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Stray

w00t.  First post of the new year.  I come bearing fic.

Stray
By: Memory Dragon
Disclaimer: I do not own the Avengers movie-verse, nor do I make any claim to.
Characters:  Rhodey, Tony Stark, Howard, Jarvis.
Warnings: Contemplation of suicide, references to suicide, bullying, under-aged drinking, parental neglect, minor character death (off screen).
Rating: PG-13
Summary:  Jim Rhodes went out to get some studying done at the library.  He ended up with a best friend.
Thanks: Many thanks as always to narwhale_callin, even if I do give you sudden Jarvis feels.

Notes:  So you can thank EternalSheWolf for this one.  They said if I ever decided to write out the desk incident from Rhodey's POV, it'd probably be one of their favorite things.  At the time, I had no intention of writing it, but I eventually hit a point where I had nothing really gripping me to write it, and thought, hey, why not?  Because really, I'm a little Rhodey fangirl who couldn't resist.

Also please note that I'm a little white girl who started high school in the late 90s, while Rhodey is a black guy who went to college in the late 80s.  I have tried to be sensitive to this, but I'm not going to be perfect.  I'm just trying my best, because Rhodey's one of my favorite characters in MCU and there needs to be more fic of him out there.

~

When James Rhodes was fifteen, he watched as two seniors beat up a smaller kid from across the court yard. He watched, not wanting to get in trouble for fighting. He did nothing to help or hinder. He just watched.

Doing nothing felt awful, but he was black, and he'd get blamed for starting the fight. If he got the teacher, he'd get in trouble for snitching. If he did nothing, he was twice as damned by his own conscience, but at least then he'd be the only one to know.

In the end, he bore witness to the event, then washed his hands of it just as well as Pontius Pilate. There was nothing he could do. He didn't even know the kid, so it wasn't his problem, right?

Two months later, the kid committed suicide. He passed by the bullies in the hall after it happened, hearing them laugh and say the little fag got what he deserved. They were smiling, acting like the world was a better place now that it had one less person in it. Jim barely made it to the bathroom before he threw up his lunch. Bile burned in his throat as he imagined bashing the seniors' heads in, because a kid was dead and they were happy about it! And still Jim said nothing. What good would it do now that the kid was already dead? His chance had passed, and he'd done nothing to help. He was just as guilty as the bullies, so why did they celebrate while he felt like shit?

Jim heaved into the toilet bowl again, his stomach empty but still twisting into knots. Wiping away the spit from the corner of his mouth, Jim straightened out and went to wash his hands. He glanced up briefly at the mirror, seeing his eyes for a few agonizing seconds before he looked down. He'd lost his chance.

He didn't meet anyone's eyes for a week, not even when his mother yelled at him to look at her when she was speaking. After that, he forced himself to look in the mirror at unforgiving brown eyes. "You don't let that happen again," he told his reflection.

After that, Jim grew up. He didn't see much bullying, though he got pushed around himself a couple of times. His resolve had never truly been put to the test, not in ways that mattered. Sure he spoke up with verbal bullying a few times, but nothing physical. By age twenty, he was at his third year of MIT and he'd mostly forgotten the kid and his promise.

He lived his life, getting drunk and occasionally getting laid in between studying. It was a good life, and Jim didn't have much to complain about. He got good grades, prepped for a career in the military, partied on weekends, and flipped off racists who thought he wasn't good enough to be there. Occasionally he'd party on Tuesdays as well, when he was confident enough to skip his morning classes on Wednesdays.

He wasn't prepared to walk down the stairs from his dorm to hear the sound of someone crying softly. He almost missed it, to be honest. If he'd been going out for a drink with friends, he wouldn't have heard it. But Jim was heading to the library to study for his military history class, and he heard the soft hitched breath that meant someone was sobbing.

Jim looked around, almost convinced his ears were playing tricks on him. He didn't hear the sound again, but a bit of red out of the corner of his eyes kept him from leaving. He turned just in time to see a red sneaker shift out of view under an old mahogany desk that stood off to the side. Vaguely, he recalled that it had been made by a student who graduated in nineteen-some-odd and had left the desk since it was too heavy to take with him. It became sort of an odds and ends treasure trove, where you could put clothes or other things you didn't need anymore but were still in decent condition for someone else to pick up. It was useful when you needed a pencil case and didn't mind that it was bright pink (which Jim didn't), or you found a Swiss army knife in good condition if you were willing to clean off the rust (which Jim was), or occasionally to get rid of that sweater grandmothers send when it starts to get cold (every damned Christmas).

Jim walked over to the desk quietly, peering underneath it. It was a kid, barely thirteen or fourteen, and he was a scrawny, dark-haired little thing at that. He was curled up under the desk in a Black Sabbath t-shirt with bright red sneakers peeking out from ratty jeans. His shoulders shook in an erratic tempo that had no rhythm.

What was a kid doing here?

"Hey," Jim said, kind of at a loss of what to do with a crying kid.

The kid looked up, and Jim nearly swore at the black eye and tear trails that greeted him. The kid's eyes widened in fear, but before Jim could raise his hands in a gesture to show he meant no harm, the kid was rubbing his eyes. That had to be painful. "Fuck off!" he growled, trying - and failing - to look intimidating while pressing as far back against the desk that he could get from Jim.

Jim snorted, knowing when he wasn't wanted. He had studying to do, after all. But he hesitated, thinking back for the first time in years to the boy who committed suicide. Maybe this wouldn't turn out the same, but Jim had promised not to walk away again.

He looked down at his books, then back at the kid whose glare was ruined by how wet his eyes were and the shiner. Then Jim sat down, legs crossed in front of him, leaning back against the opposite wall. "Nah, the library's a long walk, so I think I'll just study here. What are you doing here?"

The kid became even more closed off and suspicious. "Are you with the papers?"

The papers? "Hey, man, the only papers I know of are the ones due next week," Jim said. To make his point, he opened his textbook to where he'd started his notes on chapter ten. "What's a kid like you doing here anyway?" he asked again.

