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A Broken Axis (and our world that still spins on it)

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“When I’m done, half of humanity will still be alive. I hope they remember you.”

*

When Strange disappears—when he says, “We’re in the endgame, now.”—Tony thinks, fuck, this is the end.

Tony’s never considered what the end would be like. Of course he’s thought about dying— how, to who, when, if it’ll hurt—but never...the ending, of it. But dying isn’t the same as ending. Whenever Tony considered dying, he always knew he’d be survived by his work, by Iron Man. By the Avengers. By...but ending? Turning to dust on a faraway planet, half of humanity (half of the universe) gone? That’s not dying. That’s getting lost in the shuffle of three and a half billion people disappearing in an instant, of ending without meaning. 

What else could this be than the end? Peter Parker, the little kid, the Spiderling that only ever wanted to do good, the fucking little kid who feels the pain of the end for every agonizing second— I don’t want to go— turning into ash in his arms must be the end. The end of everything.

Tony closes his eyes for a moment. He thinks about Earth. Not only about Peter, but about Pepper, and Steve, and Rhodey. God, he thinks about Rhodey. He wishes he could have said goodbye. Said something more than talk later. He looks at his hand. Bloody. Dirty. But he does not fade. He is whole. He—

does not end.

*

The devastation of surviving hits Tony hard.

Fuck, what a mess. He’s breathless with the realization his coin’s landed the right-side up. He’s not ending; he’s alive, and he can still feel the sensation of Peter turning to dust in his arms. 

He can swear he can hear his phone ringing. Accusing.

There’s no words for it. Nothing to describe the...emptiness. The sudden knowledge that he failed. That all his mistakes that have piled up since the very beginning has led them all here. If he had only insisted on Thanos’ presence, his power—the dreams, the instincts that screamed at him to protect them all; if only he hadn’t fucked up with Ultron, with the fucking civil war. If he had done it right—made them see—then maybe...maybe…

In the end, the road of his mistakes always takes him to Rhodey.

**

Tony is fourteen when he goes to college, and it’s 1984, so whoever fucking runs the housing department thinks real long and hard and shoves the literal kid and the black guy into a dorm together and calls it a day.

They don’t properly meet until after two students harass Tony in the mailroom, patronizing him and asking where his older brother is, why his parents left him all alone in a dormitory, you’re just so cute, aren’t you? They coo mockingly at him and ruffle his hair, which pisses Tony off so bad he swears he can see stars.

Tony can’t remember what they were even saying. It’s been such a long time, and they were just a couple of idiots that didn’t put two and two together and realize the kid they were harassing was the heir of the largest tech fortune in the world. But he remembers being furious, smiling so sharp and splintering that his teeth hurt.

And then—well, that’s when he meets Rhodey.

Tony doesn’t think it was love at first sight. He didn’t hear the choir sing, didn’t see light descend. He doesn’t meet Rhodey’s eyes and learn what love is. Maybe it was, though, because now when Tony looks back at the moment, all he can think about it how Rhodey held himself, how he flattened his lips and how they rounded into a smile when they introduced each other. Whatever the case, whether it’s true love or not, he does remember thinking: damn, he’s pretty.

But the thing is is that he’s not Rhodey yet. Right now, he’s just a black guy that’s a little too scrawny and has a pretty impressive rounded afro haloing his head that steps in when Tony feels like he’s about to lose his shit.

“Alright, enough,” he says, stern, confident. He stands straight up, back like iron. “Leave him alone.”

Tony huffs and smooths back his hair as the two assholes leave, laughing. “I didn’t need your help.”

“I know,” the black kid responds. He’s taller than Tony by a couple of feet but when he looks down, he’s not looking down on him. “My name’s James. You?”

“Tony Stark,” Tony replies. And that’s when everything really starts, where it all starts going to shit, because whenever Tony has ever had anything worth having, he always manages to fuck it up right at the starting gate. 

And fuck, if James Rupert Rhodes wouldn’t become the best thing Tony’s ever had in his life.

**

The thing about Rhodey, Tony will come to realize, is that he’s impossible to shake.

He’s not stubborn in the way Tony is. Tony is vocal and loud and demanding, and he’ll dig his heels into your decorative lawn and fuck up anything you’ve touched in the past two decades just because you’ve pissed him off. When he wants something, everyone knows it. That’s how he’s always been and always will be.

