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The Switching of Circuits

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My Dearest Toni,

I hope this letter finds you well though I am certain that it finds you as busy and brilliant and heart stoppingly daring as always.

Are you making sure not to skip meals?  Should I send more recipes for Master Hogan?  Are you sleeping well? Doing your maintenance?  You must make sure not to give me more reasons to worry about you, young miss.  Not while I’m so far from home and unable to care for you as I wish.

Now, tell me about your latest inventions, your newest daring scheme?  I look forward to reading about the new wonders and troubles you and Master James have managed to concoct since your last letter.  The true stories and accompanying sketches of course, not the more palatable versions that the lovely Miss Potts writes about in the magazine.  The truth of your madcap misadventures always brings me joy, stress as well of course, but mostly joy. Freedom suits you as I always knew it would.

Joy, though, is in such short supply here these days that I find myself hungry for every scrap of it.

The nights grow ever longer it seems, as the war drags ever onwards without an end in sight. Each hour is like a day here and each day a moment without true end.  I take what comfort I can but I find that true rest comes to me less and less.

I miss my bed at the manor and your laughter.  Our games of chess and your grease streaked face.  Strong sugared tea and my warmest robe. I miss my duties and long to see the room you spoke of, the one you set aside for me on your new home.

I miss so many other selfish things, Toni, and most days I no longer even feel guilty about it.  Time and weariness has worn it from my bones and made even your attempts at singing something to remember fondly.

I must confess something to you now, dear one, and I hope you will forgive my melancholy and not think me the lesser for it.

If I had not been called to service I would not have gone to war.  I am proud to serve of course, to strike out against this evil, to fight for the assurance that you and millions of others will stay safe.  To never see this sickness spread like a wildfire across the rest of the world.  But war is a young man’s game, young miss, and those years passed me by some time ago.  Perhaps my weariness makes me a coward. I like to think it simply makes me old.

Again, forgive a mauldin old butler his gloom won’t you?

My one lasting joy is to know that, no matter how much I miss you, you are far from here, far from the cruelty of this war.  I would have it never touch you, Toni. I would have you never catch so much as a glimpse of this even though I know that too is an old man’s foolish dream.  Your adventures have taken you to places that leave me awestruck and worried, always worried, for you. But this? This war is one to end them all I think, I hope, and I would not have your shine dimmed by it.

Please know that I keep the photograph you sent in your last letter with me always, tucked close to my heart as you have always been.  When I fly I press it against the dash so that you might drive me to press ever onwards as you always do, my sweet Icarus.

At night around the fires, when the others talk of home, I talk only of you.  Here, in this hell, there is no Sir to hide from, no papers or magazines to misconstrue my words.  I am free to speak of you as I have always wished to. I call you daughter here Toni, and there are none to tell me otherwise.  A small blessing I suppose but a blessing I cherish nonetheless.

But oh, I am the envy of many to have such a beautiful daughter.  More than one little snot nosed sap has asked to send you letters or if your hand has been spoken for.  Oh the stars they have in their eyes when I tell stories of you. You’d not want for beaus here, young miss, rest assured of that.  They are all, to a one, aflutter over your photograph and each new issue of Marvels that finds its way to us. They make me read the stories aloud you know, constantly interrupting with questions and comments.  More than one looked slightly faint when they saw the lipstick mark you pressed to the back of the photograph.

They’re all good men, but none of them are good enough for you.  Of course I am more than a bit biased so I suppose if I find one with suitable mettle I will allow them to write and enclose their letter with my own.  If only to laugh at the way you will flay them for their cheek. Though I warn it will likely only make them pine for you all the more.

Mostly I will laugh at the thought of your own smile, bright and sharp like in the photograph, as you put pen to paper.

I would have you smile, have you laugh, like that always, Toni.  Bright and warm and so very lovely.

It is a smile worth finding my way out of the other side of this war for.