The kid didn't look mollified. "I don't have any more money," he said. "I don't carry money on me, okay? So just leave me alone."

Jim's fist tightened around his pen. He was glad it was a pen and not a pencil, or he might have snapped it. Who was mugging a kid on a college campus? It explained the black eye at least. "Good thing I'm not looking for money then."

"Then what do you want?" the kid asked, accusation of whatever it was he expected of Jim in his eyes. The kid had a rough life, if that amount of mistrust was engrained in him already.

"I just want to know why there's a kid crying on the bottom floor of my dorm," Jim said with a shrug.

"I'm not a kid and I'm not crying," the kid said, pulling his knees up to his chest.

He looked miserable, and Jim reached out to ruffle his hair. "Sure you aren't," Jim said, ignoring the way the kid flinched away from the touch like an abused animal who was waiting to be hit. "If you're not crying, then what are you doing here?"

"None of your business."

Jim shrugged, starting to take notes over the chapter. Abused animals lashed out at everyone, even people who were trying to help. He'd tried to feed enough stray cats that he'd learned that lesson well enough. He also knew that if he ignored the cat long enough, it would get curious enough to risk coming out of hiding. Jim was patient. He'd get the cat eventually.

He felt the kid staring at him, but didn't look up. He took notes on Roman warfare and strategy diligently. He could have used a few of the books at the library to help with his essay, but he could get those later if he still needed them.

"What are you doing here?" the kid asked finally after a few minutes of silence.

Jim hid a smile as he looked up, seeing the kid uncurled and trying to spy at his book. "So you can ask me questions, but I can't ask you? Doesn't seem fair."

The kid ducked his head, staring at the floor. He didn't apologize, but the tension that had seeped out of the kid's shoulders came back. Jim sighed internally, recognizing the step backwards. "I'm taking notes for my paper on the Roman military," Jim said.

The kid didn't ask for more, and Jim went back to the notes. It was much harder to concentrate when the kid started fidgeting, but he faked it well enough. "Why are you here?" the kid asked suddenly, uncertainty in his voice.

"Studying," Jim replied again, feeling like he was stating the obvious.

Now the kid was getting frustrated again. He gestured wildly with his hands, glaring at the desk when he accidentally whacked it. "No, I mean, why here? You're just sitting on the ground in the middle of the hallway! Why are you doing this?"

"You seemed pretty keen on the spot, so I figured I might as well try it too," Jim said, grinning. It wasn't the answer the kid wanted, but Jim knew saying he was sitting here because a thirteen year-old was crying under a desk wouldn't win him any prizes. "What are you doing here?" he tried again.

"Nothing," the kid answered, not meeting Jim's eyes.

Hiding, Jim supplied mentally. "Fair enough," he said aloud. "What are you doing on campus? Visiting someone?"

The kid stuck out his tongue. "I'm getting my Bachelor's," he said smugly.

Jim was very glad that he hadn't been drinking anything. If he had, he'd have just spat it out and gotten some up his nose from laughing. "Yeah, right. You're what, thirteen?"

"I'm fifteen!" the kid said, crossing his arms in front of him defensively. "And it's true."

Before Jim could argue, the kid snatched one of his books - Advanced Physics, a class Jim had a test in a few days from now - and flipped to the back. He picked one of the hardest questions he could find (and one that Jim would admit went straight over his head), and started scribbling out equations. In the textbook. But Jim was too stunned to really tell him to knock it off. After a minute of scribbling, he pushed the book back with an air of smugness. "You can check the answer in the back," the kid said.

Jim did, and he was surprised to see it was right down to five decimals. He whistled softly. "So you're in college at fifteen. That's..." Lonely. He looked at the kid's black eye and wondered how many friends he had.

The kid preened. "Impressive?"

"Over-achievement," Jim finished, smirking at the kid's scowl. "Come on, genius. Come out from there and I'll see what I can do for that shiner. I'm sure I can make an ice pack out of something here."

Uncertainty was clear in the kid's eyes. Uncertainty and suspicion. "I'm fine," the kid said, but it was a weak assurance at best.

"Suit yourself." Jim shrugged, going back to his reading.

"Are you going to be here all night?" the kid asked incredulously.

"Sounds like a plan to me. You're welcome to leave at any time," Jim replied.

"You're crazy."

"Nah, I'm Jim. Jim Rhodes." He offered his hand to the kid, who just looked at him curiously. When the kid didn't take it, he pulled back and went on reading about the Romans.

He didn't end up studying for his physics test, because the kid stole his textbook to read, but that was okay. He got the first two pages on his essay done, and the kid didn't start crying again, so Jim counted it as a good night.

* * *

The next day Jim asked around. Then he felt like an idiot, because of course he'd heard of Tony Stark. Who hadn't? MIT had made a huge deal of it early in the semester. Why he didn't connect the two earlier was a question that made him want to smack himself on the head. He supposed because in all those articles, no one ever mentioned that the rich kid hid under desks to cry by himself.

Tony Stark, child prodigy. Of course he could do complex equations in a matter of seconds. Probably less time, if he didn't have to write it all out. The kid was a genius and ridiculously rich and famous, and his questions about the papers suddenly made more sense. Jim thought back, and he remembered two of the girls in the sorority he partied with occasionally giggling over a gossip rag. He remembered something about bullying too. Stuck-up brat, mouthy little rich boy, spoiled rotten, and genius were all words that got thrown about.

Jim never heard the words 'lonely' or 'scared', and he nearly threw a punch when some asshole sitting one table over said Tony probably deserved being beat up.

He came home late the following day, too tired from his workout to do much of anything than flop on his bed and pass out. The next night though, he packed a few snacks and the chemistry book he'd checked out from the library, walking down the stairs as he balanced his books.

