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What Doesn't Kill Me (Better Fucking Run)

Chapter Text

“Fate is coming, that I know
Time is running, got to go”

(A few months in the future // Earth)

The darkness made for easy sneaking around, but Tony felt like it made doing literally anything else more difficult than it needed to be. He could hardly see a damn thing as he moved, silently as possible, through the room that Queen Shuri so graciously offered them during their brief stay in Wakanda. He had to move slower than he liked, mindful of Pepper being a light sleeper after years of waking him from nightmares.

He felt dirty and disgusted with himself as he left the room, Pepper and Rhodey asleep and peacefully oblivious to his internal struggle. In eight years together he'd never once snuck out on Pepper; gently waking her (at any hour) to tell her why he was leaving preceded everything from a surprise mission to a quick trip to the bathroom. He never wanted Pepper to wake up alone and think that she was just another quick roll in the sack for him, and a few months into their relationship it had quickly developed into a habit that he appreciated being the recipient of as well. Of course that habit extended to Rhodey now - it had taken getting used to but Rhodey made it a point to remember after the first time Tony woke to find him absent.

When he was out of the room, Tony sighed. He should feel relieved that he didn't wake them, but instead he was agitated and wanted nothing more than to crawl back into bed with them. Maybe if he did, he could pretend that Thor and Nebula weren’t waiting for him.

No, unfortunately that wasn't an option.

The small living space beyond the bedroom had much larger windows, allowing more light in so he could see without straining his eyes. The large couches and low coffee table were easily navigated around as Tony made his way to the apartment door.

A strong beam of moonlight shone on his broken faceplate that glared at him from the coffee table. He’d teased Pepper about being overly sentimental for keeping it, but he knew why she insisted. It was a reminder to her (and to all of them) that Tony Stark had mostly survived his tango with an alien wielding four infinity stones.

He’d planned on sending them a last message on his way out of the atmosphere, but this felt like the universe trying to nudge his goodbye message in another direction. He’d never been one to believe in predetermined fate, but the past few months had convinced him that maybe it wasn’t such a far-fetched concept.

He did, however, believe in deciding his own fate.

He grabbed the faceplate from the small table and walked down the hall into a more secluded corner of the apartment where he wouldn’t be overheard, deciding on a closet at the far end. He tried not to think too hard about the ridiculousness of sitting cross-legged on the ground in a closet - in the middle of the night, no less - and instead fumbled blindly for the recording switch on the charred, scratched faceplate.

He found the small switch and paused, the grim reality of his departure - and their inevitable reaction to it - hitting him with sharp clarity. He’d be far better off leaving a normal message like a normal person, but as much as Tony knew this would hurt them, leaving a "regular" message wouldn't make it any easier for them.

He’d recorded his first goodbye message to them on this faceplate, afterall. And since when was Tony Stark a normal person? They knew better than anyone that it was in his nature to do The MostTM.

When the faceplate illuminated the closet and began recording, he sat back with a sigh. "I’m sure by now you're getting tired of these messages," he said with a shake of his head. "Frankly, I'm getting tired of leaving them, but… Here we are again, a few months later. But this time with the truth; no sleight of hand like last time either. Just gonna… lay it all out there.”

He was stalling. This might be the last time they ever heard him. It might be the last time he ever talked to them. "I love you both," he said quietly. "So much. You have no idea how much. For once, I don’t want to throw myself head first into the fight. I love what we have more than anything and I want to keep it the way it is. We’ve lived in this bubble of happiness despite the hellscape around us and I want to stay there - stay here - with you. I want to just step back from trying to save everyone but myself. I’ve done enough. I’ve given enough. I’m tired, and all I want is the three of us to be together and some goddamn rest.”

He felt pressure building behind his eyes, but he had the whole flight to crumple in on himself. He needed to get this out before either Thor and Nebula decided to leave him behind or the Dora Milaje wondered what they were doing in the hanger at three in the morning. He cleared his throat. “I’m sure it’s no surprise that I’m on my way to Thanos right now. (No, this isn’t more of my self-sacrificing bullshit.) I have to do this. I just - I feel it in my gut; something is pulling me towards him and I think I might finally be starting to piece together the vague clues that Strange and Loki have been hinting at. I’ll have Thor and Nebula there fighting with me but I think we can all agree that, of the three of us, I’m the most likely to... not walk away from this fight.”

Yikes. Too real. They needed to know that despite the possibilities, Tony wasn't throwing in the towel.

He reached into his chest pocket and pulled out one of the Electromagnetic Gravitational Gadgets for his future audience to see. Though the finished product was only about the size of its namesake, the two strongest metals in the universe woven together made it weigh a good sixteen ounces.

“This is the EGG, the side project I’ve been working on with the Grandmaster and the Collector. The purpose is to lock away the stones so that no one can ever use them again. If we can’t get the gauntlet to Thor or if he can’t use it, then these are what we’re going to use to even the playing field against Thanos.

“I left the blueprints behind for Rocket - should be easy for him to replicate. You’ll probably want at least a dozen of them just to be safe. I’m bringing a few with us but I left one behind for him to reference. I doubt he’ll need it; fuzzy little bastard will probably have a more sophisticated way to bond the vibranium and adamantium together.

“These EGGs are Plan B. Thor and Nebula don’t plan on dying - and neither do I, can't stress that enough - but that doesn't mean that it can't happen. If we can’t kill Thanos, we’re sure as hell going to kick the shit out of him so you guys can come in for the kill. We know you'll be right behind us when you realize we’re gone, so if this does go south, Thanos won’t have time to recover when the second wave hits.”

Tony wanted so badly to tell them. It was on the tip of his tongue. If anyone deserved to know what he was about to attempt, it was Pepper and Rhodey. Except he knew that leaving like this was bad enough. He couldn’t put them through that added stress when this might be the last time they ever get to see him.

But would it be any better for them to arrive and see the aftermath of his failure? He imagined it wouldn’t be pretty, and certainly not painless.

He felt stress and anxiety clawing its way up the back of his throat, but he pushed through it. The sooner he, Nebula, and Thor left, the farther ahead of the rest they would be.

Tony cleared his throat again and tried for a smile, though it was strained and wouldn't fool the two people that knew and loved him most. Still, he tried for a lighter tone as he held up fingers to tick off points. “So, to sum up: we’re off to murder Thanos. We’re going to try lifting the gauntlet off him and give it to Thor and if that fails then our best bet is to lock up the stones so no one can ever use them again. If the three of us don’t make it, then everyone here is the backup. You won’t need to do anything fancy with the EGGs, by the way; the magnetism and pull of the metals together should cause the EGG to swallow a stone whole when they’re in proximity. They’ll bond to the stone, lock it up, and apparently make it impossible to ever use the stone again or break into the EGG. We’ll take out as many of them as we can if we have to, but you should probably plan to take them out all at once if you can. Nebula seems to think Rocket will know where we’re headed so that’s taken care of. What else…”

Nothing. He needed to leave. He really didn't want to. “I guess that’s it then. Hopefully we’ll be on our way back with Thanos’ head before you even have to lay eyes on the planet.”

He reached forward to flick off the recording but paused just short of the switch. He looked right into the eyes of the helmet, imagining that Rhodey and Pepper were looking right at him. Leaving was harder now than it was laying in bed between them twenty minutes ago. He could only imagine what it would do to them when they woke up and he was gone. He hated himself for this, but the one thing he could do was not let them know that he was scared.

“I mean it; I love you. And I’m so sorry I’m putting you two through this again. Pretty sure this is the most reckless thing I’ve done to date, but... I don't know, I feel good about this. We're going to beat him. I know this is the worst possible way to leave without waking you when that’s been my one rule for so long, but after all this is done...”

He swallowed. Failure wasn’t an option this time. There’s always a way out.

“I promise you: I’m coming home. Whatever it takes.

