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This Is The Real Life

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Doing the laundry has lost its terror at some point over the past year. Now, Tony handles laundry day like a professional instead of the lost boy who grew up with a butler taking care of all that for him. That is naturally only possible because of Rhodey.

With a fond smile, Tony looks at the framed list hanging over their washing machine that Rhodey wrote up for him after Tony completely ruined the first load of clothes he ever washed. Tony does not need it anymore, but he likes to look at it, likes to think back to their beginnings.

It has a set of rules on it as well as a helpful drawing to remind him where the detergent goes. Never mix colours. Don’t cook wool. Your suit needs to be hand-washed. And Tony’s personal favourite, although he never quite adhered to it, doing the laundry does not give you an excuse to steal my clothes.

It is just a fact that Rhodey’s clothes are far more comfortable than his own, especially because Tony is drowning in them. That makes it much easier to huddle up and pretend that the world cannot touch him. The world, of course, is not as frightening anymore since Rhodey stepped into his life.

Humming, Tony opens the washing machine and beings sorting the laundry. If anyone told him even four years ago that he would do such a menial task without complaining, even with a smile of his face, he would have declared them insane. They do not even have a cleaning service, although that was an argument Rhodey only barely won. He is so adamant on not overdoing things. His condition for sharing an apartment was that they would equally split the costs.

One of Rhodey’s hoodies comes up, and it is an automatic reaction to raise it to his nose and inhale. It smells of the expensive aftershave Tony always keeps in stock. Underneath that, it is undeniable Rhodey’s.

Warmth spreads through Tony’s chest as he smiles down at the fabric. He is going to hurry up to get the machine working and then he will join Rhodey upstairs on the couch. They both have work to do, but that can wait. All Tony wants is to share Rhodey’s space, which truly is the only thing that feels like home.

Suddenly, he goes very still as a thought pierces his mind familiar but equal parts unbidden.  

“I’m in love –” Tony says, testing the words in a hoarse voice. Then, even more heartfelt, “Holy shit.”

The realization is as monumental as it is unsurprising. Something shifts inside Tony, moving from relaxed and happy to a new panic, a new fear of doing something wrong.

This is big. It changes everything – well, not how Tony feels and not that he preferably wants to spend the rest of his life with Rhodey, not that he is the happiest when the first and last thing he sees every day is Rhodey.

It is true. He is in love.

Abandoning the half-filled washing machine, Tony rushes back upstairs, taking two stairs at once, and bursts into their living room slightly out of breath. Rhodey is sitting on the couch exactly where Tony left him. He looks up at the sudden noise, curious and smiling.

Tony takes him in and wonders how he could have been so blind. “Rhodey,” he says and exhales, trying to calm himself down. “I love you.”

That has Rhodey sitting up straighter. “I – love you too,” he says automatically. Then a small frown takes over his face. “Did something happen? Don’t tell me you ruined the clothes again. My favourite shirt was in there.”

Laughter rises in Tony’s throat that he fears could sound distinctly hysterical, so he swallows it down.

“The machine is not even on yet,” he reassures Rhodey. He cannot yet move but stays where he is, staring as if he has never seen Rhodey before. Not like this.

“Shirking your chores?” Rhodey asks, unsurprised, despite Tony having made a lot of noise about going downstairs to make sure Rhodey knows he is not, for once, forgetting all about his chores. “You know I’m not going to do everything.”

There is a hint of their familiar banter in Rhodey’s tone, and Tony throws himself at it, desperate to calm his thoughts.

“I always said we should hire a cleaning service,” he grumbles, unable to pull his lips into the appropriate pout.

As expected, Rhodey shakes his head. “Not going to happen.”

Since Tony does not want to argue, that is that. He still stands in the doorway to their living room, rooted to the ground, unsure what to do with his realization. Finally, he manages to take a little step forward, eyes still bearing into Rhodey.

“I’m in love with you,” Tony says, feeling winded from just allowing the words out.

Rhodey straightens further and it is almost painful to see. “That’s what we just said.”

Hesitating only for a moment, he pats the couch next to him in an obvious invitation for Tony to join him. It is ridiculously hard to get his feet moving. He should invade Rhodey’s space without even thinking about it, revelling in what should be the best feeling. Instead, he shuffles slowly closer, sinking onto the couch with a good few feet of distance between Rhodey and him.

Only once he has settled does Rhodey ask, “Is everything all right, Tones?”

“No,” Tony answers immediately, shaking his head for good measure if only because it allows him to take his eyes off Rhodey’s frown. “We said I love you.”

Rhodey opens his mouth and closes it again, looking at Tony with some frustration. “Yeah, well, that’s what it means.”

Tony is not even sure why he makes such a drama out of this. Obviously, he is the only one who has stumbled over this thought. He loves Rhodey, of course he does. He has loved Rhodey almost from the very beginning, ignoring their first epic arguments

Helplessly, he points out, “We said that before we started dating.”

He had shied away from it at first, unsure whether anyone had told him that before. Love, in Howard’s opinion, just makes people weak. His mother might have whispered it to him when he was younger, but she was not there often enough for Tony to remember. With Jarvis, it had at least been implied, but there was never enough room for open declarations between them. But Rhodey had fallen into Tony’s life and turned it upside down, just like that.