When James Rhodes wants something, he gets as close as he can, and he sits. He straps himself with iron shackles to whatever it is and he refuses to budge. He doesn’t shout or scream or demand; he doesn’t argue, or fight, or fuck his way closer. He finds what he wants and latches on.

It’s—a different kind of stubborness, from what Tony is used to. At first, he doesn’t even realize that Rhodes is doing it to him. They’re roommates, so they naturally go places together. But Rhodes is everywhere that Tony is. They just...stick together. Tony tries to slip out, go places on his own, but it always ends up that he returns to Rhodes’ orbit. Or: that Rhodes returns to his.

It’s easy. It makes sense. Tony is the whiz kid on campus. He’s the marvel that students bemoan or admire in the classroom. Rhodes is his roommate, so he knows the complaints, the bitching, the work Tony puts in when the other students aren’t looking. The tireless work.

They just stick together. They compete, of course: Tony outstrips anybody in grades, workload, or trivia night, but Rhodes makes endless fun of him when they go on runs together that leave Tony red-faced and gasping. And it’s not like Rhodes can’t hold his own against Tony, either; they study for finals together and Rhodes ends up tying him for top score in their gen-ed logic class.

Time goes on. It’s easy. It’s—nice. Tony finds himself actually enjoying his time when he’s not outstripping himself trying to grasp for any sliver of news from home that indicates his dad is proud of him. 

Tony turns fifteen. He’s staying at M.I.T. for summer classes, so he takes a stilted well-wishes birthday call from his mom in the early morning and doesn’t say anything else about it to anyone.

And it’s then, on Tony’s birthday, that Rhodey becomes Rhodey. That night, he says, “Happy birthday, Tones,” and gives him a present: a horrific shirt with a platypus on it that makes Tony laugh until he cries.

**

And that’s where it really starts.

**

Tony builds a semi-autonomous A.I. in DUM-E and gets in the paper for it. Rhodey steals an entire stack of them from the student lounge and plasters Tony’s side of their dorm with the article while he’s in the library. 

Later on, when they’re moving out, Tony will find a single saved clipping of that stupid thing, tucked safely away amongst Rhodey’s transcripts and other important things.

**

Tony thinks Rhodey will get uppity when Tony uses a fake to buy way too much booze one night and say something like, “No, Tony, you’re barely sixteen, you can’t drink yet,” or something similarly boring and stick-in-the-muddish. But instead, Rhodey looks him over, looks at the liquor in their room, and says, “Fine, but you only drink with me.”

Looking back, Tony knows Rhodey was protecting him, in the only way he could. He knew Tony was going to get drunk that night whether or not Rhodey thought it was a good idea, so he got as close as he could to Tony, sat his ass down, and shackled their wrists together, stubborn to the end. If Tony insisted, Rhodey was coming along.

 The impressive thing is that in less than two years, Rhodey’s learned all of Tony’s fault-lines and pressure points; he knows when to push and when to lay off. He knows Tony is too stubborn to not get drunk whenever he wants, and too smart to be kept away from opportunities to do so. So, unlike Howard Stark, Rhodey makes a compromise.

And Tony, lo and behold, accepts.

They get raging drunk that night and it’s amazing . Tony ends up trying to design an airplane that can both turn invisible and turn into a submarine with minimal transitory parts. Rhodey recites not only every published Stephen King novel but also the individual chapter names in order, which ends up losing Tony over a hundred bucks. They set one of Tony’s T-shirts on fire (intentional) and also Rhodey’s grooming kit (unintentional). 

It’s the most fun Tony’s ever had in his life.

**

Tony graduates before Rhodey does, but he stays in town for his first Ph.D so they naturally end up living together off-campus, in a nice two-bed that Rhodey insists on paying half the rent of despite Tony being a literal millionaire in his own right. 

Tony throws a party when Rhodey does graduate, and it’s a hell of a thing; filled with their mutual friends and randos from the street, liquor and kegs and blaring music and flashing lights. Tony and Rhodey win the Beer Pong tournament some of the mathematics nerds set up, and then go neck and neck in the subsequent game of poker (despite being smashed) for an hour before Tony gets lucky with his half-hearted card counting and wins on statistics alone.

The party dies down to their friends (Rhodey’s, really) and they take turns playing truth or dare. Tony gets reamed and ends up winning a dare by giving all the money in his wallet to one of the girls (it ended up being $170, low since he’d bought all the booze for the party), but he gets back at her by daring her to order them six pizzas with the money she got from him. Rhodey laughs and laughs. He’d walked the stage that morning, robed and bright and summa cum laude, dark and confident in his skin. He’d turned on the stage and smiled while looking at Tony, tucked away in the crowd.