Chapter Text

“And now the kingdom comes
Crashing down undone
And I am master of a nothing place”

(After The Snap // Realm of the Dead)

Stephen kept his eyes closed as he slowly became aware of himself again. Though he’d died many times - in many many different ways - he'd never actually seen this realm before. He hadn’t really known what to expect ceasing to exist to feel like either. He felt like sand in an hourglass, pouring slowly from one plane to another. Reassembly felt indescribably uncomfortable and the parched, stagnant air was only intensifying that discomfort.

The whole process had a different feel to it then dying, but apparently ceasing to exist brought you to the realm of the dead all the same.

Perhaps it wasn't because of Thanos' snap, but rather because Stephen hadn't met a violent end this time. An interesting thought, but he'd file it away for later contemplation.

When viewing alternate futures, the chances of a mass migration of consciousness to another plane verses eternal oblivion for those selected had been fifty-fifty. Finding that he'd ceased to exist only in the realm of the living gave him a potent rush of relief. "Must've been more worried about that then I thought," he muttered to himself.

But there was no doubt in his mind that he was dead. The otherness of this realm was hanging heavy in the air and it dampened his powers when he tried to enter the astral dimension. Did this place even have an astral dimension? Another thought for another time.

Stephen finally opened his eyes and briefly inspected his surroundings. The sky was varying shades of blue and deep purple, like Earth’s sky before sunrise. There were no stars, no clouds, no suns, nothing at all in the sky. Despite no visible source of light, he could clearly see the unending stretch of flat grey earth. The expanse was reminiscent of the Arizona desert. A few dead looking shrubs here and there and multitudes of rocks were the only breaks in the scenery.

Beings of all shapes and sizes were rapidly starting to appear. Small dust tornadoes flowed from every direction and settled to reveal people and animals from every corner of the universe.

The volume of confused and panicked protests was steadily rising. A small grey child with patches of orange and black skin plopped to the ground and began crying at full volume. Several yards away, an animal that Stephen could only describe as a crocodile with legs long enough to make it the size of a horse looked around wildly before letting out a blood curdling scream and galloping away.

Everything about this place was unsettling enough to raise the hairs on the back of his neck. He didn’t need to breathe or blink, he didn’t even have a heartbeat. His entire body felt still and unnatural with no blood running through his veins, yet he could feel every single shift of muscle and bone under his skin.

He might have found it odd that the realm of the dead was finite enough to become crowded (even with half of all life suddenly taking up space) but once confusion was replaced with curiosity they would likely begin to fan out to investigate their new home. Eventually it had to become less crowded. Some beings appeared and immediately went in search of answers or anyone they knew.

Now was as good a time as any for him to do the same. He picked a direction and started walking. His powers would be hit or miss in this realm, so he'd have to rely mostly on observations and fuzzy memories of futures he glimpsed. He could test some of the physics of this world while he searched, but he didn't care to yet.

The particulars of this world, while interesting, were not at the top of his list. The only rule of this realm that did matter to him was that it was meant to be completely sealed off from all others. One way trip, no way back.

But any rule in the universe could be bent if one was creative enough.

And, if Stephen wasn't mistaken, a certain God of Mischief prided himself not only in his creativity, but also in bending rules that were meant to be absolute and without exception. While the two hated each other weren’t each other’s favorite person and had a rather "impolite" first meeting, Stephen knew that if he was going to find anyone, it needed to be Loki. The Prince of Asgard had hundreds of years experience slipping between worlds; if anyone would be able to find a way back to the world of the living, it would be Loki.

Stephen had done all he could to impress upon Stark how important he was to winning against Thanos. Telling Stark too much would guarantee their loss, so Stephen had to settle for telling Stark how important it was that he remember every detail of his encounter with Thanos. Frustratingly cryptic, but some of the details were blurry to Stephen too; remembering over fourteen million futures wasn't easy even for him.

He had to hope that Stark would remember what he needed to when the time came. Giving Thanos the time stone would at least send home the gravity of Stark’s importance and set everything into motion.

He hoped. Tony Stark could be an arrogant prick when he wanted to be, and while some might find his "charismatic" personality cute or charming, Stephen had found it terribly annoying. But that was before he’d looked into the future.

Following the future where they won against Thanos, Stephen saw not only how selfless and kind Tony could be, but also how genuine he was with people that he trusted and cared about. His snark had seemed like flippant disregard, but now Stephen knew that it was a defensive wall that only the two people who loved him most were allowed to see behind. With Pepper Potts and James Rhodes, Tony wore his heart on his sleeve more often than not.

Which was a great start, considering how crucial the three of them were. If everything played out just right, the next few months would bring the three of them together, culminating in the singular moment that would decide the fate of the universe. When the time came, Pepper and Rhodey would be the ones to turn the tides in the right direction.

Until then, Stephen had work of his own to do.

His eyes scanned the sea of people and he let out an annoyed huff as he had to weave around people that were standing or running about. Finding Loki, of all people, in this realm would be like looking for a grain of salt in the desert. He supposed being dead was an advantage, however - he would never get tired or need to eat or drink. Stephen could dedicate every ounce of focus into keeping an eye out for him. The Trickster was likely to see him first and would probably hide, disguise himself, or run away. Stephen didn't want to dick around playing hide and seek with the ornery prince, they didn't have time for that.

While Tony Stark was crucial to winning when the odds were so incredibly slim, he wasn't going to save the universe alone. In any way he could, Stephen wanted to speed the process along.

Chapter Text

"I'm holding on to whatever will last
I'm over, I'm overwhelmed with guilt."

(After the Snap // Titan)

Titan’s landscape looked like just about every post-apocalyptic blockbuster from the past decade. Abandoned, crumbling architecture? Check. Harsh climate? Check. No sign of life except for someone losing all of their shit as they tried to think of a solution and came up with a whole lot of nothing? The camera needed to zoom in on the man sitting on the ground in the middle of all that wreckage, but he was there, staring listlessly at nothing.

Lights, camera, action.

Tony could feel the weight of the silence around him. He knew he couldn’t actually hear it - if for no other reason than the fact that decades of blasting 80s rock hadn't been kind to his ears - but he knew that half the noise that used to exist in the universe was suddenly gone.

Half the life that used to exist was gone, just like that.

Because of him. Or, more accurately, because Stephen Strange traded the Infinity Stone of Time to save Tony’s life. Directly or indirectly, the fact remained that he felt he was to blame.

For what reason Strange needed him to be alive, Tony couldn't begin to fathom. Maybe Tony’s life meant more to Strange than the existence of half the universe?? There was no way in hell, but looking around it kind of felt like it.

What happened to that talk about protecting the stone at all costs? Something about not hesitating to let Tony or Peter to die if it kept the stone from Thanos?

What a crock of shit! Tony wished the wizard was still here so he could punch him in the face, but of course he was gone. Everyone but the blue cyborg - Nebulous? - was gone, disintegrated before his eyes. This planet was so dusty already, the remains of everyone that was fighting not fifteen minutes ago were gone without a trace.

He grabbed a fist full of dirt and looked at it, trying to differentiate between plain dirt and Peter anything else. “From dust you were made, and to dust you shall return,” he muttered, letting it run through his fingers. That’s how the saying went, wasn't it? Something like that…

He hated himself for it, but part of him felt just a little bit relieved. How much worse could it get from here? If this wasn't rock bottom, he didn't know what was. In the past six years he’d tried not to think too hard about how far shit could go sideways, but the ominous possibilities had been ever present. Now he was hyper aware of every little fuck-up that had brought him to this exact moment and he wanted to scream through time at his past self for being so careless.

Everything was far worse than he ever could have imagined, but at least it seemed to be over for now. Was that a silver lining?

All things considered, it really wasn’t something that should give him relief.

His mind was completely stalled for solutions, like bees in a hive that simply froze in mid air. All this devine shit was overwhelming without any kind of guidelines that Tony could dissect or attempt to follow. This seemed up Thor’s alley - hadn’t he mentioned something about infinity stones a few years ago?

Tony made a noise that was half laugh, half sob. Was Thor even in space? Was Asgard in some parallel dimension that mortals didn’t have access to? How was Tony supposed to find it even if he could get there? If, by some miracle, Tony found Asgard, what if Thor happened to be somewhere else?

