It’s not even midnight yet, and Jim has already been ditched by the people he’d arrived with, showered in an overenthusiastically gesticulating guy’s beer, and stepped into a puddle of something he’s probably better off not analysing too closely.
This, this entire disaster of a night, is exactly why Jim resolutely refuses to join any of the fraternities, no matter how annoying and increasingly, worryingly creative his friends’ attempts at convincing him have gotten over the last couple of weeks.
Setting his cup of vodka and pure sugar, going by the sickly sweet taste of the concoction, down on an already littered window sill, Jim squeezes his way past the couples grinding and stumbling around on the impromptu dance floor, breathing out a relieved sigh once he finds the bathroom, door unlocked and no line of waiting people outside it.
Jim’s finished his business and is washing his hands when he hears it; a low, pained whimper, followed by the rustling of the shower curtain, a loud thump, and then some impressively colourful cursing.
Chewing the inside of his cheek, Jim looks over at the bathtub, considering his options. He’s in no mood to drag some drunk frat boy across campus back to his dorm and, knowing his luck, getting puked on in the process, but in the end, Jim’s boringly responsible nature, as it’s been called before by his classmates, wins out.
“Hey,” Jim calls, inching closer to the tub and pulling back the curtain. “You okay there, man?”
Huge brown eyes, damp and red-rimmed and with a suspiciously glazed sheen to them, blink up at Jim out of a surprisingly young face, the kid sprawled gracelessly on his back looking no older than Jim’s youngest sister. Who’s only just started high school last fall.
Pursing his lips, his big brother instincts kicking in full force, Jim crouches down next to the kid, reaching out to carefully hook a finger under his chin and turn his face into the light to get a better look at him. “What’s your name?” Jim asks while he checks him over, the kid completely unresisting, his head lolling about uncoordinatedly, lids fluttering. “Hey, no. No, come on, stay with me for a sec, all right?”
The kid moans, weakly batting at Jim’s hands, but eventually manages to more or less focus his gaze on Jim. “To-” he croaks hoarsely, wincing at the obvious rawness of his throat. “Tony.”
Jim, after making sure Tony’s propped up securely against the side of the tub and not about to fall over again, gets up and moves back over to the sink, tipping a couple of toothbrushes out on the counter so he can fill the glass with water. Cleaning that up will be the least of the host’s problems come morning, he figures.
Tony drinks it all down greedily, watching Jim warily and clutching the glass tightly against his chest with trembling fingers after he’s done.
“Are you here with someone?” Jim asks, a little sharper than intended as he takes in Tony’s state of partial undress, the missing shoes and pants. He immediately regrets his tone of voice when Tony flinches and averts his eyes, chin wobbling dangerously, so Jim softens his expression and rubs what he hopes is a reassuring hand over Tony’s shoulder before he goes on. “Are your friends still here? Is there someone you want me to get? Or call?”
“He left,” Tony blurts, sniffling and shaking, from the cold, booze, or something else, Jim can’t tell. “He left, after we-“ He cuts himself off abruptly, as if realising he’s said too much, chancing a slightly panicked look up at Jim before his face suddenly goes eerily blank. “It’s nothing. It’s fine, I’m fine. You can go now.”
Which is the absolute last thing Jim’s going to do. Instead, he stands up and shrugs off his jacket, throwing it over the toilet tank. “I’m James. James Rhodes,” he introduces himself, leaning down to slide his hands under Tony’s arms, heaving the wobbly kid up to his feet and helping him climb out of the bathtub.
“James,” Tony mumbles, wrinkling his nose in distaste, and Jim can’t help but chuckle at the completely out of place indignation.
“My friends call me Jim,” he offers, picking the jacket back up and guiding Tony’s limp arms into the sleeves, folding them back enough to free Tony’s hands. “Jimmy, sometimes.”
Tony doesn’t seem to like those options, either. “Jimmy. Jim.” He huffs, instinctively leaning into the warmth of Jim’s body. “James Rhodes. Rhodes. Rhodey. Rhodey.”
Jim lets him babble and grouch as they make their way through the packed house, out through the garden and into the night, rubbing a sympathetic hand over Tony’s back when Tony starts shivering. The walk back to Jim’s tiny apartment isn’t long, but five minutes in Tony’s barely able to set one foot in front of the other, staggering along slowly and yawning between every other word. Jim is more than relieved when they’re finally tumbling into his living room, easing Tony down on the couch before going to fetch him something warm to drink, and a fresh set of clothes to change into.