He honestly wasn't expecting to find the kid there again, despite his fore-planning, but sure enough, Tony was curled up under the desk and doodling something that looked like some sort of circuit board. It was a good hiding place, if Jim were honest. No one actually looked under the desk, and it was deep enough that a small fifteen-year-old could easily stay hidden.

"Hey," Jim said, sitting down as he had before. Tony started, clutching the paper against his chest as if he expected Jim would tear it apart.

Jim really didn't like to think about how Tony had gotten that particular instinct.

"What are you doing here?" Tony asked, his voice more accusing than curious. "I don't need your help!"

"Never said you did. I'm here to study," Jim said, gesturing to his books. "What does it look like?"

Tony didn't say anything to this, watching Jim suspiciously. Jim didn't mind, picking up his physics book and going over his notes for the test tomorrow. He left the other books he'd brought within reach of Tony.

The kid scribbled on his drawing for a few more minutes, before attempting to stealthily steal one of Jim's books. Stress on the word 'attempting', but Jim didn't let on that he'd noticed. You had to ignore the stray until it came to you, after all. He was surprised that Tony picked up his military history textbook rather than the chemistry book though. Jim considered it. Tony probably already knew Chemistry and Physics. He might want something new to read, even if it wasn't science.

Jim could do that, bring in new books for Tony to read, if this was going to become a regular thing. Jim didn't think about how easily this had become a long term project. He could hear his mother screaming about how he needed to stop feeding stray cats he came across, but he ignored it and went back to studying.

After about half an hour, he offered Tony a cracker. Tony looked at it suspiciously, so Jim ate one himself then set the package between them. They were cheap crackers that he'd bought at the little grocery store on the corner, so they weren't anything fancy, but they were good to munch on while studying.

He watched covertly with some amusement as Tony hesitantly took one, making a face as he bit into it. Jim guessed it wasn't the usual millionaire fare. But Tony didn't complain, and he ate a few more of the crackers anyway.

At the end of the night, his essay on the Romans came back with bits of the book Tony had underlined and little notes saying these were better examples. Jim would have been annoyed, but yeah, they were better examples, and he wasn't above accepting help on his homework from a fifteen year-old if said fifteen-year-old was a genius.

As long as Tony didn't mention it to anyone, at any rate.

* * *

Tony, it turned out, wasn't nearly as quiet and sullen as he'd been the first few times Jim found him. After he realized Jim really wasn't talking to the papers, Jim's study time was effectively halved. Tony talked about the things he made (a new engine, a better battery, but he really wanted to build a robot, even if his dad wouldn't approve. The list went on, and it was enough to blow Jim's mind just what the kid was capable of), teachers that were idiots (mostly all of them, but Jim reminded him a few times that most people were idiots compared to Tony), textbooks that were wrong (and no, Tony, that's why Jim brought the post-it notes, so please don't write in the textbooks anymore), and how annoying people were in general (extremely).

Jim, for his part, listened. Tony never spoke of his family unless asked directly, and when he did mention them he cut off quickly. He sometimes talked about a man named Jarvis, but those moments were rare and hushed, like he might get in trouble for being emotionally attached to the hired help. He didn't talk about the bullies, or the bruises that Jim sometimes caught sight of, and Jim kind of wished that Tony would, if just to know who was doing it.

Tony was chatty, a bit of a brat, and he had almost no actual social skills beyond charming people to agree to his way, but he was also a pretty sweet kid who only wanted a bit of attention. So Jim brought by books, sometimes from his dorm, sometimes from the library, and Tony would talk, then read, and they'd eat whatever snacks Jim had remembered to bring. It was routine now, and Jim didn't mind cutting back on the weekend partying to make up for the lost study time.

"You're not a Jim kind of person," Tony said one day, wrinkling his nose.

"It's my name," Jim said with a shrug.

Tony stuck out his tongue. "It's not a good name."

"You could always call me James." Names didn't matter overly much to him. Most people called him Jim or Rhodes, but he'd answer to James easily enough.

"Even worse," Tony huffed, crossing his arms over his chest. He was sitting closer to the edge of the desk than usual, which Jim considered an accomplishment considering how closed off Tony still was at times. He hadn't gotten the kid to come out from under the desk yet, but he was getting there.

"Take it up with my mother," Jim said, stealing a cookie Tony had brought. They were the good kind, and he wasn't going to argue if Tony was going to spend money for them.

"I can't call you either of those," Tony stated. "How about... honey bear?"

Okay, maybe Jim did care about names. "No."

"Sourpatch?"

"Try again."

"Cracker Jack!" Tony said, grinning manically.

"No cereal or candy names," Jim said with a groan. "If you have to, you can call me Rhodes."

Tony considered it, humming thoughtfully. "Rhodey."

"Rhodey?" He supposed there were worse nicknames. Tony had just listed a few.

"Rhodey is acceptable. You're a Rhodey sort of person," Tony said sagely.

"Whatever that means," Jim grumbled, but he resigned himself to the name. He could admit that he did like how it sounded, and it wasn't quite as impersonal as just using his last name would have been.

"Sugar pie!"

Tony laughed as Jim threw a cookie at him, but Jim didn't actually mind that much.

* * *

"Where is the brat?" someone yelled.

Jim stilled. He'd been walking up to his dorm when he noticed the two football players and an upperclassmen who outranked Jim in ROTC in the hallway.

"He always disappears around here," the other football player said. "That little shit is going to pay for-"

"Relax," the upper classman said. "We'll find Stark, then we'll make sure he never messes with us again. We'll see if he likes the itching powder when it's rubbed in after a few rounds."

Jim took a moment to consider. His first thought was 'Damn it, Tony, don't go looking for trouble!' His second was 'Fuck, they're searching the dorm."

His eyes immediately went to the desk, but if Tony was there, he was pressed against the back of it. Jim wasn't sure he could take all three of these guys by himself either. He was no push over in a fight, but two quarterbacks could tackle him down before he had the chance to do anything.

It was the same as back in high school, but this time Jim felt his resolve waver. The upperclassmen could get him in trouble. If he...

