"Why are you still working on that?"

Tony didn't bother looking up from the section of the suit he was fiddling with as Yinsen joined him at the makeshift worktable they had set up against one wall of the cave. Various tools were scattered across its surface-- all within easy reach-- as well as several sheets of tissue paper, a beat up laptop, and a backgammon board that was waiting for someone to make a move.

"Since I trashed the suit on my less than graceful landing," Tony said, "I thought I'd make a few improvements." He set the piece aside and sketched in a revision on one of the sheets of tissue paper. "Need to figure out how to get the plates to overlap better without adding any extra weight. Getting shot is not an experience I care to repeat. "

"But why bother?" Yinsen asked.

Surprised by the question, Tony glanced up. He found Yinsen leaning against the board holding the beat up remains of the original suit. Yinsen crossed his arms and the lenses of his glasses flashed when they reflected the slowly rotating 3-d graphic of the revised suit design that floated above the work table.

Distracted by the flash, Tony answered, "Because I want the next one to be better."

"For what purpose? You have already escaped; why do you need another one?"

Tony paused before answering. For some reason he had expected Yinsen to be more supportive than this. "I thought you were going to see your family?" Tony's voice trailing off when he decided halfway through the question that he'd rather not know the answer to it.

"I already have," Yinsen answered calmly. He glanced around the cave. "I had hoped you would have done the same by now."

Tony turned away, hunching slightly as he adjusted a piece of the arm assembly he had picked up. "No one to go back to. I think I mentioned that."

"You did. I just choose not believe it. Is there no one you wish to see again?"

Considering Pepper and Rhodey are going to chew me out for getting myself lost, probably not. A memory of Rhodey asking about the fun-vee wandered across his mind's eye. Tony frowned as he tried to remember when that had happened. Instead of figuring that out, he was hit by the memories of the attack on the convoy-- of the kids that had been with him, and how each of them had died trying to protect him. He then remembered what happened to Yinsen.

Tony froze with the realization that they had all died protecting him, and that they had all been killed by weapons made by his company, weapons he had designed and approved. Weapons that were supposed to protect people like them.

Tony stared at the holographic suit floating over the table.

"Why did you come back here, Stark?"

Instead of answering that, Tony stated, "The world has changed."

He could see Yinsen shaking his head out of the corner of his eye. "The world is the same as it has always been," Yinsen said gently. "It is simply your view of it that has changed."

Tony cautiously leaned back in his chair and turned to face Yinsen. "This is a dream," he said.

"Possibly. Or perhaps you are dead. It would explain why you and I are talking."

"I don't understand."

"I know." Yinsen tilted his head, the 3-d schematics making the lenses flash again. The flash suddenly exploded outward, filling Tony's vision. A roaring sound filled his ears as he struggled; his movements restricted by the dead weight of the suit as the ground came rushing up at him.

A slow steady beep broke through the roaring, a sound both distracting familiar and oddly reassuring as Tony continued to fight against the weight of the suit on his shoulders and chest. It felt as if the suit were trying to push him faster towards the ground.

"Tony?"

He twisted his body, startled by the sound of Rhodey's voice, but before he could figure out where the voice was coming from, his right shoulder burst into a fiery ball of pain.

"Tony! "

Shit!

Nurse! Tony! Wake up! Tony!"

Tony's eyes snapped open. The shift between being trapped in the suit to Rhodey right in his face-- wide-eyed and concerned-- locked his thoughts for a moment and he struggled to figure out what the hell was going on. As he gasped for breath and tried to kick start his brain, there was a movement to his left. A man in a white lab coat with a nametag clipped to the pocket was reaching for something just beyond his field of vision.

The beeping sound had accelerated. Tony realized with a start that the sound was coming from a heart monitor, and it was his own heartbeat he was listening to. Once that thought occurred to him, the sequence of events that had brought him here arranged themselves into their proper order.

The beat slowed as he got his bearings and the pain in his shoulder began to ease.

