By the time they turn into the Rhodes’ driveway, the world has turned into a solid wall of white around them. Halfway here from Boston, it had begun to snow and every mile that brought them closer to their destination had only made it worse.
Gripping the steering wheel, Tony wonders why they did not just take a plane. If Howard wants him home for Christmas, he could have sent one. Making a short stop to bring Rhodey home would not have made much of a difference.
Instead, they took a car. Rhodey’s rusty death-trap because he refused to take Tony’s old convertible – which was probably a sensible decision, considering the amount of snow around them. Tony is convinced that the car will be entirely covered if he gets out and has lunch with the Rhodes before getting on his way to New York.
“Stop thinking,” Rhodey exclaims from the passenger seat, looking as if he knows exactly what Tony is thinking. Well, he is staring balefully outside.
“That’s not actually possible,” Tony counters petulantly. “Also, I don’t have to think to know that I should not turn off the engine if I want to get anywhere today.”
Want has nothing to do with it, of course. Tony is excited to see Jarvis, but that is about it. His mother will probably only arrive in time for the Stark gala. He can imagine better things than to spend his holidays with a drunk Howard. Despite the big, empty mansion, they still usually manage to run into each other and ruin their day. Tony is not overly interested in talking about business either, since his ideas never seem to have any worth at all. All of that comes with being a Stark, though. He has given up on fighting about every little thing.
“We’re basically snowed in,” Rhodey says, causing Tony to roll his eyes at him stating the obvious. “You can’t drive in this weather.”
Tony could. Despite his love for breaking the speed limit, he is a safe driver. It probably helped that he spent years as a child being afraid of his drunk father behind the steering wheel.
“But I can’t stay here,” Tony says, dismayed at having to miss Rhodey’s family.
They are the best. Definitely on par with Jarvis, and that is the highest compliment Tony has to offer.
Rhodey stares at him pointedly, waiting until Tony gives up on glaring at the snow and looks up at him. “There’s worse places to be stranded at,” he says, daring Tony to argue.
“Of course,” Tony gives in easily. That small house, barely big enough for the four members of the Rhodes family and their giant hearts, might just be the most beautiful place on earth. “I just mean. Your parents are brilliant. I can’t –”
Trailing off, Tony shrugs. His protest is only perfunctory anyway. They both know he does not want to go home.
“You can’t what?” Rhodey prompts. He reaches out to take Tony’s hand, not fighting the grin pulling at his lips. “Sin under Mum’s roof? I’m certain she won’t be shocked by it.”
Tony allows Rhodey to tug him close. Their lips are soft on each other, causing the kind of warmth to spread through Tony’s chest that could melt all the snow outside. It is just a brief kiss, but it all but eradicates Tony’s resistance against staying.
“Don’t say that,” he mutters, hiding his face against Rhodey’s neck. He has learned from experience that if he hits the right angle he can hear Rhodey’s heartbeat like that, intermingling with the breath flowing into his lungs. The ultimate proof that Rhodey is there with him, that this is not just a dream.
They stay like that for several minutes, long enough that snow covers the entire windshield when Rhodey finally straightens. Before Tony can stop him, he turns the key in the ignition, killing the engine.
“Come on,” he prompts as if things are actually this easy.
Tony withdraws, his expression frozen. He can see the immediate displeasure on Rhodey’s face. “I can’t impose,” he argues. He does not think Rhodey’s parents would turn him away, but he does not exactly want to test that theory either. “It’s Christmas.”
“Yes,” Rhodey agrees without missing a beat, “and Christmas is for family. So you’re in the right place.”
Closing his eyes, Tony wishes he could just give in, could shut out the little nagging voice in the back of his head, warning him not to be a burden. “Rhodey.”
Rhodey’s hand settles on the side of Tony’s face, nudging him to open his eyes again. When he does, Rhodey meets him with a sad smile.
“I know, just trust me,” he says, gentle enough as if he is still afraid to spook Tony. “Let me deal with it.”
Tony trusts Rhodey. Apart from Jarvis, he might be the only one Tony feels comfortable with. Enough so to allow himself to be vulnerable, open. That is the reason he caves without any more protest.
The car doors open with some difficulty and they are greeted by a sharp wind pushing snowflakes through the gaps in their clothing, chilling them in a matter of seconds. Burying his hands inside his hoodie, Tony wades through the snow to the trunk, where Rhodey is already busy wiping the white mass to the ground to get their luggage out. A few minutes longer and Tony would have had to borrow clothes on top of everything else. Already, the trunk barely opens.
