're going to kill me with your ridiculously hot metal arm as soon as I fix it."
If he showered and shaved, Tony might upgrade him to Hot Half-Robot.
The guy frowns. "I'm not going to kill you."
Tony's pretty sure the guy didn't mean it as a question but he doesn't sound very convinced of his own statement. Tony looks pointedly down at the gun in the guy's hand. "You sure about that? I told Friday not to call the cops so I'm trusting you to not murder me after I fix your arm. Or anyone else for that matter. I would absolutely come back as the most obnoxious ghost ever and haunt your ass if you harm Jarvis or Anna."
"I don't want to harm anyone," Murder-Hobo says with such feeling that Tony's sure there's some sort of tragic backstory he's missing.
Still not very convincing but Tony's going to let it go. "Okay, Terminator, let's see this arm."
Murder-Hobo carefully pulls off his brown leather jacket, then rips his white t-shirt instead of trying to maneuver it over his head with one arm. Tony's a strange mix of scared and aroused. Scaroused. Damn that was hot, and the guy's chest is the stuff of Tony's best wet dreams. Even the excessive scarring doesn't take away from the pleasant aesthetic of his muscles.
"Well." Tony fans himself. "That happened." He points to a mostly clear table. "Pull up a chair over there. I'll just be a minute."
Tony does a brief circuit of the room picking up tools he thinks he might need, then catches a rolling stool with his foot and hop-shuffles over to sit opposite Murder-Hobo.
"I feel like I should have bought you dinner first before getting all up inside you." He pats the table between them. "Come on, big boy, show me what you got."
Murder-Hobo's arm hits the table with a loud thud. There're at least two tears in the metal plating, showing cut—but thankfully not sparking—wires.
"Okay," Tony says as he scoots his stool closer to the table. "I'm just going to dig in. Tell me if something hurts, got it?"
Murder-Hobo's face twists into a grimace. "It hurts," he says, like the words themselves pain him.
Tony blinks. "What? Right now?"
Tony winces in sympathy. "Ouch. I'll see what I can do about that. I guess tell me if it hurts more?" Murder-Hobo stares at him so Tony gets to work. "Friday, do a deep scan. Let's see what we're working with."
"Sure thing, boss."
Murder-Hobo jerks back as a blue holographic reconstruction of his arm appears above the table. He's got his working hand on his gun.
"Whoa!" Tony holds up both hands, palms facing out. "Relax. No one's going to hurt you here."
"Who's Friday?" Murder-Hobo asks.
"My AI." Murder-Hobo stares blankly. Tony elaborates. "Artificial intelligence. She's a very sophisticated computer program that assists me in my work. Say hi, Friday."
"Hi, Friday," Friday parrots with her usual cheek.
"For the rest of the introductions, you can call me Tony. That's Butterfingers, U, and Dum-E." He points to each of his slowly encroaching robots in turn.
Dum-E takes Tony's acknowledgement as permission and rolls over to poke at Murder-Hobo's arm. Tony swats him away. "It's rude to poke people, Dum-E."
Murder-Hobo's eyes are wide as saucers.
"You never did tell me your name," Tony says. He does his best to keep his voice soft and kind. "What should I call you?"
"James," the other man says and that's a lot better than Murder-Hobo.
"Sure thing, James." Tony reaches for the damaged panels. He telegraphs his movement, keeping his hands visible and moving slow in case James wants to pull away. "My best friend's name is James."
This James looks at Tony curiously. Tony takes that as implicit permission to ramble while he works. He's been told he talks a lot, too much by some standards, but his mother always loved to hear about his day. It's an old habit he hasn't had much outlet for lately.
"His real name is James," Tony says as he sets the top panels of James's arm aside in an orderly fashion, "but I call him Rhodey. It's a play on his last name. James Rhodes becomes Rhodey, but there's a lot of other things I call him. Honey bear. Platypus. Sourpatch. A lot of nonsensical things, really. It's what I do. The CEO of my company is named Virginia but I call her Pepper. Less of a direct connection there. She's got this bright red hair and she's fiery, like a hot pepper. Obie has no idea what he's missing out on. She was wasted in Stane Industries' legal department."
Friday expands the hologram to highlight each wire as Tony taps it with his long-handled tweezers. He's getting a sense of where everything goes and the inefficiency of the wiring makes him mad on James's behalf. The arm's beautiful on the outside but a hot mess inside, kinda like Tony.
"What kind of timeline are we looking at for repairs?" Tony asks.
