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The Way It Ends

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The gun goes off before he can get his hand up in time to block the shot. Simple as that. He just wasn't fast enough. Before Tony can even hit the floor Barnes is off without a care for the man he just have fatally wounded. He’s left him in a slumped bloody mess on the ground, fingers flexing, reaching for the wound and still failing miserably. Even with the low grade of Extremis working in his blood stream Tony knows it's not enough. Just enough to buy him time until help comes but it's obvious that it's a long way off. Everyone has gone after Barnes and the fight takes them further away and closer towards the exit. From the sounds of it they are just as successful as he was. His eyes are jumping wildly from place to place trying to see even though the blood has begun to slip downward and across his forehead, making a solid path towards his brows. He can see the puddle next to him has grown too big in the haze of red from his glasses. There’s a metallic voice in his head, tinny and worried.

“Boss….boss…I’ve alerted…Boss!” Friday’s tone is increasingly panicked and she sounds like she’s screaming.

His poor girl. He can’t even comfort her. His own voice is caught in his throat. All he can do is groan as the pain presses down on him in waves. The floor feels warm beneath him and he thinks it’s nice. Nice to have a rest after the 24 hours he’s had. Nice to have a rest at all since he hasn’t slept in days. It could be more comfortable. He’d ask Friday to have some pillows delivered if he could but he can’t. He’s moved on to soft whimpers now and anyway she’s still screaming at him. Telling him someone is on the way and to stay calm. He wishes he could tell her that he is calm. He should be panicking like any normal human being would panic. But he isn’t and he thinks that’s about right. This is all old hat for him and FRIDAY should know that. JARVIS would know.

He can hear glass shattering somewhere and the metallic clomp of his suit walking across the floor. He’d left the briefcase at the hotel as a sign of good faith to Steve. So he could prove that he came in peace. That worked out well. Steve was still gone. Sam was gone. Natasha was gone.

The floor was nice though. He had to thank Barnes for that at least. A dry chuckle wedges in his chest and it hurts to even think about coughing it up. There’s no one to hear him anyway and he thinks that’s good. He never wanted to go old in his bed anyway. He hated to disappoint Pepper and Rhodey like that. Lord knows they’d tried. Tried to keep him safe. Tried to keep him sane. Tried to keep his feet on the ground. They thought he deserved a peaceful death despite everything he was. They’d talked about it one night, long after Stane and the Iron Monger and Iron Man had changed everything. After Rhodey had wrapped his arms around him while they were surrounded by burning hot sands and reminded him of home and that he had a whole lot more to live for than he thought.

It was the morbid sort of talk that you only got to after far too many bottles of Macallan. It had been a rough week and they figured they all deserved it. Tony dug all the way to the back of his collection for the one marked 1926 and opened the bottle eagerly to the surprise of Pepper who knew exactly how much it cost. Rhodey’s eyes bugged out for at least five minutes when he found out and nearly choked on smooth liquor he’d just sipped. He cursed and asked Tony what the occasion was and Tony replied that he was happy. No one commented on why that was occasion enough. They toasted to it and drank and drank until they were on the floor sprawled out on soft Persian rugs with Rhodey’s head nuzzling Tony’s stomach and Pepper’s hand in Tony’s hair. Tony’s fingers brushed lightly across Rhodey’s forehead and twirled the end of Pepper’s long ponytail in circles.

Tony told them how he thought he’d die in that cave and had wondered if it would have served him right. The Merchant of Death wounded by his own weapons and finished off by the greed of men who desperately wanted more. He supposed it would have. Many people would have rejoiced at his death not caring that it meant nothing in the long run. For all his wealth and power and genius he wished he could tell him he was just one piece in a very elaborate puzzle. His death would mean nothing to the never-ending war machine. The world’s governments would just move on to another manufacturer. His death wouldn’t matter because there would always be another war. No one would mourn him. Just his unique ability to create killing machines.

Rhodey had pressed a kiss to his stomach and Pepper’s fingers stilled in his hair. Neither said anything but the feeling was there. They would miss him. For that he was grateful. At least there was someone.