It’s his staring that gives it away.

“I dare you to french Jimmy, Stark.”

Jimmy. Like he’s anything other than Rhodey.

But never let it be said that Tony backs down. He turns and straddles Rhodey’s lap, framing his face between his hands. Rhodey looks up at him, eyes wide, cheeks dark. Tony bends down and kisses him, coaxing him calm; Rhodey freezes, hands hovering, but then he relaxes and runs his hands up Tony’s sides and up around his back, into his hair. The inside of his mouth tastes like tequila, sharp and heady.

At the time, Tony thinks, Ha! I’m winning this bet.

After everything that happens, at the very end, when Tony is kneeling on a planet of death and genocide and decaying tones of orange and yellow, Tony thinks, Rhodey, I’m coming home. I’ll give anything so I can kiss you again.

**

In the morning, Rhodey knocks on Tony’s door. It’s actually closer to the afternoon; Tony tastes his spit and tequila (tequila? ugh) rotting in his open mouth.

“Tony, come on, get up,” Rhodey laughs, and sits heavily on the side of Tony’s bed. Tony grumbles incoherently, shifting under his blankets, trying to think about who the fuck convinced him to drink tequila. 

“It’s nearly one. We’re getting lunch.”

“Fuck lunch,” Tony mutters, but levers himself up anyway. He swallows a couple of times to get the taste out from behind his teeth. “Tequila, man.”

Rhodey laughs. He’s laughing a lot this morning. Tony eyes him. Rhodey shrugs, smiles. “I know, right? Truth or dare, too.”

Why does he sound like an eighth grader about to ask him to the dance? He’s got the look, too; smiling, the laughing, the suggestive posture of his fidgeting hands. 

Wait. Wait. Truth or dare?

And then it comes rushing back in, all at once. Beer pong, poker, (winning), truth or dare. I dare you to french Jimmy, Stark. Stubbled cheeks between his palms. The taste of tequila.

Tony swallows. He can still taste it. The residue of his tongue being in Rhodey’s mouth. The smiling. Oh, fuck. Oh fuck. 

“Totally,” Tony hears himself say. “Could you imagine my dad knowing what we did? I almost want to tell him so he can shit himself. What do you think’ll make him madder: that you’re black, or that you’re a dude?”

Rhodey blinks. The smile slips from his face, slowly, as Tony talks. Tony can see it fall, but in the moment, he’s blind with panic, deaf from a racing heart. All he can think is no. no. no. if dad finds out—if anyone finds out—no one—not gay—don’t let this ruin the one good thing you have—fix this, Tony, fix this—drunk, we were drunk— 

“I dunno, man,” Rhodey says, after a moment. “I, uh, didn’t know your old man was like that.”

“Aren’t all the twenties boys? He was born in ‘17, for fuck’s sake. But man, I can sleep easier knowing I have that silver bullet, huh? ‘Hey dad, I went on a total curve at MIT like you wouldn’t believe. And he’s not even my boyfriend. ’”

Rhodey looks away, and in the moment, behind the fog of panic, Tony thinks he’s turning away to laugh. To hide the embarrassment that’s fueled his laughing, the smiling: nervous energy making his fingers twitch. 

A hundred lifetimes away, Tony—the one barely holding it together on Titan, with blood in his lungs and the Universe crumbling to ash in his hands—hammers his fists against the wall between the memory and the remembering, desperate to knock sense and sight into that little fucker’s head, so he can see what Tony sees now in Rhodey. The draining of hope, the onset of slow and decrepit realization, the stinging pain of careless words scoring dozens of bloody lines down the stretch of his cheeks, where Tony’s hands held him, and on the inside of his mouth, where Tony’s tongue met his.

*

Time goes on. The cuts he made on Rhodey heal to scabs and then scars so faint Tony could never have hoped to see, even if he had been looking. Nothing substantial changes between them, for years; nothing more than friendship, shared memories, breaking bread. It’s good. 

And then Christmas happens.

Tony’s back home for the holidays against his wishes. Rhodey’s back home, too. He’s been psyching himself up to tell his mom he’s going to enlist in the Air Force. Lucille Rhodes had become a widow when a sniper’s glass found Milton Rhodes’ head in the overgrowth in Vietnam, and so Rhodey knows she is not eager to lose a son to the Gulf. 

