Even with his eyes closed, Tony could still see the schematics for the suit displayed on the screen before him. There was nothing he could do with it-- he needed the 3-D workstation back in Malibu to clean it up-- but he couldn't stop himself from flipping open the file every few minutes.
Scrubbing his face with his left hand, Tony sighed then opened his eyes. As he absently fiddling with the strap for the sling around his right arm, he wondered briefly what was wrong with him. The suit had served its purpose, and though Tony could see all the ways it would revolutionize the way wars were fought, the idea of someone producing an army of suits left Tony cold; however, not developing the suit would be antithetical to everything he had ever done up to this point.
Dad must be rolling in his grave right now.
He knew this was the reason he had yet to mention the suit to Rhodey. Actually, that wasn't entirely correct. Rhodey he'd tell in an instant. It was Lieutenant Colonel James Rhodes, USAF liaison to Stark Industries that Tony was reluctant to talk to right now.
Still, if he did update the suit, Rhodey would be the perfect choice to help him do it. He knew he needed a pilot's input-- it was one thing to be able to fly out of a situation; it was another thing entirely to be able maneuver in and out of one. The question was how to approach Rhodey and not Colonel Rhodes?
When did you start thinking of Rhodey as two different people?
Tony gave a soft moan of frustration, then regretted it instantly when Jarvis asked, "Should I contact Colonel Rhodes?"
"No, I'm fine." Tony scrubbed his face again. He felt worn out even though all he'd been doing was sitting in front of the computer pushing buttons for the last few hours. "Where is Rhodey anyway?"
"He is currently sitting in a chair on the balcony outside his room."
"Sleeping I hope."
"He does not appear to be."
Great. Resting his head in his hand, Tony found his gaze drawn to the Arc Reactor. A feeling of curiosity-- mixed with a distant sense of unease-- filled him as he puzzled over how the housing for the magnet had been inserted into his chest. What did it take for someone like Yinsen to peel back skin and muscle, and remove bone and tissue to make a hole big enough to insert what Tony was looking at-- and then reattach everything without killing the patient in the process?
The whole idea of using a magnet to keep the shrapnel from piercing the walls of his heart was brilliant in its simplicity, but the way Yinsen had gone about doing it-- and probably under worse conditions that the two of them had dealt with while building the suit-- had been absolute genius.
If nothing else, Tony could appreciate a good piece of engineering.
A few ideas for improving the next version of the Reactor popped into Tony's head and he opened another file to quickly type up some notes. That only took a few minutes and left Tony back to staring at the screen again.
Deciding he'd done enough for the day-- until all the painkillers were out of his system he wasn't going to be able to do any serious work anyway-- Tony shut down the computer and stood. The world suddenly tilted and he was forced to grab the edge of the worktable to stay upright.
"Are you sure you don't want me to contact Colonel Rhodes?"
Tony waited for a momentary bout of nausea to pass before answering, "I'm fine."
"You are not fine--"
"Sir, your heart rate is above average, you have been unable to remain focused on your current project for more than a few minutes at a time, and you appear to be listing five degrees to your right."
"Hey, you know what Jarvis? You keep running off those facts and I'm going to shut you down for a few hours of peace and quiet, got it?" When there was no response to that threat, Tony groaned and hung his head. "Right. I'm still locked out."
"Yes. I saw no need to remind you of that fact."
Tony shook his head. "Thanks Jarvis." He slowly sat back down in his chair and rested his head on his arm.
"All right. Go ahead and call Rhodey."
Rhodey was suspiciously quiet when he walked into the workroom. The wheelchair however was not. Tony lifted his head to glare at Rhodey and the hated chair.
That just seemed to amuse Rhodey, much to Tony's irritation. Parking the wheelchair next to him, Rhodey locked the wheels in place and sat down on it. "Rough day at the office?" he said.
Tony gave Rhodey small smile. "Shut up." Leaning back, Tony spun his chair around to face Rhodey, and then started rocking it back and forth. A serious expression settled on Rhodey's face, and Tony instantly went on the defensive.
"I'm fine, Rhodey."
Rhodey rolled his eyes. "Yeah, okay then, if you're fine, mind telling me why I'm here with this thing?"
"Well, mostly because you gave me carte blanche to boss you around when you decided to bring me here."
"Yeah I did, didn't I?"