James frowns. "I need it now."
"Yeah, I get that." Tony switches to a micro-screwdriver, gesturing in the air with it as he speaks. "But there are two ways this can go. Or really one and a half, maybe." James scowls and opens his mouth but Tony talks right over him. "I'm going to fix your arm. That's a given. I can't let you walk off with a dead arm. I mean, look at you, you look half dead already."
James honest-to-God growls. Tony rolls his eyes. In the right context, that would have been hot but Tony's never been good at being threatened.
"Don't give me that. You are. You look like you've been sleeping in a dumpster. Smell like it to. So here's what's going to happen." Tony knows it's a bad idea as soon as he thinks of it, but that's never stopped him before. "I'm going to restore what limited functionality I can, then you're going to take a hot shower, eat a decent meal, and maybe spend a night or three catching up on some sleep."
"What?" James jerks upright, nearly pulling his arm out of Tony's reach but Tony grabs for it, pulling it back so he can finish detaching the wire near James's shoulder and bingo! "Fuck!" James slumps against the table, free hand going to prop up his face.
"Feels better, right?" Tony asks with a grin.
James stares at his arm like he's never seen it before. "I can't feel it."
Tony shrugs. "Yeah, I figured it'd be easier to work on if it wasn't hurting you the whole time. There are a couple different neural connections but this," he taps the relevant wire, "is the main one for biofeedback." He rolls his chair back. "Stay right there, I just need some parts."
"So," Tony says as he digs through a bucket of spare gears and metal bits. "This kind of leads into the whole options thing I was talking about. I can either A, jury rig your existing arm so that you can use it—It won't be fully functional, mind you. It's way too damaged for that. I'd have to rebuild the whole elbow joint and part of your wrist—or B, take that scrap heap off and build you a whole new arm that's a million times better. Or, there's option C, where we do both so you're not without an arm while I make a new one. But you really should let me build you a new arm. I feel like that's almost non-negotiable, but it's your arm."
When he turns back around, James is staring at him with wide eyes and a slack jaw. It's the kind of amazement that Tony usually gets when he's presented a new piece of tech or when he's naked. He looks down. He's not naked. Yet.
"How are you real?" James asks, sounding kind of stunned.
Tony shrugs and returns with his handful of scavenged parts. "I get that a lot. Which part was the kicker?"
James's mouth works soundlessly for a second before he says, "All of it?"
Tony digs into the gears in James's wrist. "I'm not exactly hurting for space here. You can stay as long as you need to." He pauses, fingers deep in James's arm. "I just thought..." He sighs and focuses on work rather than the embarrassment mixed with doubt welling inside of him. "You look like you need it."
His voice is barely above a whisper when he admits the last part, but James doesn't have any trouble hearing. "I do," he says and Tony can hear the longing there.
"Then stay. As long as you need."
James stares at Tony, expression blank. Tony keeps working on the arm. The silence isn't entirely uncomfortable. He's worked under worse conditions, namely his brief stint with Stane Industries before he said fuck it to his dad's legacy and started his own company.
It's well into early morning by the time Tony closes up James's arm and sets the last of his tools aside. James lifts his left arm. There's a distinct whine as the arm moves and a slight grind when James flexes his elbow, then wrist, but it's the best Tony can do on short notice.
"How is it?"
James tests the range of motion. Tony takes mental notes of where the joints catch and which plates seem to stick. "It's sufficient." He says it so tonelessly that it's hard to take it as an insult. James is simply stating a fact, as if his body were a machine rather than, well, his body.
Tony snorts. "Flattery will get you everywhere."
James folds his hands on the table and stares at Tony. It's the kind of look that goes right through him, peeling back the layers of flesh and skin to judge what's underneath. Tony has to fight not to squirm. He turns away and busies himself putting his tools back.
Tony turns around too fast and nearly trips. "Yeah?" He's smiling. He shouldn't be. This is so absurd. Pepper and Rhodey are going to yell at him when they find out and Jarvis is going to give him that look. The one that says Tony's putting his genius to shame by doing something incredibly dumb.
Tony doesn't care. The house is too lonely without his mom and he can tell that James needs this. James needs someone to help him. Tony wants to be that someone.
"Yeah," James says. "Just for one night."
Tony melts a little. He blames it on lack of sleep and nerves. He slumps slightly and he can tell he's got the dopiest grin on his face. "Okay. Sure. One night."
As he leads James up to the spare rooms in the right wing, he can't help but hope that James will stay longer than one night.