Clearing his throat, Rhodey looks at him seriously. “What are you trying to say?”

He sounds like he is steeling himself for bad news, like Tony would come up here, tell him he is in love and then leave, or something equally as impossible.

Tony reaches out and offers his hand, not hiding his relief when Rhodey takes it without hesitation. “I just realized that I’m in love with you. Like for real.”

In his head, that makes sense. Love, in love. There is a distinction, surely. Tony loves his mother. He loves Jarvis. He just does not love them like he does Rhodey. Obviously, he does not love his family romantically, but that is not quite what he is going for here either. It is more this realization that Rhodey is everything to him.

“Tones?” Rhodey says quietly, ripping Tony out of his thoughts. “That’s what we were doing this whole time, yes? Being in love, starting a relationship. Moving in together.”

“Yes, but – I don’t know.” Put like that, Tony should have known this much sooner. “I was looking at your laundry instructions and then I thought about how you didn’t like me when we first met, but then we became friends anyway, and then I knew I loved you, and now I know I’m in love with you.”

Rhodey’s hold on his hand does not go lax but the quality of it shifts like Rhodey is only holding on for Tony’s sake for now and not because he wants to.

“Only now?” Rhodey asks, almost toneless.

“I – no,” Tony protests quickly. The last thing he wants is to push Rhodey away with this. “I’ve obviously been feeling this for a while now, but I never realized what it means.”

This whole, encompassing thing that has taken control of his life, has made him smile and feel safe and wait fondly for the future to take them with it. All of Tony’s life has been coloured by some form of trepidation, but Rhodey has taken most of that away. As long as they are together, they can tackle everything, every obstacle fate has in store for them.

“So it’s a good thing?” Rhodey inquires, still as quiet but not as withdrawn anymore.

“Definitely,” Tony hurries to say and is rewarded by Rhodey squeezing his hand and appearing much more present again through it. Relief has a smile pushing on Tony’s face and he does not fight it. “It’s the best thing,” he says firmly. “It’s – how was I supposed to know that this is what it feels like?”

Too gentle for a conversation like this, after Tony almost messed everything up, Rhodey asks, “What does it feel like?”

Tony startles, unsure how to pack that into words. This lightness that makes everything possible, coexisting with the weight on his chest that keeps him easily on the ground. The tingling in his fingertips when he thinks about touching Rhodey. The smile that comes completely unbidden to his face. The pure joy he feels when the first thing he sees in the morning is Rhodey, and the last thing he hears at night is Rhodey’s breathing. The way he sometimes thinks their hearts must be beating in sync for all that he feels like Rhodey is a part of him.

“Like I really, really never want to spend a single day without you. Like I’m only complete when I’m with you.” Tony stops briefly, then shrugs, “Like I’m –in love.”

Rhodey’s shoulders sag but it does not appear to be a bad thing. “All right.”

“What?” Tony asks, suddenly afraid. “Is it different for you?”

He still might have ruined everything. Someone once called him emotionally stumped but he did not believe them because he always felt everything too much, unable to escape the maelstrom of feelings inside him. Perhaps he is feeling all the wrong things, though. Perhaps he is wrong in thinking this is good.

“No,” Rhodey says but sounds pensive. “It’s just, well, I’ve been feeling that for a while.”

That should be a happy statement, but it feels defected, somehow.

“And you had a name for it?” Tony asks, his voice small. He squashes down the urge to take his hand back, to hide away, panic already lurking at the edges of his mind. It is a miracle how he manages to mess up all the good things in his life.

“I’ve told you every day,” Rhodey says. Thankfully, his voice does not hold any accusation. “And you told me right back.”

“And I meant it,” Tony hurries to say. No matter today’s revelation, he has always loved Rhodey. “I just never realized how monumental that feeling is.”

For a minute, neither of them says anything. The silence gets tense enough that Tony is sure he will not be able to breathe if it goes on any longer. All the while, Rhodey is staring at something only he can see. His eyes are on Tony but they are vacant as he tries to make sense of what Tony told him.

Finally, he nods and tugs at Tony’s hand, but not like he wants Tony to let go.

“Come here, Tones,” Rhodey says, sounding gentle.

It is too much. Tony’s mind is racing as he is trying to gauge Rhodey’s mood. He is not angry, but beyond that Tony cannot tell. Disappointment and sadness and indifference can all hide very easily behind a calm face. Tony would never know.

Straightening, Tony points in the vague direction of the basement with his free hand. “I need to take care of the laundry,” he says, even though he is too terrified to move. Perhaps he just wants to give Rhodey a way out.

“I don’t care about our clothes,” Rhodey replies, still too calm. “I want to hold you.”

Tony wants to believe that, he truly does. He is prone to worry, though, and unable to take anything at face value, thanks to growing up with practices liars.

“Didn’t you want me to tell you?” Tony asks slowly, the words almost refusing to be said out loud.

“Of course, I did,” Rhodey reassures him easily. “It’s just still surprising to see how slow you can be for a genius. I just want to be close to you.”