Jim thought about Tony's smile, and the black eye Tony had sported the day they met. He couldn't walk away this time.

Jim walked in, not glancing under the desk or at the other guys as he walked by. But he paused half way in, going back to the desk as if something had caught his eye as the guys started to search. He rifled through the contents of the desk, not seeing anything worth taking, but he picked up an old can opener anyway. "You guys looking for something?" Jim asked, checking the edge of the can opener. It was busted, and he was half tempted to toss it.

"None of your business," the larger of the two quarterbacks shot back, glaring at Jim as if he were an infection. Jim resisted the urge to roll his eyes at the jock. Whatever Tony had done, these bastards probably deserved it.

Deciding to take the can opener anyway, Jim 'dropped' his pen as he straightened up, cursing as it rolled under the desk. He kneeled down to pick it up, maybe reassure Tony that he was here. If worst came to worst, he'd keep them busy long enough for Tony to make a break for it.

But when he glanced up, no one was hiding under there. Jim let out a sigh of relief. Tony must have seen them coming and made it out.

Feeling much better about his busted can opener, Jim smiled as he walked out. None of the guys even noticed. He supposed there were some perks to them being idiots, since it never occurred to them that a black guy would hang out with a rich white kid. Though admittedly, it was a bit of a stretch even for Jim.

Jim decided to put his books down and go out the back to search for Tony. There might be more guys out there looking, and he bit his lip to keep back the worry that one of them might get lucky. When he opened his door, however, Tony was on the other side, grinning up at him. "Rhodey!"

The kid was a little taller than Jim had expected, now that he wasn't curled up under the desk. He was so surprised that it took him a moment to register anything past that. "How did you get in?" Jim asked suspiciously as Tony dragged him in and shut the door.

"The guys downstairs followed me, so I picked the lock!" Tony said with an impish grin.

"You broke in?" Jim asked, torn between being impressed and highly frustrated.

"Yup! I'm also making your coffee machine more efficient, 'cause right now it blows."

Jim blinked. He rewound that last sentence and played it again in his mind to make sure Tony had said what Jim thought he had said. "You what?"

"So it's kind of in pieces right now, but I promise it'll be back together soon. It'll be better than before and-"

"Fix it," Jim ordered, frog-marching Tony over to his bed, which he now saw was covered in what he assumed was coffee machine parts.

"That's what I'm doing!" Tony said with a huff.

The ridiculousness of the situation hit Jim. He'd been terrified of Tony being found, of the consequences of his actions, and the fear of not being enough anyway. And here Tony was, taking apart his coffee machine and making himself right at home and Jim had a busted can opener. He had the sudden urge to grab Tony and hug him, making Tony promise not to worry him like that again.

Except Tony still hadn't really come out from under the desk willingly, and he was still as skittish as an abused stray. So Jim held back, tossing the can opener in the trash and sitting on the only portion of his bed that was clear of parts (were those grease stains on his sheets? He was going to strangle the brat one of these days). He glared at Tony until the coffee machine was put back together.

He didn't hide the smile that flitted across his lips any time Tony looked up though, not even when he was supposed to be angry. At first, Tony looked surprised. The tentative smile he got in return was worth it.

* * *

After that, Tony slowly started breaking into Jim's room more often. It got to the point where it was a fifty/fifty chance if Jim would find him under the desk or sprawled out on Jim's bed. He saw the kid on most weekdays and occasionally on the weekends too now.

Then Tony stopped coming completely.

At first, Jim thought nothing of it. Tony was bound to have something come up or a day where he just didn't feel well. Jim himself had missed a day here or there when class ran late or he had a date (he'd taken to spending the night at Jenny's house if they were going past first base, because he didn't think he could handle Tony breaking in on them messing around and Tony was terrible at missing socks and other indicators left in inconspicuous places). He let Tony know in advance when he could, but some things just came up.

At the end of the week when Tony still hadn't shown up though, Jim started to worry. "Dr. Koffman, has Tony Stark been in class this week?" Jim asked one of the professors Tony occasionally ranted about.

"Are you with the press?" Dr. Koffman asked with a bored tone.

"No, I'm just... I'm a friend. And I haven't heard from him all week so..." So Jim worried.

Dr. Koffman gave him a scrutinizing glare, but whatever he saw in Jim's face must have convinced him. He raised an eyebrow. "No, I haven't seen him this week. He skips a lot, but not this much."

"Thank you, sir," Jim said, biting his lip in worry as he rushed off to the next professor.

In the end, no one had seen Tony for the whole week, and Jim felt the knot in his stomach tighten. Jim asked around to find an address and resolved to visit Tony after class.

When he got to the apartment though, Jim was a little intimidated. To say it was 'upscale' was an understatement. Jim was always aware that Tony's family was rich, but Tony never looked the part, hiding under the desk in faded jeans and a T-shirt, or breaking into Jim's room with snacks gotten from the cheap convenience store down the street. Even the architecture here screamed that this place was fancy.

The guard wouldn't let him through, asking if Jim were lost and laughing hysterically at his own joke. Which, right. Black guy trying to get into a rich white neighborhood. Jim should have known better, even if the thought made him bitter. The guy wouldn't even let Jim call up.

Still, Jim waited for the guard to go back to his deck of cards, then effortlessly climbed the wall, lightly touching down on the other side. Jim gave a brief word of thanks to his Drill Sergeant for pushing them so hard through the obstetrical course, because the guard didn't even look up from playing solitaire.

Jim made his way to the fifth floor, ignoring the suspicious glances sent his way by the some of other tenants. Flipping them off wouldn't help him and he had to make sure Tony was okay. He was very tempted though. He figured Tony must be rubbing off on him.

At the door, he checked the number, then raised his hand to knock. Before he could, the sound of yelling came closer. "-useless like this. That's why we didn't tell you in the first place! Now you get your ass back to class on Monday!"