The sweats and hoodie are ridiculously large on Tony, making him look even smaller and younger where he’s bundled up in several of Jim’s spare blankets, frowning and nervously playing with one of the couch cushions.
“So,” Jim says, sitting down next to Tony with two cups of freshly made hot chocolate, handing one over to Tony. “Don’t take this the wrong way, man, but how old are you?”
“Old enough,” Tony grumbles petulantly. Then, when Jim just raises a pointed eyebrow at him, adds, “Fifteen. Almost. In eight months.”
“Jesus,” Jim sighs heavily, rubbing a hand over his face. “Where are your parents? What were you doing back at that party?”
Tony scowls down at his lap, tracing the rim of his mug. “I go here. To MIT. Don’t live with my parents. They’re back in New York.” He gives a shaky, humourless laugh. “Not that they’d care if you called them right now.”
Sensing that pressing that particular issue right now wouldn’t get him very far, Jim changes course. “Do you have a roommate? Someone you should tell that you’re okay?” He hesitates for a moment, then asks, “Tony, what happened tonight? Something the police should get involved in?”
“’M not okay,” Tony mumbles, quiet enough that Jim suspects he wasn’t supposed to hear it. Then, louder, “ No cops. Don’t worry, no one’s going to come looking for me and accusing you of something unsavoury.”
“That’s not what I meant,” Jim says, exasperated, but Tony has already turned away, letting Jim know that he’s done talking.
Despite the rude dismissal, Jim goes to get Tony a pillow, a glass of water, and an Aspirin, setting everything down on the coffee table, Tony refusing to acknowledge him, before he flops down on his bed face first, just tipsy enough himself that he falls asleep quickly enough, even with the mystery that is Tony on his mind.
He wakes up again when the mattress dips under someone else’s weight, a glance at the clock showing that it’s still the middle of the night, Tony wriggling his way under the covers, hands fisting tightly into Jim’s shirt.
“Please,” Tony whispers, breath hitching, and hiccups wetly. “I- I don’t want to- to be alone. Please? I- I-“
“Okay,” Jim says, interrupting him gently. He lifts his arm for Tony to snuggle under, hand coming to rest on the back of Tony’s neck, but admonishes, “Don’t make a habit of getting into bed with strangers, kid.”
Tony nods sleepily, curling into Jim’s side.
Jim isn’t sure how he feels about having picked up a stray, but he’s pretty sure he’ll get plenty of opportunities to find out.
Birthdays have been a Big Deal, capital letters heavily implied, in the Rhodes household for as long as Rhodey can remember. He doesn’t know who’s started the tradition of surprising the birthday boy or girl in the most outrageous and embarrassing fashion imaginable, but he’s had the last twenty years to get used to his family’s antics.
Which is why it isn’t exactly unexpected when he’s woken by his whole family barging into his bedroom at sunrise, scream-singing Happy Birthday and pelting him with confetti, his youngest cousin jumping up on the bed while his sisters try their best to alert the whole house to their presence with their ratchets and whistles and cheering.
Rhodey groans, pulling the blankets up over his head, but peeks out from his hiding spot when everyone falls silent almost simultaneously, something that’s never happened in the entire history of the Rhodes family.
“Well now,” Mom and Aunt Helen say in unison, that twin mind connection thing still as freaky as ever, and Georgie braces her hands on her hips, glaring and demanding, “Jimmy, why didn’t you tell me? As your favourite sister-“
“Hey!” Tabitha protests, but doesn’t bother looking up from her Game Boy, or seem overly offended when she is completely ignored.
“-I have the right to know everything about your love life.”
Before Rhodey can so much as open his mouth to ask just what the hell is going on, a camera flashes and he turns to half scowl, half squint at Vanessa, who grins unapologetically and takes another picture.
Which is when the lump on the other side of the bed starts shifting, Tony’s messy-haired head emerging from between the pillows only to be plopped down on Rhodey’s thigh with a satisfied little hum.
Rhodey’s sisters coo and make kissy faces at them, Dad gives an amused snort, Rhodey resigns himself to a brunch filled with terrible jokes, and Tony, the asshole, snores on peacefully. And to top it all off, Danny, who’s still crawling around on the bed, chooses that moment to elbow Rhodey in the crotch.