Was Thor even alive, or was he nothing more than a pile of ash too? What then? The last time Tony had felt so utterly helpless was the morning he learned that Maria and Howard Stark died nine days before Christmas. From a car accident, of all things...

Nope. Not going down that road. Too much too much too much toomuchtoomuchtoomu…

His chest and stomach were on fire. The makeshift band-aid of nanites he’d sprayed on himself to stop the blood loss was doing its job, but adrenaline was wearing off and breathing hurt. And of course the pain came without the relief of knowing that it would be over soon.

Even better, he was starting to breathe faster and faster and couldn’t catch his breath. Ah, yes. This was the perfect time for a panic attack.

Tony leaned over heavily. A bad idea - he inhaled a gust of dirt and promptly began choking on it. Was it regular dust or was it remnants of...?

He coughed and sputtered until he was crying. He let himself tip onto his side, drawing up his knees to his chest despite the blinding pain and howled in anguish. He was hurt and scared and alone in outer-fucking-space.

He didn’t even know where this planet was in relation to Earth, but how much did that really matter? What could he do that mattered in the slightest? Peter was dead because of him. Thanos got what he wanted. What was he supposed to do now?

He needed to get started on finding one (1) right way to beat Thanos out of literal millions of possible scenarios, apparently. No pressure, though. Strange told Tony that giving up the stone was “the only way,” which had to mean that they hadn’t lost yet.

Sure as hell felt like they lost, though.

And Strange thought Tony could fix this? Tony tried his best as Iron Man, he really did, but he wasn’t too proud to admit that he was a walking, breathing shitshow. Many of the problems that had cropped up in the past ten years were - in some way, shape, or form - his fault to begin with. He had no idea where he was supposed to start cleaning up this mess. A lot of good looking into the future had done them when Strange kept his mouth shut about what he'd seen! Vague instructions to pay attention to everything that happened and an even more vague parting remark gave Tony nowhere to start.

"We're in the endgame now."

'Endgame' had the potential to mean a lot of different things. Tony remembered using that exact word years ago when trying to tell the Avengers that they needed to prepare for exactly this. If only someone could have seen this coming...

Other than figure out what 'endgame' meant, Tony wasn’t sure what Strange wanted him to do. Had he missed something that the wizard expected him to remember or notice? Sure would have been nice to know what he was supposed to be paying attention to or listening for.

Even if he did manage to figure out how kill Thanos, what then? Tony absolutely wanted him dead, but half the universe would still be gone. What was the point of chasing after Thanos besides revenge?

He never should have gotten out of bed. He couldn’t have known that his morning jog with his fiance would turn into this universal clusterfuck, but Tony had known for years that something bad was on the horizon and they’d been so ill prepared anyway. Clearly that was his fault.

Though the scale that he’d witnessed probably couldn't have been prepared for, they might have at least made it a little harder to get in and out with Dr. Strange and the Time Stone.

Tony should have tried harder to convince the Avengers when they were still a team. No one had wanted to listen to him because you're just being overly paranoid, Tony. Hell, Tony had even begun wonder if he was turning into Tin-Foil-Hat levels of paranoid. Deep down, he knew that he should have kept pushing them. He should have pushed himself harder with his own security measures, but their mistrust in him after the Ultron disaster had planted enough doubt to hold him back.

That was his fault and his alone.

He may not have known, but he had known.

“You're not the only one cursed with knowledge."

Now he was left alive with the knowledge that he had failed and others had paid the price with their lives. He’d expected a violent end for himself ever since getting blown out of the Fun-Vee ten years ago. That suspended moment of shock as Tony stood with his own blade running all the way through him seemed like the natural conclusion to his life. Maybe even the only way that he could atone for all of the wrong that he’d done throughout his life.

Yet here he was.

Wallowing in his misery on the ground, he cried himself to sleep at some point. When he jolted awake he wasn’t sure if he’d stopped crying even in sleep. He might have just nodded off for a few seconds or he might have slept for hours.

Either way, he certainly didn't feel rested. No rest for him. No relief.

He didn't deserve it anyway.

Thanos got what he wanted and promptly fucked off and instead of finding a fix, Tony was writhing in pain on the ground like a wounded animal, crying and choking on dust and/or all that was left of a young kid that wanted nothing more than to help people. A kid that was his responsibility. A kid he had failed to protect.

Tony still felt death just at the edge of his consciousness, the light caress a dirty tease with no promise of follow through. He’d been so ready to go with open arms. Selfish, now that he thought about it; Pepper and Rhodey would never know that he had perished. He didn't doubt that they would want to look for him, but the universe was vast and no one except Thanos knew who he was. Would they bother after half the population disappeared?

Had they disappeared too? According to Thanos their chances were fifty-fifty.

Tony closed his eyes. One breakdown at a time, Stark. Baby steps. What did he need to do first?

He needed to get off this planet. That was his start. Quill’s ship was parked somewhere around here; that was his ticket off the planet. Well, as long as it hadn’t been destroyed when Thanos threw an entire moon at him.

Next, he needed to figure out how to get to Thanos.

And how to kill him.

… … …

Nothing. He’d figure that out along the way, then.

The blue woman was sitting not too far off, expression empty and black eyes as bottomless as Tony’s guilt. She looked how he felt, but he wished that he could keep it all inside like her. She wasn't sprawled on the ground like a distraught toddler.

Even so, she looked like she was ready to just sit and waste away. What a relief it would be to do the same. He could just close his eyes and never open them again. He was fucking exhausted.

Tony buried his face in grimy hands. “Fuck you,” he said. He wasn't even sure who he was talking to. Strange? Thanos? The time stone? Fate? The universe? Himself?

Out of the corner of his eye, Tony saw her give a very solemn nod. Yes - fuck you. It didn't really matter who or what Tony was talking about, did it?

Well, screw this. He really wanted to, but he wasn't just going to curl up and rot on this planet - that just wasn't his style. Tony Stark was nothing if not a multitasker, and damn it he was going to at least do something while he wallowed in his misery and self hate.

Getting into the ship was all well and good, but where was he supposed to go? He knew that he was on a planet called Titan, but that gave him zero idea where he was in the map of the universe.

Tony curled up tighter on the ground. He could definitely use the woman's help, as she was certain to know space better than Tony. Would she be willing to help him? He had no clue how much she had lost in this mess, though. Maybe she just wanted to be done.

Tony certainly wanted to be done.

But he could be done when he stood over Thanos’ corpse. He forced himself to get off the ground and moved to sit next to her. He was weaker than he thought, because he flopped into something of a seated position next to her with a loud yelp of pain. He saw stars and every inch of him was in agony.

She didn't flinch or look at him as he righted himself and breathed deeply to get the pain under control. Well, he couldn't be sure; her eyes were completely black so she might be giving him serious side-eye right now.

“So this sucks,” he grunted. His voice was unsteady from crying, yelling, and pain, yet he was a breath away from laughing hysterically. “What are the chances you’d wanna help me find Thanos and kill him as slowly and painfully as possible?”

She didn’t show any indication that she heard him, and Tony thought her lack of answer meant no. It then occurred to him that she might want to take the ship for herself and go alone.

As is, his armor was pretty done. With some tools he could probably repair it to the point of being minimally protective, but she looked like she was strong enough to kill Tony with one hand. He was positive he would lose to her in a scrap over the ship.

She turned to look at Tony with a wide smile that was pure murderous rage. That smile would fuel Tony’s nightmares for years to come (if he lived that long).

“If it's the last thing I do,” she said, deep voice thick with malice, “I will tear him apart piece by piece, like he did me. I will hold him on the edge of death until he’s begging for it. Nothing in this universe will stop me from killing him. Not even death.”

Hell yeah, Tony could get on board with that. He slapped a hand on her knee and used it to help push himself into a standing position. “That’s the spirit!” he said, forcefully cheerful. “Let’s do it!”

Chapter Text

“Wherever you are, I won’t stop searching
Whatever it takes, I need to know
I’ll find you somewhere”

(After the Snap // Earth)

Watching Happy turn to ash mid-sentence in the living room had been unsettling, to say the least. Mind stalled, Pepper stumbled back and crashed right into a bookcase. The clamor of toppled books and shattered glass startled her back to life and she was immediately in panic mode.

