The Priming Game
"Took you long enough," is the first thing Tony says. Croaks, really, if Rhodey's being honest. It's the worst possible cliché he could have picked and under any other circumstances Rhodey would have groaned and told him to lay off the bad action flicks, but right now Tony's lips are cracked and his eyes are bloodshot and when Rhodey helps him unwind the jacket from around his head there's sand in his hair.
"Yeah, well, if you'd let us know you were coming ahead of time…" Rhodey trails off, because there's something wrong with Tony's chest. He grabs Tony's shoulder but before he can get a closer look Tony jerks away, lines of pain that Rhodey hadn't noticed before deepening around his mouth, and that's when some detached part of Rhodey that isn't horrified realizes that the shoulder joint doesn't quite look right. "Jesus, Tony—"
The second thing Tony says is "It's not what you think." He reaches up with his left hand and covers the light bleeding through his dirty undershirt. Blueish, electric light, visible even in the full glare of the desert sun. Rhodey hasn't had time to form a thought about what it means, so he just stares until the medic nudges him aside.
Once they get him into the chopper Tony collapses in on himself, staring at the faces around him with a dazed kind of detachment that starts to give Rhodey the creeps. Tony's attention latches onto the slightest movement but his eyes are glassy and not quite focused. Lyle, the medic, leans over to shout into Rhodey's ear over the noise of the chopper. Tells him that Tony is dehydrated and banged up and in shock and that his shoulder looks separated. But that he'll be okay, he'll make it back to base. Lyle immobilizes the shoulder then wraps Tony in a blanket and starts an I.V. in his wrist. Tony picks at the tape compulsively until Rhodey bats his hand away -- and at the contact Tony flinches, hard, like he's forgotten where he is.
It's not until they reach Bagram that Rhodey realizes Tony hasn't said a word since Lyle checked him over.
He seems okay when the chopper lands. But when he stands up to follow Lyle his legs just give out with no warning and he hits the deck hard before Rhodey can reach him. He sits up and struggles to his knees and Rhodey crouches in front of him until Tony focuses on his face. Rhodey wants to help, but he's not entirely sure Tony's even with them, and from the feral wildness behind Tony's eyes, he's not sure that touching him right now would be a very good idea. Then Tony blinks and gives Rhodey a half smile.
"Hey," Tony says, and then pitches forward. Rhodey catches him this time. He's clammy and limp and his forehead is a heavy weight against Rhodey's shoulder.
He doesn't wake up as they lift him onto a stretcher and wheel him into the clinic. He doesn't wake up when the doctor slices off the stained undershirt and torn pants -- the dress pants from the suit he was wearing when the convoy was attacked -- and stares in shock at the light embedded in his chest. Rhodey explains it's not a bomb, he knows this much, but with Tony so completely out he doesn't know what else to say. He insists the doctors leave it untouched until Tony can tell them what it is.
They get him cleaned up, inspect the pink scars marking the mostly healed shrapnel wounds from the original attack, stitch up the new lacerations from his escape, ice his shoulder, and wrap his lower chest because he's got a couple of cracked ribs. Rhodey hovers in a corner of the room, unable to help and unable to leave, until he's pulled out to give a report on the rescue. When he makes it back, two hours later, Tony's right arm is in a sling and his left wrist is secured to the bedside rail. And somehow he looks even more deeply unconscious than he had when Rhodey left him.
"What the hell is going on? Why is he restrained?"
And that's when they tell him that Tony woke up briefly and completely freaked out. Tried to pull out the I.V.s, the oxygen cannula, the leads to the heart monitor.
"So you drugged him?" The fury has sent him into a cold place, his voice coming out more calm than he feels. "He was just held captive for three months. How did you think he was going to react?"
He frees Tony's wrist and plants himself in a hard plastic chair next to the bed. It takes another six hours, but when Tony wakes this time Rhodey is there. Tony's not, not really, he's still in the grip of whatever sedative they shot him full of the first time he came to, but when he jerks into consciousness and starts a kind of slow motion panic Rhodey grabs his hand, and he blinks and gives a wan grimace of recognition and goes lax against the pillow.
"You're in Bagram Air Base," Rhodey says, and Tony squeezes his hand. His grip isn't strong but there's a little more presence in his eyes now. He gives Tony a sip of water from a plastic cup with a bendy straw. Tony chokes a little at first and then sucks it down, greedy, as if it's the best thing he's ever tasted.
"Fuck," Tony says finally, his voice hoarse and slurred with drugs and exhaustion. "I'm so over this place it's not even funny."
"Good. 'Cause we're shipping out to Ramstein as soon as they clear you for travel."
Rhodey doesn't tell Tony about the fights he's already had with the brass about his status, how they'd wanted to barge in here and interrogate him about his captivity and escape. He doesn't mention the suspicions spreading through the place like wildfire. The thing in Tony's chest has the Air Force seriously wigged out, and Rhodey can't say he blames them. But Tony's already asleep again, so Rhodey settles in.
Though Tony's not exactly thrilled about the I.V. and demands they remove the oxygen tube first thing, he knows where he is the next time he wakes up.
They're in Bagram two days, and Tony sleeps through most of it. He spends the flight to Ramstein asleep, too. The doctors in Bagram told Rhodey not to worry about it, that his body has just been pushed too far into exhaustion and is making up for it now that he's safe. It's a little scary how fragile he looks against the stiff white sheets once they get him to the proper hospital in Germany, so Rhodey doesn't dwell on it. Because if he did, he'd have to think about why, and what Tony's been through and how he doesn't know what to do to help, and he just can't handle that quite yet.
Not that he's left with much time to think, between making sure no one ambushes Tony with ridiculous accusations and making sure Tony doesn't piss off the medical staff too badly. Turns out the latter is easier than he expects, because Tony doesn't really talk to anyone but Rhodey unless he's spoken to first, which Rhodey doesn't catch on to until they've been in Ramstein for a day and a half.
On the second day in Ramstein, the fourth day after Rhodey found him in the desert, the Air Force decides Tony's had enough time to recover. They let Rhodey sit in on the first interview, mostly to reassure Tony; a factoid Rhodey doesn't share because Tony's already on edge at being confined to a wheelchair and the notion that he might need reassurance is bound to go over badly.
"You're wasting your time with that thing," he insists when Rhodey shows up at his room that morning, wheelchair in tow. He's standing at the end of his bed, clinging to the metal frame, and sweat has already broken out on his forehead from the strain.
"You can't make it to the door of your room," Rhodey says, trying to keep his patience. "How do you think you're going to manage to get across the base? Teleportation?"
Tony's answering glare is barely half strength. "Give me a couple of days," he says. "I'll figure something out."
The wheelchair remains a sore subject but Tony can't deny its necessity. During his escape he pulled some muscles in his back and bruised his spine and since the adrenalin wore off he's been barely able to move and he's not up to walking much yet. He's not exactly taking it well.
So he's sullen and withdrawn when Rhodey wheels him into the office of Brigadier General Mike Lefferts, the officer in charge of the investigation into Tony's disappearance and escape. Lefferts is nearing sixty but built like a Clydesdale, with a sparse buzz cut and the kind of easy, superficial charm that Rhodey's used to seeing in people like Obadiah Stane and Tony himself. And at first Lefferts does everything right. He makes small talk, gets Tony to relax a little. Though they chat about robotics for the first twenty minutes, Tony never brings up Dummy or Butterfingers, so Rhodey doesn't either. Tony's lounging in his wheelchair as if it's a recliner and Lefferts has almost got him to a smile when he makes his first misstep.
