"Colonel Rhodes?"

"I heard it." Rhodey tossed the book he had been reading at the side table and ran for Tony's bedroom. The shout had come as a shock, cutting through the silence like an alarm, but for the life of him Rhodey couldn't figure out why Tony would be shouting for his dad.

Reaching the master bedroom, Rhodey shoved the door open then stopped. As the adrenalin pounding through him made his body tremble with the need to move, Rhodey stood frozen in place as he stared in confusion at Tony. Tony was lying on his back fast asleep, his right arm resting across his stomach and the other thrown out across the bed, his left hand open and relaxed. The Arc Reactor glowed softly in the dark room, slowly rising and falling with each breath Tony took.

Rhodey could see, by the light emanating from the Reactor, the glitter of tears on Tony's face.

As he stood in the doorway and tried to make sense of what he was looking at, Rhodey saw Tony's left hand twitch and heard him suck in a breath. Tony held the breath for a moment too long and then suddenly he sat up, his eyes snapping open as he braced his hands against the bed to support his body. The movement startled Rhodey out of his paralysis and he took an involuntary step back, drawing Tony's gaze to him. Rhodey's heart was pounding as they stared at one another and his mind raced to figure out what he should do.

Before Rhodey could move, Tony's gaze turned inward. He grimaced then groaned as he fell back on the bed, cradling his right arm on top of his chest. As he fell back, the lights in the room switched on.

"Okay, you know what?" Tony grumbled irritably as he covered his eyes with his left hand. "It would be easier on the both of us if you'd just park yourself in here instead of having to come running every time you hear a noise, Rhodey."

Rhodey took a deep breath and tried to ignore his racing heartbeat-- and the impulse to shout 'what the hell, Tony'-- as he crossed his arms across his chest and leaned against the doorframe. "Okay, that was more than just a noise," he managed to get out in a relatively calm tone of voice.

"What?" Tony lifted his head and gave him a look. "Uh, are you all right, Rhodey?"

"Do I look all right?"

A flash of amusement eased the pained look on Tony's face for a second as his head fell back on the pillow. "I think that's my line."

Shaking his head, Rhodey stepped into the room and dragged one of the chairs from the sitting area over to the bed. He watched Tony frown and wipe the tears off his face with the heel of his hand as he sat down.

"Shoulder hurting?" he asked.

"That's kind of a stupid question at the moment."

"Yeah well, still need to ask it."

Rhodey ignored the annoyed look he got and waited patiently for an answer. Tony muttered something under his breath and then gave in. "Outside of the railroad spike someone's trying to drive through it right now," he said, "everything is just peachy keen."

"Must be pretty bad if you're saying peachy keen."

A shadow of a smile tugged the corner of Tony's lips. "Yeah, I'd say that's a pretty accurate assessment." The smile slipped away and Tony sighed, staring at the ceiling as he pressed his lips together in a tight line. Something told Rhodey it wasn't pain causing that expression.

"Can't sleep?" Rhodey asked softly.

"I have a feeling I should be asking you that question; but then you'd have to tell me it's my fault you're awake and--" Tony shook his head, then admitted, much to Rhodey's surprise, "Falling asleep isn't the problem right now."

"What is the problem?"

Another sigh slipped out of Tony as he turned a weary gaze on Rhodey. "You're going to force me talk about this, aren't you?"

Rhodey was tempted to say no; as much as he wanted to know what had happened to Tony over the last few months, he was beginning to realize he was also afraid to find out how broken Tony might be. He knew it was in Tony's best interests that he talk things through though, and better him hearing it than Pepper.

"'Fraid so." Rhodey shrugged then prompted carefully, "You were yelling for your dad."

"Yeah. I…" Tony looked away. "I was dreaming about us working on the Roadster."

"Sounds like a nice dream."

"It was." A sad smile appeared. "Mom was there too." Tony's fingers brushed across the surface of the Arc Reactor. "She was chewing me out about putting myself in danger."

"That sounds like your mom." Rhodey waited a moment to see if Tony would say anything more. When he didn't, Rhodey asked, "What did your dad have to say about it?"

"He agreed with me that the only way to test the Jericho was out in the field."

"Did he say anything else?"

He could tell Tony was sidestepping the question when he asked, "Did you ever regret following in your father's footsteps Rhodey?"

Resisting the urge to get Tony back on track, Rhodey answered, "No. I'm doing what I've always wanted to do."

"Because it means you get to fly the fastest planes in the world?" A knowing grin brightened Tony's face.

Rhodey couldn't deny the truth of that statement. He smiled and nodded his head. "Yeah, that's definitely one of the reasons. I was hooked the first time dad took me up."