It was a male voice, deep and angry. It sounded familiar too, like something Jim had heard before on TV.

"I want to-" That was Tony's voice. He sounded upset, and Jim didn't know if he should knock or not.

"They called me here when I'm supposed to be at an important meeting today! It's just the butler, Tony. Get over it and go back to class or I'm pulling you out of college! Understand me?"

"That's not fair!"

"Do you understand me?" the older voice repeated.

"Yes, sir," Tony said. Jim could hear the anger in his voice, covered by the flippant tone. There was something else underneath it that Jim couldn't quite pinpoint.

"Good. Don't make me come back out here again," the voice said. He was coming closer to the door, so Jim stepped to the side. "I've wasted enough time on this temper tantrum you're throwing."

It was a good call to move aside, because the door nearly exploded open. A man stepped out - Howard Stark. Jim recognized him from some of the commercials and documentaries. It was impossible not to recognize the man. Mr. Stark didn't even look Jim's way. He was muttering as he left, not even bothering to close the door.

As Mr. Stark jabbed at the elevator button, Jim peered inside the apartment. Then he glanced back at Howard Stark, who didn't even look back as he entered the elevator.

With Mr. Stark gone, Jim hesitated. Tony probably wouldn't appreciate it if he knew Jim had heard all of that. He looked at his watch and waited five minutes. Everyone else on the floor was apparently waiting out the Stark-storm indoors, so at least there was no one around to stare at him.

The apartment was suspiciously quiet as Jim counted the seconds. Finally, he couldn't wait any longer. "Tony?" he called out as he rapped on the open door. There was no response, so Jim closed the door carefully and walked further in the apartment.

The apartment was just as grand as the rest of the place, positively reeking of wealth. There was the biggest TV Jim had ever seen in the corner, and all number of gadgets that Jim couldn't name scattered around.

The place also looked cold and uninviting. It was hard to believe anyone lived here, much less Tony. Hell, Tony had taken over a small corner of Jim's dorm that now was covered in spare parts and designs. There was none of that here, and now that Jim thought about it, Tony really couldn't spend much time here, not if he was always waiting under the desk or in Jim's dorm.

"Tony?" he called again, looking around more, this time ignoring the grandiose leather furniture and tech. When he didn't see his friend, he moved onto the hallway with several doors. One of them was open, and he saw Tony curled up on the bed, his shoulders shaking softly and his face hidden behind his knees.

"Tony?" Jim said again. "Are you alright?"

Tony started, nearly tumbling off the bed as he looked about wildly. Jim could see the tears running down his cheeks, and Jim was very glad Mr. Stark was no longer here. He wasn't so sure he'd have kept his temper and the man could probably afford really good lawyers. Not that he'd need them, Jim thought dryly.

Tony quickly wiped away the tears, though his shoulders were still shaking and his breath hitching in a way that had to be painful. "I'm fine! Go away!"

"You don't look fine," Jim said, hesitating in the doorway. He didn't know what to do. He didn't want to spook Tony, but he couldn't leave him alone either.

"I'm fine!" Tony yelled adamantly. "I'm useless, so it doesn't matter anyway. Just go away!"

Jim's mouth set into a firm line. He should have knocked when he first heard the raised voices. He should have come in sooner. He walked over to the bed and sat down, pulling a shocked Tony against him. "You're not useless," Jim said firmly. "And you're not fine. What happened?"

Tony struggled once the shock wore off, but Jim held on. It was a feeble attempt, and Jim fought down the worry of how little Tony had eaten this week. The kid looked pale and drawn, and he knew Tony was stronger than this.

Finally, Tony gave in, sobbing against Jim's shoulder. That was new. Jim had never really dealt with this sort of thing before. Jim panicked quietly, but he held on. He should be saying soothing things, shouldn't he? "It's okay," Jim said, forcing his mouth to move. "Shh. It's okay. You're not useless."

He repeated the litany of reassurances, letting Tony cry himself out. It was a little creepy how Tony barely made a sound as he cried, silent tears only interrupted by a hitched breath every so often. Jim could only guess where and when Tony had learned that skill, and he didn't like his guesses.

Finally, Tony's shoulders stopped shaking. Jim fell silent, letting Tony calm down.

"He's dead," Tony said eventually, his hand tightening around Jim's shirt. Jim stiffened, but waited for more. Tony didn't say anything further.

"Who's dead?" Jim asked eventually, though he had a suspicion.

"Jarvis," Tony said in confirmation. "It was a heart attack. But they didn't tell me, because they didn't want me to miss school. So they had the funeral, and I was here doing useless things. I wasn't there, and now Jarvis isn't here, and-"

"Shh," Jim said. Tony snapped his mouth shut as if that could close the flood gates that had opened. "I..." Jim swallowed, trying to think of what to say. Because that was a really shitty thing to do to a kid. How could any parent do that? "I'm sorry, Tony."

"Would he be angry with me?" Tony asked, pulling back just enough to look up at Jim. His eyes were red and still wet, and Jim ached a little to see it.

Jim reached up, wiping away the tear trails. "Why would he be angry?"

Tony looked down. "I wasn't there. And I'm... I skipped class, and I was crying, and I'm..."

"You're not useless," Jim said.

"But I wasn't there. And Dad said-" Tony started hesitantly.

"You're grieving. That's not useless. Not at all," Jim replied firmly. "And if I were Jarvis, I wouldn't be angry with you. I'd be angry with your parents for not giving you the choice to be there. But never at you, and especially not because you were crying."

Tony was a pretty bright kid, and now that he was calmer, Jim could see him applying logic to the situation, even if the logic didn't quite add up to how he felt. Hesitantly, almost like he thought Jim would push him away, Tony leaned back against his shoulder. "It's not fair, Rhodey. It's not fair," Tony said. "I wasn't there."

Jim held Tony tighter. "I'm sorry," Jim replied. It was inadequate, but it was all Jim could think of to say. He hoped it was enough.