Three minutes of confused pacing and screaming later, FRIDAY was able to assure Pepper that she hadn’t accidentally killed Happy in a freak burst of uncontrolled power. Security footage to prove it helped dial the volume of her screams down from eleven, but it did nothing to help Pepper make sense of what she was looking at.

“What the hell just happened??” she screamed. “I don't understand! Where is he?”

“I’m not sure, Madam,” FRIDAY replied, “but whatever happened to Mr. Hogan appears to be happening all over the globe.”

The nearest display wall lit up with pictures, videos, social media, the works. The past twenty-six hours had been nonstop talk and coverage of the latest alien invasion, but now the Breaking News was reports of mass vanishings.

And it wasn’t just people.

Someone’s live stream showed a dolphin in the ocean disappearing mid-jump. Numerous reporters and newscasters were shown crumpling to dust on camera. Another live stream of a dog show erupted in chaos when dozens of dogs began yelping in alarm and sprinting around before several of them faded to nothing. A girl's Snapchat video showed her spinning in a corn field, only to stop and have the entire field vanish in the breeze.

Was Pepper supposed to find comfort in knowing that this wasn't an isolated incident? Maybe she did, just a little bit.

She combed through her hair with shaking hands as she walked through their New York penthouse, stopping in the kitchen. The building was thankfully soundproof, but floor to ceiling windows didn’t stop her from seeing the chaos unfolding in the streets below. People running, smoke and fire from a plane or helicopter crash several blocks away, cars piling up…

What the serious fuck was going on? “Please tint the windows, FRIDAY.”

Hardly mattered, the damage was done. Blessedly, they obeyed without a word. Pepper stopped to lean heavily against the kitchen island, grateful that FRIDAY also stopped showing the videos and images. Reading material and silence could be easily ignored and was much better for her nerves. The influx of information was just too much for Pepper; she couldn’t process dozens of things at once like Tony could.

She was barely processing the fact that Happy had actually turned to dust. Was watching an alien army come through a space portal weirder than this? It was definitely weirder, but this situation was it's own brand of horrifying.

Tony would know what to do with all this information being thrown at him. He would drink it all in at light speed and have several solutions forming one right after another. He would know what to do. He would know what to do...

Wouldn't he? Clearly all the vivid nightmares since his trip through the space portal weren’t just his overactive imagination. She cursed herself for not taking him more seriously, but how could she have known that his dreams weren’t exactly that? Aside from soothing him and assuring him that everything was fine in the present, what more could she have reasonably done?

“I’m just trying to protect us, just in case there's a monster in the closet."

“You should have shirts in your closet.”

She felt like such a jerk. How could that have only been yesterday…

She wanted Tony to walk through the door, throwing a colorful variation of 'I told you so' in that snarky tone she hated and loved so much. She wanted to hear him talking a mile a minute as he explained what was going on and that he wanted her to get somewhere safe. She wanted him to tell her that everything was going to be okay and, most of all, she wanted proof that he was alive and well and working on a fix.

That's what Tony Stark did best; he fixed things.

“But where are you instead, Anthony Edward Stark?” she bit out, her voice sounding painfully loud in her own ears. “In outer space! In. Outer. MOTHERFUCKING. Space! Gone on your own little adventure in the space donut when I told you to come back!”

Pepper clenched her fists, willing the orange glow beneath her skin to dissipate when she realized she was scorching the countertop with her palms. She needed to calm down. She needed to figure out what to do. What could she do?

“FRIDAY, call my mom.”

All the media on the wall vanished, replaced with an image of her mother and an animated phone. The silence between rings seemed deafening as Pepper waited, anxiety building every second the call went unanswered. She'll pick up the next ring. Or the ring after that. Or the ring after-

“No answer, Madam,” FRIDAY said delicately. “Will you be leaving a message?”

“Try again.”

Pepper paced back and forth as she waited through several rings, but still no answer. If she wasn’t freaking out before, she certainly was now. Penelope Potts always had her phone within arm's reach.

These were extraordinary circumstances, though. Pepper couldn’t really blame her mom for not answering right away as she tried to make sense of what she was seeing. Well, if she was still around to see it.

This time she left a message, forcing herself to sound calm as she explained that she was fine and wanted to make sure that Penelope was too. That would have to be good enough, Pepper would work herself into a frenzy if she didn't move on.

"Try my brother next."

Adrian didn’t answer either, but that wasn’t quite as worrying. Being a firefighter in Detroit right now meant that he would be out in the thick of the chaos trying to help wherever he could. She left him a similar message and leaned heavily against the island, closing her eyes and trying to breathe deeply.

"Shall I try Colonel Rho-"

"No."

She slid to the floor and put her head between her knees, her heart hammering at the thought. Penelope and Adrian not answering was bad enough, she didn't know what she'd do if Rhodey didn't answer.

She really didn't want to find out.

She felt so alone. She couldn’t think. She was the CEO of Stark Industries, and she needed to do something but she didn’t know what.

“Come back here, Tony. I swear to god… Come back here right now! TONY STARK, I'M GOING TO DRAG YOUR SORRY ASS BACK MYSELF!! TONY? TONY!!!

Pepper knew there was no way to plan for things like this happening, but was it too much to ask that it not happen all at once? Pepper’s nerves were a little bit steadier after ten years of dealing with the general chaos that followed Iron Man and War Machine, but the increasing frequency of shit globally hitting the fan was starting to visibly age her.

She'd known in her gut that he was in the ship before she called him. She should have suited up then and there. She should have sent Rhodey up there after him. She should have done something, anything. She should do something right now...

She remained fixated on that thought as she got back to her feet and slowly wandered in the direction of Tony’s workshop. The responsible thing to do would be to figure out what resources Stark Industries needed to line up for disaster relief, but FRIDAY could do that too. Pepper didn't feel like doing the responsible thing. She was too disoriented to think rationally and too angry to act responsibly.

This was the worst possible time to entertain fantasies of rescuing Tony, but figuring out what to do about people vanishing into thin air was far beyond what she was mentally capable of. FRIDAY, on the other hand, was perfect for this. Anything that Pepper could do by staying here, FRIDAY could do better.

As far as anyone knew, Pepper was just one more missing person to add to the list.

With new purpose, Pepper arrived at the doors of the workshop and punched in her personal code. She wasn’t prepared for her sense of smell to be assaulted as soon as the doors slid open. Gasoline, oil, and the strong tang of metals hit her like a brick wall. All were familiar scents that constantly stuck to Tony when he was working hard in here, and would continue to cling to his skin long after he left for the day.

Pepper would recognize the cocktail of chemicals anywhere. It smelled exactly the same as when she'd come down here to collect Tony for their jog yesterday morning.

She took a deep breath to hold in tears and an angry scream. When she got him back, she was going to kick his ass!

If he was still around.

Fuck that noise, she was going to find him alive, damn it. Pepper made up her mind, pulling a hair binder off her wrist and wrapping her long hair up in a bun and out of her face. “FRIDAY, pull up my suit.”

“Model V-11?”

“Model V-13.”

Pepper grabbed her tablet from one of Tony’s tables and watched it illuminate with the blueprints of her suit. While she’d never gotten to test drive this particular suit, Tony ran the new upgrades (minus the sexual fantasy "form fitting improvements" from Model V-12) through all his usual tests and declared it fit for use. Pepper was sure that any differences between the V-11 and the V-13 wouldn't render it inoperable.

She felt a pang of sadness as she watched her blue and silver suit rise up from its case under the floor. For the past two years Pepper had spent more and more time in the labs with Tony and Rhodey, developing a suit that would accommodate the powers she gained from Extremis. They’d only started actual test runs and sparring sessions with her in the suits about six months ago, but she knew how to fly it and knew all the commands and controls. Six years of Krav Maga and five years learning to control her powers gave her confidence in her ability to defend herself even without a suit, but Tony insisted on building her one.