"Tony?"

He refocused on Rhodey, who was still right in his face. He was also firmly holding him down. "Okay," Tony gasped. "If you want a kiss, you'll have to buy me a drink first."

The look on Rhodey's face went from concerned to pissed-off annoyance in record time.

Rhodey took a deep breath then forced it out past clenched teeth. "You all right buddy?" he asked in a tone that sounded more like he was saying you're a goddamn idiot.

"Yeah I'm fine." Tony tried to say that with a straight face, but ended up grimacing instead as various aches and pains added themselves to the one in his shoulder. "Okay, fine being a relative term here."

"No kidding." Rhodey let go and scrubbed his face before slumping against the edge of the bed. After the doctor asked a few questions, checked the monitors and the IV, and left the room, Rhodey nodded towards Tony's chest. "See you've been comparing notes with the Energizer Bunny," he said.

Tony looked down at the Arc Reactor. Between all the wires and tubes stuck to him, he looked a bit like Frankenstein's monster waiting for the lightening to hit. "Yeah. I was a little disappointed that he didn't bring me any chocolate though."

"That's the Easter Bunny, Tony."

"I knew that."

As he paused to take a breath-- god, he was tired-- Tony realized he had grabbed Rhodey's hand at some point and was gripping it tightly enough for it to hurt. Rhodey hadn't made a sound. Tony decided he was too tired to think about why he was letting him do that to him.

"So, how long am I going to be stuck here?"

Rhodey shrugged. "We'll leave as soon as you can walk out of here."

He liked the sounds of that. Nodding, he let go of Rhodey's hand and began yanking the EKG leads off his chest. "Great! I am out of here." He started to pushed himself upright, only to have Rhodey push him back down.

Rhodey rolled his eyes, and then explained slowly, emphasizing every word, "Let me rephrase that. We'll leave as soon as the docs say you can walk out of here."

Tony stared at him. "That could take hours!"

"Well then, I suggest you make yourself comfortable."


In the end, it took more than a few hours. Tony attempted to argue with Rhodey, but all Rhodey had to do was wait him out. Within a few minutes, Tony's body rebelled and, without asking Tony's opinion on the matter, decided sleep was its best option.

He was pretty sure Rhodey was smirking at him as he closed his eyes and tumbled back into unconsciousness.

The next time he woke, he found himself alone in the room. When he tired to shift into a more comfortable position, he discovered his right shoulder was tightly bandaged, probably to minimize movement. That was going to be a problem. He needed to organize a few ideas floating around in his head, but since he didn't have Jarvis to record those thoughts, he was going to have to do it the old fashion way.

He spotted Rhodey talking to someone in the hallway and was about to yell for a laptop or paper and pencil, when he noticed Rhodey's stance. It was stiff, not parade ground stiff but stiff in the way he got when he was angry and had nothing to lash out at. Tony was quite familiar with that particular stance.

Rhodey glanced into the room and met his gaze and then frowned and looked away, a pained look crossing his features. He said a few words to the man and stood in the hallway alone for a few moments after the man had gone before rejoining Tony, closing the door as he stepped into the room.

Tony studied the barely concealed mixture of disappointment and anger on Rhodey's face and felt a dull impotent rage fill him. "They didn't they get the bastards, did they?"

Rhodey sighed and shook his head. "No. There wasn't much left when they got there. Only a few bodies and a pile of slag."

Tony's chest clenched painfully at the word bodies. "Was there a civilian among them?"

Rhodey gave him a thoughtful look. "There was a guy just inside the cave that wasn't dressed like the others. They said he had taken a few rounds to the chest."

"Yinsen." Tony swallowed. "His name is Yinsen. He's the one who saved my life." He glanced down at the Arc Reactor.

"We'll notify his family…"

"Won't have to." Tony met Rhodey's gaze. "He's already with them."

Rhodey understood. "I'll take care of it."