"You know, I met your father a couple of times," Lefferts says, and Tony goes stiff. Rhodey notices it, but the reaction slips by Lefferts, because he just keeps talking. "Last time was at the Pentagon. He'd just sold us the… oh, I don't even remember now. The upgraded flight control computer for the F-15, I think. He had a great mind, your father. A real patriot."
Tony doesn't say a word. Thing is, it should have been the right move, should have set Tony at ease. Rhodey starts paying closer attention after that.
"I've gotta ask you some questions, son. I figure you know that." Lefferts waits for Tony's nod. "So I might as well start with that headlight you've got in your chest."
Tony's mouth quirks, but he goes very still in the chair.
Turns out the thing in his chest is a glorified electromagnet, or at least that's what Tony tells Lefferts. Rhodey knows that isn't the whole truth, recognizes the blue-white glow of the big arc reactor back at Stark Industries, but he doesn't contradict Tony's explanation. He's a little shaken, actually, that Tony was able to build the thing while hostage in an Afghan cave, from components of his own weapons. The technology shouldn't exist. It shouldn't have worked. And Tony had thrown it together under such duress that Rhodey can't even begin to imagine.
The story comes out sounding just slightly rehearsed, and for now Lefferts doesn't push, just lets him tell it – waking up in the cave, the demand that he build the Jericho, rigging an explosion instead, then escaping in the confusion and wandering the desert until Rhodey picked him up. Tony answers Lefferts' questions, but it's like pulling teeth, he's so terse. There's an anger there that he's trying very, very hard not to let loose, and it worries Rhodey more than his tendency to fall asleep mid conversation, because it seems aimless, not directed at anyone in particular, not even at his captors. Just this simmering thing, under the surface of everything Tony says.
The second time Lefferts takes Tony off for questioning Rhodey's not there. When he stops by Tony's room the orderly tells him that it's been five hours since two airmen escorted him out of the infirmary and Rhodey sees red. Lefferts has him in an interrogation cell and the guard outside won't let Rhodey in, but he bluffs his way into the observation room.
Lefferts is standing at the window with his hands folded behind his back. He doesn't greet Rhodey, doesn't order him out of the room. Instead, he keeps his eyes onTony, who's positioned so that he's facing the mirror.
"Can I ask why you have the sound off, sir?" Rhodey needs to know what's going on in there. Tony's mouth moves, but Rhodey's terrible at reading lips, and all he catches is yeah and what the fuck do you know.
"I like to read a man's body language," Lefferts says. "Tells me more than his words."
And at first Rhodey isn't that worried, because Tony's just sitting there at a table, head cocked, listening as Lefferts' lackey shoots a long winded question his way. And then Rhodey sees that Tony's free hand is clenched around the armrest of his wheelchair, his bruised knuckles gone white.
Then the man at the table with his back to Rhodey says something that makes Tony's face go as white as his knuckles. And when he reaches for the coffee mug set on the table in front of him, Rhodey knows what's going to happen a split second before it does, but there's nothing he can do. So he watches as Tony picks up the mug and chucks it at the mirror he and Lefferts are standing behind. Tony's aim is as good as it's ever been, because the mug hits the mirror right at head level, and even the general steps back at the crash as it shatters into a hundred shards of ceramic. And when Rhodey looks back into the interrogation room, past the coffee running down the surface of the mirror, Tony is just sitting there in his chair as if nothing had happened.
"I think you've asked him enough questions for today," Rhodey says to Lefferts. "Sir."
After that Tony stops sleeping.
"They don't believe me," Tony says over what passes for coffee -- even in Europe, base coffee is horrifying -- when Rhodey gets a chance to break away from another endless debriefing.
He hasn't been able to stop by the hospital for an entire day, and he's a little shocked to find that Tony doesn't look any better than the last time he saw him. When he'd found Tony's room empty a nurse told him where he'd gone, and casually let slip that Lefferts had ordered him back into interrogation twice more already.
They've started letting him out of his room for short periods, to the mess hall mostly, but they've also assigned him an orderly as a minder and to wheel him around. Before his captivity, Tony had habitually made a point of breaching military protocol when dealing with the lower ranked enlisted like the poor orderly, an airman who's sitting four seats away pretending he's not listening in on their conversation. Always the showman, Tony had tried in his haphazard way to be their buddy, poking at them to reach the person beneath the fatigues. Now he acts like the kid's not there.
"Don't believe you about what?" Rhodey makes a face, sets his styrofoam cup down.
He figures there is any number of things the military isn't buying in the story Tony's given them. Hell, he's not sure what he believes. He knows Tony is leaving a lot out. He can hear it in the little pauses, when Tony catches himself on the verge of revealing something he'd rather not let slip. And it's only because Rhodey's known him since they were both too young to legally drink that he notices it at all. No, the military doesn't believe Tony because the military doesn't know Tony. Didn't watch Tony breeze through his advanced aeronautics classes like they were Introduction to Algebra. Doesn't know the kind of shit Tony builds down in his basement when he's bored.
Tony waves vaguely towards the thing in his chest, the thing every surgeon and engineer in Landstuhl is salivating to take a peek at. If it's causing him any pain, he hasn't let on. But how can it not? It's the size of Rhodey's fist, and it's buried where his breastbone should be, and it fucking glows. How can it not hurt? How is he even breathing?
"The X-rays show the shrapnel in your heart. So what don't they believe?" Rhodey pushes. Lefferts has kept him out of his talks with Tony, but afterwards Tony just tells Rhodey everything he's asked anyway, so it's pointless. But then, Rhodey doesn't have any illusions regarding the military's occasional willful blindness when it comes to relations with civilians under their jurisdiction.
Tony tilts his head. Something like a smile plays over his face for the first time that afternoon. "I think they've decided I've got Stockholm Syndrome, or I'm like a sleeper agent, about to go off and wreak havoc and brainwash you all into joining my mutant bionic army. Or something. Whatever. They keep insisting I couldn't have made it out on my own." There's another one of those pauses, and then the smile disappears. "I think they've forgotten what I do for a living."
This is the story as Tony tells it: The Ten Rings demanded he build the Jericho out of a pile of Stark munitions Tony figures they either captured from the coalition forces or bought on the black market. Instead he built the device that's currently keeping his heart beating, and then rigged an explosion and escaped during the confusion. But three months is a long time and the doctors flat-out agree there's no way he could have done heart surgery on himself.
Tony says he doesn't remember the surgery, that he'd woken up with a crude electromagnet in his chest keeping the shrapnel from impaling his heart, and built himself a better one, a replacement. It's the spot in his tale riddled with the most holes, followed closely by the actual mechanics of his escape, and Rhodey knows Lefferts won't let him out of here until he gives the Air Force something they can believe. Because the idea that a lone civilian was able to free himself from the clutches of one of the more ruthless terrorist groups in Afghanistan is not something the military is prepared to accept, despite the undeniable fact that the civilian in question is Tony Stark, genius weapons designer.
"I think they're hung up on the timing, Tony. I mean, three months is a hell of a long time to plan an explosion." Especially for Tony Stark, genius weapons designer. The explanation and the suspicion are both tied to that one truth, and Tony can't -- or won't -- do anything to bridge the gap.