He swore he just liked the challenge, but she knew he wanted her to be better protected in case she ever got caught in a fight. She’d never wanted to join in a fight other than watching Tony and Rhodey’s backs. And though she’d berated the two for years about being Iron Man and War Machine, she understood wanting to protect something with your life when you had the means to. Now she was willing to risk her life to bring Tony home.

She just hoped she was able.

“Run diagnostics,” Pepper said.

“Of course, Madam. Would I be correct in guessing that you’re going into space in search of the Boss?”

“Yes.”

“Are you sure that’s the best course of action?” FRIDAY's tone managed to be disapproving and resigned all at once. "Drastic situations-"

“I didn't ask for a lecture," Pepper snapped. "If Tony didn't want me to come after him then he should have gotten out of the spaceship. Run diagnostics."

"Running numbers now," FRIDAY replied evenly.

She immediately felt like an ass for taking her stress out on them. None of this was FRIDAY's fault, and Pepper knew they were only trying to help. “I'm sorry, FRIDAY. That was rude of me.”

"No worries, Madam. This is an extremely stressful and frightening situation. Feeling anxious and upset is a perfectly natural response."

There were a lot of perks to working with artificial intelligence, and FRIDAY's rationality was at the very top of the list for Pepper. And because FRIDAY was created by Tony Stark, they had compassion too. "Well, I'm sorry anyway," Pepper said. "I appreciate your practicality and ability to make decisions while I'm too stressed to fully fathom what's going on. Which is why I'm appointing you temporary CEO of Stark Industries in my absence."

"Are you sure that's the best course of action?" FRIDAY asked. "A crisis like this needs a more human touch, I would think."

"You can calculate and think thousands of times faster than me, you don't need food, water, or sleep, and you were programmed by the best. Whatever is happening, it's far beyond my comprehension and I would use your advice and processing capabilities to make any decisions anyway. You learn and you grow just like anyone else and as far as I'm concerned, you're human enough. I trust you, FRIDAY. I know you'll make the right decisions regarding relief and cleanup."

"That's very kind, Madam, but another concern is the widespread panic if anyone were to discover that Skynet is running Stark Industries."

That got a genuine chuckle out of Pepper, which she was grateful for. "You're a far cry from Skynet, FRIDAY. But I guess I hadn't thought of that. Maybe... Maybe no one has to know it's you? You can just say I'm hiding out and giving orders from a secure location. Or, better yet, use my likeness as a hologram. I'm sure you can mimic me well enough to pass, if necessary."

FRIDAY didn't really need to pause to think, so Pepper wasn't sure if the silence that followed was for Pepper's benefit or if FRIDAY was running so many calculations that it took them a few moments to respond. "As you wish, Madam," FRIDAY finally said. "I will do my best to make you and the Boss proud when you come back."

She smiled. "I believe in you. Now, what info can you give me about my... road trip?"

FRIDAY launched into explaining the improvements made to the suit: fortified nanotech to withstand as much heat as she could create, exhaust channels for excess heat to escape, free-form weapons, a flamethrower, et cetera.

FRIDAY interspersed directions for the suit with the mathematical probabilities of finding Tony in outer space and finding him alive.

Pepper was only half listening to that, she’d heard it all before - JARVIS talked her through similar numbers when Tony was kidnapped in Afghanistan.

The odds of his escape.

The chances of his survival if he managed to escape.

How long he was likely to stay alive if he managed to survive his escape.

The likelihood of finding him before he died of starvation, dehydration, or exposure after his escape.

And - the icing on top - how much slimmer those odds became with each passing day.

The numbers now, of course, were far worse than when Tony was kidnapped. The desert was massive, but it ended eventually. Space was infinite. The chances of Pepper finding Tony were worse than finding a singular grain of sand in the ocean. And yet she found herself telling FRIDAY to program all manner of relevant data into the suit, just in case. She had no clue what she could do with any of that information, but if when she found him, he would know what to do with it.

She hoped.

Her biggest and most immediate challenge was getting into space. While Tony had modified his own suit to survive and even travel in space, he hadn't done the same for Pepper's suit since she wasn't an active Avenger.

Pepper set aside the tablet and walked up to the suit, tapping the housing unit twice to collapse it. The gentle blue glow was a bittersweet reminder of Tony's old arc reactor. He may not need protection from shrapnel getting into his heart anymore, but he certainly seemed to need protection from himself.

"Time to shine,:" Pepper muttered, picking up the housing unit and staring at it. She felt disconnected from herself as she slipped into her under armor and then latched the housing unit just above her breasts. She double tapped again and watched in fascination as armor bled out of the unit from every direction until only her head and neck were left exposed.

Her suit was significantly thinner than Tony's, allowing for excess heat and energy to be expelled and better flexibility. Silver accents on the suit were sharp, and didn't over accentuated her body like Model V-12 did.

They could save that suit for special occasions.

She heard some clicking and whirring as FRIDAY did a few more scans and the armor adjusted more comfortably to Pepper's body. "I can make some adjustments to the suit to make it safe for open space, Madam," FRIDAY said, "but it will only allow for about ten minutes at a time. You'll need a vehicle for proper travel."

Pepper swallowed. She would need a lot of things. This wasn't just a road trip; she couldn't pack a few toiletries and find a way to get by when she made it to her destination. She didn't even know where her destination would be or how long it would take to get there. Earth money most likely meant nothing in space. Not only did she need a vehicle, she needed food, water, enough oxygen to last her until…

Fuck.

This wasn’t the time for her to freak out, but she’d never done anything this insurmountable before. She was ready to go find Tony but now that the suit was on, reality was starting to catch up and she realized how unprepared she was for this. Anxiety was causing her to heat up and the silver streaks in the suit glowed orange in response, absorbing the energy and storing it for later.

She smiled shakily down at her suit. It never ceased to amaze her, the things that Tony could bring to life with his mind.

“I need to find him,” she said to herself. “I will find him. Whatever it takes.” The rest of the details were just hurdles that she'd have to deal with one at a time.

“Madam, incoming call from Colonel Rhodes,” FRIDAY said.

She was completely frozen for maybe five seconds, her heart hammering as she tried to make sure she’d heard correctly. She turned to Tony’s main desk display and, sure enough, saw a picture of Rhodey with the words ‘incoming call' flashing beneath.

What?? Put him through! Rhodey?!”

A view of Rhodey from inside his faceplate filled the screen. He looked sweaty and tired and Pepper had never been happier to see him. “Pepper?! You’re okay??”

“Rhodey! Oh my... thank God! I’ve been…” She was breathing too fast and she couldn't slow it down. Seeing and hearing her best friend was one small ray of hope in this awful day. Her voice cracked with emotion. “What's happening? Happy was talking and he just… he turned to dust right in front of me, Rhodey! And then all those reports started, it was all happening at once and I tried to call Penelope and Adrian but neither of them answered and I didn't - I couldn’t make myself call you - ”

“I’m so sorry, Pep, I know,” Rhodey said, his voice tired but soothing. “It happened everywhere. All over the world people and animals are disappearing. Even plants are dying.”

“But you’re okay?”

A heavy sigh. “Yeah. Well… sure. All things considered. I really thought… I honestly don't know what I would've done if you didn't answer. I don’t have anyone else and with Tony gone…”

Rhodey attempted a tired smile and Pepper wiped at tears. “I’m glad we didn't have to find out,” she said.

“Me too. So, you okay? Don't think I didn't notice the armor. Looks great, by the way-”

“I’m going to bring Tony home.”

Rhodey blinked, expression blank as he waited a few beats. “There’s no way in hell you know where he is,” he finally said.

“No clue,” she confirmed.

He looked slightly disappointed, but pressed on. “So you’re just gonna… What? Go to space and look for him?”

“Yes.”

The silence between them was heavy as they stared at each other. The unspoken fear that Tony had disappeared too hung in that silence, but neither was willing to voice or accept that Tony’s absence was permanent. It wasn't in Afghanistan and it wasn't now.

Finally, Rhodey sighed. “Yeah, that sounds about right. I'll come too.”

Pepper smiled a little. “Good, now we can both yell at him when we find him.”