When Tony looked away and the grin slowly disappeared, Rhodey felt the need to ask, "Do you ever regret becoming CEO of Stark Industries?" He remembered many long conversations with Tony about him taking over his father's company in the years leading up to Tony's twenty-first birthday; but he couldn't remember Tony ever mentioning that he regretted that decision, only Tony's doubts about whether or not he would be able to live up to all the hype.

Since taking over Stark Industries, Tony Stark had lived up to the hype, and then some.

"I don't regret that."

Rhodey heard an unspoken 'but' in Tony's answer. "What then?"

Tony let out a frustrated breath and scrubbed his face. "I don't know," he snapped, then took a deep breath. "Sorry. I'm tired, just ignore me. I'm just rambling."

Rhodey sighed mentally. He could tell Tony was shutting down, both emotionally and physically, and he knew he'd get nothing more out of him tonight. It was also clear that Tony's mind was going into overdrive as it worked on whatever it was Tony was unwilling to discuss.

"Do you need anything?"

"Yeah, some painkillers would be good right now."

All the prescriptions the doctor had left for Tony were in the master bath and it only took Rhodey a moment to find the ones he needed. Picking up a glass of water and the appropriate pills, Rhodey headed back to the bed and handed them over. Tony raised an eyebrow when he noticed the sleeping pill Rhodey had added to the others but he downed all the pills and the water without question. Rhodey placed the empty cup on the nightstand and settled back in the chair.

Tony gave him a questioning look as he sat down. "You're not actually going to sit in that chair all night, are you?" he asked.

"Hey, you're the one who suggested it."

Closing his eyes, Tony chuckled. "True," he said, "but don't blame me in the morning if you can't move."

"Wouldn't think of it."

The lights dimmed as Tony closed his eyes. Rhodey stretched his legs out and let his head fall back to rest against the top of the chair. He had just closed his eyes when he heard Tony say, "Hey, Rhodey?"

Opening his eyes, Rhodey found Tony looking back at him, clearly fighting to keep his eyes open. "Yeah?" Rhodey said.

"Thanks for not giving up on me," Tony said softly.

Something tightened in Rhodey's chest, and he had to swallow once before he could respond lightly, "Yeah well, don't make me regret it."

"I don't think I can promise that."

The pressure in Rhodey's chest grew. "Go to sleep Tony," he whispered.

Tony sighed and stopped fighting the effects of the sleeping pill. He closed his eyes and said in a sleepy, childlike voice, "Okay."

Rhodey carefully controlled his breathing as he closed his own eyes. The last thing Tony needed to see was him fighting back a bout of unexpected tears.

Once he fell back to sleep, Tony remained quiet for the rest of the night. Rhodey stayed at his side, dozing off from time to time until the morning sunlight began filtering into the room. Figuring that Tony could take care of himself from this point on, Rhodey stood up and carefully turned his head from side to side to loosen up the stiff muscles in his neck. When he felt several other spots protest the movement, he considered grabbing some sleep in his own bed but decided he might as well stay awake until Tony woke up.

Heading back to his room, Rhodey changed into some swim trunks, figuring a nice long swim would help relieve the stiffness and give him a little boost of energy. After grabbing a towel, Rhodey headed out to the pool.

Dropping the towel on a bench Rhodey walked quickly to the edge and dove in. The water was comfortably warm, and Rhodey enjoyed the feel of his muscles stretching and contracting as he surfaced and began doing laps across the length of the pool.

As he was working through a return lap, instinct caused Rhodey to stop and glance up towards the villa. He was surprised to find Tony, fully dressed with his right arm in the sling, standing near the edge of the pool, staring down at the water with a thoughtful look on his face.

Rhodey watched Tony's eyes widened suddenly. There was a sharp intake of breath and then Tony was backing away from the edge of the pool until the back of his legs bumped into the bench. Tony sat down, staring blindly at the ground.

Oh, shit. Quickly swimming to the edge, Rhodey slowly pulled himself out of the pool, trying not to startle the man. However, by the time he was on his feet, Tony looked as if nothing had happened, and he simply watched Rhodey with a curious expression, raising an eyebrow in question when Rhodey stopped in front of him.

Shaking his head, Rhodey sat down beside Tony. "What was that?" he asked.

"What was what?" Rhodey narrowed his eyes and Tony turned away to look at the pool. "Oh, nothing."

"Didn't look like nothing."

Tony shrugged and said nonchalantly, "I was just remembering when Raza's goons dunked my head in a bucket of water a few times to help convince me to build them a Jericho missile." He looked back at Rhodey and added, almost in the same breath, "So what's for breakfast?"

Since he was still trying to process the first sentence, Rhodey failed completely to comprehend the second one.

"What?" he asked.

"Breakfast. I'm hungry."

Rhodey's mind scrambled to catch up to Tony. "You're hungry?"

"Yeah. Until I can figure out how to get Jarvis to make me an omelet, it means you're the one on kitchen duty."