They are all right. The realization slams into Tony with enough force to make him slump over. This time when Rhodey tugs at his hand, Tony follows willingly, desperate to have Rhodey’s arms around him so he does not have to keep himself upright on his own.

They are not just all right, they are in love. Tony did not mess up by realizing it this late. His heart is still beating wildly and he feels exhausted as if he has just come down from a three-day working binge, but Rhodey’s embrace feels better than ever before. He breathes in Rhodey’s scent, which is much more potent than on the hoodie down in the laundry room but just as welcoming. He is home. 

“We don’t have anything planned for tonight,” Tony mutters against Rhodey’s chest, feeling new courage inside him. “We could just go to bed.”

A chuckle has tremors running through Rhodey’s body. “It’s ten in the morning.”

Elation at having skirted disaster so closely, or at least that is how Tony feels, has him light-hearted, full of brazen giddiness.

“Don’t tell me you’re already too old for a sex marathon,” Tony says, lifting his head enough to stare at Rhodey. “If so, I have to reconsider that whole in love thing.”

Rhodey grins but says, “You won’t.”

They are both perfectly aware of that. Tony might make a sport out of keeping people at a distance, but once they are close, he clings to them with all his might.

“No?” he asks anyway. “Why not?”

“Because anybody else would have kicked your ass for ruining their clothes on a regular basis,” Rhodey replies dryly. And that is just the first reason that comes to mind. Tony could recite a dozen more without ever thinking too hard about it. “Without my laundry instructions, you’d be utterly lost.”

It has certainly saved dozens of innocent pieces of clothing as well as Tony’s dignity. “I am perfectly capable of washing my clothes by now,” Tony still argues. He is smart, after all. He can learn.

“And there are still a hundred regular things you can’t do,” Rhodey says with an impossible amount of fondness.

Tony disentangles himself from Rhodey without letting go completely. “Is that why you’re here?” he asks, looking Rhodey over critically. “Because you inherited your mum’s deep-seated wish to mother someone and I’m just the easiest victim?”

Rhodey grins as he shrugs. “I take that as a compliment because my mum is awesome.”

“That she is,” Tony agrees easily. The entire Rhodes family has a special place in his heart. “So are you, by the way.”

“Good that we established that.” Rhodey nods like he has not expected anything else. “Now come here.”

“Nope.” Still too elated, Tony jumps to his feet and tries, fruitlessly, to pull Rhodey up with him. “Bed.”

Tony knows how he must look, grinning and overeager and more than a little manic. Still, he is disappointed when Rhodey hesitates.

“We can’t go to bed,” Rhodey argues. He most likely even has a barrage of arguments for that. Arguments that will make sense if only Tony listens to them. So Tony does not.

“Oh, we can,” he counters, laughing. “And I will.”

He lets go of Rhodey’s hand and takes a few steps back. He reaches for the first button of his shirt, very aware of the way Rhodey’s eyes follow his movements.

“What about the laundry?” Rhodey asks in a clear attempt to ground himself. As if he does not know that he will lose that battle.

“You just said that’s not important,” Tony answers dismissively. Then, in an entirely too sweet tone, he adds, “And I can take care of that while you’re resting since you’re apparently not up to that marathon.”

Rhodey is older than him by a few years, although it could be a dozen considering how much more mature he can be if he wants to. They are balancing each other quite nicely.

“You little –” Rhodey mutters but does not get any farther because Tony hits him in the head with his shirt before quickly walking towards their bedroom.

“I can’t hear you, platypus,” he calls cheekily. “You should come closer.”

To give him credit, Rhodey is not yet moving, although his hands are buried in Tony’s shirt. “It’s ten,” he protests, despite knowing it is futile. “In the morning.”

Tony is in the hallway by now but sticks his head back into the living room while he kicks off his trousers. “Don’t be a spoilsport.”

That has Rhodey getting to his feet, although his attempt to look stern fails horribly. “Don’t leave your clothes all over the floor.”

Walking down the hallway towards their bedroom, Tony says, “You can pick them up while you follow me to bed.”

There is a beat of silence, in which Tony can imagine Rhodey sighing to himself, pretending he is still fighting.

“You are a terrible influence,” Rhodey says and already sounds closer, coming towards Tony.

“And you are an angel,” Tony calls back as he gets into their bedroom, letting himself fall onto the mattress. “Who is about to have sex at ten on a Sunday.”

He turns onto his back, props himself up on his elbows and grins at the door. It takes Rhodey only a second to appear, clutching Tony’s clothes to his chest as if that is truly the only reason he got up from the couch.

“How can I make you stop talking?” Rhodey asks, but he is smiling too.

Stretching, Tony nods down at himself. “I can think of a way or two.”

“Funny,” Rhodey says and lets the clothes fall to the ground without so much as a glance. “So do I.”

Tony does get to do the laundry that day, although it is significantly later than planned, and he is much less put together, half-naked and dreaming of the man he loves, who is waiting for him to come back to bed.

Life is good, he decides. Who would have thought that the way to Tony Stark’s heart is through teaching him how to do the laundry?