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Sometimes Jim forgets why it’s best that Tony has the spotlight all the time--he watches Tony playing the public, grinning that grin that sucks people in, all hand-shaky hand-kissy and patting the kids on the head. He watches all the thrilling heroics that Tony pulls off with this damn ease that ends up looking like elegance, with bruises that are never ugly, just manly, and send Julia into ecstasies of worrying. He sees all that, and sometimes he thinks, “Goddamn, I could do that.”

When that happens, he almost gets back into his War Machine armour.

But he remembers how a guy having a panic attack inside a giant ammo-filled hunk of metal is neither a brilliant idea nor good PR, and he stays at the controls of the aeroplane and makes sure he’s there for backup.

When Tony comes in from his latest crazy-ass fight with the forces of A.I.M.--“We’ll take over the world by infiltrating NASA and stealing their data! By hiring Hypnotia to make the guards do the actual robbery! Blizzard and Blacklash will cover them!” Like that’s either a brilliant scheme or remotely likely to succeed, seriously--he gets in without staying in radio contact. Jim ends up catching sight of him in the monitor as he powers down in the lab, panting.

Jim gets there a minute later, the doors swooshing open for him obediently.

“Tone! You okay?”

“Yeah, yeah, nothing I can’t handle. He hit me pretty hard, though.” The armour slides away, piece after piece, back into its suitcase mode. The bruises starting to show up on Tony’s skin don’t look quite as picturesque as usual, and he grabs Jim’s shoulder to hold himself up. “Will you give me a hand back to the house? I think I need to put a few steaks on these shiners.”

“Yeah, like maybe a whole cow. Jeez, Tone, you look terrible.”

“It’s nice to see your pretty face, too.”

“Something different about the armour to-day?”

Tony shakes his head. “I don’t know, I guess I’m just feeling my age.”

“Well, old-timer, it’s time for some R and R.”

When they get back to the beach house--Tony announces that he doesn’t feel like the city to-day--Jim lets them in with his spare key. He has spares to all of Tony’s homes and labs, ever since Force Works disbanded. You never know when something’s going to happen, and since he makes up fifty percent of the backup now, they both figured it would be best if he could get anything Tony needed at a moment’s notice. Julia has spares to the labs, but not the homes.

He helps Tony to the couch and goes into the bar to get ice and a martini, since Tony announces that he won’t be able to survive another second without alcohol in his bloodstream.

“Hey, that’s nice, man. What if something happens?”

“What’s going to happen? We never get more than one incident a day. I filled the quota. Besides, if there’s a problem, you’ll take care of it.”

“That’s a great attitude.”

“I always thought so.”

“Shaken or stirred?”

Tony makes a face. “I thought you knew all my preferences. Stirred.”

“Yeah, I guess putting stuff in a metal can and then shaking it up real hard doesn’t exactly sound like your cup of tea.”

“See, you know me.”

“I guess.” Jim returns with the ice and the drink, and Tony takes them both, settling the ice onto his shoulder. “So, did old Hard Drive have any words of wisdom on the suit acting up?”

“Oh, power wasn’t at full capacity. I really took a beating out there to-day, Jim. I don’t need HOMER to tell me that. The more those creeps whale on a guy, the more damage the suit takes, and the more likely one system or another is to fail. I diverted a lot of the power from the shields into my repulsor beams, and that left me more open to attack.”

“You know what? I even understood most of that. You’re talkin’ plain English, Tone, you must really be feeling bad.”

“I could use another drink.” He holds the already-empty glass out to Jim. “Get one yourself, if you’d like.”

An hour and seven martinis later, Tony is sitting up on the couch, his arm around Jim’s shoulder. He’s been growing his hair out, which at first Jim thought looked pretty stupid, but with it brushing against his cheek he feels a little more kindly towards it. He’s always kind of liked it when Tony gets close to him like that, hanging off him the way he does after a fight, an arm around Jim’s waist or his neck, the smell of sweat and metal under Jim’s nose.

Tony has all these girls just throwing themselves at him, Julia and Wanda and that physical therapist who’s practically a girlfriend, not to mention Hypnotia, of all people, and half the women in America. It’s always given Jim a good feeling, one that he tries not to look too closely at, that Tony picked him to be the backup, that he’s the one who got the War Machine armour, that he’s the one Tony wants to support him when he’s injured. It’s sure not because the girls aren’t competent, because Julia’s probably a hell of a lot more qualified than Jim is, and Wanda was never exactly a damsel in distress.