But debts pile up from MIT, from a degree that doesn’t persuade employers past the color of his skin. But the sky calls, as it has always done; Rhodey is a child whose neck was always craned so he could watch the birds fly by. Tony’s like that, too. Except he looks forward, not up.

He’s not looking when the news comes down.

The news of a winding mountain road, snow, one drink too many. Of the new term that applies to him, the one he never stopped to consider, even with an elderly father: orphan. Of the new term that attracts the buzzards, board members: inheritor.

 Someone plans the funerals, beyond Tony’s perview. Jarvis, maybe. When the sun comes up Christmas day, the first sunrise that has met Tony Stark the Orphan Inheritor, there is a shuffle of footsteps and when he looks up, Rhodey meets his eyes.

Rhodey is there.

He’s always there.

**

Tony doesn’t remember the next few years. He’s tucked away from public eye, by Jarvis and Obie and Rhodey; he parties, and drinks, and fucks, and builds, and gets two more P.h.Ds to keep his mind focused. Rhodey fades from his sight, gone but not absent; the swirl of the booze and the grief and the hate, all bottled up behind a gleaming smile and smooth skin and a glass tumbler makes Rhodey’s face disappear from his mind’s eye. He bleeds into everything else, the Everything Else except his mom’s grave, the booze, the time flying by.

All the years until he’s CEO are hazy. Dreamlike, witnessed through a fog. Dissociated from a reality that is so hyperreal that Tony becomes an outline of faded colors and wavering breath in the background of his own life.

As all things do, the episode passes. The fog dissipates, the scorching Real simmers down to a tolerable hum of static and sanded metal. Tony wakes up some mornings and lies in bed and stays still for a moment, maybe two, and doesn’t crawl out of his skin to fill up the quiet just then. Not...right away.

He makes CEO, Obie graciously standing aside to let the blood heir take the throne. The next day, he leaves the office his dad once lived in and runs headlong into a familiar body.

“Tony, woah,” Rhodey says. He’s uniformed up; Technical Sergeant, already looking down the barrel of another promotion. He looks good; hale. His hair is cropped down to his head, a military cut—gone is the manicured afro of natural Rhodes curls. “Where you going so fast, boss-man?”

Tony looks at Rhodey and smiles. Tony, the one looking back on the memory before the ash, does not revel in the easy conversation that follows, in the comradery, the easy-slot back into each other’s lives. He keens at the loss that’s to come, the dumbass child that’ll waste every second he has with Rhodey, that’ll never look at him the way he ought to. He wants to scream at himself, the fresh-faced, drunken brat that didn’t see Rhodey off to boot, didn’t answer the calls when Rhodey was in town, when the promotions came ever-so-lovingly down the track to their rightful place on his breast; he wants to shake that little bastard until his eyes focus and he can see the only important thing that he has left.

No going back. No do-overs. Only what comes next: the years and years, together but so insufferably apart. 

**

Rhodey starts to smile when he takes phone calls in the middle-to-late evening.

It’s suspicious. 

Rhodey gets a lot of calls these days, what with being a Colonel, but he never smiles during most of them, never in the morning. Always clipped. Official.

It takes Tony about a month to put it together, what with their separate schedules. But he does, eventually, inevitably, lean in close one day when Rhodey hangs up his phone and says, “Girlfriend?”

Rhodey jumps. Shoves Tony after he looks around and sees nobody looking. They’re at a weapons expo, and Rhodey’s here on the Air Forces’ dime. 

“Tony,” he warns.

“Must be long-term,” Tony sniffs. He acts cool, but it’s about now that he’s realizing he’s never seen Rhodey date anybody; he never brought a girl home, never mentioned anything long-distance. No wedding ring. “Is she as pretty as me?”

Rhodey laughs. He sounds anxious, in a weird way; he’s good at hiding it, but not from Tony. “Come on, Tones. Leave it.”

“You like her,” Tony realizes.

“You’re typically supposed to like the person you’re dating,” Rhodey agrees, exasperated.

“You are dating someone! What’s her name? Have you made sure she’s not a Russian spy or something? All those Air Force secrets…”

Rhodey rolls his eyes. He fiddles with his phone and then says, “Uh, listen, Tony. Just—keep this quiet, please? That I’m seeing someone.”

“Why? Is she white or something?”