Tony didn't say anything more after that, but that was okay. Jim hated to think of Tony dealing with this by himself for the past week. But he wasn't alone now, and Jim would make sure Tony got out of this depressing apartment more.

Jim may not have had a clue of what he was doing anymore, but he'd be damned if 'Rhodey' didn't step up to the plate.

* * *

A month later, Jim was dumped. The one problem with having a fifteen-year-old as a best friend (and Jim was willing to admit Tony had become that, because the kid needed someone) was that when Jim wanted to get rip-roaring drunk, he was out of luck. It was one thing for him at age twenty to have a beer. It was another to get a beer with a fifteen-year-old who shouldn't even be in college in the first place.

But right now, Jim really, really, needed a stiff one. So he went out with some guys his age, let all of them know how he hated women, and got very, very drunk. Unfortunately for Jim, he'd forgotten about Tony's habit of breaking into his apartment as he stumbled in sometime past one am.

"Rhodey! Where have you - whoa. You got drunk without me?" The betrayal in Tony's tone was ridiculous.

"You're, like, fifteen," he slurred, shaking his head. That was a mistake because the world tilted dangerously when he did that.

"You're not legal either," Tony replied, crossing his arms and doing that pout that meant he usually got his way. It had a fifty/fifty chance of working on Jim, but right now he was too soused to care.

"Not the point, Tony."

"Then what is the point?" Tony asked, realizing that the pout wasn't getting him anywhere. "You said there was a movie on tonight that you wanted to watch."

He'd forgotten the movie. That'd been before he'd been dumped. "The point," Jim said as he dumped his jacket on a nearby chair. He missed, then debated if he should risk bending down to pick it up. He completely lost track of what he'd been saying.

"The point?" Tony asked dryly.

"The point is that Jenny doesn't want to date a guy in the military anymore," Jim said, bitterness seeping into his voice.

"Oh," was all Tony said, looking a little lost.

"Yeah." Really, his life was more depressing than he wanted to think about right now. Hence the drinking. Which proved he hadn't drunk nearly enough if he was using words like 'hence'. Or maybe that was a sign he'd had too much. Hard to tell at this point.

"It's all good though. I don't need women. Who needs women anyway?" He leaned back on the bed, his head swimming.

"Um..." Tony said intelligently.

"I'm just gonna..." Jim said, closing his eyes. He was out before he finished the sentence.

When he woke, Tony was gone. It was seven hours later, so that was no surprise. At least, he thought it was seven hours later. It was hard to tell when he had a pounding headache and could only squint blearily at the clock. Then he looked at the clock again and realized he was late for inspection.

Swearing colorfully, Jim ignored the hangover and shot out of bed. He got the chewing-out of his life from his CO, but he also got a commiserating pat on the back afterwards, so someone must have explained his failure in his love life. Jim didn't know whether to be mortified or relieved that it was getting him a lighter punishment on the grounds that it didn't happen again.

By the time he had a second to think about Tony, he felt a little guilty. He'd not only blown Tony off last night, but he'd passed out on him too.

Once his headache subsided to a dull throb, Jim looked for Tony in the usual places. His headache and his heart hurt like a bitch, but hanging out with Tony would make him feel better. But Tony wasn't in the usual spots.

Jim thought back to the night before. Well, what he could remember of it. Had he been an ass to Tony? He didn't think it had been too bad, but Tony can get awfully touchy sometimes. Jim sighed, realizing he was going to have to make the trek to Tony's seldom used apartment. In the sun. Damn it. Tony had started wearing obnoxious sunglasses at all times just to piss Jim off, but he'd have given anything to have stolen a pair of them right now.

After half an hour of self-loathing and sulking, Jim finally made it up to Tony's apartment. He did smirk as the guard from the first night practically saluted him as he went through. There were some perks to being friends with the most influential and moneyed tenant of the complex. All Jim had to do was walk out in uniform with a chatty Tony excitedly explaining his plans to make a robot, and the man started sweating after a well-placed glare that went over Tony's head. Served him right for making racist judgements.

But nothing prepared Jim for Tony opening the door and smoke billowing out behind him. "Jesus," he said over Tony's coughing as he waved the smoke away. "Why isn't the fire alarm..? Come on! We need to get out of here!"

Jim grabbed Tony's wrist to drag him out, but Tony shook his head and didn't budge. "It's just the oven," Tony said with another cough. "I opened the windows."

"Why is the oven making this much smoke?" Jim asked, still not convinced that he should let Tony back in there without the fire department's approval. Why had Tony been toying with the oven anyway? It's not like he even cooked.

"I turned it off," Tony said instead of explaining. "Anyway, let's go for uh... donuts! Donuts are good, right? We can have donuts."

"Why are we getting donuts?" Jim asked intelligently. Still, it was better than letting Tony go back in there, so he let Tony start dragging Jim along. "Shouldn't you call someone about that?"

"It'll be fine. It's just 'cause the cookies burnt," Tony said as if that were obvious, waving off Jim's concerns.

How much had Jim drank last night? Because he could have sworn that Tony Stark said he'd been making cookies, which was just ridiculous.

But Tony was scrunching up his face as though a particularly annoying equation was vexing him. "Which shouldn't have happened, because I'd timed it right. But the first batch didn't taste good, and the second was burnt. The third one didn't cook evenly, so it was hard on the edges but too gooey in the middle. Then I tried to take the oven apart to make it heat better, and the fourth batch did that." Tony waved back to the apartment they were rapidly leaving behind, then ran a hand through his wildly mussed hair, sounding frustrated. "It's just chemistry, right? So why isn't it working?"

"Man, that ain't the question," Jim said, wondering if he'd stepped into some sort of evil mirror verse like that one episode of Star Trek Tony had made him watch. "The question is why the hell are you making cookies?" Tony had never had a problem with going out and buying whatever food he wanted before. What changed?