But since he is a good friend, and despite having his birthday outing consist of his family teasing him mercilessly about his steamy love affair with his male, underage roommate, Rhodey brings back a slice of pie and the biggest cup of coffee available for Tony, who’s still lounging around in his very patriotic and extremely unflattering Captain America PJs, and greets Rhodey with an awkward wave, a sheepish smile, and a quiet, “Happy birthday, sugarplum.”
Kicking off his shoes, Rhodey hands over Tony’s breakfast and collapses back into his bed, which is at least still warm, what with Tony having spent the better part of the morning and afternoon in it. “You wanna talk about it?”
Tony makes a vague sort of noise and waves dismissively, tucking into his pie. It’s only when Rhodey’s already dozing again that he feels Tony cuddle up against him, tucking his head under Rhodey’s chin and throwing a leg over both of Rhodey’s.
“Sorry,” he whispers. “Didn’t mean to ruin your birthday.”
Rhodey laughs, affectionately flicking Tony’s ear. “Don’t be dramatic. It’s fine.”
They fall silent again, but after a couple of minutes, Tony murmurs dejectedly, “I asked Howard if I could come home for my mom’s birthday next month. He said I’m too old for stuff like that.”
“We’ll go out and find her a card. The best card,” Rhodey says, making it a promise by pressing a kiss to the top of Tony’s head. “And some flowers. We’ll bake a cake. Send her a whole care package, how about that?”
Tony doesn’t say anything, but he tightens his hold on Rhodey.
“Tiberius!” Rhodey calls, striding across the bar with purpose, and doesn’t even give the man in question the chance to get over his confusion before he punches him square in the face, Ty’s shocked yelp music to his ears.
Ty sneers, picking himself back up from the floor and rubbing at his jaw. “What the fuck?”
“You know what,” Rhodey says coolly, poking him in the chest for good measure. “Stay away from him.”
“Oh, that’s what this is about?” Ty chuckles, mouth twisting cruelly as he gives Rhodey’s shoulder a hard shove, sending Rhodey staggering back a few steps. “Can’t even fight his own fights, can he? But, you know what? I’m done with him. Tell the clingy little bitch I’m-“
Everything after that is a blur of flying fists and angry yelling until the bouncers eventually manage to separate them, someone threatening to call the police before Ty’s friends finally pull him away down the street, Rhodey stalking off in the opposite direction with his balled up scarf pressed against the sluggishly bleeding cut in his lip.
When Rhodey gets home, Tony is exactly where he’s been for the last two days; curled up on the couch, staring at the TV with unseeing eyes, the carton of Chinese food Rhodey’d left for him still untouched. He does glance up when Rhodey walks by on his way to the bathroom, though, doing a double take when he sees the state of Rhodey’s face.
After taking a much needed shower, washing off the blood and allowing his stiff muscles to loosen, Rhodey slips into a pair of sleep shorts and a shirt, stepping in front of the foggy mirror to inspect the damage. It’s not too bad, all things considered, just the swollen lip and a superficial scratch high on his cheek from one of Ty’s rings.
He’d be more worried about his CO finding out about this than what his face looks like, but the whole bar had witnessed their scuffle, and everyone knows Doctor Stone is one incident away from disowning his mess of a son, so Rhodey’s fairly sure Ty won’t go whining about this to anyone.
With a tired sigh, Rhodey gathers up his ruined clothes and limps over to his bedroom, actually somewhat relieved to find Tony there, moving for the first time in days as he agitatedly paces back and forth.
“What happened?” Tony whirls on him, carefully cups Rhodey’s face the instant Rhodey’s within arm’s reach, lightly brushing his thumb over the scrape. “Who did this?”
“It’s nothing,” Rhodey says, taking Tony’s wrist to pull away his prodding fingers. “Don’t worry about it, just some stupid fight.”
Tony’s eyes narrow at that, his expression rightfully sceptical. “This isn’t like you, you’re not reckless like this. Me, yes, but not you. You’re lying. Why are you lying? Rhodey, what’s going on?”
Rhodey grits his teeth, shakes his head, but Tony, despite his severely lacking social skills, is frighteningly talented at reading Rhodey. It takes him less than a minute of studying Rhodey to figure it out, hand twitching up to touch the bruise covering his own eye.