“Wow. Yeah, okay. Wow.” Rhodey blinked rapidly, nodding to himself. “Are we really doing this?”

“I am.”

“Yeah, okay. Me too. Shit. How are we going to find him in space?”

Pepper eyed the hologram that showed several of Tony’s possible trajectories leaving earth. “I haven't exactly figured that out yet. But this sort of thing is more your area, isn't it?”

Rhodey made an exaggerated effort of looking around him before settling his eyes back on Pepper. “Space," he said flatly. "Space is my area.”

“Search and rescue,” Pepper clarified, rolling her eyes.

Earth is my area. I’m in the Air Force, not Starfleet.”

“Okay, well... Shit, I just don’t know where I’m supposed to start.” Pepper felt the pressure bubbling over and her volume increasing. “This seemed like such a good idea five minutes ago but now I'm looking at numbers and statistics and FRIDAY was out of range not too long after Tony left the atmosphere and I told him to come back-”

“Pepper, honey, it's not your fault,” Rhodey’s voice was soft, his eyes sympathetic and a little sad. “Honestly, I expected him to be back in a few hours and then got caught up in all the other crap that started happening... Fun fact: there was another invasion and epic battle in Wakanda before Thanos (the guy Bruce was talking about) came in. Could have used Tony's help with literally anything while shit was happening, but he was too busy doing his usual I-must-sacrifice-myself-to-save-others bullshit again.”

He hardly ever rambled. She could tell that he was on edge about Tony’s fate and whereabouts as well. She knew him well enough to know that he was probably kicking himself for not going in to fight at Tony’s side the second the aliens appeared.

Pepper looked down at her tablet, scrolling through lists of information that would take several PhDs for her to understand. “I guess the first thing we need to do is figure out how the hell to get out into space. I was actually freaking out about that just before you called…”

Rhodey hummed thoughtfully, and when Pepper looked up he didn’t appear to be looking at her. “I think I have an idea,” he said, eyes trained on something to his left. “Thor probably wouldn't know where Tony is, but I bet he knows outer space a lot better than we do. And he's got the whole thunder-portal thing going on, maybe he can give us a lift?”

“You think Thor would do that?” Pepper suddenly felt her heart beating faster. It wasn't much, but considering the odds they were up against she'd gladly take what she could get.

“If not help us actively search, I can see if he’ll at least bring us along with him to space. He's... I don't know how to describe it. He looks like he’s been through hell. Medics are all over him right now but he's still standing, and I'm almost certain he'll being going back to space. And he’s probably taking the raccoon with him.”

“... I’m sorry, what is that code for?”

“No, an actual - forget it, you’ll see. FRIDAY, give Pepper my coordinates so she can meet me in Wakanda. Pep, I’ll ask Thor if he’ll take us. Worst case scenario, maybe we can... follow him and try to keep up?”

She sighed, but found herself nodding. “I’ll take that chance, I need to find him. I love Tony dearly but when we find him I’m hauling his sorry ass back here and locking him in a safe house for the rest of his life.”

Rhodey smiled a little. “And what kind of security do you have in mind that will keep Tony Stark from escaping?”

“Us.”

Rhodey laughed, a little sad. “We’ll find him, we did before and we will again. See you when you get here, Pep.” The video cut out and Pepper was left staring at her reflection in the blank display screen.

Her expression was set in stone. Combined with the suit, she kind of thought she looked like a badass. She'd need to be a badass in order to find him and bring him back.

She clenched her fist and watched the metal turn yellow-hot with interest. When she forced her skin to cool, the metal nanites shifted to disperse the heat. She knew what she needed to do, and she was strong enough to get it done. “Well, FRIDAY, set a course for Wakanda, I guess.”

Chapter Text

“I'm screaming out to you every day
Meet me on the other side of here
Out there”

(After the Snap // Earth)

Rhodey disconnected from his call with Pepper and let his faceplate down, the fresh air on his sweat covered face and neck causing a slight chill to run down his spine. Dreary wasn’t the first word that came to mind when he thought of Wakanda, but the confusion, misery, and loss hung thick in the air. Paired with the overcast sky and silence, the general atmosphere was dreary at the very least.

His pulse was finally starting to even out and he could feel his body shaking under his armor. From relief, from exhaustion, from fear...

Likely from his inability to fully comprehend everything he just witnessed.

Seeing people disappear right before his eyes was hard to make sense of. Mind in a tangle, Rhodey had first looked for Sam when the battle was over. The first few minutes of searching, Rhodey really thought he'd find him, knocked out and sprawled on the ground in a way that Rhodey would be able to make fun of for the next few years.

As the clouds of dissolving people dust became more prominent, Rhodey told himself that he couldn't find Sam simply because the pararescueman was already out scouting for people that needed help. But still he searched, and after about fifteen minutes Rhodey continued on stubbornly, refusing to believe that Sam could've disappeared.

As the calls for the missing grew louder, Rhodey had finally asked FRIDAY to locate Sam, though he feared he already knew what their answer would be.

"I've been unable to locate Sam," they said, sounding sympathetic. "I'm sorry, Sir."

"Not your fault," Rhodey muttered stiffly, anxiety digging its claws deeper into his chest.

Half of all life. Bruce had said that Thanos' goal was to wipe out half of all life, and he'd just succeeded. That meant no one was safe.

The thought of Tony or Pepper meeting the same fate turned Rhodey's insides to ice. What could he do if either of them disappeared? Would they just be gone forever, as though they'd never existed?

Desperation to know had finally won over anxiety and Rhodey told FRIDAY to call Pepper. For ten seconds, Rhodey was hyper aware of every agonizing moment as he waited for an answer. His heart was sinking lower and lower with every ring...

And then his helmet screen activated and “Connecting to Pepper Potts” flashed on the screen.

Rhodey had nearly passed out at the sound of her voice.

His closest family was Tony and Pepper. His father and mother passed nearly five years ago, and his relationships with his sisters were complicated, at best.

Not a few hours after the spaceship invasion the day before, Rhodey had received a security alert that Josephine let herself into his house. She would be safe there, but there was nothing Rhodey could do if she'd disappeared.

He knew he should probably feel guilty that Pepper had been his first call and not his younger sister, but that was something he could analyze some other day.

"FRIDAY, how is - "

"She's still sleeping on the couch, Sir," FRIDAY answered. "Do you want me to wake her?"

"No, let her sleep. When she wakes up, tell her I'm okay and that she should stay put unless she really has someplace else to go that's safe. And lock down all the alcohol and medicine cabinets too, please."

"Right away, Sir."

Checking on Jasmine wouldn't be so easy. When it had become apparent that their father was forgetting his daughters but not his son, Jasmine had stopped talking to Rhodey altogether. He hadn't blamed her for her jealousy (in her position, he knew he would have been jealous too), but when she started speaking vengefully of how Rhodey cared more about his friends then he did about his family, he'd been all too happy to let communication between them die.

Neither had so much as reached out to say happy birthday in a good eight years. But if there was ever a time to put that bitterness aside...

Rhodey asked FRIDAY to call Jasmine - "Voice only, please." - and was caught off guard when she answered. After a few moments of tense silence, he asked if she and her family were alright, and she answered that they were fine.

He bit back the urge to tell her that Pepper was fine and that he planned to go with her to find Tony. Jasmine was likely overwhelmed by the disappearances, he didn't need to add to it. And the things she'd said about Tony and Pepper the last time they spoke were still fresh in his mind. He wasn't going to open that can of worms.

"If you need to go someplace safe..." He trailed off, suddenly unsure if she would throw this olive branch right back in his face out of spite. He pressed on anyway, feeling that it was important to offer. "My place is right in New York. You're welcome to bring your wife and son too, obviously. Josephine is there already, she's fine."

"She didn't answer when I tried calling her."

"She's sleeping." Rhodey kicked himself as soon as the words left his mouth.

"Passed out drunk again?" Her tone wasn't as condescending as he'd expected it to be, but he still felt a flare of annoyance on behalf of their younger sister.