Their bags in hand, they go up to the door of the house. The way appears both longer and much shorter than Tony remembers while he wonders whether he should not just turn around.
The decision is taken from him when the door opens before they had a chance to ring the bell. Then he is face to face with Rhodey’s mother, who wears the same smile her son so often does, and she ushers them in without question, not minding the snow that follows after them.
“Mum,” Rhodey greets and that is as far as he comes before he is swept into a hug.
Tony watches with the same old mixture of bewilderment and jealousy that he always gets when watching Rhodey’s family and how they treat each other. No matter what they do, actually. It is just so different from what he is used to. All of Jarvis’ effort and kind-heartedness is not enough to recreate the open, happy love hanging in the air here.
“Mrs. Rhodes,” Tony says when she turns to him, an automatic smile on his face despite his worries.
“Roberta,” she corrects for the umpteenth time.
In the privacy of his mind, Tony can admit that he does it on purpose, every time, just to see whether he is still allowed to call them by their given names, whether he is still welcome in their home. He has no doubts that Roberta would throw him out without any qualms if she disapproved of him suddenly or if he hurt Rhodey, but it never hurts to check. The last thing Tony wants is to get on her bad side.
Then he has no more time for thoughts because Roberta is hugging him too. Out of all the feelings in the world, this is one of the best. A mother’s embrace. Tony might have scoffed at the concept in books, but right here, being held by someone who cares for him no matter his name or blood, makes him feel complete in a way his own parents never could. Only Rhodey’s hugs are better.
“You’ve lost weight again,” Roberta says, clicking her tongue when they separate. “It’s no wonder you’re not getting any taller.”
She musters him critically. While he is used to scrutiny, Tony still finds himself shrinking under her gaze. Her concern is a foreign thing, completely different to the uncaring stares of reporters and businessmen.
“Mum, stop teasing him,” Rhodey argues. He is smirking down at Tony without an ounce of consideration. “He’s sensitive about his height.”
The sharp protest lying on Tony’s tongue goes unsaid since that is the moment Rhodey’s father and sister arrive, and then Tony is busy being hugged by Terry too.
“Is that why you’re drawing attention to it any chance you get?” Rhodey’s sister, Jeanette, asks.
“Jean,” Rhodey cries out in mock dismay. “How is it you beat us here? Tony was driving like a maniac.”
Tony was driving very safely and slowly compared to what he is used to when he is not in Rhodey’s car. Before he can protest, Jean bumps into him in greeting while she grins.
“It’s all that stress from being barely able to look over the steering wheel.”
Jeanette is barely taller than him, so it is not fair that she would join the teasing so willingly. He is just about to join the fight, when Roberta puts a hand on his shoulder, squeezing it in that familiar way that has Tony wanting to sink into her arms again.
“Children,” Roberta admonishes, never losing her smile, “play nice.”
“Yes, Mum,” they say, all three of them, in unison, without hiding their grins.
And they are. For some reason, the entire Rhodes family seems to have a soft spot for Tony, which had made him suspicious right up until it had not and he gave up the fight of looking for hidden motives and begun to enjoy their attention instead. He has so few safe places already.
While they are taking off their boots, Rhodey asks, “Is it all right if Tony crashes here? He can’t drive to New York with all that snow out there.”
His tone is better suited to enquiring about the weather, and Tony goes very still, his fingers entangled with his shoelaces. There is no reason they would say no and yet he cannot help but worry. Christmas is for family, after all, and while Rhodey and Tony might view each other as that, Rhodey’s parents might want to be left in peace for the holiday.
“Of course, dear,” Roberta says, talking right over Tony’s panicked thoughts. Once he is upright again, she adds, “You’re always welcome here, Tony, you know that.”
Knowing and believing it are two very different things, however, and Tony grew up in a world where nothing is as it seems and everybody lies. It is hard to leave that behind.
“That means that you two can use that youthful energy and get us a tree,” Terry adds, eyeing the swirling white mass outside critically and does not even attempt to hide how glad he is he does not have to go out there again.
Christmas tree shopping, Tony thinks giddily. If they had a tree at the mansion, it was delivered. Sometimes, Tony had helped Jarvis to decorate it, but he has never chosen his own tree.
Roberta tugs at Tony’s hoodie – which is actually Rhodey’s hoodie but Tony does not plan on ever giving it back. “Tell me if you need warmer clothes,” she says, getting that glint in her eyes that means Tony is going to get thoroughly mothered during his stay. “Oh, and do you need two blankets or is one enough?”