There's also the fact that his injuries don't quite match his story. He's banged up like he's been in a car accident, and there are half-healed burns all down his forearms, and none of that fits with the kind of escape he's described. There should be bullet wounds or fresh shrapnel from the explosion. Something. Instead there's the separated shoulder and the back injury and the burns and three cracked ribs and a concussion. And the bruises, deep and ugly and everywhere.
Tony's version of events is like a puzzle where the pieces don't quite line up. Rhodey can't figure out why he'd lie, what he'd have to hide, but he knows Tony well enough to realize that whatever it is that he so clearly doesn't want to talk about, it's personal, because the one thing Tony never, ever talks about is the personal shit. Everything else? Yeah, you can't shut him up, half the time. Or, you couldn't, before. Now getting him to talk about anything at all is a struggle, like he's forgotten the mechanics of conversation.
Tony starts ripping chunks out of the top of his cup. "What do they want me to say? Tell me, and I'll say it. I don't care. I don't care what they think, I just--" He shakes his head. Starts rolling the styrofoam pieces up into little balls. "When are they going to let me call Pepper?"
This is the first time he's mentioned Pepper. Rhodey blinks, because it's been a week and he'd figured Tony had talked to her already. Rhodey hasn't had time to call her himself since he let her know Tony was safe. The fact that he's asking is... weird. Like he's asking permission.
"Tony," he says, trying for careful, trying to avoid making it into anything, "You're not a prisoner here. Just ask for a phone."
Rhodey expects him to demand a phone right then and there, but he doesn't. Neither does he point out that he's not exactly here of his own free will, that he's dependent on the military for everything right now. He just tears a strip off of his cup and then rubs at a gouge in the scarred table top.
"I... look. About the three months. I didn't know it had been that long. I mean, it's not like I had a watch."
"Did you tell Lefferts that?" This detail is more than he's admitted before to Rhodey about the reality of his time with the Ten Rings, and Rhodey's not sure what to make of it. He's sure he's missing something vital here.
"Yeah." Tony flicks one of the styrofoam balls at Rhodey with his left hand, but it falls short, landing just near the edge of the table. "Like I said, they don't believe me."
Rhodey considers this. Considers the difference between what the military needs to know about Tony Stark and his miraculous escape and what Tony needs right now from his friend. And he isn't sure, isn't sure at all, that he knows what that is. But something about the way Tony talks about his captivity bothers him. Because Tony seems to need someone to believe him, but he refuses to come clean with the whole story.
One of the things Rhodey can't wrap his mind around is how disjointed these little dribbles of information are when they come out, until Tony has repeated them enough to integrate them smoothly into his tale. Because Tony has always been scarily precise, whether he's talking about Transonic Small Disturbance equations or his latest plan to get Rhodey into a situation unbecoming of an Air Force officer. The halting way he's been talking, as if he's testing every word before he lets it go, is freaking Rhodey out almost as much as the light in his chest.
"How much... how long did you think you were there?" he asks, focusing on the one thing Tony's let slip, the opening he's left, one of the holes he's finally willing to fill. Maybe.
Tony shrugs. "I was out for awhile, after the ambush. I dunno. It all kind of blurs."
He's backing off now. Hedging. Rhodey leans forward over the table and tries to catch his eye. "Hey. How long did it feel like?" When Tony rolls his eyes, something heavy in Rhodey's chest lightens, just for a minute. "Yeah, stupid question. Sorry."
"I don't know. I was busy. Yi-" Tony breaks off, picking at the table again with one broken nail. "I was in a cave. It was hard to tell day from night."
There are other things Rhodey should be pressing him on, like the injuries and how they don't gel with anything he's told them, and how seven days after they plucked him from the desert Tony still gets quiet and watchful if there are too many people in the room with him. He knows one of the psychologists already tried to see Tony. Knows how well that went. But for some reason the timing feels like a key, and he gets the sense that Tony doesn't mean to equivocate about this one detail, not on purpose, and maybe if he can get him to talk about it other things will fall into place.
"Can you make a guess? You must have wondered."
"I don't know," Tony repeats, his voice splintering around the edges. "I didn't sleep very much. There was too much to do. I couldn't--"
He stares at Rhodey, wide-eyed and raw, and Rhodey doesn't interrupt, because he knows something's happening here, and he knows that he's missing it. Too much to do?
"Six weeks, I guess," Tony says finally. "That's what I thought. When you told me it'd been three months... yeah, I was a little surprised."
Six weeks. It's so far off that Rhodey doesn't know what to do with it, so he lets it go, for now. Tony doesn't want to talk anymore after that, which Rhodey picks up on when he gets pelted with bits of styrofoam every time he asks a question. It's not hard to figure out; after all, he didn't reach the rank of Lt. Colonel before the age of forty on his good looks alone. And when the representative from the Red Cross calls him, asking if anyone's talked to Tony about torture, Rhodey can't deny any more what he's been seeing.
The Red Cross team shows up that afternoon, a man and a woman. When they tell Tony why they've come, what they want to talk to him about, he just shrugs and tells them they're wasting their time, and they don't seem surprised.
Rhodey makes sure someone brings Tony a phone after dinner. When he stops by the room to check that his order went through he finds Tony curled on his good side in the bed, the phone pressed to his ear, listening to whatever Pepper is saying. There's a nine-hour time difference and it's still morning in L.A. and the only other person Tony would have called is Obadiah Stane, but Rhodey can tell it's Pepper on the line by the way Tony's got his eyes closed. Just listening to her voice.
The next morning Tony asks when he can go home.
For all his long experience with Tony, all his insight into how he works, Rhodey doesn't catch on that he's not sleeping. He has to be pulled aside by one of the nurses and told flat out. It feels like another failure, but he pushes that away as something he just can't afford right now. At lunch he can see it in the way Tony's just slightly slow on the uptake, like there's a glitch in his processing. A delay between input and output.
"I talked to Pepper," Rhodey says, and Tony just blinks at him. Rhodey's about ready to lose it, because whoever this is that they picked up in the desert, it seems like maybe they left Tony Stark buried in the sand. "She's... uh, well, she's threatening to hold a press conference announcing your wrongful imprisonment by the military."
This earns him a sharp bark of laughter, and for a moment Tony looks like himself again, a really, really tired version of himself. "She'll do it, you know she will. Pepper doesn't make idle threats."
What Rhodey doesn't mention is that Pepper had called him immediately after getting off the phone with Tony last night. Her voice had been shaking with fury, and he'd believed every word she said, because Pepper Potts could be a force to be reckoned with when it came to her boss. Rhodey had already had it out with Lefferts and the brass, demanding to know what they thought Tony was going to do if they just sent him home. No one seemed to have a good answer, and when he'd pointed out that from a PR perspective they needed the win that the safe return of the legendary Tony Stark would bring, the nods had finally started to outnumber the frowns. Lefferts, though, he was still frowning, and Lefferts had the last say.
He was pretty sure Pepper's gambit had been the tipping point. And if it stung that it took a threat from a civilian for his superiors to finally sit up and acknowledge the fact that releasing Tony Stark wasn't going to compromise national security, Rhodey was just glad that it had worked.
"Two more days," Rhodey says, and Tony gives him such a blank look he has to back track. "You'll be at Edwards in two days. They've decided you're more trouble than you're worth."