When the war is done I think I will enjoy my new post on your home, as fantastical as it seems.  Leaving it all behind and following you on your next great adventure sounds sweeter, kinder, with every day that passes.  The things I have seen here, and the passing of Sir, has given me a new perspective on our oldest argument. I find now that I am counting the days until you can show me the places you have written of in person.

Wait for me on the other side, sweet Icarus.  Know that I love you, know that I fight every day to come back to you.  God willing I will see you soon.

Yours with love,

Edwin Jarvis

~~~

Fingers smoothing carefully, reverently, over the last lines of the letter Toni doesn’t even try to bite back the smile that blossoms across her face.

In her chest, settled beside the gears and wires that keep it beating steady and even, Toni’s heart surges with joy.

Few things make her so gleefully, purely happy like one of Jarvis’ letters.  And now this new one, freshly delivered and filled to the brim with his confessions, his trust and love for her written out so plainly?

His sadness and weariness bite at her of course, make her ache for him.  But Toni is hard pressed to remember so sweet a feeling as to have her father in all but blood write such things to her.

It is, as he’d said in the letter, a blessing of joy in times when joy seems to be in short supply.

Toni will hoard this bright spot of happiness for darker days, will use its light to see her through any deep darkness she might encounter.

There’s footsteps behind her, tapping against the tile in a pattern she’d know in her sleep.  Standing at the rail, letter in one hand and eyes trained on the darkening horizon, Toni smiles as arms slide around her waist.

She’s pulled back into a familiar chest then, the scent of spice and leather caressing her senses, as Rhodey tucks her close, his chin resting easily on top of her head.

“Good letter?”  Rhodey asks quietly.

“One of the best,” Toni tells him as she settles back into his hold.  “He’s sad, Rhodey, and tired. But he says that when this is done, when he comes home, he wants to go out with us.  Wants to adventure and live on The Icarus with us.”

“I’m happy for you, baby girl,” Rhodey answers easily and Toni can hear the honest smile in his voice.  “Hopefully this war won’t last much longer and he can come home. I’m looking forward to watchin’ him read you the riot act for your shenanigans.”

My shenanigans?”  Toni twists in his hold enough to look up at him.  “I’ll have you know, Mister Rhodes, that any shenanigans I might engage in are, at the very least, fifty percent yours as well.”

“Fifty?”  Rhodey scoffs back, a grin lingering at the corners of his mouth.  “Might not have the fancy education you’ve got Miss Stark but even I know that math ain’t right.  More like … twelve percent. Maybe.  I mostly just follow along behind you and put out as many fires as I can.  Everybody in the world knows that by now, remember? Pepper’s been writing your hi-jinks for months now.”

A long familiar mix of anger and sadness washes over Toni then.

“You’re more than that though.  You know that right?” Toni brings a hand up to press against Rhodey’s cheek.  “No matter what the world says, you’re my partner Rhodey. Half the things we’ve seen, half the things we’ve done?  Our adventures? They wouldn't have been the same without you.”

“Hey now,” Rhodey reaches up to take her hand in one of his own, the other coming up to tap her lightly on the chin, “none of that now you hear?  I know you, Toni. And Pepper and Happy. I know you don’t think of me like that.  Jarvis either. But the rest of the world? Well I’m just a colored boy who made good following a classy dame like you around.”

“It’s not right,” Toni sighs as she presses closer to him again, face buried in the lapel of his coat.

“No,” Rhodey agrees.  “No it’s not but it’s gonna change one day Toni.  One day ain’t none of this gonna matter none to anyone.  One day people are gonna be able to be together any way they want without having to hide it or go on the lam.  Just you wait and see, every bluenose out there saying we can't be in each others lives even as friends is gonna have to eat crow.”

“You’re right,” Toni finally says with a soft laugh.  “No use me getting all bent about it. Instead we’re gonna help make sure that change comes all the faster.”

“That’s my girl,” Rhodey grins down at her.  “No more of this wet blanket nonsense out of you.”

“Darling I’ve never been a wet blanket not once in my life and you know it.”  Toni protests. “As a matter of fact I aim to stir up some more trouble.”

“Woman what’re you cooking up in that head of yours now?”  Rhodey looks equal parts intrigued and preemptively exhausted.  Which is actually rather fair, all things considered.

“Way I see it,” Toni begins, a sharp smile beginning to blossom across her too red lips, “we’re sitting pretty when it comes to Marvels.  Pepper’s chronicles of our adventures are making them dough hand over fist.  So either they stop trying to edit out all of the dashing James Rhodes contributions or we’ll just have to take our enterprise elsewhere.  Maybe Stark Industries will open up a printing press, start making our own magazine.”

“You’re a right snake you know that?”  Rhodey asks around fresh laughter. “Devious little thing.”

“Oh snuggle pup,” Toni grins openly as she turns back to look at the clouds that are rapidly approaching as The Icarus takes to the sky, “I’m rather proud of the fact.”