The question comes so unexpected that a short silence falls between them while they try to make sense of it. One blanket? Why would they – Tony and Rhodey share a shocked glance, wondering whether Roberta is insinuating what they think she is.
“What do you mean, Mum?” Rhodey asks cautiously.
He stands next to Tony, close enough for them to lean into each other, but they keep a careful inch between them, frozen under his parents’ smiling gaze.
“You’re going to share the bed, yes?” Roberta questions full of misguiding innocence. Behind her, Terry hides a smile behind his hand. “I don’t want either of you boys to end up sick because you steal the blanket from each other.”
Humming, Roberta leaves for the kitchen, leaving her husband and daughter to grin smugly at Rhodey and Tony, who do not dare to move lest they admit anything.
“Bring your bags upstairs,” Terry tells them once he has his face under control again. “Lunch will be ready any minute now.”
He guides Jeanette out with him, likely to give Tony and Rhodey some privacy to recover from their shock – which Rhodey at the very least is not hiding well. Although Tony would not make any bets that he is faring any better.
They take their luggage and wait until they are up the stairs until they fall into a half-whispered discussion.
“You told you parents that we’re dating?” Tony hisses more than asks. “It’s been only two months. I can barely believe it.”
Worse than them not believing it would naturally if they disapproved. There is not much to approve of, really. Tony is the typical white, rich kid who has never had to fear consequences for what he is doing, which is why he happily keeps setting their dorm room on fire with prohibited experiments outside of the lab. His parents, for one, would not approve of Rhodey, which is why Tony takes care to keep them oblivious.
It is a strange feeling that Roberta and Terry would accept this, accept Tony with their son, who they love very much. Just like that
“I didn’t tell her anything,” Rhodey protests, although he does not sound suitably upset with the situation. Almost like he planned on telling them over the holiday.
“Then why is she going to put us in the same bed?” Tony questions despite being arguably thrilled he will have Rhodey to cuddle with. It is the principle of the matter. Relationships outside the lawless grounds of college involve a lot more sneaking around than this in Tony’s experience. Not that he has had any meaningful relationships to boast of, not with people allowed to be mentioned in polite company.
“Maybe she saw us kissing in the car,” Rhodey offers, shrugging. He is glancing down the stairs whether someone is listening in on them and then pushes Tony towards his room.
“Too much snow,” Tony dismisses easily. They were barely able to see the house, so Rhodey’s family could not have seen any details of what was happening in the car.
Rhodey sighs as he opens his door and ushers Tony in. “Well, maybe she’s grown tired of you dancing around the matter too and decided to force us into little enough space to open our eyes.”
Tony would not put it beyond her. Although he was not dancing around anything. He still finds himself wondering regularly what Rhodey is thinking, entering a relationship with him. They have been close friends for forever now, after a somewhat difficult beginning. That alone has made Tony feel like the happiest person in the world. To be loved like this is almost too much to bear, and yet Tony cannot get enough of it.
Abandoning his bag on the floor, Tony holds his arms out and is relieved when Rhodey immediately pulls him in.
“I was going to say your mum is not an evil mastermind,” Tony mutters against Rhodey’s shoulder, “but I can totally see her doing that.”
A chuckle ripples through Rhodey, warming Tony from the inside out.
“So we’re going with it?” he asks, even now considerate of Tony’s feelings, Tony’s need to hide.
Tony does not want to hide this, though. “Only if I can kiss you under the tree,” he says, reaching up to press a soft kiss on Rhodey’s lips. Practice, he tells himself, even though he does not need a reason.
Smiling, Rhodey holds onto him. “We’ll have to get the tree first,” he cautions, sounding like he knows something Tony does not. Finding a tree to put up cannot be that hard, though.
“But then?” he asks with all the impatience of someone who would rather not let go of Rhodey ever again.
“I’ll take all the kisses you’re going to offer,” Rhodey promises, almost like he is getting a gift through that instead of giving Tony one.
Sighing happily, he buries himself back against Rhodey’s chest, letting his warmth saturate him. “You’re a sap, platypus.”
Rhodey laughs and it is the most beautiful sound in the world. “I’m in love,” he replies cheerfully. “You should try it.”
“I already am.” And it is the best feeling.
Getting a Christmas tree involves a lot more snow and wet clothes than Tony would have thought. They take their time, too, circling the trees on offer with far more consideration than such a simple thing should warrant, but Tony does not want to do anything wrong and Rhodey indulges him easily.