"I can cause even more trouble, if that will help," Tony replies, but his expression has gone opaque and distant and the words sound automatic.
As he's heading out of the hospital, Rhodey runs into Mueller and Ross, the Red Cross team. Mueller, a petite German with a grandmother's demeanor and sharp eyes, catches him just outside the lobby.
"Colonel, if you have a moment?"
"Has Tony talked to you yet?" After Tony brushed them off the first time, Mueller told Rhodey they planned to try again. Denial that torture even took place isn't exactly new to them.
She nods, giving away nothing. "A little. We explained that the information he gives us might someday be used to prosecute the men who held him. He agreed to a session tonight."
"Did he tell you—"
Ross stepped forward, shaking his head. "Colonel, you know that whatever Mr. Stark tells us, it must remain confidential."
Rhodey sighed. "Of course. So what's the problem?"
Mueller considered him for a long moment. "Your superiors, I'm afraid. They are not terribly thrilled with the idea of our interviewing Mr. Stark. They claim there are national security issues at stake."
Yeah, right. "The Istanbul Protocol is non-binding," he starts, reluctantly. Properly titled the Manual on the Effective Investigation and Documentation of Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, the Istanbul Protocol is a manual adopted by the UN to guide investigators in how to ethically and effectively interview alleged torture victims. There's a certain ambivilance towards the protocol among the brass, as it's widely known, if not directly acknowledged, that the techniques currently used to interrogate enemy combatants in U.S. custody are among those considered torture by the manual.
"That may be so, but international law is not. Incidents of torture must be investigated and documented. Once Mr. Stark returns to the United States it will most likely be too late to gather the necessary information." She doesn't mention that once Tony gets home, he'll be even less likely to admit that anything happened.
"Have they barred you from seeing him?"
"Not in so many words," Ross says. "But it was made clear to us that Mr. Stark would be indisposed whenever we scheduled an appointment with him."
Rhodey frowns. Right. "I'll see what I can do," he says.
Mueller and Ross don't look too hopeful.
Tony is on the phone again when Rhodey swings by his room a few hours later to tell him that Pepper is FedExing him a suit for his homecoming. It's not Pepper on the line, he can tell right away, because Tony is doing most of the talking this time and he's not actually saying anything, and it's as if nothing has happened at all.
"Yeah, right," Tony says, and laughs. "No no no, don't bother. Pepper will be there. I'll see you -- yeah. I forgot to ask, did the contract go through? Yeah? Well, they probably felt obligated. Okay. Uh-huh, right. Later."
"That Obadiah?" Rhodey asks after he disconnects the call.
"Yeah." The easy going guy who'd chatted so casually with Stane lingers for a few more moments before draining away like a plug had been pulled. Like he'd never been there in the first place.
Rhodey drops into the chair by the bed, tries to find anything familiar in Tony's posture that he can hang on to. Tony sits cross-legged on the mattress, the phone still in his lap. Most of the bruises on his face have faded, leaving behind a few scabbed-over cuts that stand out starkly on his cheek and forehead. He hasn't bothered to shave in a couple of days and the even edges of his goatee have blurred. The light in his chest glows through the green cloth of the borrowed scrubs he's been wearing since they picked him up, in a way that reminds Rhodey disturbingly of E.T., of all things. The comparison is beyond ridiculous, so much so that Rhodey cracks a smile. Tony's not looking his way, though, so he doesn't ask about it.
"What are you going to do first, when you get back?"
He means it as an opening, a piece of small talk, but Tony seems to be seriously considering the question. He doesn't answer at first. Then he lifts his chin and he studies Rhodey close, as if he's looking for something. "Who's asking?"
"What's that supposed to mean?" Rhodey stands up, crosses his arms over his chest.
"Forget it," Tony says, but it looks like Rhodey's just failed a test, one he's not even sure there was a right answer to in the first place, and how fucking fair is that?
Lefferts won't see him. Won't let him see the transcripts from Tony's interrogations. And Tony stops giving him the rundown about the sessions, too. Just repeats that no one believes him, that he doesn't know what they want to hear. Rhodey has no idea what to tell him, because he hasn't a clue what Lefferts wants to hear, either. He knows what he'd like to hear, but Tony isn't talking.
At dinner Rhodey finds Tony in the mess hall teaching backgammon to the orderly serving as his watchdog. The board between them is cheap, seamed cardboard, the checkers plastic, and it's a wonder he even found a complete set in this place, but he did. Either that or he sweet-talked somebody into getting one for him from the outside, though that would have required that he actually talk to another human being besides Rhodey. He somehow doubts Pepper could have arranged a delivery this quickly. Besides, Pepper would have sent a better set, something new, something made of fine wood.
"You have to watch this character," Rhodey says to the orderly, one Senior Airman Castillo, according to his uniform. "He cheats."
Tony shoots him a wolfish grin. "He only tosses around accusations like that because he never wins."
One of the first things Rhodey learned about Tony back at M.I.T. was that he cheated constantly – at games, in class -- not because he had to, but because he quickly bored of winning on skill alone. Cheating was a bigger challenge than winning straight. And half the time Rhodey still can't catch him at it.
"Yeah, yeah." Rhodey takes a set next to SrA Castillo, across the table from Tony. "You know, it's not really fair to play against someone who hasn't studied game theory."
"Never helped you any," Tony replies, and sends the dice rolling with a flip of his wrist.
"Game theory?" Castillo's eyes are a little wide. Rhodey wonders when Tony finally started laying on the charm. It looks like maybe it's a recent thing, because the kid hasn't gotten past the shell-shocked awe stage.
"Never mind him," Tony says. He moves a checker. "You're doing fine. See, when your opponent has a prime, he's blocking you, and you have to make sure you can escape with a single number. The longer the prime, the harder it is to break free. You do it right, you can force your opponent to make moves that actually damage his position. It gives you leverage over the board, and you're actually at an advantage if you're behind, because you don't have as much to lose."
Castillo looks a little bewildered, but he nods, and rolls the dice.
"He didn't convince you to play for money, did he?" Rhodey asks.
The airman shakes his head, all of his focus on the board.
"I don't have any money," Tony says. "Can't exactly gamble with nothing."
"You don't have any money here," Rhodey points out. "You have a whole pile of cash waiting for you back home. I'm sure he knows you're good for it."
Tony just shrugs. The gesture is a little too careful.
"How's your back?" Rhodey asks.
"Peachy," Tony says, his attention on Castillo as he makes his move.
He's not sure why he bothered. Tony's not about to give him an honest answer with the kid sitting right there. Despite the fact that Rhodey's seen Tony walking on his own over the last day or two, tonight he's back in the wheelchair. Probably pushed things too far, too fast. If he knows anything about Tony Stark, and he likes to think he does, there's no way he'll still be in that chair when they land at Edwards. There won't be any press – one of the advantages of a military base – but Pepper and Happy will be there, and that's motivation enough for Tony.
Tony beats the kid in four more moves, but before the game is over his left hand has gained a slight tremor. Rhodey doesn't think Castillo has noticed but he knows Tony has, because between each move he's been keeping the hand in his lap.
"Hey Castillo," Rhodey says, light and offhand. "Why don't you get the winner here some dessert?"
Castillo's eyes flicker between his civilian charge and Rhodey, and rank wins out. After the kid leaves the table, Rhodey leans forward. Keeps his voice pitched low. "You've got to try and get some sleep tonight, Tony."