~~~

Toni spends the next two weeks waltzing on clouds.

Figuratively of course.

Although, if she has her way about it the designs she’s been working on in her spare time will make sure that, one day, it’ll be literally too.

The Icarus is enroute to New York again after their latest stint in Peru, engines running smooth as butter after she’d spent some quality time giving them the love they deserved.

Now, grease streaked but satisfied, elbows resting on the rail in front of the giant windows that line the airship’s front cabin, Toni finds that she’s eager to be back at their home base below the clouds.

She’s got more than one package that should be waiting for her of things she’d ordered before they’d set out on their latest jaunt to the wilds.  Small things for Jarvis’ room, little bits of home she’d had Henrietta package up and send from the manor in Boston.

She wants his room to be absolutely perfect when the war ends and he comes home to her.

Plus there’s the fact that Pepper, steely eyed and vicious, is more than willing to back her play against the saps running Marvels.  Either they’ll get with the times or Toni’ll make good on her talk.

Marvels needs The Adventures of The Scarlet Stark Heiress much more than Toni needs them after all.  Especially after how hard Toni had fought to have Pepper as her chronicler.  Not to mention how far down their noses the saps running the thing had looked at her in the beginning.

But now, as Marvels biggest hit to date and every copy flying off the shelves to the point that they have to double print, all of their doubts and chewing gum about a woman’s place mean next to nothing.

Not that it ever really meant anything to Toni in the first place of course.

The point is, Toni sells.  And she sells well.

So either they’ll give her what she wants, what Rhodey deserves, or she’ll make sure someone else does.

Even if that means forcing the board of SI to give her what she wants as well.  And that promises to be a battle all on its own.

But after growing up under Howard’s cruelty, after the debacle with Stane during which none of them had so much as said a peep, Toni has next to no pity for any of those old fops.

They’re just rich old men who see progress as a threat.

She’ll cut a swathe through them like she has everyone and anyone who’s stood in her way before now and she won’t even blink as she does it.

They can’t stop her.