Rhodey doesn’t laugh. He looks—actually, physically worried. Tony, at the present moment, can’t figure it out for the life of him. The one looking back can see the worry and the lingering pain and the longing in every line of Rhodey’s body, in the planes of his face, parallel to the invisible scars Tony carved there.

“No. Uh—he’s black. A Major.”

It takes Tony a second too long to register what he’s just learned. He. He.

In that moment, Tony doesn’t know what he’s feeling. Well--that’s not true. He does know. He’s filled with a rush of emotions that all have names but don’t seem quite right; malaligned with the cause of learning your best friend is dating someone.

He feels...strongly. Shock. Surprise. Heat—a lot of it, flushing his neck, warming his throat, tingling in his fingers; heat of anger? Heat of...something...heat in his bones. Something sharp, like disdain. Something nostalgic, like the relic from a generation past. Something that’s his but so beyond himself. He can’t quite name it as he stands there and says, “Oh.” 

Later on? Later on, Tony knows he’s jealous.

And later on, Tony can see Rhodey see it, too.

**

Afghanistan. It takes getting ripped up and drowned and tortured to clear his vision, for the slightest of moments. He looks at the suit and the cave wall and imagines a familiar apartment, the sensation of stubbled cheeks, the taste of tequila. He thinks of Rhodey, his uniform, his sass, his stubborn smile when he sits his ass down and refuses to move. He imagines his smile. His weight against Tony in the jet, drunk and loose and unbuttoned, familiar. 

He says, “We’re going home.”

He thinks, I have to get back home.

He prays, please, let me come home to him.

**

“So, how was the Fun-vee?”

Tony chokes on a laugh. He leans in and Rhodey smells like sweat and gunpowder and sand. Rhodey’s arm comes around him and lingers on the burns and the soot. 

Tony’s halfway across the world from where he sleeps at night. But he’s finally home.

**

He’s home but nothing is the same. The suit changes everything. 

Before all this—before Afghanistan—Tony saw how his entire life would play out. It was a lot like his dad’s, when he was introspective enough to actually think about it: he’d run the company, maybe get married (maybe not), and die one day with a bang. Easy. He’d leave a legacy behind. But now it’s different.

Now there’s a purpose. Now there’s...more. 

Iron Man alters Tony’s course from the life he was given into something that’ll eventually lead him right into the moment where he loses everything and more; when the universe collapses inward, an implosion of unknowable proportions. Iron Man will lead him there.

Not right now. Right now, it’s exhilaration. Right now, it’s betrayal.

Right now, it’s everything.

**

After Obie and the shitstorm that follows, things settle down. The peak of exhilaration from becoming Iron Man fades, and time passes with the shift of power in Stark Industries, with Vanko, with palladium poisoning.

Tony is dying. He’s dying. 

Strange, how fast priorities shift. 

He works to the very brink, staring into the void and working so hard to push back, to get some traction, to work through the shaking of his fingers and the burning in his blood. It’s hard. It’s terrifying. For once, Tony almost thinks he won’t make it. For just a second—for one second when he lets himself think forward—he thinks I’m going to die.

And Rhodey won’t know.   

**

They kill Vanko, together. Rhodey wears the suit he stole when Tony got drunk and kicks ass. He looks good in a suit that Tony made with his bare hands. Good in a way that Tony in the moment thinks is just his engineer side preening at the work, but—there’s something more, always something more, lingering just at the edge of the periphery of his mind. 

But he never realizes it. Not even when on the roof, Tony and Pepper yell at each other and then the yelling ends with kissing, because wow is Pepper beautiful and strong and just the right kind of brace against his unstoppable will. In the moment, it feels right. Feels just. He loves Pepper. He knows he does, even in the decaying and unending present. 

But that warm, soft feeling doesn’t last when Rhodey says, “Ew. You two look like...a seal fighting over a grape or something.”

Tony pulls away from Pep, startled, muscles tensing, shivers running down his back—the remnants of fight-or-flight, of near-death, of kissing a beautiful woman he’s in love with. But also—also…

"You should get lost,” Tony says, embarrassed for some fucking reason that in the moment seems so indecipherable and strange that he passes it off for the adrenaline leaving his system, the elation of being alive.

“I was here first,” Rhodey protests. A pause. That pause is key, because in it, Tony swears he can see the flash of heat, a flash of annoyance, of— fuck, of pain, somewhere in the scored scars of his cheeks and the serrated edge of his tongue and between the crevasses of the damaged armor Tony made with his bare hands. A pause in which the gulf of something so familiar spans out between them. “Get a roof.”