Tony doesn't bother to deny anything, just shrugs again. "What does it matter? I'll be back in Malibu soon enough, where I can sleep on 1500-count Egyptian cotton sheets. Much more comfy than what you've got going here, stylin' as it is."
"Your nurse told me it's been three days since you slept through the night. You know they'll give you something to help, if you—"
"This isn't exactly unusual for me," Tony interrupts, still perfectly conversational. He starts stowing the backgammon set in a ratty box Rhodey hadn't noticed before.
"Yeah, when you're working on something." How far should he push? "You're not working on anything right now."
"I'm working on getting the hell out of here," Tony says. Which doesn't exactly ring true, because until that morning he hadn't once mentioned home.
"I know. But you're still recovering, and—"
"And what? I'm fine. You know me. I go three or four days, then I sleep it off. Ask Pepper."
Rhodey threw up his hands. "Okay, okay, I get it. You're fine."
He and Pepper were going to have a talk when he got back, about what she would need to look for, since she was around Tony the most. Whatever else had happened in those caves, Tony had most likely been tortured. Rhodey thinks maybe he can see traces of it in the way Tony tenses up every time anyone touches him when he isn't expecting contact. He'd admitted that his captors had roughed him up when he'd initially refused to build them the Jericho, but he'd made it sound like a schoolyard tussle, and that's not how groups like the Ten Rings operated.
The insomnia, the way Tony still monitors everyone in the room with him, watching their faces, how they move, the way he tends to talk about the world outside the hospital as if it was some distant land he can hardly remember – Rhodey has seen it before. He'd never imagined he'd see it in Tony, but things have changed, to put it mildly. And Tony has already made it clear that even if he lets a psychologist within ten feet of his great big brain, he's probably too smart to admit to anything that might get him help. Years of honing his PR savvy make it all too likely that he'd succeed in convincing nearly everyone that he's unaffected. Until he drives one of those damn cars of his into the side of a cliff.
Rhodey wonders if from now on it's going to be Tony Before and Tony After.
He gets the first call around 2200 -- U.S. forces captured a member of the Ten Rings trying to cross the border into Pakistan. The guy, a young Chechnyan, is badly burned and completely out of his head, but he knows about Tony. Says he was there when Tony escaped, and there are discrepancies between his version of events and Tony's. Big discrepancies. And so now they're saying Tony isn't going anywhere until they can clear a few things up.
Apparently the prisoner is terrified. He keeps insisting he was attacked by something big, something that shot fire from its hands. A man made out of metal. A robot. It's ridiculous, and Rhodey tells that to anyone who will listen, but they stand firm. Tony's staying put, for now. It's late, so he decides he'll talk to Tony in the morning, when things make more sense and his superiors locate their brains again.
It's a mistake, but he doesn't know that at the time. He doesn't know that they've already broken the news to Tony. Already dragged him back into interrogation.
Rhodey's asleep when the second call comes. It's 0243, and he's groggy and he doesn't understand much beyond Tony and bomb and he's out the door as soon as he can slip on something remotely appropriate. He doesn't remember the trip to Tony's floor at the hospital, but when he gets there he's met by Security Forces in flak jackets and an explosives expert.
"What the hell is going on?" he asks the highest-ranked soldier he can find.
"Stark told a nurse he had a bomb, sir," the young captain says. Her eyes are huge under the too-bright fluorescent lights. "General Lefferts is on his way."
Lefferts, who is already convinced Tony's some kind of threat. But for now, Rhodey outranks everyone present, so when he shoves his way to the room no one tries to stop him.
Tony is perched at the head of his bed, sloppy rows of playing cards spread out on the blankets in front of him. A few feet away, secured to the foot of the bed with what might be the cord from his lamp, sits something ugly and heavy. All wires and makeshift, jerry-rigged pieces of metal and what looks like two small cylinders of oxygen hooked together and altered in some way. Explosives aren't Rhodey's area, but he knows enough to recognize the potential in the thing Tony's constructed.
"Tony?" Rhodey says, closing the door behind him.
"Yeah?" Tony flips over a jack of spades and frowns. He doesn't look up.
"What's going on?"
"I'm losing badly at solitaire. Never really saw the point of this game. I mean--"
"Tony. Security Forces are breathing down your neck out there." His hands are sweating. He rubs them against his jeans, not caring if Tony can see how nervous he is. But Tony isn't paying any attention to him at all. "If you were trying to convince them you're harmless this wasn't the way to do it."
"Harmless?" Tony discards the jack and draws a seven of diamonds. Sets it down on top of an eight of clubs. "Not exactly what I was going for."
"What exactly were you going for, here? Can you tell me that much?"
Tony shrugs. He's trying for nonchalant but there's a brittle edge creeping into his voice. "They didn't believe that I could build one on my own with what I had on hand. Even after I took them through it, step by step. So I thought maybe an in-person demonstration would be more convincing."
"One what, Tony?" Rhodey knows damn well what he's talking about, it's right there at the foot of the bed, but he needs to hear Tony say it.
"Well, I hear the technical term around these parts is Improvised Explosive Device."
Damn him. This was... Rhodey swallows around a lump in his throat. "This isn't the best way to make your point. You've got a whole hell of a lot of people pretty freaked out right now."
Tony draws another card, discards without even glancing at it. Barely pretending to play the game anymore. "So now they're paying attention?"
"Yeah, Tony, they're paying attention. What are you going to do?" Rhodey hasn't moved from the door and the knob is digging into his back. And the thing is, he doesn't know -- doesn't know if Tony is bluffing, doesn't know if he'd really do it: take out himself, and Rhodey, and probably everyone outside the door. All he knows for sure is that Tony Stark can build bombs, so this fun-house version of him, this man Rhodey doesn't know at all, certainly has the skill. Yeah, he knows that much.
"So which story do you believe, Colonel Rhodes?" And now Tony is staring at him, his eyes black and intense in the flat artificial light.
"You believe me or the guy who claims a giant robot attacked him? 'Cause last I heard your superiors were leaning towards the giant robot."
"How's it triggered, Tony?"
"You know what I mean. The bomb."
Tony grins. It's not reassuring, not at all. "Oh. It's not. I left that part out."
He tosses something small and metallic at Rhodey, which Rhodey catches out of reflex. It doesn't look like much, and he hopes to God Tony isn't bluffing. Or should he be hoping Tony is bluffing? He's lost track.
"It's a dud," Tony continues. "You really thought I'd sit playing cards right next to a live bomb? I'm not that crazy."
Rhodey can't do much more than gape at him for a long moment. "You better be telling me the truth, here, 'cause I don't know what--"
"You've got an explosives guy outside, right? Bomb squad or whatever? Have him take a look."
Rhodey doesn't turn his back on Tony as he eases the door open. Tony just sits there as the Security Forces swarm in on Rhodey's command, guns drawn, and the bomb expert follows. And when they take Tony out of the room in handcuffs he doesn't say a word.
It was never just that there was doubt Tony could build a bomb on his own, given what was available to him -- and even if it had been, no one doubts it now. The expert had spoken; if Tony had included the trigger, the thing he'd built from scrounged hospital supplies, which no one knew how he'd gotten his hands on, could have taken out half the floor, at least. No, the doubt lay in the details, and how Tony's story didn't quite match any of the evidence they'd found at the caves where he'd been held.