“What did you do?” he asks quietly, brokenly, looking so much younger than his nineteen years right then that Rhodey can’t help himself, closing the distance between them to draw Tony into a hug, burying his nose in Tony’s hair and making low, soothing shushing noises once the tears start, stroking a calming hand up and down Tony’s spine.
Somehow, Rhodey manoeuvres them onto the bed and under the covers with Tony clinging to him like his life depends on it, wrapping himself around Tony while Tony shakes and cries into his neck.
“He’s not going to call again, is he.” It’s a resigned statement, not a even a proper question, but Rhodey nods anyway, gently rocking them both, running his fingers through Tony’s hair until Tony’s breathing evens out into sleep.
During the first five days after Tony goes missing - not dead not dead not dead - Rhodey gets into a shouting match with his superior officer, is threatened with disciplinary action and suspension, drinks himself stupid twice, and breaks the nose of a guy laughing about ‘that Stark asshole finally getting what he deserves’.
None of that can keep him from going back over there as soon as possible, however, and he spends the longest three months of his life coordinating the search parties, going over what little Intel they have over and over again, comforting Pepper and arguing with Stane, and hoping. Always hoping.
When they get the news of a massive explosion a couple hundred miles from base, Rhodey is the first one in the chopper, just like he’s the first to jump back out of it at the sight of the figure stumbling through the desert sand, disoriented and injured but alive.
Rhodey’s running the instant his feet hit the ground, watching as Tony falls to his knees, and catching him with an arm around the waist. “Hey,” he breathes, free hand coming up to run through Tony’s sweaty hair. “How was the funvee? Next time you ride with me, okay?”
Tony laughs through the first sob, nodding and leaning forward, pressing his face into Rhodey’s shoulder.
“It’s okay,” Rhodey whispers, giving him a careful squeeze, pressing his lips to Tony’s temple. “I’ve got you, Tones, I’ve got you.”
He doesn’t leave Tony’s side, clutching an unconscious Tony’s hand between both of his, until they reach the military hospital in Kabul and Tony is wheeled into surgery, anxiously hovering outside in the hall until one of the nurses takes pity on him and leads him to an empty room, bringing him a cup of tea and some clean scrubs so he can change out of his fatigues.
The doctors catch him up on what they can when Tony is brought in four hours later, but they’re all clueless when it comes to the glowing piece of machinery in his chest. But Tony’s stable for now, they assure him, weak and severely malnourished and dehydrated, but expected to make a full recovery, barring any complications with the unknown device.
No one asks him to leave, which Rhodey’s incredibly grateful for, and apart from the nurses occasionally coming in to check the various machines and IVs, Rhodey isn’t disturbed.
He doesn’t mean to fall asleep, but the chair he’s pulled up to the bed is surprisingly comfortable for hospital furniture, and eventually the stress and strain of the last ninety days prove to be too much, and he nods off.
At the first whimper, Rhodey’s eyes snap back open and zero in on Tony’s face, contorted in pain and fear, lips forming desperate words, pleading with the people in his dream to stop, to please stop.
Moving to perch on the edge of the mattress, Rhodey grabs Tony’s wildly flailing hands, heart breaking a little when Tony flinches at the contact, loudly repeating Tony’s name until Tony wakes up coughing and gasping for air.
“Honey bear,” he chokes out, and it’s all the encouragement Rhodey needs to carefully slide into bed next to him, rearranging cables and drips so Tony can shuffle over and pillow his head on Rhodey’s chest, hand fumbling around blindly until Rhodey picks it up and links their fingers, squeezing softly.
“I’m here, Tony,” he promises, bumping their foreheads together. “I’m right here.”
Rhodey moans when Carol slides her hands under his shirt and rakes her nails down his back, feeling her smile against his mouth, and reaches behind himself to find the bedroom door, letting out a triumphant grunt once he manages to open it and steer them both through it.
Carol laughs, giddy and happy and gorgeous, pushing at him to move faster only to stop suddenly and pull away to frown over his shoulder. “Huh.”
“What?” Rhodey asks, grabbing for her again and whining when she expertly sidesteps him, earning himself a snort and a fond eye-roll.
“So desperate,” she teases, pecking him on the lips again, then prods at him until he turns around and sees Tony passed out in the middle of their bed, the cockblocking bastard.
Carol tilts her head, looking up at him with an expression that would be very serious, were it not for the grin she can’t quite hold back. “This requires drastic measures,” she declares, mischievous glint in her eyes, and before Rhodey knows what’s happening, she’s launched herself at an unsuspecting Tony, landing on his back with a cry nearly drowned out by Tony’s startled squeak.