The humor makes the situation ease, friends who just happen to be friends; but even then, Tony could see that same reflection of jealousy that he felt all those years ago, with he’s black. He doesn’t have the energy, the brain space, to consider it then, and only lingers on it on the occasions when he’s alone and thinks about Rhodey’s mouth or the sensation of Tony’s hips opening to straddle his thighs and wonders maybe I was wrong.

**

Things get...complicated, after that. Avengers things. Things like him and Cap having what feels like an irrevocable divide between them on the foundational, philosophical center of what they’re trying to do. The shitty thing is neither of them is wrong, but neither of them is fully right, either, and Tony knows that, but he also sticks to his guns because his way is the practical way. His way gets them safety at the end of all this when whatever sent Loki and the Chitauri raining down on them decides to pay a visit personally. Cap’s way is nice, idealistic, but it just doesn’t matter, not when they’re staring down the barrel of absolute annihilation.

Cap can’t see that. And that’s why they’re stood at this airport, a split team, two sides butting heads when all other options exhaust themselves. 

In some way, Tony wants to blame Cap. Wants to pin everything on him: if only you’d just listened to me! But in the end? The real, true thing is that, like always, it’s Tony’s fault. If he’d done a better job explaining, a better way of maneuvering, a better man, they wouldn’t have ended up here, fighting like school children.

Rhodey wouldn’t have been here if it wasn’t for Tony.

He wouldn’t have been in the air—wouldn’t have been in Vision’s path—wouldn’t have been in the dead suit—wouldn’t be falling—wouldn’t be—so close—

The ground reaches Rhodey before Tony does. 

He’s in a fucking crater. Tony isn’t breathing when he gets down close, rips the faceplate off, oh God, oh no, please, no, anything but this, anyone but Rhodey, his fault, his fault—

he’s breathing.

Oh God he’s breathing.

Tony lets out a breath so deep, so ragged that it hurts. Tears come to his eyes, some reactionary instinct to nearly losing the person he’s known the longest, the one who knows him best, the one he put in harm’s way. 

Falcon, that little—he’s there, hands shaking, asking something. Tony can’t hear beyond the blood rushing in his ears. He fires a blast in that direction, where he thinks he’s standing, and he’s gone between some of the fuzziness that seems to overtake Tony’s vision in random, pulsating bursts.

He bends down, cradles Rhodey’s head, so careful not to move him too much, careful, careful, careful. 

Later on, he’ll review the information from FRIDAY from his suit looking for the scans she took of Rhodey’s vitals when he landed, and realize as he was bent over Rhodey’s head, protecting him from the things that already hurt him, he was whispering, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry. I’m so sorry Rhodey, I’m so sorry, please don’t leave me, please don’t leave me.”

**

Rhodey wakes up while they’re transporting him. 

It’s a delicate process, keeping him stable while they transfer him into a helicopter. They’re worried about spinal cord damage, about paralysis, about lungs and hearts and free-floating bones. Tony is going with them.

He looks dazed, confused. He swallows a couple times, tongue registering the taste of blood in his mouth. Tony leans over, grasps his hand through the suit— don’t remove it yet Mr. Stark, it might be holding him together— and says, “Rhodey?” in a voice that most certainly does not crack.

“Tony,” Rhodey whispers. His hand clenches, a reassurance. “We win?”

“I don’t know, Rhodey,” Tony responds before he can think of a more reassuring answer. Words are just tumbling out of his mouth before he can stop them. “I think so. You did great out there.”

Rhodey’s eyes loll about, taking in the shaking and bustling and frightening scene around him. He looks back at Tony, the whites bright, pupils blown. “Tony—”

“I’ve got you,” Tony says without thinking. “I’ve got you. I’ve got you.”

“Don’t leave,” Rhodey whispers. His eyes are lolling back now, something else taking him under. Shock, maybe. “Please—stay…”

**

God, Tony wishes he could say he stayed. Wishes he could say he stood by each moment and was there the second Rhodey woke up. WIshes he could say he was a good person, a good friend, a good...a good…

But he didn’t. He watches them take Rhodey away, to surgery, to the Cradle, and he thinks, I’m going to kill them for doing this to him.

At the moment, he thinks he’s doing the right thing. Going after the runaways, figuring the situation out, closing it for good as fast as possible. Thinks Rhodey would understand. But the one looking back, peering at the years wasted and the moments spent in wrong decisions, weeps at the thought of Rhodey waking from a fall so frightening, so similar to that of a combat plane spiraling to earth or to sea or to inevitable nothingness, and being alone, without the one who got you into it in the first place.