Lefferts lets Rhodey see the intel, finally, while he tries his hand at questioning Tony again. Rhodey doesn't bother to tell them it's probably pointless. If Tony hasn't told them what they want to hear before now they're not going to get much more from him, especially since even Lefferts isn't exactly willing to do more than ask questions, not when it comes to Tony Stark, People Magazine's Sexiest Bachelor of 2004. Yeah, they could find something to charge him with if they really wanted to; but Pepper's got at least three Senators and probably a member of the Joint Chiefs on her speed dial, and she made it clear a long time ago she's not afraid to call in some favors. So they stick to questions and the hope Tony will give in and make some kind of sense out of it all.
While Rhodey waits he sits down and reads the file. There had clearly been a massive explosion outside the cave where Tony had been held -- remnants of Stark munitions were everywhere, and there were several bodies that had been burned beyond recognition. But inside the cave complex things got a little more complicated. Most of the bodies there had been shot, and though it looked like it had been cleaned out in a hurry when whatever was left of the Ten Rings abandoned it, melting back into the Afghan countryside, there was a lot of equipment in one room -- a room equipped with a closed circuit security camera, a room that had been locked from the outside until the doors were blown away -- there were welding tools and a smelting station and scraps of metal everywhere. Not the kind of debris you'd expect from the fabrication of one bomb.
And there had been two cots in the room. None of Tony's explanations so far have cleared up that detail. Tony's too savvy to let his story drift much, but there are gaps. And this is one of them. The other is the smaller room, with the deep barrel of water and the generator and the bare wires.
He's beginning to doubt he'll ever know the truth. Early on Tony had latched onto the notion that no one believed he could have built a bomb on his own, with a death grip that Rhodey doesn't know how to shake. He hadn't taken it seriously enough before, clearly, and now he's sure they are never going to let Tony go. But instead, Tony's little prank convinces Leffert that keeping him around had been a mistake. That maybe the truth isn't worth the nightmare that keeping an infamous genius weapons designer with a few screws loose under wraps is proving to be. It takes them the entire day to come to that conclusion, though.
At 1900 Lefferts calls Rhodey into his office. Tony's been in custody for fifteen hours, most of that in interrogation. When Rhodey is ushered inside the general is at his desk, starched and ramrod straight, but there are new lines of exhaustion on his face and his eyes are weary. Rhodey finds himself in the unexpected position of feeling a little sympathy for the man. God knows he's never had any luck when it comes to Tony. But then, Tony's never pulled anything like this before.
Rhodey stands inside the doorway and waits for the general to acknowledge his presence. It doesn't take long. Lefferts looks up from a file two inches thick and sighs.
"Take a seat, Rhodes."
Rhodey would rather stand but he does as he's told, even if it wasn't precisely an order. No use in antagonizing Lefferts, since Tony has already taken care of that for him. He sits down in the chair across from the general and suppresses his first impulse, which is to ask to see Tony, because that's clearly not why Lefferts asked him here.
"I understand the man is your friend, not just your assignment. But after that stunt last night…" Lefferts shakes his head. "If he were anyone else but Tony Stark, he'd never see the sun again."
"He's not a soldier, sir. And he's been through a lot," Rhodey ventures.
"He put everyone in Landstuhl in danger. If those oxygen canisters had ignited we could have had one hell of an explosion on our hands. I can't take that lightly."
There isn't anything Rhodey can say to that, as it's all true, but he has to say something in Tony's defense. "He knew what he was doing. It wouldn't have gone off unless he wanted it to."
"That's what I'm afraid of," Lefferts replies. He folds his arms over his chest and frowns. "And now I'm in quite a predicament, Rhodes. Because Stark hasn't told me the truth about his captivity and I need to know what he's hiding."
"With all due respect, sir, if you're referring to the robot, it seems a little far-fetched."
"The man's been designing advanced robotics since before his balls dropped. And he was in those caves for three months."
"Even if there was some kind of robot, what does it matter? Whatever he did, it got him free," Rhodey leans forward, catches himself slipping out of his professional cool. Sits back in his chair again. "And if he's not giving us the whole story, well," he pauses. Presses on through his own reluctance to bring up the subject. "Maybe there's reason for that. You know how groups like the Ten Rings operate. He refused to talk to the psychologist but his doctors suspect he was tortured. The Red Cross is sure of it."
Lefferts nods, looking about as worn out as Rhodey feels. "I'm not blind, Rhodes. But before I can allow the Red Cross access to him, I need to know what he knows."
"He's given you the Ten Rings. The names of the leaders, their approximate numbers, their base of operations. You've had him interrogated seven times in the past week and his story hasn't changed. And if you keep him here much longer, his people in the States are going to let loose a firestorm of bad publicity on us. Stark Industries has a lot of friends in Congress, not to mention the DoD. They're not going to care about the reasons, sir. And they can afford to pursue this indefinitely."
"I've already had a call from the Secretary of Defense. He golfs with Obadiah Stane every second Tuesday. So don't lecture me on the sway Stark's company holds over the Pentagon, Col. Rhodes."
"He's not going to talk to you," Rhodey says, keeping as calm as he can. "He's been through hell and he just wants to go home. Last night… he was desperate. I'm not sure he sees us as any different from his captors at this point."
Lefferts leans back in his chair. Nods. "That much is clear. But if he built something for the Ten Rings, we need to know what it is."
Rhodey goes blank, just for a second. "That's what you think?" It's obvious, and it should have occurred to him sooner, but somehow the suspicion never even crossed his mind. "You think Tony gave the Jericho to the Ten Rings?"
"As you said, he was captive for three months. Probably tortured. He's a civilian. No one would blame him if he gave them what they wanted. We just need to know if he did."
Tony hadn't mentioned this line of questioning, but he'd kept repeating that Leffert didn't believe him. Rhodey rubs his eyes, suddenly utterly exhausted.
"If he told you he didn't build them anything, then he didn't," Rhodey says, finally. "What does he say about it?"
"He says that even if he'd wanted to, building the Jericho would have been impossible with the tools he had available."
"And about the robot?"
Lefferts couldn't seem to help a slight, rueful smile. "I think his exact words were something to the effect that if we thought he'd spent three months in a cave building a Cylon then we've clearly been watching too much television. I'm told he's referencing science fiction."
"Yes, sir." Rhodey shook his head. Tony forced him to watch the remade Battlestar Galactica in one marathon sitting when it first came out. Not that he'd complained. The man had an entertainment system that rivaled the local cinema.
"Look, Rhodes. I don't think for a moment that Stark has told us the full story. Or even a fraction of it, for that matter. But I'm also not stupid -- his father is a household name in our line of work, and I'd like to keep my job. But I had to try. If the Ten Rings got their hands on the kind of weapons Stark is capable of building, it could seriously undermine the stability of the region."
Rhodey waited, knowing from Lefferts' tone that the inevitable was finally coming.
"But you're right. He's not going to budge, and not only can I not afford to keep him here, but he's made himself into a security nightmare. So I'm cutting him loose. And I want him gone as soon as possible. Am I understood?"
Rhodey stood. "Yes sir. Thank you."
"Don't thank me," Lefferts says, his gaze piercing. "Just get him out of my hair."