He can feel the light touch of fingers across his skin. They’re delicate but firm as they press and slip across blood. And then yelling. So much yelling. He’s tired of it. He always has been. It takes him back to his parents and words shouted so loudly he could hear them in almost any room in the mansion. He thinks of how he used to find places to hide when he was small. Places he could easily slip into like closets with many boxes he could hide behind that would muffle the sound. His tiny body squished against the boxes in uncomfortable positions for hours until he was sure the storm had passed and it was safe to wander out and find Jarvis or Ana.

He’s read a lot about how this goes. All theories of course in the soft sciences he’s come to loathe. There’s no light. Just darkness as he closes his eyes against the blurs of people who have clearly found him. It’s become a lot harder to think straight. His mind alternates between awareness and the horror of what’s happening to him and the warm memory of sitting on the counter next to Ana while she baked, trying in vain to steal a taste of batter. He remembers the warmth of sitting, pressed shoulder to hips, next to his mother as she taught him note by note how to play from his heart. Of Jarvis teaching him to swim when they went upstate. Of Howard looking pensively over his earliest blueprints on blue construction paper, blue because he so badly wanted to emulate his father’s important work, just before he started in on what Tony had done wrong. It was always that look just before that he had hoped was one of pride. He hopes he’ll finally get to ask him soon.

Chapter Text

Natasha sits covered in blood, not for the first or last time in her life, while the EMT’s work. For the life of her she can’t look anywhere but up. Not at FRIDAY standing sentry over the small three person team come to save a life and not at the life that’s barely holding on. She has to repeat the words over and over at 25-second intervals in order to keep calm. She’s not quite sure why yet. This isn’t the first teammate she’s lost.

“He’s not dead. He’s alive.”

She repeats it no louder than a whisper. She isn’t of any use to the two men working desperately over Tony Stark’s prone form. There are many injured outside, some trampled in all of the panicked rush to get to safety and that makes it hard to get in. But Natasha was able to sneak these two through a side entrance without much effort.

She didn’t know what she would find but thought she ought to have known better for FRIDAY to sound as terrified as she did. The AI sounded like a frightened child. The quiver in her synthetic voice paused her in her continued pursuit. At the time she crushed her own heart rendering fear down to do what had to be done. FRIDAY said Tony needed emergency medical attention and Stark had more than enough protection on him to where Natasha wasn’t as concerned as she should have been.

She could stand and help with the stretcher herself but that involved looking at the bo—at Tony.

“He’s not dead. He’s alive.”

She reminds herself again pathetically. The great Black Widow reduced to hysterics over a teammate she honestly hadn’t meant to care for. Funny how that worked out. Decades of work in the Red Room minimizing her humanity all for nothing.

“Ms. Romanov!” The voice is sharp as if they have been calling her for far too long. Her eyes snap directly to the blue eyes of the EMT crouched before her, narrowly avoiding Tony’s face behind him. He winces when she holds his gaze unable to look anywhere else.

“No,” she says when his lips part to speak. He grimaces and with a small shake to his head tells her all she needs to know. She had hoped and that was her mistake.

“Even if we got him out and to a hospital…”

He’s not dead. He’s alive.
There’s the heavy clank of metal touching down close by not too long after. Natasha closes her eyes briefly and inhales shortly to try and stave off the scent of death to no avail. She tries to shake herself. She’s been trained for this more than a lifetime over. What to do when a fellow agent falls in combat. She’s been trained to compartmentalize all of this. To shove it into places she can’t reach until there’s time to deal with it. There’s a reason why she can’t and she can’t quite put her finger on it. Slowly she begins to rise using the wall for support. Why does she feel so weak?

“Do what you need to do,” she says and that’s it.

They’re packing up their things by the time the heavy clank of footsteps passes FRIDAY’s perimeter. She knows that it’s War Machine and begins to steel herself. She turns again to avoid Tony when she stands to face her teammate. Rhodey’s faceplate is up but he only has eyes for the crumpled form on the ground. He looks broken in a way she never imagined. The long lines on his face show deeply as tears slip down. His mouth is set in a firm line as he moves forward.

