James meets him at MIT, a squirt of a kid with a mop of dark hair and wide brown eyes. He’s wondering if the kid is lost, because, sure, he’s lugging around a backpack that seems to be half his weight, but no way could anyone that young be attending the institute, whiz-kid or no, when the boy turns to meet his gaze. James, never one to back down even when he’s been caught, merely raises an eyebrow at him, then watches with mounting amazement as the kid strides over to him.
“You’re James Rhodes, aren’t you?” It’s certainly not the first time James has been recognized in public; the publicity surrounding his father becoming the first black man to bring his company into Fortune 500 status had made his face well-known, too. Still, this is blatant in the way the looks and whispers (usually awed, sometimes not) were not.
“Yes,” he says slowly, bemused, and the boy sticks his hand out.
“My name's Tony Stark, and I’m going to work for you someday.” James shakes Tony’s hand, and looks him in the eye, and believes him.
“I want you to know that this isn’t just because you’re my best friend,” Rhodey says - he hasn’t been ‘James’ in nearly four years, now - as Tony stares at the letter with wide eyes. “I mean, sure, that’s partially it. But you’re a damn good scientist, and as soon as you get out of the Air Force you’re mine.”
“This is,” Tony pauses, swallows. “This is a lot of money, Rhodey.” Tony’s too proud to accept charity, Rhodey knows, has known that since the end of their first semester together, when Tony was frantically pulling late-night shifts between non-stop studying because his dick father drank away his college savings and the Air Force was only covering half of his tuition, and yet still wouldn’t accept anything more than a free pizza from Rhodey, every once in awhile.
He claps Tony on the back, then, and grins down at him. “And you’ll deserve every cent of that salary, Tones.”
His parents and sister all die when Rhodey is 24, in a freak plane crash, and Tony takes advantage of his recently reached legal age to accompany Rhodey to the closest bar and get absolutely smashed together. “Y’can’t go into the Air Force,” Rhodey remembers telling Tony, sometime near 3AM. “I can’t lose you too.”
Tony just smiles at him, too sober and too sad, and two months after that he’s shipped off to an Air Force base in California.
Rhodey tells Obadiah that building a factory on the west coast is simply logical and, hey, why shouldn’t he build a house in Malibu, if he’s going to be there so often?
“I’m making you my liaison.”
Tony blinks at him, slowly, and Rhodey knows it’s not fair of him to be accosting the man before he’s even had his first cup of coffee, but the idea hit Rhodey last night and he’s excited. “Wha?”
“My liaison. From the Air Force to Rhodes Industries.”
Tony frowns, his expression crumpling up adorably as he tries to work through that statement. “What happened to that girl? Pepper?”
“She’s my PA, Tones. She’s taking care of enough, she can’t be the go-between Air Force and RI, too.” Rhodey steps just a little closer to Tony, taking advantage of the private housing that the Air Force’s resident genius has been gifted with. “This isn’t quite working for me, not yet, but it’s close.”
His eyes now clear and his grin bright, Tony nods. “This'll be fun.” Rhodey takes in his sleep-mussed hair and beaming smile, and slings an arm around his shoulders, and believes him.
Rhodey is having fun, right? He never really got to do much partying in college, too determined to live up to the Rhodes name and graduate with a bunch of honors to spare any time that could be used to study. Sure, he went to the football games and sometimes Tony would take him to some house party or another, but he never really partied. And now, well, now Obadiah’s making sure the company is running well, and Pepper’s managing his schedule, and Tony’s handling the military, and so Rhodey’s just making up for lost time. Rhodey is responsible, of course, his parents raised him right, he finishes his blueprints on time and meets with his R&D guys regularly and only skips board meetings occasionally. He trusts Obie and Pepper to keep things going while he (and Tony) blow off a little steam.
Rhodey doesn’t mean to go crazy, usually, but Tony the responsible military man usually ends up dragging him into more trouble than out, and whiskey is delightful, and even white girls are willing to indulge a black boy if he’s rich, and he’s having fun, okay?
He doesn’t realize how oblivious he’s become until he’s 32, and he is attacked in Afghanistan.