He’s just the guy lucky enough to be Tony’s best friend, and he really means Tony--not The Great Tony Stark, not Iron Man, but smart, inconsiderate, charismatic, jackass Tony.

Jim’s sort of lazily thinking about that when Tony lifts his head and says, with the hint of a slur, “Jim--I tried to kill you.”

“What?” Jim says. “Wait a second--Tone, what the hell are you talking about?”

“When I was trying to destroy all the Iron Man copies. I went after the War Machine armour. I nearly drowned you.”

“Oh, that. Jeez, I thought you were talking about something important. You were around the bend, totally out of it. No biggie.” He pats Tony’s stupid hair, awkwardly. “Nobody to talk to except Hard Drive, of course you decided to pull a stunt like that.”

“Jim, are you listening to me? I played on your biggest fear.”

Jim kicks his heel against the couch. “I’ve got bigger fears.”

“Bigger fears than being drowned inside your armour by your best friend?”

“Sure.”

Tony looks at him with those big, dumb, drunk eyes, all pathetic and self-loathing, and Jim gets a sinking feeling. “Like what?”

“Well,” he says slowly, “I worry that my best friend might get mashed like a potato in that tin can of his.”

“Iron, Jim. Not tin.”

“Okay, I’m scared that your stupid ass is going to get killed in that iron can.”

Tony smiles.

“And,” Jim says, “I’m scared that you ain’t gonna want me any more, since I don’t back you up in the suit much lately.” He folds his arms across his chest and glares at the martini glasses on the coffee table.

A moment later he feels Tony’s hand on his arm, and he turns. Tony’s looking at him all soft, that sweet look he used to give Julia all the time that meant they were going home together. Jim is still stuck in glaring mode when Tony kisses him.

It’s a long, practised kiss that tells Jim upfront it’s not the first time Tony’s kissed a guy, especially not the way Tony’s other hand settles at his waist at exactly the right spot. He guesses that shouldn’t surprise him, and in a way it doesn’t really. It doesn’t even bother him--he always knew Tony was a ladies’ man, no reason it shouldn’t work the same on the other end if he swings both ways. As a matter of fact, Jim kind of appreciates it, because it’s been a long time since he kissed anyone period, and having Tony knowing what he’s doing helps.

It takes a really long time before he has a chance to catch his breath and get a thought into his brain, by which time Tony already has him out of his shirt, but Jim stops him, pulling just out of reach.

“Hang on a minute, Tone. Maybe this isn’t a good idea when you’re drunk.”

Tony raises an eyebrow. “Half the time I’m drunk when I do this.”

“That’s really flattering, let me tell you. How about we hold off until to-morrow and see how you feel about it then.” He’s half afraid he’ll have cold feet by to-morrow, half-hoping Tony will insist, but he’s the responsible friend, goddammit. It’s his job to keep Tony from making bad decisions, as much as he ever can, anyway.

And, hell, all of him wants to be sure Tony’s serious, because if it’s the martinis that are Frenching him, well, Jim’s not that into gin.

“Besides,” he tells Tony, “you’ve taken a lot of damage to-day. You need to get some rest.”

“We could compromise with bed.” He grins at Jim.

“Listen, you may not have any standards, but I do, and I don’t do drunk people. Sleep it off, Tone. Then we’ll talk.” Jim stands, and tries to walk to the door without looking back, but he can’t help glancing over his shoulder to see what Tony’s doing.

Which is falling asleep.

Damn.

It shouldn’t surprise him to know Tony’s a jerk, but he still balls his hands into fists and shoulders his way out the door.

---

When he gets to the lab the next day, Tony’s car is the only one outside, although Tony himself is nowhere in evidence until Jim remembers the overnight room he put in when he got the place.

Sure enough, that’s where he is, pounding back coffee and talking to HOMER.

“Hey, sorry to crash your party, but--”

“Why does Mr. Rhodes say that he is sorry when he is not in fact experiencing feelings of contrition?” HOMER asks.

“Because I owe him a face inspection.”