“Rhodes,” she says trying to project as much calm as possible. She’s already pulling herself back together bit by bit because there’s nothing left to do. They still have a job to do. And it’s even more imperative that they get the Winter Soldier away from any more civilians. She turns her head when Rhodey doesn’t even break stride when she speaks and gently cradles Tony in his arms. There are no more tears just a tender look on his face.

“FRIDAY, notify Pepper that this is a code red situation. We’ll need her access code along with mine to get what we need.”

“Understood,” FRIDAY’s voice comes through the suit with a heaviness Natasha didn’t think she was capable of. She presses herself back against the wall as Rhodes comes closer. For the second time she has to look at Tony’s body otherwise fine except for the bleeding hole in his head and shattered glasses embedded into his skin. His face is a mask of blood but his expression is oddly peaceful and devoid of those worry lines she’s come so used to seeing as one of his defining features.

Rhodey cradles him like he’s something precious even in a suit that could crush him further. It answers many of her questions about them and brings up more than a few she hadn’t previously considered. It’s not the time to voice them now. Rhodey approaches her slowly. There’s rage and grief etched across him. She can almost feel it when he looks at her. The urge to flinch is very strong.

“You were nearby when it happened,” he says brooking no argument. She nodded. She wasn’t too far away and that made it easier to find him after her own encounter with the Winter Soldier.

“Do you know…who?” Rhodey asks. She hesitates. She’s angry too she realizes. She wants to tell him, needs to even, and the words are on the tip of her tongue to begin soothing his quiet rage back into a more controllable anger. It’s right there but she can’t find it in her to pluck those strings and get him back to a more tenable state. They’re so far beyond that now. The words that do come out she’s unsure if she’ll regret. So far she’s had regrets the whole day. What’s one more? Even if it starts a war?

“James Barnes.”

Rhodey simply nods in understanding and takes off. FRIDAY goes with him in the Iron Man armor. She can already see the red and gold suit maneuvering protectively around Rhodey and her creator. When Ross asks later Natasha tells him she’s unsure what Rhodes was planning at the time. Deep down she hopes it works.

Chapter Text

Rhodey touches down on the roof of the Stark Industries headquarters in Berlin near silently and FRIDAY is right behind him. The sound of the Iron Man armor would be comforting if Tony weren’t dying in his arms right now.

“FRIDAY administer emergency protocol Extremis,” Rhodes says softly. Tony had mandated that the small vial of Extremis was only to be used in the most dire situations but only if he or someone with a priority code authorized it. Rhodey had argued that the benefits of getting the shot in a life-threatening situation more than outweighed the possibilities of the wrong hands getting a hold of the formula but Tony had disagreed.

“Stubborn bastard,” Rhodey murmurs into Tony’s soft, wet hair.

“Priority Authorization code needed,” FRIDAY challenges back. Rhodey’s heart goes out to her.

More than with JARVIS, because he had taken on a life of his own long before Tony introduced them, FRIDAY seemed to really see Tony as her Father. JARVIS taught him that AI’s were capable of human emotion and FRIDAY solidified it with her own grief stricken voice. It must be awful to not be able to save her father’s life on her own.

“Priority Authorization, J. Rhodes dash Alpha dash 1981.”

“Authorization accepted,” FRIDAY responds and in an instant Rhodes has a small syringe in his hand primed and ready. Rhodes hands Tony to FRIDAY as gently as he can almost unwilling to let go. It seems like every time he does something happens to his lover and at this point he’s nearly lost him one too many times. But he knows that if Tony is safe with anyone it’s FRIDAY. He knows this even though his stomach lurches with the absence. Once the genius is secured he jams the needle in Tony’s leg and presses the plunger. FRIDAY has to tighten her grip when the body in her arms jerks against her at the intrusion. Rhodey knows just as well as anybody how much Extremis burns.