It takes an eternity and several unexpected revelations – What do you mean we have to cut it ourselves? Are you telling me dozens of maniacs are running around here with saws and axes? and I know you have been taught that it’s good to be ostentatious, Tones, but we want to put the tree inside and not fill our entire yard with it. – but they finally bring a tree home. It is beautiful and Tony is prouder of it than of his last award-winning robotics project.
The work is not done with that, but with Terry’s help, they get the tree up in the living room where it proudly fills one corner with all its symmetric, green glory.
When it is done, the three of them stand around it with gleaming eyes and blinding smiles, barely interrupted in their appreciation when Jeanette comes up from behind them and offers them sarcastic applause.
“Good work, boys,” Jeanette drawls, but she is smiling too. “The tree actually fits into the living room.”
“If I had let Tony choose,” Rhodey, the snitch, counters immediately, “we’d have to make a hole in the ceiling.”
Nobody looks surprised, and Tony still thinks they could have made it work. They are engineers, after all. And what is life without a little adventure? This tree is perfect, however. Tony is not going to denounce it just for the sake of an argument.
“Well, it’s a pity you inherited your mother’s pragmatism.” Terry sighs good-naturedly. “I owe her ten bucks.”
Both Rhodes children turn towards their father, causing Tony to turn around too belatedly.
“You bet on us bringing a tree that won’t fit,” Rhodey says with warranted scepticism.
“I mean.” Terry shrugs and trails off.
“I totally get it,” Rhodey admits, laughing, “but you should know better than to bet against Mum.” Even Tony knows that.
Together, they decorate the tree and the rest of the house. It takes them most of the rest of the day, mostly because they get distracted by the smallest things, telling stories or re-enacting previous embarrassments. Surrounded by the entire Rhodes family, Tony has never felt more at home. They include him easily.
When dinner time comes around, Tony helps set the table, proud to remembers where all the plates and glasses are, feelings for once not like he is getting in the way or like he is just endured.
Dinner, of course, is heavenly. Just as good as Jarvis’ cooking, if not better. Although that would likely be due to the atmosphere. In all his years in the mansion, he has not heard as much laughter as they have shared in one single day here.
“I think we’ll head up to bed now,” Rhodey says at one point when they are full and happy. “It was a long drive.”
Next to him, Tony can only nod, drowsy and content, his eyelids drooping despite wanting to enjoy this night while it lasts. In his world, there is always an after but he wants to keep that at bay as long as he can.
“Good night, boys,” Roberta says, using the moniker with more tenderness than Howard ever has. “You’re welcome to sleep in.”
Sleeping in sounds heavenly. Mornings have quickly become Tony’s favourite part of the day, at least when he is waking up next to Rhodey. Then again, every part of the day he spends with Rhodey is his favourite. It is as simple as that.
“As long as you remember that the walls are thin,” Jeanette speaks up, just barely keeping from laughing when Rhodey’s cheeks fill with red immediately.
“Jean,” Roberta admonishes lightly, but even she is smiling.
Jeanette straightens with sheer innocence on her face. “What?”
Before Rhodey can say anything that will make the situation worse, Tony promises, “We’ll behave.”
Staring right into his eyes, Jeanette snickers. “Nobody believes that,” she says, causing Terry to flash a grin. “Just do me a favour and keep the door closed at least.”
Rhodey’s family is polite enough to wait until they are out of the room until they start laughing, if only barely.
Closing the door behind them, Tony turns towards the stairs and says, “Your family is embarrassing.” He is mortified. At the same time, he is unbelievably glad about it, about the chance to be here.
Rhodey catches Tony’s hand as they make their way upstairs. “They love you,” he offers. The only reason he sounds even slightly apologetic is because he is embarrassed too.
“That’s –” Tony interrupts himself before he can deflect instead of just accepting that someone cares enough about him to make this kind of joke. “Well, I love them too.”
Humming, Rhodey lets that sit between them for a moment. Then, too casually, he says, “You could stay until the new year.”
It would be so easy. Roberta and Terry would not mind, Tony knows that even while he does not quite allow himself to believe it. He could spend all that time with Rhodey, uninterrupted by classes or having to act like the proper Stark heir. It would be perfect. Still, Tony shakes his head.
“I think my parents would have something to say about me missing the annual Stark gala,” he says, noticing the bitterness in his own voice.