As Rhodey turned away, Tony suddenly asked, "How many times have you had to do this?"

Rhodey didn't bother asking what he meant. Looking over his shoulder, he answered, "First time was already one too many."

Tony thought about that for a long time after Rhodey left the room.


"I'm not getting in that thing." He knew Rhodey had somehow managed to convince the doctors to check him out against their professional judgment, and he was grateful for that, but Tony wasn't happy with the concessions he was being forced to make. The fact that his right arm was securely strapped against his body to keep it from moving, throwing his balance off, wasn't helping his mood any.

"Yes you are." Rhodey was clearly grinding his teeth together as he gripped the handles of the wheelchair.

"No way."

"It's not up for negotiation, Tony." When Tony opened his mouth again, Rhodey snapped, "It's this or you stay here for another week."

Tony clamped down on his rising irritation and he was annoyed by the fact sitting up and swinging his legs over the edge of the bed had left him utterly exhausted. There were serious doubts going through his head right now as to whether he was going to be able to even make it to the chair, let alone to the plane, without falling flat on his face.

Locking the wheels in place, Rhodey moved to stand beside him. Tony stared at the wheelchair in disgust as Rhodey crossed his arms and leaned against the bed. "You really think you can walk to the plane in the condition you're in?"

Tony didn't move his head. "Bastard."

"Yep." He held out an arm. "Whenever you're ready, sour-puss."

A snort of laughter broke through Tony's irritation and he glanced up at Rhodey. Rhodey looked back calmly, no hint of pity or sympathy on his face. Tony sighed and grabbed the offered arm, sliding awkwardly off the bed. He was thankful he had changed into some pants. He could just imagine how much he would have exposed with that move wearing the stupid hospital gown he had woken up in this morning.

He waited for the nurse to transfer the IV bag attached to the tube that was still stuck in him to the tree on the wheelchair then, with a little maneuvering and a lot of Rhodey practically carrying him, Tony was finally able to drop into the wheelchair instead of on the floor.

Once he had his breath back, Tony asked, "So what's the game plan? Frankfurt then a straight shot to Edwards?"

"Nope. Dubai first, then Edwards."

Tony leaned back to look up as Rhodey pushed him out to the waiting handicap van. "Dubai?"

"Yep." Rhodey stepped back to let the attendants positioned the chair onto the lift and move it up into the van.

When Rhodey climbed in after the wheelchair was locked in place and after the attendants had shut the door, Tony said, "If you want to use my pool all you have to do is ask. I'll give you the key codes to the villa."

Rhodey gave him an exasperated look. "You really want Pepper seeing you looking like this?"

"I've looked worse after three days in my workroom."

"Okay then, do you want the press to see you looking like this?" Rhodey asked his tone relentless. "You know they'll be waiting for you."

The thought of suddenly being forced to run the gauntlet in a wheelchair, lights flashing and microphones being shoved at his face sent a shudder of revulsion through Tony.

He looked out the window as they pulled away from the medical center.

Rhodey leaned towards him and said softly, "Look. Tony. You just spend three months in a cave fighting for your life. You need time to get acclimated before you start dealing with the press or the stockholders."

Letting a burst of bitterness get the better of him, Tony said, "And you want a chance to make sure I haven't gone off the deep end."

"Exactly." Surprised Rhodey had actually admitted to that, Tony turned to look back at him. Rhodey shrugged. "I've seen men crack under less pressure than what you've just gone through. Figured spending some time in familiar surroundings might help you get your head in the right place."

Tony considered that, but immediately saw a flaw in Rhodey's plan. "Landing a C-17 at Dubai International's going to draw a lot of attention. Kinda defeats the purpose of this whole little side trip"

"We'll be landing at Al Dhafra then take a shuttle over to Dubai."

"Okay yeah, that makes more sense." Tony closed his eyes and let his head fall back. He wasn't aware of the fact he had fallen asleep until Rhodey woke him as they were coming in to land at Al Dhafra Air Base.