---
Rhodey leaves Tony in the care of Helen Cho and Pepper Potts. The latter presses a light kiss to his forehead on tiptoes and when a look of fury passes between them he knows exactly what the statuesque redhead is asking him to do.

Pepper doesn’t usually condone violence. It’s not really her style but retribution is. With Tony laid out on the soft and sterile bedding of the cradle and Dr. Cho working furiously with her techs to get everything hooked up and ready before Tony’s heart stops beating he’s not sure if she cares. He kisses her back hoping to convey his need to do this. That burning desire to take care of them while she takes care of Tony. It’s boiling low in his belly right there where Afghanistan and the fiasco with the Mandarin had festered. The same need to tear limb from limb anyone who had tried to hurt his friend. It sparked when he first saw that scrawny 15 year old hazy and drunk being pulled into a bedroom full of quite a few upperclassmen at a party. And it had never quite stopped. Dulled over the years when Tony grew to handle himself so well that Rhodey proudly stepped back but raced forward with any and every death threat or kidnapping attempt. 

His mother used to get an amused twinkle in her eye when she mentioned his protectiveness to him and soon when it included Pepper as well. She seemed to always know. So did Pepper when they first crossed paths right up to and including when she became theirs too.

He leaves with FRIDAY before he can be tempted to stay. There’s not a lot of time left and it’s no longer up to FRIDAY whether her Boss lives or dies. When she asks to join him he can’t deny her. Rogers and his team have been sighted around Germany and seem to be headed to Leipzig. They’ll need all the help they can get.

 

----

Natasha is waiting for them on the roof. Vision floats down to join them. He seems conflicted which is an unusual look for him. He notifies them that Wanda was broken out of the compound the night before by Hawkeye and that there’s a hole the size of an SUV that burrows deep beneath the earth in the building where she put him. She’s dedicated to Steve’s cause and Vision just seems lost as if unable to comprehend the betrayal. It’s the first time he’s experiencing this emotion and Rhodey can’t blame him for coming up short. He also can't help but feel sorry for him if not for anything but how similar that look of hurt seems. He's seen it on Tony's face enough to have it burned into his memory. 

At the first mention of Steve Rhodey wonders if he knows that Tony nearly lost his life today. He wonders if Captain America cares that his oldest friend almost killed another.

“Is Mr. Stark-,” Vision starts to ask.

“We can’t worry about him right now,” Natasha interrupts all business. Rhodey glares at her but she holds fast to her position all of her previous emotions locked away somewhere. 

“We’re more than a man short and we’re going up against a few surprises,” she explains. She hands him a file on Scott Lang that has his eyebrows rising at the idea of a man who can shrink to the size of a molecule. Hawkeye, Falcon, and Scarlet Witch have joined Steve and Barnes without much provocation. He hopes he won’t have to kill them to get to Barnes. Tony wouldn’t take it well.

“Lucky for us,” Natasha continues, “I have a few of my own.”

“What’s the plan?” Rhodey asks trying to keep his mind on the task at present. He flips through the file in his hands and Natasha stops him when he gets to the section listing Lang’s known associates.

“Yeah, I don’t think this is going to work,” Rhodey says slowly. “Pyms and Starks don’t mix. It seems to be a generational thing now.”

He remembered coming over to one too many moments of Howard bitching about Hank Pym. He never heard what started the conflict and assumed it was more of a competitor’s rivalry. Then of course there was the first meeting between Tony and Hank Pym when the younger man took over Stark Industries that had been an unmitigated disaster. With Pym refusing to shake Tony’s hand and Tony calling him an old stooge without an ounce of creativity to squeeze between two fingers there was no hope of a clean slate between the companies.

“I’m not talking about Pym,” Natasha says, flipping past his picture to one of a young woman with a sharp expression on her face, hair cut into a severe looking bob. Her smile seems cheerful enough once you get past the predatory gleam.

“Alright,” Rhodey sighs. From what he’s reading it seems like she’ll be enough to put Lang on notice at the very least. “What else you got?”

Natasha just smiles.