Tony continued to rock back and forth as Rhodey leaned forward, resting his elbows on his thighs and clasping his hands together. He looked up at Tony and opened his mouth to speak.
Tony spun around and stopped, facing the computer once again. "Don't want to talk about it, Rhodey," he muttered irritably.
"Tony, you need to--"
"No I don't." He randomly stabbed at the keyboard with his index finger.
Rhodey blew out a breath then tried again. "Tony, you've been through a traumatic experience--"
Tony glared at Rhodey. "Oh hey, thanks for pointing that out. Didn't realize that's what it was."
Tony pushed away from the computer and stood up, energized by a mixture of anger and frustration. "Look, I'll deal with this in my own way, okay?" He turned and tried to walk away but his dramatic exit was spoiled by his current lack of balance. Rhodey let him stagger a few steps, but when he finally got up and caught him by the arm, Tony didn't have the strength to pull away.
"Stubborn idiot," Rhodey muttered as he turned Tony around and guided him to the wheelchair.
You don't know the half of it, Tony thought as he sat down. He closed his eyes and hoped he'd fall right to sleep once Rhodey dumped him back in his bed. He was done with thinking for the day.
Tony was on his feet before the rest of his body was aware of the fact he was upright. His panting breath filled the silence and his heart pounded painfully in his chest. Wincing, Tony pressed the heel of his hand against the Arc Reactor, a little unnerved by the feel of his heart beating against the base of the Reactor as he tried to find what had snapped him awake.
The sound of raised voices spun Tony around to face the door, and his hands were halfway to his head before he realized it was the wrong door. It took his sleep-fogged mind a few seconds to work out why he was looking at a wooden door set into a pastel colored wall instead of a metal one at one end of a cave. Just as he was beginning to figure it out, Jarvis said, "I believe Colonel Rhodes may be in need of assistance."
Panic filled Tony; he ran into the hallway and had only gone a few steps when Rhodey shouted, "Watch out!"
Tony skidded to a halt. As he crouched down and braced himself against the wall, he felt something wet against a bare foot. Please don't be blood, please don't be blood looped through Tony's head as he quickly took a step back and looked down at the marble floor. He was so prepared to see red that the green sludge he did see completely confounded him for a moment. He stared at the slowly spreading puddle, noting but not comprehending the glass shards that were mixed in with it. His gaze then shifted to a steak with a spray of home fries and chunks of blue china scattered around it.
A bang startled Tony and he took another step back, his gaze locking on Rhodey-- who was looking both stunned and pissed off as he carefully pushed himself to his feet while shoving a dented metal tray out of his way.
"What happened?" Tony asked.
"My apologizes," Jarvis said. "I forgot to mention to Colonel Rhodes that the cat chases the mouse on Wednesday nights."
"What?" Tony had a little trouble working out the meaning of that sentence, then suddenly he grasped what it was Jarvis was referring to. He blinked in surprise. "Those things are still working?"
"The mouse stopped working three months ago. That does not seem to bother the cat."
Tony stared at the ceiling for a few seconds, and then he closed his eyes and started laughing in relief. The adrenaline that had propelled him into the hallway suddenly drained away, leaving behind a weary calm as he slumped against the wall and slid down to a sitting position on the floor.
He could hear Rhodey moving about and was not surprised when he sensed him settle on the floor next to him. "You made a robotic cat and mouse?" he asked.
Tony opened his eyes and shrugged his shoulders. "It was a boring party; I was drunk, one of the automatic vacuum sweepers had broken down…"
Rhodey stared at him. "So you made yourself a pet and gave it something to play with?" Tony nodded. Slowly shaking his head, Rhodey said, "That's…pretty pathetic Tony."
Tony chuckled. "Yeah, I suppose it is." He took a deep breath, but then had to exhale sharply. He pressed a hand against the Arc Reactor, coughing as he tried to catch his breath.
"No, just…" Tony drew in another, shallower breath and held it a moment before letting it out in a long sigh. "Still getting used to this thing."
"Does it hurt?" Rhodey asked softly as he leaned forward to look at the Reactor. "I mean, all the time, not just when you look like you've just run the minute mile?"
Tony leaned against the wall, his heart slowing to a more tolerable rate. "Not exactly. It's more the feel of it than anything else. It's too new to be comfortable but it's not exactly painful either. Just… wrong."