On Titan, in the despair of survival, Tony thinks about Rhodey wondering for a second if Tony didn’t even care about him at all. Thinks about Rhodey watching everyone else’s coins land and waiting to see if his was rightside up. Thinks about Rhodey...thinks about him not…

No. No. He’s going to go home. Rhodey is okay. He’s there, on Earth, alive, confused, worried, wondering who lived and who died, waiting for Tony or Pepper or somebody to call him and explain. He’s alive. He’s always alive. Always breathing, even when it’s a miracle. Waiting for someone to be at his bedside when he wakes up in an unfamiliar, frightening world.

Nebula, the blue robot, looks at him as he stands, staggers; she looks at his blood, the dagger, the dust on his hands. She says, “What are we going to do?”

Tony says, “I’m going to find him.”

Nebula thinks it’s Thanos. Tony doesn’t give two shits about Thanos now that the threat has come to head. All he cares about is getting to his home, praying not to find him dusted.

Getting home is harder than it might seem. Scavenging and prayers and a lot of luck gets it into space, out of orbit; they have to conserve resources, ration food and fuel and air. Every second of it Tony thinks about going home. Thinks about Rhodey, the taste of tequila, the sound of a body hitting the earth. He thinks and thinks and thinks.

Eventually, he uses the last shred of power in his suit helmet to record a message. His last, probably. It’s been his diary, but now it’s directed, a missive rather than a journal. 

“This thing on?” he says. “Hey, Rhodey. Uh, if you find this message somehow, don’t post it, alright? I know I don’t look like my...usual, beautiful self, and this is gonna be a real tear-jerker, just you watch. I don’t even know if you’ll ever see this. I don’t know if you’re—” he breaks off, grimaces, turns away from the scan. “No, I know you are. You have to be. Well. Today’s day 21…? No, 22. If it wasn’t for the terror of literally staring into the void of space, I’d say I’m feeling better today. The infection’s run its course, thanks to the blue meanie. You’d like her, Rhodey. She’s practical. Only a bit sadistic. Uh. We were hoping the fuel cells would manage a little longer, but, uh, we’re dead in the water now. A thousand light years from the nearest burger joint. Oxygen will run out tomorrow morning, and, uh, that’ll be it. Oh, fuck, Rhodey, I know I said I’d be okay, no more surprises, but I gotta say I was really hoping to pull one last one. For you. But it looks like—ugh. You know what it looks like.

“Please don’t feel bad about this. Well, actually, if you grovel for a little while, then move on with tremendous guilt, I’d feel a lot better...hff. I better lie down for a minute. Rest my eyes. But please know when I drift off, I’ll dream about you. God, it’s always you. It always has been. I’m—so sorry I never...that I wasn’t there for you. That I was an idiot for all those years. I think I’ve loved you from the start.”

He can’t get any more words out after that. He shuts the helmet off, grimacing as he does it. His body, emaciated, thin, shivering, quietly keels over, head resting on his arm. He drifts off quickly, quietly, with barely a breath or two, and only the single thought that he wishes he could have said it directly to Rhodey’s face than to the face of the thing he became.

*

Salvation comes in the form of a light and a woman. She brings him home before the oxygen runs out.

*

Nebula helps him stand as they disembark and land on dewy grass, and the air is so thick, so wet, so vibrantly scented that his knees actually give way for a second. Nebula keeps him upright, her arm made of his armor holding him firm.

Cap meets him there, takes his arm. Nebula holds on until Tony looks at her and nods, a thank you and an I’m okay all in one.

“I couldn’t stop him,” Tony says. It’s the first thing out of his mouth.

“Me either,” Steve replies. His voice is tight, tired. Relieved.

Tony stops. He remembers the sensation of dust in his hands, of weight become nothing. Of despair. “I lost the kid.”

Steve turns and looks at him. “ We lost him, Tony.”

Tony grimaces, clenches onto Steve’s arm. God, he feels weak. “I—” He swallows. “Rhodey? Where…?”

Steve turns to him, and his face is—somber, no, wait—no, Steve

“...no, Steve, please,” Tony is saying, unhearing, unseeing. “Where is he? Where is he ?”

“Tony, I’m sorry,” Steve is saying. “I’m so sorry. He’s gone.”

