Cell Phones in the Desert

By Elizabeth Bathory

Tony Stark slowly and painfully opened his eyes and he did not recognize where he was. He blinked a few times to clear the sleep and remaining sand out of his eyes and tried to get his brain to figure out what the hell was going on. His gaze shifted around the room first. From first glance, it wasn't much better than the damn cave but he remembered clearly blasting his way out of there. The room was fairly dark except for a small crack of fluorescent light coming in from the crack in the door and his arc reactor. Tony noticed that there were at least three other beds in the room but all of them were empty.

Tony then examined what was directly around him. Off to his right was an IV which he noticed further when he tried to move his hand. Not only did pain erupt from the IV in his hand but shot through his entire arm with blinding speed. He looked down and hated the fact that he was in a hospital gown that was left open in the front for a mass of wires and monitors attached to his chest. His hand automatically went to his arc reactor, making sure it was still there and causing another pain spasm. As he waited for the pain to subside enough for him to attempt moving again, his mind was piecing things together. He remembered his escape and trudging through the desert. He remembered the helicopter and the sheer joy he felt when he saw Rhodey and the undeniable relief when he was bundled into the chopper and they lifted off out of hell. Tony also remembered that he had been exhausted and figured he must have slept for most of the trip and through treatment. Now the question was how long was he out?

Figuring that he could not answer that question himself, Tony continued his surveillance of his surroundings. Off to his left was a small night table with a light switch and a pitcher of water and a filled glass. Tony shifted on to his left side as best as he could, nearly screaming in pain as his abused muscles protested even the slightest of movements. He managed to flick on the small light over his bed after three unsuccessful attempts to smack it with his left hand.

With the light on, he could fully see the glass of water and his thirst hit him hard. He had swallowed a ton of sand and his throat was raw and dry. He tried to reach with his somewhat tethered right hand and had a very sick sense of déjà vu from when he woke up with the electromagnet in his chest the first time. Tony stretched his arm as far as his body and the IV would let him, causing some considerable pain, but he was damned determined to get a drink. Tony reached one more time and tapped the glass just enough to knock it over and send it crashing to the floor. Tony shouted a few colorful expressions at the top of his lungs in his frustration as he lay back on his pillow and felt the tears of pain sting his eyes.

At the sound of the crashing glass, Lt. Colonel James Rhodes took off at a run down the hall to the room where his best friend was laying.

Over the past two days since Tony had been picked up from the sand, he had spent quite a few hours sitting in a chair by Tony's bedside as he slept. Rhodey looked at that thing in his chest and silently blamed himself for it. It had been his sole job to protect Tony while he was out here and he had failed. He had erroneously thought it was some sort of explosive device, like the doctors who had examined Tony did as well, before Tony had explained with a voice that did not sound like him but one filled with gravel that he had made it and it was keeping him alive. Rhodey had no choice but to take his friend's word on the situation. It was during those two days, Rhodey called Pepper Potts, Tony's assistant and should be more, assuring her that he was alive and safe. He did caution her about Tony's condition but did not give too many details. She in turn agreed to inform Obadiah Stane and the Board of Directors as long as he kept her updated on Tony's condition.

Upon reaching the hospital room door, Rhodey cracked it open slowly to find Tony finally awake and stressing himself out.

"Take it easy, man. What do you need?" Rhodey chided Tony as he eased his best friend back on to the pillows.

"I'm thirsty," Tony rasped out frustrated as he pointed to the water.

"Okay, I'll get it for you. Don't go damaging yourself any more than you already are." Rhodey said as he filled another glass and gave it to Tony.

Tony tried to grasp the glass but his hands shook as he attempted to.

Rhodey wrapped Tony's hands around the glass and steadied it for his friend as he drank.

"How much damage did I do?" Tony asked, his voice sounding a little better as he took another sip.

"Well, besides for the obvious sunburns and bruises," Rhodey started as he pulled his chair back up. "The worst you did was tore a few muscles and exhausted and dehydrated yourself."

