Title: When The Dust Settled

Fandom: Iron Man

Author: HalfshellVenus

Characters: Tony, Yinsen, Rhodey (Gen)

Rating: PG

Summary: In the cave, Tony was focused on his plan. There was no time to give in to doubt.
Author's Notes: A birthday gift for realpestilence, who wanted Tony being vulnerable.

Also for writers_choice, this is "fear."

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In the cave, Tony had been completely focused on his plan. Creating something new—with only the crudest of materials and the bare minimum of time—had consumed him. His mind had translated results into the physics, mechanics and components he needed, turning the pieces over day and night and refining them as he went.

It had all been about survival, whether it was making Raza think his weapons were being built on schedule, or figuring out how to escape once the suit was ready. There'd been no time to give in to doubt.

He hadn't been completely ready when the moment came. He and Yinsen had been rushed, had barely gotten the suit on and powered-up before the door broke down. Tony couldn't have done it without Yinsen (wouldn't even be alive without that arc reactor). But he'd been too wrapped up in strategies and building the suit to realize that they'd never made any provisions for Yinsen's escape. Hell, if Tony had even listened with more than half an ear, he'd have heard the resignation in Yinsen's voice when he'd spoken of his village and family, recognized the finality of what it all meant.

That cave had been filled with loneliness, but all Tony had noticed was a puzzle to be solved and the challenge of finding all the pieces required to do it. He hoped now that Yinsen had thought his sacrifice had been worth it, that gambling on something he'd seen inside Tony had paid off, even if Tony couldn't be sure of that himself.

All of that was hours ago—a lifetime ago. Tony had made it out into the open and blasted off from that rebel camp, traveling like an unguided missile before crash-landing in the desert sand. Then he'd gone to work, shedding what was left of the metal skin before the sun heated it enough to burn him, and finally headed in the direction that would take him farthest from that camp.

He was still going, still stumbling across the sand toward nothing, but it was all right. As long as he kept moving, he knew he was alive. It was the only hope or truth he had left.

When he heard the choppers, his heart sped through a sequence of shock, relief and doubt. Surely he was hallucinating, because who would be looking for him after all this time? It was wishful thinking, the deluded fantasies of a dying man too close to falling off the edge of a cliff to even realize it was there.

When the door of the chopper opened, Tony fell to his knees as exhaustion and emotion claimed him. It couldn't—how did—Rhodey had come to rescue him, and it was either true or Tony was already dead. He didn't have the strength left to do more than wait to see which possibility was real.

Rhodey pulled him close, and Tony leaned against him, feeling the solidity of his friend and letting the weight on his shoulders begin to slip away—first the horror of the ambush and the escape and Yinsen's death, and then the drive to keep going forward that had blotted out the pain of his injuries.

"Next time, you ride with me," Rhodey said hoarsely.

It was a promise Tony could keep, but right now he was barely hanging onto the present, every aspect of him unhinged, shattered, and uncertain.

With all that had happened, the only future he could grasp lay in the next few seconds. Whether Rhodey was here or not, Tony was comforted by the idea of his presence. The real challenge was going to be making himself let go.

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