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No Greater Love

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James Rupert Rhodes

Beloved Son, Brother, Uncle, Husband

September 8, 1970 -- October 6, 2021

 

Tony stared at the words, reading them over and over for a length of time that he lost track of. He knew Rhodey’s family had had inscribed the words they thought summed up the man lying beneath the headstone, but to him they didn’t go far enough to describe the man he had called his friend and brother for thirty-three years. He probably would have stood there contemplating the inadequacies for a lot longer if the small bundle in his arms hadn’t begun moving and making soft, small noises.

 

Shifting his eyes from the headstone down to the bundle, his eyes met those of his son as they opened. He carefully shift the baby in his arms when it became obvious the three month old wasn’t going to fall back to sleep right away. Rubbing his son's back, Tony began talking in a low tone to him.

 

“Hey buddy, you woke up just in time. There’s someone I’d like you to meet.” He shifted the baby around in his arms again so that the little boy was facing towards the grave rather than away, and quietly said, “JJ, this is your Uncle Jimmy… or Rhodey as I call, uh, called him. Platypus… yet another thing I called your Uncle because it annoyed him so much, this little guy is Joshua James Anthony Stark, or as we call him, JJ.”

 

JJ began to get fussy, forcing his father to change his position in his arms.

 

Once he had JJ settled back against his shoulder, the baby settled back down. Just to be sure, he started to rub the little boy’s back while he addressed the headstone again, “This little guy literally owes his existence to you… because if you hadn’t done what you did for me, I…” His voice broke, forcing Tony to stop and take several deep breaths as his vision blurred.

 

“Why did you do it? I mean I didn’t want to die… and I’m very grateful to be here now, still breathing in the air, loving Pepper, my kids which now include this incredible little man.” He pauses to press a kiss on his son’s head, blinking back tears before continuing, “But I miss you, you know? My life is amazing, don’t get wrong, but there’s a Rhodey-sized hole it in now that’s never ever going to be filled no matter what I do and…. I just don’t get why you did it? Why?”

 

“He did it because he loved you.”

 

Tony’s snapped up, and he quickly turned around to see who had spoken. His eyes went wide a split second before he put on his sunglasses, and said, “I… sorry, Tane-- uh, Mrs. Hobson. I hadn’t planned on being here when you or… anyone else showed up. I’ll leave now.” He hurried to around her as soon as he finished speaking, and started down the path that led to where his car was waiting.

 

Tanesha sighed, looked at her brother’s grave, and then called out, “Mr. Stark…. Tony, wait!”

 

Tony stopped walking and looked back at her over his shoulder to see her walking briskly behind him.

 

She motioned for him to come back and when he didn’t she said, “Please come back.”

 

He half turned, took a step towards her, then stopped, his eyes dropping to   JJ. For a moment he considered making an excuse, like telling her that the baby’s diaper needed changing or like telling her that JJ would be getting hungry soon. Instead though he gave her a wary look, and inquired, “Wait, aren’t you angry at me? ‘Cause if you are, I completely understand and I’ll just get out of here, let you have your privacy.”

 

Tanesha stared at him a moment, nodding a confirmation, “Yes, I’m still angry… but I’m not angry at you.”

 

Tony blinked, not sure he heard her right, “What?”

 

Rhodey’s sister stepped closer, “Don’t get me wrong. I think I was angry with you at first. Very angry in fact. But then after everything settled down, I got the chance to do a lot of thinking and soul searching I came to realize a few very important things. First of these is that  I know that you… you loved my brother too, so you didn’t ask James to do what he did for you Second, I know that even if you had asked James, that still wouldn’t make you responsible for his death. Third, and this one I have already said before, and that is James loved you… as much as he loved me or Alyssa--”

 

“No, not as much.”

 

“Yes, just as much as us! James always considered you to be more than just his best friend. He considered you to be his brother too. Mama…” she paused looking back towards the places where her parents and brother were buried, “told me about the first time you and James met. She said that you two just clicked in a way that she had never seen before in her life and up to the day she died, I don’t think she still hadn’t. She knew from the moment you two met each other that you would be not just best friends but brothers for the rest of your lives. Tony, she understood that it’s not just sharing blood and genes that makes people family. She knew that all was needed was for someone to be family was for there to be love, and that is exactly how James felt about you… I know because he willingly did the only thing he could do.”

 

“Well with all due respect to Mama Rhodes, how would she feel about me and the relationship I had with her only son if she had known if… us clicking like the day we met, it would lead her son to an early grave?”

 

Tanesha shook her head, smiling through her tears as she said, “You know James was so right about you when he said you could be so incredibly smart and at the same time be so incredibly  being dense.”

 

“Hey!” he responded, looking as serious as he could for a few seconds before a slight smile crossed his features, “I completely and totally resemble that!”

 

The woman who was Rhodey’s older sister had opened her mouth to say something when the baby in Tony’s arms whined, and then began to cry. She silently watched as Tony tried to sooth away his son’s tears but the little one was having none of it.

 

As the baby’s cries increased in volume he gave her a sheepish look before he said, “Sorry but this little guy is hungry since it’s almost time for his next bottle… and I’m pretty sure he probably needs a change by now too. So on that note, I'll stop interrupting your visit time, and leave. Have a good day." Tony started to walk away from her once more, and stopped again when he heard her call out his name.

 

"You know, I believe visiting is something you do with the living, not with the dead," Tanesha said when he turned around, "which is what I'd like to continue doing with you.... if you don't mind?"

 

Tony's eyes widened in surprise, "Are you sure? I mean I know it's probably hard seeing--"

 

"Oh please stop it right there, right now. I wouldn't have said it if I hadn't meant it. Just let me go put these," she held up the bouquet of flowers in her hands, "on Mama and Daddy's graves.... it's their anniversary today... and then we can leave, go some place else where we can talk."

 

"I uh... are you sure that you want to be seen with me? I mean even when I'm trying not to attract attention I can't seem to do anything but."

 

"Yes, I'm sure," Rhodey's sister said, "Please? I know a cozy little diner not far from here where we'll have plenty of privacy."

 

He looked at JJ a moment before finally agreeing, "Alright... as long as this diner has somewhere I can get this little guy changed."

 

"I think they've installed baby changing stations in both restrooms."

 

"Okay, I guess we're all set then."