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The Soul's Flickering Light (Rhodey Falls)

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Honestly, Mr. Stark, it’s lucky he’s alive. He shouldn’t be with us. A pause. He should be dead, in all honesty. The fact that he has any function at all, or that the trauma wasn’t more significant to the brain is nothing short of a miracle. But I am sorry.

He sat down the pinkish brown vinyl easy-to-keep-disinfected-horrible-to-look-at chair. It was so ugly it was an abomination. It simply should not be allowed. People came to a hospital because they were having a medical crisis, and should not be subjected to the horrifying aesthetic sensibilities of an era rightfully relegated to the ancient past. How many people had sat in this same chair, worried about their loved one, and all the while this abominable color was the main thing in their line of vision? It was a travesty–

“Tony.” The word was raspy, weak, as if drawn from a well nearly dry, the bucket scraping the bottom, the gravel, the sand.

“Hey, Rhodes,” Tony replied with far more ease than he felt, but the words stuck in his throat which had tightened inexplicably, had closed up, he felt the fear again that had come in the moment between when he asked FRIDAY to read vitals and she reported a heartbeat–

“Hey, Tony, are you all right? What happened?” It was like him. It was like him to worry about Tony like that. He couldn’t move because he was restrained, too weak anyway, could only turn his head.

“You don’t remember?”

“I remember falling.”

“I should get the nurse–”

“Tony. Tony. Why do you look like that? What’s wrong, did someone die?” He was doing this all wrong, he didn’t want to tell Rhodey what happened, he shouldn’t have been the one here when he woke up, he should get the nurse– “Dude, you’re seriously scaring me, is everyone, is the kid okay?”

Tony took a deep breath and steadied himself as best he could, but he was utterly heartbroken and devastated and Rhodey always read him too well. “The kid… everyone is fine.”

“Good, because I told you he was too young–”

“Rhodey… when you fell. It… it damaged… “ Comprehension was beginning to dawn on Rhodey’s face. “It broke your back. There were other injuries, they had to do surgery, there was a laceration on your liver, pretty bad. A concussion, you’ve been unconscious for hours. Collapsed both your lungs, you were… I thought I’d lost you, Rhodes, I really did.”

“Okay. I’m here, Tony. I’m here. But what aren’t you telling me?” Damn him. Sometimes he just, almost hated Rhodey for knowing him so well, for reading him like an open book, for knowing–

“It’s too early to say, they have some tests to run, they’ll want to know you’re awake. I should get the nurse.”

“Tones.” Tony froze. “I’d rather hear it from you. Just tell me.”

“Some… some form of paralysis. From… from the waist down.”

A long pause, ten heartbeats, Tony counted them as they thundered in his ears. “Okay,” Rhodes said slowly. “Okay.”

Tony felt nothing but sickened heartbreak. If he could just throw up, maybe he’d feel better; bite the bullet and feel worse for while so he could feel better, it happened like that sometimes when he drank too much. This wouldn’t get better, though, not for a long time. He’d spent hours with the doctors discussing everything they knew and didn’t know. The initial CT scan had revealed the break; they would know more when they got the more detailed MRI, but had wanted to wait until some of the swelling and inflammation had gone down. He watched Rhodey's face change from a closed kind of shock, of not comprehending to comprehending to not wanting to comprehend, a kind of painful fear. Then came the inevitable moment, it came and went, when he tried to move. He tried and his body didn't obey, he tried again. He couldn't move. An bitter kind of horror came then, something he couldn't feel because it was too much to feel but it started with a real fear.

Then Tony came and sat in the chair by the bed. He looked up at Rhodey and tried to speak, and tried again to speak, and tried again. But he couldn’t. He had no words and he physically couldn’t speak. He buried his face in his hands, choking on the tears that wouldn’t come, couldn’t, not since he was a little boy and his dad had told him Stark men are made of iron, he couldn’t cry if he wanted to–

He felt a hand, warm and gentle, awkward because of the angle. Tony lifted his head, his eyes full of anguish. Rhodey pulled himself out of his own fear and pain because he saw despite his injury, something was wrong, Tony was in a worse place somehow, he'd lost too much recently, Pepper, Bruce, the Avengers--

“It wasn’t your fault,” Rhodey said firmly, his dark brown eyes full of pain and compassion, locked on Tony’s. “It’s not your fault.”

“Rhodes–” he said bitterly, almost with anger–

“It’s. Not. Your. Fault.”

“Unbelievable. Now’s not the time–”

“It’s not your fault.”

“Rhodey, I– I’m so sorry!” He stood and carefully, tightly embraced his friend, he staunchest ally, his protector. He was afraid to even touch the man, he was so injured, so fragile, he’d been broken, so broken and there’d never been a longer moment between the one where he told FRIDAY to check vitals and the one where she said there was a heartbeat detected and he just held him as tightly as he dared, careful of the IV, careful of the wires, but holding him. He wanted him to feel the pressure of it, not sure of what he could feel, because all he could feel was pain. “I’ll fix this, I swear, if it’s the last thing I ever do.”