"You've got two arms," Rhodey said without thinking.

Tony rolled his eyes. "No, I've only got one arm right now." He raised the arm in the sling slightly to emphasize his point. "I'm not supposed to be using this one, remember? I mean, you've been harping on that fact for two days now."

Rhodey glared at Tony.


"You're going to milk this for all it's worth, aren't you?" And you're just going to avoid what really needs to be talked about, aren't you?

"Yep. Every last drop. So, breakfast? I was thinking two eggs, sunny side up, with a side order of bacon and…"

"You're going to get whatever the hell I feel like making Tony."

"Okay, that's fine. So, what's on the menu at Chez Rhodes today?"

"You keep that up and you're not going to live long enough to find out."

Tony grinned. Rhodey sighed and rubbed his forehead, feeling a headache coming on. "Let me at least dry off and change first," Rhodey said.

Tony slapped him on the knee and stood up. "Fair enough. I'll be in the kitchen waiting." Turning, Tony headed back inside. "Jarvis?" he said. "I didn't happen to leave a laptop behind the last time I was here, did I?"

Rhodey didn't hear Jarvis's answer. He shook his head, grabbed his towel, and followed Tony inside.

"So, how are you holding up Rhodey?" Pepper asked.

Rhodey massaged the bridge of his nose as he leaned back in his chair on the balcony. He considered not answering, but then realized that, if anyone could understand what he was going through right now, it would be Pepper.

"Well, I haven't killed him yet if that answers your question," he finally said.

It sounded to Rhodey as if Pepper was trying not to laugh. "Well, that's good. Should I ask what he's up to right now?"

"Honestly, I have no clue. He's been holed up in the workroom doing god knows what with Jarvis for the last hour and a half."

"You probably don't want to think too hard about what he might be doing with Jarvis. It can lead to some pretty strange places."

Rhodey sighed as his mind immediately went to a very strange place. "Thanks Pepper, I really didn't need that image in my head."

"You've known him longer than I have. Can you really blame me for thinking things like that?"

"No, can't say that I can."

"It did help though, didn't it?"

Rhodey nodded, even though he knew Pepper couldn't see him, and smiled. "Yeah it did. Thanks."

This time she did laugh, a short soft chuckle, then she said, "You're welcome. So, was there a reason you called? Other than the need to complain about Tony? Which I totally understand, I mean feel free to call me whenever you have the urge to strangle him."

Rhodey briefly wondered who Pepper talked to when she felt that urge. "I just wanted to let you know we'll be leaving here tomorrow," he said, "and should be at Edwards Friday morning. You might want to keep the welcoming committee to a minimum, maybe just you and Happy."

"You don't think he's ready to deal with a crowd yet?"

"I doubt he'd have any problems dealing with a crowd but I thought it might be best to let Tony make that call instead of us throwing him head first into one as soon as he stepped off the plane."

"Right. That makes sense. I'll hold off on the press release then, otherwise we won't have any control once we leave Edwards. It'll also keep the press from following us to the hospital. I'm assuming that where you'll want to stop off first?"

"Yeah, that was my plan. The doctor here said the gunshot wound is healing up well, but it would make me feel better if he got a full workup."

"How does he look to you?"

"Truthfully, better than before he disappeared."

"I find that a little hard to believe."

"So do I. I don't know what he was doing during his captivity, but he's all muscle now. He's still weak and he needs to gain back a few pounds, but physically this is the best shape he's been in since, well, since I've met him. Only Tony could come out of an experience like this looking better than he did going in.

That's why we're coming home early. Now that he's beginning to recover and get around without help, I figure I've got a day before he goes stir-crazy. He'll be impossible to deal with once that happens."

It was easy for Rhodey to imagine Pepper sitting at her desk nodding in agreement, as she said thoughtfully, "Yeah, he will be. At least here, there are things for him to work on. Over there, all he's got is that drawing tablet and the computer to keep notes on. He picked up those villas for parties and social functions, not for work."

"Exactly. If he can't keep himself busy, he's going to start pushing himself physically, and that's liable to set him back to square one."

"Okay. I'll take care of things on this end. All you have to do is keep him from doing anything stupid. Good luck with that, by the way."

"Thanks. I think I'm going to need it." Before she could hang up, Rhodey asked, "Hey, Pepper?"


"You holding up okay?"

There was a pause, then a sigh. "I'm okay Rhodey. I'll be better once he gets home though."

"Yeah, me too. I'll give you a call when we leave Al Dhafra."

"Thanks. I'll talk to you later then." Rhodey heard a click and shut his cell phone. He stared out over the balcony, watching the trees sway gently in the warm ocean breezes as he thought about Tony and a cold dark cave somewhere in the mountains of Afghanistan.