"Or passed out from exhaustion," he said, not caring if he sounded civil or not. "She went to my house after the spaceship incident yesterday."

Jasmine hummed quietly. "Well, maybe it's better that she's asleep for this." She didn't elaborate and Rhodey didn't ask her to. It would likely be another dig at Josephine's problems and he wasn't in the mood to have that argument with Jasmine right now.

"Yeah. Look, I gotta get going, but - "

"I'm glad you're okay," she cut in.

Rhodey suddenly forgot what he was going to say, completely blindsided by the admission. He supposed he knew that deep deep deep down, his older sister did love him. Hearing her say anything of the sort was extremely rare, even when they were on speaking terms. Her tone sounded stiff, but he knew that she wouldn't have said it if she didn't mean it.

"I... Sure, yeah. I'm glad you're okay too. Stay safe."

She hung up without replying and that was more like the Jasmine he knew.

Rhodey felt the tension bleed out of his shoulders and neck. So, his sisters were okay. And Pepper was alive. And he was going with her to find Tony.

Anxiety made it hard to think coherently, but he tried to focus on those facts. He was in a disjointed state of mind as he tried to piece together everything that was happening and what he could do about any of it. He felt like he was watching this nightmare unfold from a distance, happening to everyone else except him.

He wasn't really sure what he was supposed to be feeling. He knew he should feel guilty for it, but the loss of his sisters wouldn’t have hit him as hard as Pepper’s would have. Rhodey loved his family - messy as they all were - but immeasurable loss hadn't been a real possibility until he'd decided to call Pepper and realized, after the second unanswered ring, that she might never pick up. That sickening panic hadn’t been present when he checked on Josephine and Jasmine.

But those were no longer issues he needed to dwell on. Pepper answered. All three were alive. Beyond that, Rhodey didn’t want to think about anything. He could process everything when he knew that both Tony and Pepper were safe and alive and weren’t going to leave him.

It was probably safer to let his mind go blank; Rhodey would never be able to make sense of people turning to dust right before his eyes. He was no stranger to mad science of nearly every kind; as a graduate of M.I.T. as well as Tony Stark's best friend, Rhodey wasn't surprised by much anymore. But what scientific explanation could there possibly be for this?

Nothing was worse than letting his head run wild with ‘What if?’ scenarios. He would only work himself up, trying and failing to think of a solution that Tony might approve of.

Of course, Tony could be here helping if he wasn’t on the spaceship! No one knew better than Rhodey (and Pepper) how ready Tony was to sacrifice himself if it meant giving others a chance to survive. Tony was, at all times, a breath away from laying his life down to help others.

Rhodey was going to wring his goddamn neck.

It didn’t really matter why he'd gotten on the ship, he was in space now and it was up to Rhodey and Pepper to bring his sorry ass home.

If he was honest with himself, Rhodey would have decided to go after Tony on his own time, with or without Pepper. When adrenaline cooled and indignant anger at Tony leaving him behind set in, Rhodey would have been ready to fly into the stars to find him.

Of course he would have told Pepper, and he would have expected to hear some sort of token protest because Pepper was the most level-headed and the least likely to do dumb shit without considering the consequences.

Going into outer space in search of one (1) man qualified as The Dumbest ShitTM, but Rhodey wouldn’t be talked out of it and Pepper would have grudgingly accepted or demanded to come along.

Which brought him back to Thor.

He was thankful that she’d thought of finding Tony first, or they might have otherwise missed this chance to ask Thor to take them with him.

So he walked with purpose towards Thor. At least a hundred Wakandan medics had flooded the battlegrounds, assisting the wounded and doing a headcount of people that were accounted for and those that weren’t.

Thor hadn’t moved very far from his spot among the trees, and he looked tired as hell as he stood with two medics poking and prodding for injury while a third took notes on a tablet.

Rhodey almost felt bad for putting this on Thor when he clearly had enough on his plate - he'd seen Thor's final strike to Thanos and was sure no one blamed themselves more for the disappearances than Thor did - but he had to ask. The sooner he got an answer, the sooner he would know if he and Pepper needed to look elsewhere to get to space.

“Hey, Thor! You got a second?”

The god of thunder turned his head slowly towards Rhodey. His eyes were expressionless, and if not for the fact that he was tracking Rhodey’s approach, he would have thought that Thor was looking right through him. His gaze was made all the more eerie by the mismatched colors of his eyes.

“Hello, Colonel,” he said tonelessly.

Rhodey waved a hand carelessly. “Rhodey is fine. I know this obviously isn’t the best time, but I have a favor to ask. Well, not just me. Me and Pepper have a favor to ask.”

There was no change in Thor’s expression as his eyes did a lazy sweep of the battlefield at the mention of Pepper.

“She isn’t here,” Rhodey said, Thor’s vacant stare beginning to raise hairs on the back of his neck. “But she’s on her way. I guess before I ask any favors, I should make sure that you’re going back into space.”

Thor still wasn’t looking at Rhodey. “I am,” he said slowly. “I am not fit to open the Bifrost at present, but I will be returning to space to collect what is left of my people so that I may lead them to a safe new home. No doubt this" - he waved a hand, vaguely motioning where Thanos had been - "will have further traumatized them after so recently losing our homeworld.”

There was A Lot in that statement, and Rhodey got the impression that Thor was having a difficult time coming to terms with everything that just happened as well. Clearly he had a lot more on his plate than Rhodey could have ever imagined, and now he felt like shit for asking.

But he was still going to. "Pepper and I want to come with you."

That finally got a reaction, albeit a muted one; Thor raised both eyebrows. “What for?”

“We’re going to find Tony.”

“Why would you need to come to space for that? I thought he didn't care for space after he saved us in New York.”

Rhodey felt a small surge of affection for both Tony and Thor. It was nice to hear Thor acknowledge that Tony had saved them - some of the other avengers who didn't deserve Tony seemed to gloss over the weight of what Tony had done, in Rhodey's opinion. But for all Thor acted as though he was superior to the rest of the avengers because he was the god of thunder, he was actually a very kind and observing person. Tony had tried so hard to make it seem like he was completely unaffected by his trip through the wormhole, but you only needed to pay attention to see the impact. It seemed that Thor had paid attention, and Rhodey always had a weak spot for people seeing past the walls Tony put up.

"There was another invasion yesterday for a different infinity stone, and Tony left on the ship with them. I assume to try to keep it from getting to Thanos."

“Noble of him, though foolish,” Thor said. “I’m afraid I don’t know where he is.”

“He’s in space.”

“And space is vast,” Thor said, his tone pitying as he finally turned his eyes to Rhodey. “Far beyond the comprehension of the greatest scientists in Midgard, many of whom have studied nothing else for a lifetime.”

“And wherever he is, Pepper and I are going to find him,” Rhodey said, his expression set in stone. “We don’t expect you to be our taxi or anything, and we’re plenty aware of how slim the chances are.” Rhodey swallowed a sudden lump in his throat. Now that their mission was becoming reality and adrenaline from an alien brawl had worn off, the enormity of what they were going to do was setting in.

And yet, Rhodey didn’t doubt for a second that they were going to find him. “We have to find him,” he finally said. He couldn’t put it any other way.

Thor looked him over and Rhodey noticed the hazel eye dilate and constrict rapidly. Must be a fake eye, and Rhodey wondered – but didn’t dare ask – if the new eye was at all related to his homeworld being destroyed.

“Very well,” Thor said finally, “the two of you may come along. But you must know that my priority is my people.”

Rhodey nodded, he’d expected nothing less. “Absolutely.”

Thor looked skeptical. “I hope you truly know the odds, as you said. You may find something that you don’t want to find. Or you may never find anything. If he wasn’t killed after leaving Midgard, he may well have turned to dust. His chances of survival were fifty-fifty, and the chances of finding him are far slimmer than that.”

Rhodey clenched his jaw, willing his stomach not to send up the little bit of food he’d managed to eat a few hours ago. Rhodey refused to give up until he had actual, indisputable proof that Tony was gone. Until he had that proof, finding Tony was only a matter of time.