She won’t let them.

~~~

Toni strides out of Marvels’ building with her head held high and a vicious sort of smile on her face.  At her side Pepper is just as satisfied, a matching cat-who-got-the-canary sort of grin curling across her mouth as well.

“Less than an hour,” Toni says as she turns towards Pepper, one gloved hand on her hip.  “Told you they’d fold, Pepper-girl. Might be a bit of a record though.”

“It’s cause you’re such a bearcat, Toni,” Pepper tells her even as she snaps open her clutch and pulls out a cigarette.  “Anyone else but you and they’d have sent them running for the hills.”

“Please,” Toni waves the praise and Pepper’s small cloud of smoke away, “you’d eat them alive too and you know it.  Draper would probably like it though. You and I both know he wants to be your daddy.”

“My Happy’s man enough for me,” Pepper tells her primly, a glimmer in her eyes that makes Toni’s smile widen even more.  “Might even let him pin me for real some day here soon like he wants. Plus he’s got more integrity in his pinky than that man has in his entire body.”

“Only if I don’t convince you to run away with me for good first,” Toni tells her with a sly smile as she smooths a hand down the front of her scarlet blouse.  “We’d have to take Rhodey of course but me and you could take the rest of the world by storm between the two of us with not another man in sight.”

“You’d never leave Happy behind and we both know it,” Pepper just huffs at her with a fond roll of her eyes, well used to Toni’s outrageous flirtations and sly innuendo.

“True,” Toni admits easily.  “He makes your eyes light up so I guess I’ll have to resign myself to giving up on you.  At least this means he’ll still be willing to make those pies of his. They’re better than Jarvis’ even though it’s his recipe.  Not that I’d ever tell either of them that.”

“It’ll be our secret,” Pepper agrees.

“Well then,” Toni makes a show of straightening her gloves, “since that took far less time than I’d thought I say we go out and have a bit of a walk about town.  Rhodey promised to pick up the post so we don’t have to worry about that. But Fredrick did promise to have few new suits done for me and Rhodey the last time we were in town.  There’s also few more things I’d like to pick up for everyone before we get back in the air. Don’t think I don’t know your stash of sweets is practically gone. Be a good girl and I’ll get you another box of those delectable little cakes you like so much.  And maybe another dress or two.  Don't think I haven't seen you sighing over those new hats from Paris.”

“You shop entirely too much,” Pepper complains even as she falls into step beside her.  "Happy and I have more clothes than we know what to do with because of you."

“I’m rich, darling,” Toni chides her lightly, “and getting richer by the second.  And money’s only as good as the things and people you spend it on. And since I have such excellent people in my life I should spend an excellent amount of money on them.  So really shopping is practically a duty at this point.”

“Spoiled creature,” Pepper says fondly.

“Like milk,” Toni agrees happily.  “But really, what’s life if you can’t spoil yourself a little bit?”

~~~

In hindsight, Toni should have known that the joy wouldn’t last.

It so rarely ever does for her.

~~~

Knee deep in bags and packages Toni hums lightly under her breath as she unwraps and unfolds the things she’d bought.  It’s an old Italian lullaby Jarvis used to sing to her back when she was still getting her knuckles slapped by whatever haridain Howard had hired to torture her for incorrect posture and poor annunciation.

“Toni,” Rhodey’s voice comes from behind her.

“Hey sugar lump,” Toni calls back as she turns, a thick robe held up in front of her and head down as she examines it again.  It’s a deep rich blue and has Jarvis’ initials embroidered on the lapel in golden thread. It’s also sinfully soft. An extravagance that Jarvis would never take for himself but one Toni delights in giving to him.  “Do you think he’ll like it? His old one is getting threadbare and I figured it be a good welcome aboard gift. Well, all of this will be good welcome home gifts too I suppose but still.”

“Toni,” Rhodey repeats.

There’s something in his tone that makes her stop, foreboding slithering down her spine as she goes still.

When she looks up Rhodey’s face is etched with deep lines.  His eyes are red, bloodshot and slightly glassy.

Toni drops the robe and practically jumps over the circle of bags and packages at her feet.  She’s in his space in the next second, hands coming up to cup his face.

“Rhodey?”  Her heart is beating hard and harsh, her voice is barely a whisper.  She hasn’t seen him this upset in an age. “Rhodey what’s wrong? What’s happened?”

“Toni,” Rhodey says again as he reaches up and grabs one of her hands in his own, “Toni I need you to sit down okay?”

“No,” Toni shakes her head, “no, tell me what’s wrong.  You tell me right now.”

“Toni, baby girl,” Rhodey’s face twists in a deep, pained, grimace, “I don’t … god Tones.  I’m so sorry.”

“For what?”  She forces the question out from a suddenly dry throat as ice blossoms to life in her chest.

“I got the post,” Rhodey chokes out as he brings his other hand up.  “This was … this was waiting for you. Toni it’s … it’s Jarvis.”

Toni looks down and sees the telegram and the other letter, sealed and embossed with a familiar seal.

And between one breath and the next, her entire world shatters.

No,” Toni whispers, denial roaring through her as she drops Rhodey’s hand and stumbles back a step.  “No.”

“Toni,” Rhodey steps forward, hand held out in front of him.  This close Toni can see the way it trembles in the air between them.  “I’m sorry. I’m so goddamn sorry.”

“It’s not true,” Toni shakes her head sharply even as she bites down on a half formed sob.  “It’s not, Rhodey. They got the wrong man. You’ll see. It’s a mistake.”

“It’s not,” Rhodey tells her softly.  “Toni it’s not a mistake. He’s gone. I’m sorry but he’s gone.”

He’s not! ” Toni half shouts, hands coming up to press against her mouth as she stumbles back a step.  “He’s not gone. He’s not, Rhodey. He’s coming home.  He promised me.  He’s coming home.”

“No,” Rhodey shakes his head again, tears welling up to match her own, as he he moves closer until he’s standing right in front of her, “he’s not.”

“Don’t lie to me,” Toni spits, voice breaking on a sob as her fisted hands come down to thump against Rhodey’s chest, “don’t you fucking dare.  Don’t you … don’t you … please.  Please.  Rhodey, please.  You’re lying.  Please be lying.”

“I’m not,” Rhodey whispers as he pulls her closer, wraps himself around her and holds her against his chest with arms that almost hurt, “sweetheart, you know I’m not.  You know I’d never.  I’m so sorry, Toni.  So sorry.”

“He wasn’t supposed to leave,” Toni sobs as she collapses against his chest.  “It isn’t fair.  He was supposed to come back to me.  He was supposed to come home.

“I know,” Rhodey soothes her, a hand coming up to press carefully against the back of her upswept hair, “I know he was.  I know he wanted to.”

Rhodey holds her there for the longest time, holds her as she breaks apart in his arms.

Holds her in the middle of a room Toni had built with Jarvis in mind, surrounded by gifts that will never be given.

He holds her as she sinks down in a heap onto the floor of a home that will never be lived in.

One she built for a father who will never come home again.