Watching them tussle and grapple, Carol pinning the still sleep-groggy Tony with ease, Rhodey decides not to get involved, subtly adjusting himself and leaving them to whatever it is they’re doing, instead going to get different supplies than the ones he was hoping to actually use tonight.
When he returns with a bottle of rum and the tub of salty popcorn and candied bacon ice cream they both love, and always outvote him over, Tony is sitting against the headboard with his face in his hands, Carol leaning against him and running her fingers through his hair.
“-exactly what I was doing, I calculated it perfectly. He doesn’t trust me, he hates me.”
Ah. Steve problems, then.
“He doesn’t hate you, Tony,” Rhodey says gently, knee-walking across the bed to hand the snacks off to Carol and sling an arm around Tony, tugging him close and dropping a quick kiss to the top of his head. “Steve’s crazy about you.”
Tony shakes his head, looking absolutely miserable.
“Dumbest genius I know,” Carol sighs in agreement, swatting at Tony’s face when he pouts at her. “Want to watch The Notebook and cuddle?”
“No,” Tony grumbles sullenly. Then, when Carol arches a no nonsense eyebrow at him, he concedes, “Maybe.”
Whooping, Carol clambers over Tony’s legs to squeeze in between him and Rhodey, adding a generous amount of rum to the ice cream and tucking in. “JARVIS, you heard the man!”
As usual, she’s the only one with dry eyes two hours later.
Rhodey cranes his neck to glimpse at the alarm clock on his bedside table, huffing out a frustrated breath when only three minutes have passed since he’d last checked. He turns over onto his back with a huff, then immediately rolls back over onto his stomach, repositioning his pillow and kicking away the blankets, only to pull them back up again and-
“Jim,” Carol groans from the other side of the bed, propping herself up on her elbows to glare at him. “Stop it.”
“Can’t help it,” Rhodey admits quietly, smiling softly when she nods understandingly, scooting closer for a kiss. “Sorry. Didn’t mean to wake you.”
Carol hums, stealing another kiss before moving away and swinging her legs over the edge of the bed. “Come on,” she says, holding out her hand and wriggling her fingers. “Let’s go see what’s up.”
Rhodey quickly gets up too, taking her hand and bringing it up to his face to brush his lips over her knuckles. “I love you.”
“Thanks.” She grins cheekily and winks, but stops to nuzzle his cheek for a moment. “Love you. Even if you keep me up all night with your tossing and turning. And snoring.”
“I do not snore!” Rhodey hisses, slightly offended, and pinches her thigh, which gets him a slap to the back of the head in return. “And you don’t have to come. He’s probably fine anyway.”
Carol shrugs. “He’s my friend. I worry about him, too.”
There’s nothing Rhodey can say to that, so he just smiles and kisses her temple, thankful that she’s always got his back, out on the battlefield as well as here at home.
“Jay, where’s Tony?” Rhodey asks, frowning when JARVIS informs them that Tony’s upstairs in the communal living room. Carol, when he looks at her, just shrugs again, using their joint hands to tug him to the elevator.
The common floor is deserted at nearly three o’clock in the morning on Christmas day, the only source of light the enormous Christmas tree in the corner of the room, but the fairly lights and electronic candles are enough to clearly show the two men curled up on the couch together.
“Fuck, finally!” Carol exclaims loudly, then claps a hand over her mouth as they both wait, only daring to breathe again when neither Tony nor Steve stir, sleeping on undisturbed.
They silently creep closer, Carol pointing at the photo albums on the coffee table, one of them open to a page with a picture of a young Tony on Maria’s lap, Howard standing behind them with his hands on his wife’s shoulders, only looking marginally annoyed for a change.
It’s not hard to piece together what’s happened, that Steve must have interrupted Tony’s annual break from insisting that he despises his parents, that they’ve talked about the accident. It’s less obvious how they got from that to Tony lying on Steve’s naked chest, Steve’s arms around him and wearing Steve’s Henley, but Carol’s right; it’s about damn time.
“Hey,” Carol whispers, leaning into Rhodey’s side and smirking up at him. “Should we take pictures and see which one of them gets flustered and blushes more when we confront them with our shocking discovery tomorrow during team breakfast?”
God, Rhodey loves that woman. He grins back. “Do you even have to ask?”