But that didn’t mean he wasn’t afraid of possibly finding proof that Tony was gone forever. The first few weeks after Tony’s kidnapping in Afghanistan, there had been no way to know if he was dead or alive. Rhodey hadn’t stopped looking, but keeping up the search had worn away at him little by little. Seeing him alive in the ransom video had brought as much relief as it had stress, but he'd continued searching and had been prepared to go on indefinitely. He didn't plan to stop searching this time either. He couldn’t live without him. Rhodey refused to live without him.

“Look man,” Rhodey started, voice unsteady with barely suppressed feeling, “I don’t know if this… need to find him is some cosmic... best-buds... bond thing that we share across space and time or if I’m heavy in denial, but I know I'm going to find him. I found him ten years ago in the desert and I know in my gut that I’ll find him this time too. If I have to search every corner of the galaxy that I can reach until the day I die then so be it.”

Thor’s expression softened, just a little. “A bond of brotherhood is indeed ‘cosmic’, as you say,” he said with a slight nod.

Rhodey swallowed. Brotherhood. Right.

“Were my friends still alive," Thor continued, his tone far away, "I would do the same for them.”

Rhodey didn’t know how to respond to that; ‘Sorry’ didn’t really cut it and 'Y I K E S' was a little harsh…

Before they left, Rhodey was going to have to grab some alcohol so Thor could vent a little bit over drinks when they had time. Clearly he needed it.

Thor nodded to himself and turned away from Rhodey, looking off into the distance again. “I admire your dedication. Tony is lucky to have you and Pepper.”

“Thank you for understanding,” Rhodey said quietly. “It means a lot. Pepper and I will be ready to go whenever you are, just say the word. I guess I’ll… I won't keep you any longer…”

The Asgardian didn’t really look like he was listening anymore. His eyes were empty and haunted, a far cry from the normally jovial warrior that Rhodey had seen on and off throughout the years. Rhodey didn’t want to know the horrors Thor must have seen and what he had lost to put that look on his face.

“Groot’s gone.”

Rhodey turned to see the raccoon that loved big guns approaching. He remembered seeing the creature on Thor’s shoulder during his EntranceTM in Wakanda and the animal’s voice was nothing like Rhodey imagined.

But really, what voice did Rhodey imagine for a talking space raccoon?

“Suppose I should be seeing if any of the other morons made it out alive,” the raccoon said, sounding exhausted. “When are we leaving, Thor?”

“We will depart as soon as I have regained my strength, rabbit,” Thor replied. He made a careless gesture in Rhodey’s general direction without looking. “Rhodey will be joining us, as well as a friend of his.”

The raccoon turned to look up at Rhodey. Rhodey nodded at the creature, unsure how else to properly greet a space raccoon. The gesture was returned so that must be a good start.

“Is rabbit your name or - ”

“Name’s Rocket.” His voice was gruff.

Rhodey frowned at Thor, pointing down at the creature that was definitely not a rabbit. “Uh, you know that - “

Uhh... He knows what?” Rocket said, mimicking Rhodey unkindly.

This was clearly an off limits topic and Rhodey held up his hands to Rocket. “Sorry, didn’t - I, uh… sorry.” He wasn’t sure what exactly he was apologizing for, but hoped it was enough. Rocket twitched his nose and turned back to Thor and that thankfully seemed to be the end of it. He wasn't sure he wanted to find out the repercussions of pissing off a talking raccoon that liked big guns.

Thor turned to the medics that were still poking and prodding. “I thank you for looking me over, but I assure you that I am unharmed. I am very weary from the battle and I wonder if I might have a place to rest and regain my strength.”

The medics nodded and stepped back, having the grace to look a little sheepish for 'looking over' Thor for so long. The man with the tablet rolled a large black bead off of the bracelet he was wearing (a Kimoyo bead, if Rhodey remembered right) and offered it to Thor. “This contains a map that will lead you to a room where you can rest,” the man said with a slight bow. "We thank you for defending our country and our planet alongside us, God of Thunder."

Thor returned the gesture and nodded his thanks as he took the bead from the medic and walked away, gait heavy. “I certainly hope I can help you find him, Rhodey,” Thor said as a parting remark.

“Damn,” Rhodey muttered under his breath as Thor walked off. “What the hell happened to him?”

“He lost a lot,” Rocket said, trailing after Thor at a distance. “We all did.”

Rhodey watched them leave, but was startled out of his thoughts when he noticed how close the medics got to him now that Thor was gone. One of them tapped a finger gently on the collar of Rhodey’s armor. “Can you please collapse your suit so that we may scan you for injuries?”

Rhodey nodded. Of course they would know that the suit was collapsible just by looking at it. Tony was one of the smartest people in the world, but Wakanda was, by and large, the smartest nation in the world.

The suit took a moment to fully collapse and disappear into his leg braces, but as soon as the nanites crawled away from his chest, he could keenly feel that there was something wrong.

He tried to breathe a little more shallowly and one of the medics sharply looked up at Rhodey and began to feel gingerly around his chest. “Cracked ribs,” one of them reported. “Most likely hairline fractures. At least two, probably four.”

“Minor abrasions,” the other said. “Some kinetic salve treatment for ten to fifteen minutes should clear them all up.”

The medic with the tablet switched to speaking Wakandan with the other two, and they moved their attention to the leg braces that Rhodey wore. One of them stood him up a bit straighter, correcting his posture and pointing to Rhodey’s lower back as he said something to the other two.

Rhodey felt a little self conscious about the braces, even though he knew that he shouldn’t. All things considered, these leg braces that Tony made him were downright miraculous. If not for Tony, Rhodey would likely be in a wheelchair for the rest of his life. Rhodey was hardly the first airman to get hurt and require robotics of some kind to be integrated into his day to day life, but the scrutiny as the medics talked in another language and scribbled on their tablet made him anxious about every little look he received.

“Colonel James Rupert Rhodes,” the man with the tablet said. “I think we have all the information that we need for this preliminary scan. If you will please follow me – slowly, please, mind your ribs – we will fix the cracked ribs and minor abrasions before we prep you for surgery.”

Rhodey blinked. "Surgery?"

The man nodded, motioning for the other medics to move along and for Rhodey to follow him. "Surgery for your spine," he said.

As if that made it any more clear.

"Uh, no, I’ve actually had these braces for a few years now..." He felt foolish; if they knew his name and rank and that his suit was collapsible then they must know that he’s had these braces since long before this battle.

"We have been working on methods to develop a way to reprint functioning nerves," the man said, gently guiding Rhodey to follow him. "This should erase not only the damage to your spine and eliminate the need for your leg braces, but also fix the chronic pain that you suffer as a result of the nerve damage." When Rhodey was walking along without struggle, the medic turned his focus to his tablet as he continued explaining. "We have been working with Dr. Helen Cho and her tissue printing technology for quite some time, and Tony Stark has provided us with your medical records and healing progress. Now that we have you here and we can scan you in person, we’ll be able to tailor your treatment accordingly. Now seems as good a time as any."

Rhodey’s mouth opened and closed a few times without making a sound. This was news to him; Tony and Dr. Cho had worked for well over a year to help Rhodey get his legs back. They’d only gotten so far before it was clear that continuing would be more harmful than not, and when it was up to Rhodey to choose between being mobile and in pain or confined to a wheelchair and in slightly less pain, Rhodey had worked with Tony to make him some leg braces. Tony had done his best to ease the weight that caused Rhodey pain and then helped integrate the braces into his War Machine armor.

Tony hadn’t told him a thing about healing his nerve damage, though. Neither had Dr. Cho. And now here he was, blindsided by the prospect of being pain free and possibly have his legs back. It was overwhelming. He’d been in pain for only a few years, but it was so constant that it felt like it had always been a part of him.

He continued to follow the medic numbly, his throat suddenly thick from more than the pain of cracked ribs. FRIDAY snaked some armor up is sides and gave him a chestplate to bind his ribs in place to make breathing a little bit easier.

It did nothing to help the stinging in his eyes, but he appreciated their thoughtfulness. “Thanks, FRIDAY,” he muttered absently.

“Of course, Sir,” they replied.