~~~

After that first, wild and vicious outburst of grief, the days that follow find Toni listless.

She moves through the halls of The Icarus like she’s walking through a grey haze.

She’s a silent wraith, a faded out and dull version of herself.

She can see the worry on Happy’s face, the tears in Pepper’s eyes, the aching grief that clings to Rhodey, but she just can’t …

She can’t connect to it.

Instead she spends most of her time either curled up in Jarvis’ unused bed, the old robe she’d had Henrietta mail to her pressed against her face, or down in the engines, obsessively checking every connection and piston.

The world passes around her like clouds.

There’s a wall between her and her emotions.  A barrier between her and the howling grief and swelling rage that she can just catch glimpses of.

Toni can’t help but wander, with an absent sort of curiosity, what will happen when it finally falls.

~~~

They make it to their scheduled stop in Manaus, Brazil a day ahead of time thanks, in no small part, to all of the extra attention Toni’s been paying to the engines.

The next morning Pepper and Rhodey both watch her, eyes wide and faces drawn in worry, as she strides down the gangway and onto the dock.

She’s dressed to the hilt, hair up and lipstick flawless, in her trademark scarlet safari suit.  She’s outfitted and ready to pursue the rumors of treasure that had brought them to this particular port in the first place.

“Let’s go see a man about an emerald mask,” Toni says as she presses past the two of them and down the docks.  They have a contact waiting for them and Toni’s not willing to let the weasley man scamper off without having gotten the chance to question him.

There’s a pause but then Toni hears familiar footsteps fall into line behind her.

~~~

Three days later finds Toni in the med-bay of The Icarus.  She’s bruised and sore, her right ankle is swollen and she’s covered in blood.  More than a fair share of it her own.

But there’s a emerald and gold inlaid mask clasped tightly in her right hand.

Rhodey’s there of course, dirty and exhausted as he sits at her side as Pepper puts her medical training to good use by sewing up the sluggishly bleeding furrow that a stray bullet had dug through her shoulder.  Happy, face drawn, lingers by the door, flour covered apron twisted between his thick fingers.

Adrenaline slowly draining from her veins Toni can practically feel the anger and worry radiating off of all of them.