*

































*

Tony wakes up in a hospital bed. 

Pepper is there. She’s alive? Thank god at least she made it.

“Tony,” she says. She’s haggard. Drawn. A survivor. A right-side up coin.

He closes his eyes and weeps.

*

For a moment or two, he thinks about moving on.

Wonders if that’s what Rhodey would want, and then chastises himself for thinking that Rhodey is dead, but then reminding himself that yeah, he is. He’s dead. He ruthlessly thinks it again and again, repeating the word, twisting the knife: dead dead dead dead dead. Turned to dust, no body to bury, no last rites, no resting place. Just dead. Steve said he died somewhere in the forests of Wakanda, fighting the last good fight. Doesn’t know where though.

Tony thinks about it. He looks over the broken world and wonders can I move on? Wonders if he and Pepper could tie the knot, buy something small, tuck themselves away and live out the rest of their lives as survivors and maybe have a kid or two that won’t be as haggard or as grief-struck as them. Maybe name one of them James. 

That’s an open path. It is. Tony, for a second, can see himself walking down it—can see the children, the house, the eventual acceptance. It’s not a bad life. Rhodey might even want it for him.

But the longer Tony lingers on it, the more it sours. The louder the bone-snapping sound of a body hitting the earth becomes in his ears. The stronger the taste of blood and tequila and the bitter ash of mistakes blossoms in his mouth. He could do it—move on. But he would despise himself every single second.

No. He’s already made every mistake he could have with Rhodey, all throughout their lives, one after another. Rhodey always stuck with him even after he never fucking learned. If all those ones meant anything, if any second spent loving him was time well spent, then Tony has to do right now. Has to stand up and do the impossible and give anything. 

Has to make right his sins.

That’s why he lets Steve visit him.

The man looks haggard, like all the survivors do. It’s only been a month. Shit is still fucked up in the streets, missing posters plastered on every wall, wailing in the night from open windows. Everything’s still broken. Maybe even more so now that Thanos is dead and it did nothing. 

“How’re you feeling, Tony?”

Tony knows he looks terrible. Knows he’s gaunt, emaciated, hollowed-out. He’s in a chair by the window at home, watching the world try to spin on a broken axis. 

“Strange said there was one path that we won,” he says.

“Tony?”

“He had the Time stone. Some wizard bigwig. He looked forward and said there’s one timeline where we win. That we’re in the endgame, and we can win. He handed Thanos the stone and even after that said we can win.”

Steve approaches. He seems smaller, more curved into himself—no puffed chest, no stubborn set jaw. The past is long behind them now that they’ve lost.

“How?”

“Don’t know.” Tony looks away, out towards the sky. He can smell Titan; the wreckage, the dust, the decay. The burnt and bloody scent of Afghanistan lingers there too, intermingled. “But that means there’s a way.”

He looks at Steve, and he looks doubtful, just in the corners of his mouth, too grief-stricken by the implications of the Stones being destroyed. He wonders if Steve realizes that this was how Iron Man was born: back against the wall, no hope, no tools, no nothing. Wonders if Steve realizes that there’s nothing Tony isn’t willing to do, no lines he won’t cross, no rules he won’t break in this moment to fix what’s been broken.

Because in the end, that’s what Tony does. He fixes things. 

“The Stones are gone. There’s no way without them.”

“They’re gone right now. Someone out there has to have solved time travel by now, don’t you think?”

Steve rocks back slightly. Tony can read his thoughts like they were stamped across his forehead: he’s cracked.

“Tony, I know you’re...that’s not feasible.”

“Maybe not to you. But I’ve never tried my hand at it. And that means I can do it. But I can’t—” and then, through gritted teeth, “I can’t do it on my own.”

Steve’s face softens. He carefully leans over, puts his hand on Tony’s shoulder, a steady and watchful weight. For a moment, they’re not enemies, not friends, not anything other than two survivors daring to look forward into a better, less broken world.

“You aren’t alone. If you think you can do this, then you can. I know someone who might be able to help—remember Lang, from the airport? The guy that can be big or small? He was talking my ear off one time and mentioned something about time...time dilation, I think. We think he’s dus...missing, but maybe we can track down his notes or something. See if that will help?”

Tony looks at Steve for a long time, before looking outside again. He nods, slowly, thinking, thinking, thinking. “All I need is a place to start.”

Wait for me, Rhodey, he thinks. I’ll bring you home if it’s the last thing I do.