Tony stopped walking, dropping Jim's hand and looking nervous. "Whenever I was upset, Jarvis would..." Tony looked down, swallowing thickly. Jim reached around and pat Tony on the back comfortingly. "Jarvis would make cookies whenever I was upset. So I thought that since you got dumped, I should make you cookies too. Except it didn't work, so I'm sorry. Because I tried but I still didn't-"

"Hey, slow down there, kiddo. Take it easy," Jim said, cutting off a now glaring Tony. Maybe he shouldn't have used 'kiddo'.

Tony had been making cookies for him though? That was surprisingly sweet. The kid looked like he hadn't slept at all last night, now that Jim had time to notice and there wasn't smoke obscuring his vision. Had Tony been trying to make cookies ever since Jim had passed out?

It was ridiculous, over the top, sweet, and so very Tony. Jim was a little speechless and a lot touched that Tony had been trying so hard just for him, even if it was misguided.

"I'm sorry, Rhodey," Tony said, looking down again. "I couldn't get it right."

Jim pulled Tony into a one-armed hug. "You've got nothing to be sorry about, Tony," Jim said with a warmer smile than he'd thought possible so soon after the break-up. "Donuts work just as well. You didn't mess up."

"Really?" Tony asked, his eyes looking painfully young in a way that Jim could only describe as affection-deprived. "I have alcohol back home. Scotch and whiskey and even some vodka, so we could go back after we get donuts and-"

"I'm not getting drunk with a minor," Jim said, even though he knew it was only a matter of time before Tony wore him down. He was going to a special kind of hell for this. But for once, Jim didn't mind so much.

"I'm not a kid, Rhodey!" Tony said indignantly, picking right back up where he'd left off from dragging Jim to the nearest Dunkin' Donuts.

Tony ended up buying three of every kind of donut, and they ate until Jim could literally eat no more. Then a quick trip to Tony's apartment to grab the alcohol - because the smell of smoke was still too strong there to stay - and getting drunk in Jim's dorm room.

Tony only needed one glass of scotch (of course it would be scotch. He was a millionaire. Jim would have to have a conversation about cheap beer later) before he was out like a light against Jim's shoulder. It was a good day, and he really hadn't thought about the break-up since Tony let all the smoke out when he opened the door.

Life didn't suck quite as much anymore, and Jim knew who he had to thank for that. Even if Tony's methods were a little unorthodox. Maybe having a stray wasn't such a bad idea after all.

* * *

The end of the semester was nearing, and Jim was looking forward to Christmas break. Tony was acting oddly through, more and more withdrawn. Jim was getting a little worried, especially when Tony didn't show up as frequently.

So he spent the day searching for a suitable present for a rich kid with attention-starvation. He settled on a racing video game, since he could play it with Tony and he knew he'd seen an unused video game console when he'd been at Tony's apartment. He was willing to bet he'd get his ass kicked if Tony really got competitive, but he was willing to be a good loser so that Tony would smile.

That taken care of, Jim made his way over to Tony's apartment after his afternoon workout. There was no answer when he knocked, but that wasn't unusual if Tony was working on something. Once, Tony suggested breaking in like he did with Jim's dorm. When Jim pointed out that a black guy breaking into a white kid's apartment looked way worse than the reverse situation, Tony had just sighed and given him a key.

When he walked in though, Tony was nowhere in sight. "Tony?" Jim asked, walking through the rooms as he looked for Tony. Rooms. Plural. Jim had fought to get a single dorm and it was only one room. And yet, Tony preferred it there to here. Sometimes Jim didn't understand that kid.

Tony was in the kitchen of all places. "Don't tell me you're trying to make cookies again," Jim said, leaning on the doorway.

When Tony looked up, Jim knew something was wrong. Tony's eyes were unfocused, blown like he'd been - "You are not supposed to be drinking alone," Jim said disapprovingly. That'd been part of the deal, when he'd agreed to letting Tony drink with him. But when he stepped forward to take the glass of scotch away, he saw a metallic glint and froze.

"Tony," Jim said, struggling to keep his voice calm. "Why do you have a knife?"

"Dun' wanna go home," Tony slurred, looking down. No, not looking down. Looking at his wrists, Jesus Christ.

"Tony, give me the knife," Jim said, carefully walking forward and pausing to see if Tony reacted. Tony didn't, either to move away or to move the knife closer to his major arteries.

"Jarvis isn't there anymore," Tony said, not looking up.

"Tony, you're scaring me here, man," Jim admitted as he slowly shifted into the seat next to the kid. He wasn't sure he was successful in keeping fear out of his voice though.

"Rhodey?" Tony asked, blinking up at him with a blank stare.

"Give me the knife," Jim said as firmly as he could manage, trying not to think of how drunk Tony was and alcohol poisoning. What were the signs of alcohol poisoning? God, he wished he'd payed attention to what those pre-meds had been talking about rather than their cup size. One problem at a time.

Tony was quiet for a few minutes before he put the knife on the table. Jim didn't hesitate now. He grabbed for it like a lightning strike, then pushed it off the far end of the table. Once the knife was gone (Jesus, thank God), Jim grabbed Tony and pulled him into a tight hug. "Don't you dare," Jim said, surprised to hear how choked his voice sounded. His eyes stung, but he didn't let go of Tony long enough to wipe the tears away.

Tony was still and pliant in his arms. Asleep? What were you supposed to do for alcohol poisoning? Should he call 911? God, he could smell the booze reeking from Tony. "Tony are you-"

"I dun wanna go back," Tony said, his voice breaking, and not in the amusing way that meant his voice was changing and Jim would tease him mercilessly for. Nearly couldn't tease again. Jim's mouth went dry.

"Then you don't have to," Jim promised. "If your parents insist-" which they wouldn't "-then you can go back for a day or two. But other than that, you could stay here. Or you could come back with me."

"I can go with you?" Tony asked.