She’d wince, she’s sure, if she could make herself feel anything but the yawning emptiness that’s been living and breathing inside of her since Rhodey came back with that telegram and letter.

~~~

Later, once they’re both clean and Pepper and Happy have retired, Rhodey corners her in the study.

“What in the hell was that out there?”  Rhodey asks voice sharp and hard, arms crossed across his chest.

“Don’t know what you mean,” Toni answers back dully.

“Don’t give me that shit, Toni,” Rhodey barks back.  “You were reckless, too damn reckless even for you. You got shot Toni.”

“It’s a graze,” Toni dismisses easily enough.

“Don’t,” Rhodey cuts in sharply, something aching and terrible in his voice.  “Don’t you dare do that. Don’t dismiss it like that. It might’ve been a graze this time, Toni.  But what about next time? You going to make me see that again? Make me watch you get hurt like that again?  Maybe make me watch you die?”

Toni looks up then, attention snapping to Rhodey with a fullness she hasn’t felt in weeks.  It’s in that moment that she finally sees just how exhausted he looks, how worn down and thin he is.

“I …,” her words hang in her throat.

Rhodey’s face softens as he moves around the desk to crouch down in front of her chair.

“I know you’re hurting, Toni,” he says softly.  “I know that’s what this is. And I’m so sorry, Tones.  Really I am. I’m sorry he’s gone. I’m sorry you lost him.  But you gotta get through this okay? Cause you still have me alright?  You’ve still got all of us here waiting for you on the other side of this hurt.  I’m with you sweetheart. You remember that right? I’m with you till the day we die.  So you can’t leave me yet, not like this.”

Toni can’t bring herself to blink back the tears she can suddenly feel welling up in her eyes.

Instead she just tips forward out of her chair and into Rhodey’s arms, trusting that he’ll catch her.

He does of course, hands coming up to catch her gently and pull her against his chest all without jarring her arm too much.

Because he’s Rhodey, and that’s what he does.

He catches her whenever she falls, cradles her close to his heart and keeps her from harm.

Without him she’d have plummeted to the ground long ago.

~~~

It doesn’t get easier, dealing with the fact that Jarvis will never come home.

That she’ll never see him again.

Never get the years as father and daughter that Howard’s death had made a possibility.

The years that have now been stolen from them.

It’s still hard and vicious and clawing.  There’s a chasm of aching, howling grief inside of her that Toni isn’t sure she’ll ever escape.

So it doesn’t get easier but she does learn to live with it.  Learns not to frighten Rhodey and Pepper and Happy again like she had in Brazil.

Instead she reads his letters over and over again, pouring over each line obsessively until Rhodey inevitably pries them gently from her hands and takes her to her room.

His last letter she keeps with her always though.  Keeps it folded neatly and tucked away close to her heart just like Jarvis had said he kept her picture.

Drawing on the strength of a lifetime under Howard’s cruelty and the cherished memory of Jarvis’ voice telling her the story of Icarus night after night, Toni does her best to push forward.

But oh does she ache.

~~~

The war continues to rage, tensions growing around the world day after day.  Toni keeps track of it, horror growing fresh and new each day with every bit of information that reaches them.

Many a night is spent, the four of them huddled around the desk in the study, as Toni or Rhodey translate newspapers outloud to keep everyone informed.

Toni can’t understand how the US can stand not to do more than they are.  Can’t understand how so many can easily ignore what is happening across the sea.

This war, this fight Jarvis di- that Jarvis was a part of, is spreading further and further day by day as innocent people suffer so deeply, so horrifically for it.

Something needs to be done

~~~

And then the war reaches out and digs its claws into America and it can no longer be so easily dismissed.

~~

With a grim sort of agreement Toni turns The Icarus around and they make their way back to New York.

There’s a seething sort of fury in the city, and an underlying sort of fear.

The war is real now in so many ways for so many people who had been content to ignore it before.