This immediate reaction to the mere thought of spending time with his parents shows exactly what he should do. His absence will barely cause any problems. At least he will not be able to get into a public argument with his father.
“If you’re not going to cause any bad headlines, they won’t even notice you’re not there,” Rhodey says as if he has read Tony’s mind.
As sad as that sounds, it might work out to their advantage.
“That’s probably true,” Tony mutters.
He stops on the stairs, eyes fixed on the family pictures lining the walls. There is the whole family out hiking, there is Jeanette on her first day of school, there is Rhodey, broadly grinning, with his MIT acceptance letter in hand.
When Tony first came here, he spent hours looking at these pictures while everybody else was asleep. Roberta found him in the morning, and understood the feelings radiating off Tony even though he could not name themselves. After breakfast, she told them to gear up for a nice day out. That day, she made dozens of pictures, and new ones when he came to visit every time after that. One of them is proudly presented right down in the hallway, for everyone to see.
“See?” Rhodey says, following his gaze. “So stay with us. We love you.” With a slightly dismayed grin, he adds, “And my sister just gave us permission to make out. Right in front of my parents.”
Groaning, Tony buries his face in his free hand. “Did you have to bring that up again?”
Completely unapologetic, Rhodey tugs his hand off and presses a soft kiss on Tony’s forehead. “I’m just saying. There’s no need to leave the bed.”
The thought drives heat up Tony’s neck. “You drive a hard bargain, platypus,” he says, although he wants to leave the bed and spend Christmas and New Year with Rhodey’s family. “You should know by now that I always give in to you anyway.”
Laughter tumbles from Rhodey’s lips as he shakes his head. “You have clearly never met your drunk self.”
Tony grimaces. He is too often inside his drunk self’s head. “If I remember correctly, drunk me chased you to tell you how much I am in love with you,” he argues good-naturedly, ignoring the fact that the mere mention of alcohol reminds him of Howard. “So you shouldn’t dismiss his genius completely.”
Getting back into motion, Rhodey tugs Tony after him up the stairs. “I don’t,” he promises, sounding fond. “But drunk you is either hell-bent on disproving every law of physics or is clinging to me like a touch-starved koala.”
In the safety of his mind, Tony can admit that is because alcohol staves off the worst of his fear of being rejected. Drunk, he can look at Rhodey and believe that Rhodey really wants him – and he can admit to himself that he needs Rhodey.
“You like it when we cuddle,” Tony says, brazen enough to not pose it as a question.
“I do,” Rhodey agrees without hesitation. Tony loves him all the more for it. “Now, come on. It’s a good thing you’re small. Otherwise we wouldn’t fit in my bed.”
Immediate protest rises in Tony but that is when they reach Rhodey’s room and he looks for the very first time consciously at Rhodey’s bed. It is barely wider than a single. Every time they were here before, he has not had any reason to consider whether two people could comfortably sleep in it. They had sat on it together, entangled like they have often been even before agreeing to become something more than friends. No space they have ever shared was too small.
“I take everything back,” Tony says nonetheless, not fighting his grin. “Your mum is an evil mastermind. If we weren’t dating already, sharing that little space with you would’ve been torture.”
He imagines it. All those weeks and months he has hoped for something more but was too afraid to ruin the best – and only – friendship he has just because he is the kind of person that is never satisfied with anything.
“What can I say?” Rhodey shrugs, not at all apologetic for the scheming of his mother. “She’s got no patience for idiots.”
Laughing, Tony moves fully into the room and lets himself fall onto the bed to get a feel for the place. The world looks much brighter now that he is fully allowed in here.
“We are so going to kiss under the tree,” Tony promises, for once not caring about appearances. “Make it one of her presents.”
Frowning, Rhodey closes the door and comes towards the bed. “I – all right,” he says, likely wondering how his mother would take that. Tony would look good in a bow tie, though.
“Let’s practice,” Tony says, shifting on the bed to make room for Rhodey, what little there is available. “Right now.”
To his everlasting relief, Rhodey does not hesitate at all before he climbs onto the bed too. “You’re impossible,” he says, but his hand lands on Tony’s waist with warm certainty as he gets comfortable.
“Damn right,” Tony admits without shame. He leans forward, reaching out to cup Rhodey’s face. “That’s why you love me.” It is as daring a comment as Tony is capable of.
Leaning into the touch, Rhodey smiles. “It’s one of the reasons, yes.”
To mask the sigh of relief, Tony exclaims, “Great,” with more vigour than necessary. Then he shifts forward and kisses Rhodey. “I love you too.”