By the time Tony is released from custody and Rhodey escorts him back to the hospital it's been... well, he doesn't know how long it's been since Tony slept. Long enough that Tony is skittish and twitchy and can't sit down, even while the nurse is securing his arm back in the sling. Afterwards he paces the confines of his room, gaze wandering over everything but never settling on anything for long. He's got dark bags under his eyes and his free hand is shaking again but he doesn't seem aware of it, because this time he's not trying to hide it at all.
"Come on man. Sit down for a minute, you're making me dizzy."
Tony spares him a quick glance. "When're we leaving? Lefferts said I was out of here. I'm all packed and everything." His words run together, slurring a little, but Rhodey knows he hasn't had anything to drink because he hasn't been left alone since last night, not for one minute, and alcohol isn't exactly easy to come by in a base hospital. Probably easier than building a bomb out of oxygen canisters without anyone noticing, but difficult nonetheless.
"Tomorrow." He's never seen Tony this keyed up or this exhausted, not even when they were both pushing the far edges of sleep deprivation during exam week at M.I.T.
Tony's eyes narrow. He picks up a book someone must have lent him, a thick paperback Michael Crichton novel. Weighs it in his hand. Sets it down again. "Yeah? That's what you said two days ago."
"Before you decided to build a bomb, you mean?" He can't help it. It was such a desperate, dumbass move, he's still reeling.
"Yeah. I can do it again, you know." Then he laughs, and it's harsh and not at all amused.
"I know you can. That's why you're leaving tomorrow. It's the first flight out, Tony."
Tony crosses to the door and fiddles with the doorknob. It's not locked, and he doesn't try to open the door. Just turns the knob back and forth, like he's testing it. Making sure he can get out if he needs to. And if he bolts? Rhodey closes his eyes, just for a minute, because he's too tired to think that one through. And Tony stays put, so he doesn't have to, for now.
"I'd like to go now," Tony says. "We could hitch a ride. There's gotta be at least one commercial flight out of Germany tonight. Or we could take a train to Amsterdam. Or--"
Rhodey's had enough. "You really think you could sit still for a twelve hour flight, next to Ma and Pa Kettle on their way home from their European vacation? Even in first class, Tony, you have to stay in your seat." He doesn't mention that there's no way the Air Force is letting Tony Stark onto a commercial flight at this point.
"I think I've seen all there is to see here. Don't think I want to hang around long enough for them to change their minds again. Decide they want to know more about the robot." He's finally stopped pacing, and now he's leaning against the door like it's all that's keeping him upright.
"You ever gonna tell me what really happened?" Because now that he's seen all the evidence, Rhodey's pretty sure that there was a robot. Or something more than a simple explosion, at least. Because yeah, Tony Stark can build a bomb blindfolded, probably -- but captured insurgents generally don't make up shit like giant robots that shoot fire from their hands. And robotics? One of Tony Stark's real passions. Have been since before Rhodey met him.
Tony doesn't answer that. He pushes off from the door, and he's staggering now, and he has to catch himself on the foot of the bed, right where the bomb had been lashed to the metal.
Tony doesn't look up.
"I'm not gonna let them change their minds. We're going home tomorrow."
"Yeah," Tony says. "Okay. Tomorrow."
"You really want to land at Edwards like this?" Rhodey's only got one more card up his sleeve. He feels a little cheap playing it right now but Tony's determination to keep moving, even though there's no where to go, is starting to scare him a little.
"You looked in a mirror lately? You're going to give Pepper a heart attack."
At the mention of Pepper's name Tony's head comes up, his eyes wide and blank.
"Come on, man. Give me a break. She'll kill me when she sees you."
"I don't--" Tony closes his eyes. "I can't sleep," he says finally.
"I know," Rhodey replies. "Let the nurses help you. Just this one time. You look like hell." Please, he thinks.
"I don't want to sleep," Tony admits, and he sounds hollow and lost and Rhodey knows there's nothing he can do right now to help but get Tony into his damn bed.
It'd be easy to chalk up what happened here last night to traumatic stress and Tony's massive case of sleep deprivation. A big part of Rhodey has already done just that; he'd argued as much to Lefferts, and the hospital staff had backed him up. But it isn't the whole story, and he knows that. He just doesn't know what to do with the knowing.
"I know. I know you don't," Rhodey says. "But you need sleep, or you're gonna be wheeled off the plane at Edwards on a stretcher."
"But we're still leaving tomorrow. First flight."
Rhodey's not sure if that's agreement or not, but Tony's stopped pacing again. He sits down on the edge of the bed and rubs at his eyes.
"Okay," he says. "Okay."
"Do your best," Tony says to the nurse who hands him a small white pill, then a glass of water. There's a ghost of a cocky smile there, and the nurse returns it, and Tony swallows the pill.
Rhodey stays with him until he slips under. It doesn't take long, now that he's given in to the idea, now that he's stopped fighting so hard. Afterwards Rhodey finds his way down to the chapel and sits there for a long time. Just sits.
Tony sleeps eighteen hours, hardly moving, curled on his side on the bed. He sleeps through their scheduled flight time, and when he's still sleeping the third time Rhodey stops by he tells the nurses not to wake him, that they'll take the next plane out.
"What the fuck?" Tony growls before Rhodey even gets through the door. "I thought you said we were leaving."
He's awake and sitting cross legged at the foot of his bed, still blinking groggily, his hair slicked back and the clean shirt of his scrubs sticking damply to his chest in patches like he didn't bother to dry off before getting dressed. In the hall Castillo had told Rhodey that Tony only got out of bed and into the shower about twenty minutes ago. Which means he'll probably be up all night again, and by the time they get him back to Malibu jetlag isn't even going to begin to cover it.
So Rhodey doesn't say the first thing that comes to mind. Or even the second. "We are. Tomorrow morning," is what he settles on, instead.
"That's what you said yesterday--"
"Yeah, that's what I said before you decided to play Rip Van Winkle. We missed the flight. There's another one tomorrow.
Tony's got a cafeteria tray balanced on his knees, piled high with pale scrambled eggs and limp bacon and buttered toast. It's two hours before dinner, so somebody went out of their way to get the food for him. Rhodey figures it was Castillo. Tony hasn't eaten for probably twenty-four hours but he's just picking at it, shoving the eggs around with his plastic fork.
"Does Pepper know--"
"Yeah, I called her." Pepper hadn't been happy either, but Rhodey doesn't mention that part to Tony, just as he hadn't exactly explained the reasons behind either of the delays to Pepper. He felt guilty about it for ten seconds before the voice of pragmatism had kicked in. Tony is going home. A day or two delay won't make that much of a difference, in the long run.
"Why the hell didn't you wake me up?"
"Tony, you hadn't slept in days. I thought--"
"I could have slept on the flight."
"You've never been on time to anything in your entire life. Why start now?"
It's apparently the right thing to say, because Tony deflates a little and shakes his head.
"Yeah, yeah. Rub it in. Not all of us can be as punctual as you, Lt. Col. Rhodes." He says punctual but he makes it sound like tight-assed and Rhodey grins. Thankful to be back in familiar territory.
He runs into the Red Cross team again on his way back to Tony's room to deliver Pepper's care package – a sharply tailored suit that will probably be at least a size too large in the pants, a leather bag of toiletries, and a short, handwritten note on a slip of folded paper that Rhodey decides not to read. He's a little surprised to see Mueller and Ross here now, after everything. Ross has the look nearly everyone who talks to Tony for any length of time seems to get – a mix of frustration and amusement. Mueller is as hard to read as ever. But she stops him in the hall with a smile.