Rhodey wakes up and there is a bright light in his face and angry shouting in a language he never took the time to learn and a lancing pain in his chest. He passes out again, but not before remembering that Tony was in the caravan, too.
His chest hurts constantly, the ache of a foreign weight in his sternum, the horrible scrape of metal against bone if he twists too fast, the hot flame of infection and a fever that lasts a week, the burn in his lungs, in his throat, in his eyes from filthy water and too little air. Rhodey is stubborn, never backing down and never admitting that it hurts, never giving them any reason to think he’s going to crack, never going to sell out his country and his people.
Every once in awhile, though, he remembers that Tony is dead, and he gasps at the pain of it.
“This battery isn’t a permanent solution,” Rhodey mumbles to himself one night. He’s exhausted from another round of waterboarding, lying curled near the fire in an effort to allay some of the horrible aching in his chest. The car battery is carefully tucked next to his stomach.
Yinsen, across the fire, meets his gaze. “I am not sure there is a permanent solution for you, Mr. Rhodes.”
Rhodey looks back into the flickering flames and remembers Tony’s dancing eyes, his laugh, his excited babbling about his latest theoretical project.
“Actually,” he says, slowly. “I think there might be.”
The arc reactor glows with pure blue light and when Yinsen slots it into his chest Rhodey thinks about telling the doctor what this means, who this is a momento to, about the young genius the world rarely recognized since he grew up poor, about the boy with constantly-mussed hair and a beaming grin that he shared freely, about the man Rhodey would give his life to bring back, about Tony.
He stays silent.
The metal is heavy and cold around him and Rhodey hopes desperately that it will not become an iron coffin as he blasts his way through the doors. It is the first time he has stepped out of the cave-turned-prison of his own volition. Even that simple act of freedom almost takes his breath away.
And then he really can’t breathe, because there’s Yinsen, there’s his savior, his co-conspirator, his friend, and he’s bleeding, far too much, from the chest and the head and the mouth, and he smiles at Rhodey and tells him not to waste his life and then he is gone.
Rhodey is ruthless as he leaves, burning down weapon stockpiles and his captors alike, and his primitive rocket thrusters propel him away from the cave just as it explodes.
For a few brilliant, blinding moments, he is free, soaring through clear blue skies and this is wonderful, this is magnificent, this is freedom at last.
And then the rockets sputter, die, and he is falling.
It’s the afternoon of the second day, and Rhodey’s not even sure he’s headed in the right direction. He trudges on anyways, pulling one foot in front of the other because if he collapses he will not get up. The sand is almost as bright as the sun, but he keeps his eyes fixed on it anyways, and adjusts his makeshift headwrap, and keeps walking.
And then, in the distance, the distinctive whir of helicopter blades. Rhodey blinks up at the sky, and it takes him a moment to even realize what the growing black dot is. And then he’s running, screaming, waving his hands at the sky, and the helicopter, his salvation, is turning towards him, is slowly lowering onto a sand dune. Rhodey drops to his knees. The sand burns through his pants, but he can’t bring himself to care. And then. And then there’s Tony. There’s Tony, jumping from the open door of the helicopter and sprinting towards him, and it’s impossible, Rhodey knows it’s impossible, he saw the humvees blow up, he saw the soldiers die (so much death, and all of it his fault), but the impossible-Tony is collapsing in front of him, is drawing Rhodey into a desperate hug, and it feels real.
It takes a moment to register that Tony is speaking, saying in a stumbling rush of words, “I knew you were alive, I never stopped looking, I knew it, and here you are, oh god, here you are, and you’re okay, you’re alive, oh god.”
Rhodey pulls back, puts shaking hands to Tony’s cheeks and feels wetness and this is real. “I thought you were dead,” he says, numb, and Tony pulls him back in again.
“I’m fine, I’m perfect, and so are you, you’re safe now.”
And the arc reactor still throbs with pain in Rhodey’s chest, and someone’s been double-dealing behind his back, and somewhere there are more stockpiles of his weapons, but right now Rhodey leans into Tony and believes him.