"My family won't mind," Jim said. His mother was going to kill him, but he had the feeling she wouldn't say no if Jim mentioned the knife. How he was going to explain bringing home a rich white kid for Christmas was going to be an interesting conversation, but if he convinced Tony to behave and be charming to his mother at the very least, she'd probably forgive him in the long run.

"I don't have to go home?" Tony asked uncertainly.

"Not if you don't want to."

The tender moment was ruined completely by Tony throwing up all over him. Jim didn't know whether to laugh or to scream at Tony for being an ungrateful brat, throwing up on him after a promise like that. Except he couldn't help the still overwhelming relief whenever he thought of the knife that laid on the kitchen floor. Jim got them both cleaned up the best he could (he was tempted to just dump Tony in the bath tub, but part of him was still too terrified to let Tony out of his sight) and made Tony drink at least two glasses of water before putting him to bed.


Jim changed into the workout clothes that he'd brought with him rather than stopping off at the dorm to drop them off. They were cleaner than the shirt Tony threw up on, at least. Then he found the bottle Tony had been drinking from and felt a bit foolish. That wasn't enough for alcohol poisoning, was it? He'd seen guys drink that much before, though none of them had been as small as Tony. At least he knew he didn't have to rush Tony to the nearest hospital.

Finally, he settled in for the night in a chair that he pulled up to Tony's bed. It was thick and plush, and he'd say this for rich white kids: they may be a handful, but at least their furniture was comfy.

Tony slept fitfully, tossing and turning, half waking every few minutes. Jim didn't sleep at all, even after the adrenaline wore off. He slipped out at one point to get a cup of coffee, but even then he was scared to leave Tony for too long. He kept thinking of the first time Tony had broken into his dorm, taking apart his coffee machine and smiling up at him impishly. How close had Jim been to losing that today?

Jim rushed back in as soon as the pot had finished, not leaving Tony's side for the rest of the night.

* * *

Jim glared stonily at Tony, who was finally blinking awake blearily, looking up at him. "Rhodey?" he said, wincing when his voice broke. It was hoarse, and Tony looked like a hangover had hit him clean across the courtyard, but he'd have been worse without the water Jim had forced him to drink.

Jim said nothing, crossing his arms.

"Why are you here, sourpatch?" Tony asked when he got an angry silence.

"How much of last night do you remember?" Jim asked.

Tony curled back under the covers, throwing them over his head. "Not much."

"You," Jim said, fury filling is voice, "do not get to drink alone."

This time it was Tony's turn to glare at him from under the covers. "Is that what this is about? I'm nearly sixteen. I don't need your permission to get drunk!"

"I don't care how fucking old you are, you do not drink alone again ever," Jim growled.

Tony pushed himself up enough to scoff. "Earth to Rhodey, high schoolers get drunk all the time. Why don't you pull the stick out of your ass and-"

"You had a knife," Jim yelled. That shut Tony up. A little softer, Jim continued. "You had a knife, and I couldn't tell if you would slit your wrists or let the damned alcohol kill you. If I hadn't found the bottle you'd been drinking to see how much you'd had, you'd be waking up in a hospital right now."

Jim felt the fear from last night returning and he balled his hands into fists. He'd kept his promise, and yet nothing had changed. Tony still wanted to die, the same as that kid in high school. What good was Jim doing here if he couldn't change that?

"Why do you care anyway?" Tony asked softly, not sounding surprised by the information.

Jim took a deep breath and counted to ten. "Because you're my friend, you idiot. Why else?"

Tony's head snapped up at that, his eyes going wide despite the pain Jim knew he had to be feeling with the motion. "I'm what?"

Jim felt the anger drain out of him as Tony Stark broke his heart a little more. "You're my friend, dumb-ass. I thought you were supposed to be a genius."

"I'm your friend?" Tony asked again, looking desperate for the reassurance. "I..."

Had Tony ever had a friend before? Too smart by half and with more money than he had sense, not to mention parents that barely acknowledged his existence. Jim had often thought Tony was lonely, but maybe he'd never realized how much.

"Yeah," Jim said, pulling Tony into a tight hug and ignoring the lingering stench of scotch and vomit. Tony winced at being jostled, but Jim didn't let him go. "You're a brat and you threw up on me. Plus I'm missing class for this. Only friends would stick around for stuff like this."

"Oh," Tony said. Jim didn't mention that the kid was practically trembling against him, because he didn't think that was an effect of the hangover.

"Don't scare me like that again," Jim ordered, his grip on Tony bordering on painful, but Tony didn't complain. "And don't ever drink alone. Promise me that, Tony."


"I promise," Tony whispered, swallowing loudly. "I'm sorry, Rhodey. I am. I just can't.... I don't want to go home."

"That's what you said last night." Tony tried to pull away from him at that, but Jim didn't let him. "That's why you're coming home with me for the holidays."

"I am?"

"You are," Jim said firmly, not taking no for an answer.

And just like that, the tension seeped out of Tony and he went limp in Jim's arms. He hid his face against Jim's shoulder with a shuddery breath. Jim rested his chin atop Tony's head, wondering if he was actually making a difference or if Tony would be back to contemplating the knife again tomorrow night. What was the point of all of this if he couldn't..?

But then Tony shifted in his arms, fidgeting and proving he was still alive. If he hadn't come over last night, would Jim still have this?

Jim didn't know if he could change things, but maybe this was enough for now. It didn't make up for his previous inaction, but maybe... maybe this time things would be alright. And if not, Jim would just have to hang around to stop Tony again. Stray animals were a big responsibility after all. Like his mother always threatened, if he'd taken one in, he'd have to be responsible for it. He thought back to Tony's smile as he described his plans for a new robot.

Maybe the responsibility wasn't such a bad thing after all.

~FINI~

Mem: Not sure if this is quite up to snuff (the characterization feels a bit off to me), but yay for more Rhodey.  Hopefully it was enjoyable regardless.

Quote of the fic:

"Without friends no one would choose to live, though he had all other goods."
-Aristotle (384 BC - 322 BC), Nichomachean Ethics

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