"Thank you, colonel."
"You're very welcome, but I'm afraid I haven't done anything," he answers.
Mueller arches one eyebrow. "I doubt that is true. Your General Lefferts has allowed us to interview Mr. Stark at last."
They won't tell him anything, he knows this, but he has to ask. "Did Tony talk to you this time?"
Mueller seems to be considering him closely. He lets her, waiting. "You are his friend, am I correct?"
"I've known him since we were both teenagers," he says. He doesn't mention that he's pretty sure he's Tony's only friend, but something in her face tells him she's figured it out.
"Good. Because Mr. Stark will need a support structure when he returns home, and as I understand it he has no family."
Rhodey's chest tightens. "No," he says. "His parents died years ago."
Mueller nods. "He will most likely try to isolate himself. And he has the money and resources to avoid dealing with what has happened to him for a long time. But at some point he won't have a choice. Do you understand?"
"Yes," he manages. "I think so."
"Someday he will want to talk to someone," Mueller says. "Right now is not that time."
"How can I…" Rhodey swallows. Starts again. "How can I help him?"
"Be his friend, Col. Rhodes," Muller says, and smiles again. "Just be his friend."
Tony's face lights up when Rhodey hands him the package Pepper sent, and out of nowhere Rhodey is hit hard by a memory of taking Tony to the county fair back at his grandparent's place in North Carolina. Tony had been fifteen and Rhodey had figured he'd be bored to tears, but instead he'd been fascinated. Against all Rhodey's expectations, Tony had marvelled over the livestock auctions and gleefully hit the target at the Dunking Booth five times in a row and then played stupid midway games like the one where you shot a water gun that inflated the balloon clenched in a scary-ass clown's mouth.
He'd won himself a cheap mirror emblazened with a Harley Davidson logo, a giant stuffed Gumby, and a goldfish. He'd spent an hour chatting up the carnie who ran the ferris wheel on how the thing was constructed, how it came apart for storage when they moved from town to town. He'd gorged on elephant ears and corndogs and nearly puked after the tilt-a-whirl. And then that night at the demolition derby Rhodey'd been scared stiff that Tony was going to keel over from an aneurysm, he'd been so excited. He'd tried to convince Rhodey to sneak down onto the field, so they could the watch the destruction up close.
He'd thought for sure he was going to have to explain just how he'd gotten Tony Stark killed. He hadn't realized at the time that it wouldn't be the last.
That was twenty-odd years ago, but the expression is exactly the same. Tony breaks out into a manic grin and runs his fingers over the silk tie as he reads Pepper's note, then sticks the folded paper into his pocket. He makes no mention of the Red Cross team and Rhodey doesn't bring them up either. Instead, when Tony digs out the backgammon board, he pulls up a chair and lets Tony cheat.
When Rhodey comes for him the next morning he's freshly shaven and dressed in the suit Pepper sent, and at first glance he's fully Tony Stark again, bigger than life. Tony's grinning wide, which helps; and despite the fact that not too long ago he'd threatened to blow them up, the nurses and doctors assembled to see him off are grinning back, which also helps. So much so that Rhodey doesn't notice the little off details at first. Like the way the dark green dress shirt, smartly pressed as it is, accentuates Tony's lingering pallor, or that he gives in to the wheelchair with what for Tony is a minimum of argument. Which means that he goes back and forth about it for twenty minutes with the medical staff before rolling his eyes dramatically and flopping down into the seat. Then he gives SrA Castillo a hard time all the way to the plane, and that's distracting, too.
Maybe it's a distraction for Tony as well, because once they're alone again and secured in the plane and it lifts off from the runway he goes quiet again. Rhodey takes the opportunity to nap. When he wakes up the first time he catches Tony studying his face, like he's trying to relearn something he's forgotten. The second time he wakes they're over land again and Tony's out cold.
"Pepper's still, you know, on the payroll?" Tony asks later, two hours out from Edwards. It's a weird question, since he'd called her one last time before they left Ramstein, and if she hadn't sent the suit he'd probably be arriving back in the States wearing hospital scrubs or military fatigues.
"As far as I know," Rhodey answers.
Tony hasn't asked much about the three months he was missing. Rhodey's not even sure it's occurred to him yet that life went on without him, even for Pepper.
"So I wasn't declared dead or anything."
Rhodey can't help a smile. "Why, you worried about your estate? Where all those cars would have ended up?"
Tony flashes him a distracted grin. "Why? You already pick one out?"
"Maybe," Rhodey says, but it's hard to keep up the banter with the memory of Tony calmly playing cards with a bomb strapped to his bed still fresh in his mind.
An hour out, Tony gets antsy. He fusses with his tie, with the strap to his sling. He runs his free hand through his hair, he scratches at his goatee. He asks Rhodey questions about nothing, about the plane they're in and who's been in the tabloids and what the weather's been like in California. He doesn't listen to the answers, his attention bouncing around the cabin.
The second time he asks where Pepper is going be meeting them, if she's going to be on the runway or inside somewhere, Rhodey starts to get a little antsy too. Because nearly every one of his waking moments for the past week -- no, the past three months -- has been focused on getting Tony Stark home. And now that they were nearly there, it doesn't feel real.
"She'll be on the runway," Rhodey says. "She said she'll have a car ready." Which means Happy will be there, and if Tony wonders what Happy's been up to for three months without anyone to drive around, he doesn't bring it up.
"I told Obie not to come," Tony tosses out casually, like it doesn't mean anything.
"Yeah? How come?"
But Tony just shrugs. "How'd the stock do while I was gone?"
The stock? Rhodey stares at him for a long moment. "You'll have to ask Pepper about that. I was a little distracted."
Tony grimaces. "Right," he says. "Guess you had a lot on your hands."
"You could say that," Rhodey replies, knowing this will probably be as close as he and Tony will ever come to discussing the ambush or the search.
And as Tony holds his gaze for just a little longer than Rhodey's comfortable with, it strikes him for the first time that maybe it's not that Tony thought the world stopped when he went missing, after all. He remembers hearing POWs talk about how they'd thought everyone had forgotten about them. And suddenly it's not enough, what he's left unsaid.
"When things calmed down and I figured out your body wasn't there, when I realized what that meant... I thought it might have been better if you'd been killed in the ambush."
As if a switch has been thrown, Tony's expression goes blank. Rhodey doesn't know where he's going with this. All he knows is that the plane is about to land, and Tony's alive, and if he's not quite himself yet, well, there's time, now. They have time.
"When they called off the search, we did everything we could think of. Pepper must have contacted half of Congress. She might as well have rented an apartment in Washington, she spent so much time there. And I..." he falters then.
Tony is fiddling with his sling, tugging his suit jacket over his immobilized shoulder, his head half turned away from Rhodey, his mouth a thin line.
The plane touches down and Rhodey loses his nerve. "I wanted you to know that we tried."
Tony doesn't respond, but when the doors fold down and Rhodey reaches to help him out of the wheelchair, Tony lets him. Hangs on to his hand, all the way down the ramp, until they hit pavement. They're greeted by medics with a stretcher and the bright California sun, but Tony heads for Pepper like there's no one else in the world, and Rhodey watches him go.