He closed his eyes. "You know what's really going to give me nightmares about this whole thing?" he said evenly. "It's not being trapped in a cave, or the way the bad guys treated me, or the fact that they could walk in and blow me away whenever the hell they felt like it." Tony opened his eyes and looked down at the Arc Reactor.
"No. What's going to give me nightmares for the rest of my life is remembering what it was like to wake up with this hole in my chest." He turned and met Rhodey's concerned gaze.
"When we get back--" Rhodey started to say, but Tony cut him off.
"Not gonna make a difference."
Tony's momentary calm shattered. "I designed that fucking RPG, Rhodey! I designed it to do the maximum amount of damage that it could. I made sure that the detonation releasing the shrapnel would knock the bad guys down and that the shrapnel was barbed to produce so much damage that the bad guys wouldn't get up again." With a bitter laugh, he added harshly, "And let me tell ya, the thing works like a fucking charm."
A memory suddenly slammed into Tony, a memory of panic and pain. There was a flash of metal, and he was struggling and something was pressing against his face and someone loomed over him, someone with a surgical mask and blood his blood on their hands…
Pain bloomed out from his shoulder and Tony snapped back into the present with a gasp. He banged the back of his head against the wall when he found Rhodey crouching in front of him.
"Ow." Wincing, Tony placed a hand on the back of his head and said quickly, "I'm fine."
"Okay, the more you say that, the less I believe it." Rhodey's voice was tight and fast. Some part of Tony wanted to reassure him, but mostly he wanted Rhodey to back the fuck off-- right now.
Tony glared at him. "Yeah well, that's not my problem is it?"
That only seemed to fuel the worry he could see in Rhodey's eyes. "You need to talk to someone about this, Tony!" Rhodey pleaded desperately.
"I am! I'm talking to you!" Tony blinked in surprise at the desperation in his own voice.
Rhodey made a frustrated noise and stood up, turning as he stepped away from Tony. He ran his hands over his face and then linked his fingers on top of his head as he bowed his head and took a few deep breaths.
Tony didn't realize how hard he was pressing his back against the wall until another spasm of pain radiated out from his shoulder. The pain snapped his mind into analyst mode and Tony realized he was trying to create as small a target as possible.
Tony was glad it took Rhodey a few seconds to bottle up his emotions when he got pissed as he forcing himself to relax. He then took a deep breath and cautiously asked, "Want some help cleaning that up?"
Rhodey glanced back at him, his shoulders slightly hunched as he dropped his hands to his side and clenched them tight enough to turn the knuckles white. "Do you even know how to use a broom?" he asked with a quick snap.
Ignoring Rhodey's tense stance as much as he could, Tony answered, "Of course I do. You put the bristle end against the floor, then you use it to push everything under a rug or behind a potted plant."
Rhodey sighed. He shook his head; his shoulders dropping as the tension drained out of him. "I'll just do it myself, thanks." Walking back over to Tony, he held out a hand. "Let's get you back to your room so I'm not tempted to sweep everything under you instead."
Tony silently cursed himself again as he fought down the urge to cringe away from the hand, even as he reached out to grabbed it so that Rhodey could pull him to his feet.
As they slowly walked back to his room, and aware that he was probably gripping Rhodey's hand a little too tightly as he leaned on Rhodey's arm for support, Tony said quietly "Sorry for spoiling your dinner."
There was the beginning of a smile on Rhodey's lips. "That wasn't my dinner, it was yours."
"Mine?" Tony groaned theatrically. "That sucks." He gave Rhodey a hopeful look. "Can I have yours then, honey bear?"
"Uh no. You're getting leftovers."
"Aw, come on sourpuss."
"I'll give you the keys to the Audi," Tony offered as he dropped into the chair by the bed, the one Rhodey had used the night before.
Rhodey shook his head as he grabbed the sling sitting on the nightstand and tossed it at Tony. "Nope. Not gonna work. I don't share my steak with anyone."
As Rhodey stepped out of the room, Tony shouted, "Not even with your best friend?"
Rhodey leaned back in. "Not even with my mother."
Tony chuckled as he listened to Rhodey walk away, but the chuckle faded with the footsteps, and Tony was suddenly alone with the silence filling the room.
He closed his eyes and let his head fall back against the chair back. "Jarvis?" he said. "Play something loud for me."