Toni knows, with a certain sort of prophecy crystalizing in her chest, that things will never be the same.

~~~

That afternoon, standing in front of the heavily pinned map that hangs on her study wall, Toni thinks about her, their, next move.

Because she wants to help, wants to do something about this war, something to help the people who are suffering so horrifically.  Wants to do more than just putting SI to work for the war effort.  More than donating money and buying war bonds.

But she’s more than a little hesitant, more than a little cautious about what that more could entail.

This war has already taken so much from her, she’s loathe to give it the chance to take more.

“Toni,” Rhodey calls out from behind her as he pushes the door open and strides into the room.

Mind a million miles away and whirling through idea after idea, Toni turns around to greet him.

The words die a quick and vicious death where they catch in her throat because the first thing she sees is the familiar drab beige uniform.

The second thing she sees is the sheaf of papers in Rhodey’s hand.

And in that moment she knows.

God does she know.

No,” Toni whispers in a echo of that horrible day not too long ago.  “No.  Don’t you dare say it.”

“I had to,” Rhodey tells her softly, expression aching.  “Toni you’ve seen what’s happening over there just as well as I have.  You know I had to.”

“No you didn’t,” Toni denies sharply, tears of grief and despair threatening to choke her before she swallows them down.  “How could you, Rhodey? How could you do this?

“Cause it’s right,” Rhodey answers simply.  “Because we both know it’s right. Because you’ve been thinking about it too, we all have.  About what we could do to help stop all of this.”

“It didn’t have to be this,” Toni tells him as she reaches out and snatches the enlistment papers from his hand so she can toss them down onto the desk with a vicious sort of flourish.  “We could have done something different. Anything different. We’ve got the Icarus, and SI. We had options, damn you.  I would have made sure you had options."

“I was likely gonna to be called to duty regardless Toni,” Rhodey cuts in.  “You know that.”

“Then we could have run,” Toni bites back.  “Gone on the lam for real.  Helped in other ways.  We could fly away from all of this Rhodey. Hover up above the clouds until this damn war burns itself out. Until the world is kinder, sweeter than it is now.”

“I ain’t a coward Toni,” Rhodey dismisses the suggestion easily as he reaches out to pull her close again.  “And neither are you. You know I can’t run from this, none of us can run from this. And we shouldn’t. Too many people out there suffering.  Dying. They need good people to help save them.”

“But why did it have to be you?”  Toni whispers against his chest.

“Because I’ve got fly training Toni,” Rhodey reminds her.  “And a passel of other skills thanks to our jaunting about like we have. I’m an actual asset to the war effort, even if they don’t wanna admit that.  And I did it because I’m just a colored boy, Toni, and I’m always gonna be one.  Maybe this’ll help change things.  Help my people take a step up in the world, kill some people that need killin’, save some that need savin’.  Maybe we’ll help make the world safer for a lot of different folk in the end.”

Toni buries her face against his chest and forces herself to breathe.

Forces herself to pretend, if only for a moment, like she doesn't feel as if the ground has been ripped out from underneath her all over again.

For Rhodey's sake.

“This damn war already took Jarvis from me,” Toni manages to say after a long, thick silence.  “You can’t let it take you too. Promise me, Rhodey. Promise me you’ll come home. Promise me you won’t go so far that you can’t find your way back to us, to me.”

“Don’t wanna make a promise I might not have any control over Toni,” Rhodey answers softly, lips pressed against her temple.  “Don’t wanna lie like that. Not to you. But I promise to try. Promise to fight with all I got to make sure I make it out of this thing and back to you.  So chin up, doll, cause I need you here. I need to have something to come home to.  And that's always gonna be you.”

“Because it’s us right?”  Toni asks quietly, breath coming in sharp, short gasps as her heart clenches in her chest.  “It’s me and you, isn’t it? Even with all of this?”

“Yeah, Toni,” Rhodey agrees lowly.  “It’s me and you, until the day we die.  And I’m gonna do my best to make sure that’s not for a long, long time.  I wanna live and see the future we’ve always dreamed about Toni. So I’m gonna do the best I can to make sure that happens.”

“You’d better,” Toni half sobs, unable to hide the way her heart is breaking for even a second longer, “you’d better.”