“A what?” Jim frowns at them both.

“You bailed on me last night. Not a surprise, I suppose, considering my track record. Look, Jim, we’ve been friends for a long time. A very long time.”

“Yeah.”

“I designed the War Machine suit for you, nobody else. I’ve given you the keys to every single important thing in my life, except the company and my Corvette, because you don’t deserve her--”

“Hey, I’m a better driver than you, Mr. Sorry-Officer-I-Was-Going-Too-Fast-To-Read-The-Speed-Limit-Signs.”

“People aren’t meant to go forty-five in a Corvette, Jim. You know that I need my suit to survive--you know who’s under the suit. And you know I’d have you along on every single mission if you’d come.”

“I’m not War Machine any more. What’s your point with all this?”

“That you know me better than anybody.”

“I guess. So?”

“So you know I’m serious when I say last night wasn’t just me drunk. I was serious then. I just had no idea you felt that way--”

“Oh, come on, Tone,” Jim says, still frowning. Tony’s never pulled anything like the wedding to Julia on him, but he half-expects this to turn out like that. Besides, Jim’s never been real subtle with his feelings, even at the best of times. On the other hand, since he wasn’t even telling himself more than ‘Tony Stark best friend,’ in some kind of Hulk-speak mantra, it was possible Tony hadn’t been able to read him. “You’re telling me it just happens that we both are-- you know--”

“Well, it is statistically unlikely.” Tony grins. “HOMER could tell you better than I could just how unlikely.”

“To the eighth decimal place,” HOMER says proudly. “Er--to what statistic are you referring?”

“Never mind.” He shakes his head. “But since you’re obviously worried whether I’d be as convinced without the eight-martini cushion, let me clue you in.” He sets down his coffee mug and takes Jim’s arm, drawing him in, and kisses him, in the same knowledgeable way, like he knows exactly what Jim likes already and has no problem giving it to him. Jim has the same strained-breath feeling he gets when he puts on the War Machine armour, only right now he doesn’t mind it.

When they break apart, HOMER’s face is right up at them, his expression fascinated. “That is a considerably more thorough face inspection than the one you gave Miss Carpenter.”

“Yeah? Well, Jim deserves a thorough approach. Jim, can I give you the full inspection?” He grins again, that disgusting, in-charge-of-the-world grin he gets when he’s pleased with himself and whatever he’s doing. Jim figures he should punch him, just to keep him in check, but that’s definitely not what he feels like doing.

“Only if we get rid of Hard Drive.”

“HOMER, why don’t you go research attractive female AIs for a while? Do they have singles programmes for you guys?”

HOMER rolls his eyes--at least Jim thinks he does--and fades off into blue light that filters out of the room.

The overnight room is equipped for short-term living-in, with its tiny fridge, microwave, and sink, the little table and two chairs, and the bed that’s barely big enough for one person. Tony strolls over to it, but Jim hesitates.

“What about Julia?”

“It’s Sunday. Julia’s at home with her kid.”

“I guess you have everything figured out.”

“It’s not worth a lot unless I did it for a good reason. Otherwise I might as well settle for HOMER’s company.”

“You’re really serious about all this?”

“Yeah.”

“You’re not going to turn out to be a robot under your shirt?”

“Could a robot have kissed you like that?”

“You’re a smart guy, you could make it happen.”

“I wouldn’t do that to you. You’ve stuck by me after every single selfish, stupid mistake I’ve ever made. And I’ve made a lot.”

“Well, I’m glad you can admit it.”

“So how about I say thanks the way I’ve been wanting to for a long time?”

Jim just stands there for a minute, trying to think of all the ways this could be a bad idea, just in case there’s a really glaringly obvious one that he’ll have to think up a good excuse for, but he already has most of them covered. He goes over to the bed and sits down, and before he can say something dumb Tony kisses him again.

Tony kisses him long and hard, and god damn Tony is a good kisser, Jim’s so distracted he doesn’t even notice they’re out of their clothes until after the fact. Then he’s got other things to think about.

Things like, he might still feel a twinge of longing sometimes, but on the whole the spotlight’s never been all it’s cracked up to be, and it’s no big loss not to be there. Things like, spotlight’s always been all Tony’s anyway. Jim is finding out he likes it backstage.