"When can I go home?" Tony asked quietly as his gaze shifted away from Rhodey. He wanted to go home more than anything in the world at this moment and the sooner the better.

"We're working on that. You have been gone for three months and many had given up." Rhodey said gently. He noticed that Tony was not quite himself and it was expected after the trauma he had gone though. "With luck, we may be able to get you home by Christmas."

"When is that?" Tony asked as his voice was cracking as the realization hit him that it was December and not September any longer.

"Next week…well ten days to be exact." Rhodey told him. "Besides for transportation, there is only one thing holding things up."

"What is that?" Tony asked cautiously as he shifted his gaze back to Rhodey.

"The brass wants to talk to you…about what happened."

Tony closed his eyes tight and shook his head. "I can't do that right now."

"Then tell me. I'll tell them for you." Rhodey urged.

Tony hesitated at first. It was still sinking into his head and how could he possibly put what he saw into words? "They had my weapons…hundreds of them…back to the eighties or better." He rasped out. "They had everything I had ever made…and they wanted me to make more for them…I did what I had to do and I destroyed everything…"

Rhodey was trying to make out what Tony was saying but it was coming out almost like rambling and he couldn't understand him. He didn't want to push Tony further than he could bear it so he pushed it aside. "I think you need to get some sleep…" he stated as he stood up and pushed his chair back, heading for the door.

Tony watched Rhodey turn away from him and it enraged him. "You know you suck at this!" he called out with as much force as his voice could manage.

Rhodey stopped and turned at that exclamation. "What do I suck at, Tony?"

"Taking care of me."

"I suck at taking care of you?" Rhodey questioned as he walked back towards Tony's bed. "Who was it who got you into that helicopter when you could barely walk on your own? Who sat by this bed for two damn days while you slept blaming himself for not protecting you better? Who defied orders from his superiors and nearly threw away his entire career just to find you when everyone else had given you up for dead? Now, if that is sucking, please tell me what I should do."

Tony felt a stab of guilt surge through him when Rhodey rattled off all he had done. "I am talking about the immediate stuff here…bedside manner," Tony spat back. "Pepper takes care of me so much better in that way."

"Tell me what I am doing so wrong then."

Tony thought about it for a moment. "Pepper always makes sure I have something to drink and doesn't put it so far away that I can't reach it," Tony started as he pointed to the broken glass. "She makes soup for me because she knows I like it. She doesn't leave me alone. She tries to keep me company even if I'm sleeping." It wasn't until he said it out loud that he realized how much Pepper did do for him. "Give me your phone. I want to call her."

"I have already called her, Tony. She knows that you are safe. What do you want to call her about?"

'I miss her.' Tony thought to himself. "She needs to teach you how to take care of me. You're out of practice."

"I babysat your ass in M.I.T and I am not out of practice but if you insist…" Rhodey said as he tossed his cell phone at Tony.

Tony took the cell phone and started to dial but stopped when he looked up at a very pissed off Rhodey at the foot of his bed. "Can I have some privacy?"

"First you want attention and now you want privacy…make up your damn mind," Rhodey groaned as he slipped out the door. "Call me when you actually want me."

Tony winced as the door slammed. He would need to apologize later but first Pepper. He dialed the phone and lay back down to try to get comfortable, trying to find some peace and hoping that Pepper's voice would help.

The phone rang once.

"Jim? What's wrong?"

"Nothing's wrong, Pepper." Tony said softly, smiling at the worry and concern he heard over the phone.

"Tony? Is that really you?"

"Yes, it me. I hijacked Rhodey's phone to talk to you. I wanted to hear your voice." Tony swore he heard sniffling and choked sobs on the other end of the phone. Pepper was crying…for him. "Pepper, please don't cry. You know I can't bear it when you cry." Tony whispered as his own voice cracked with emotion. Just the sound of Pepper crying was breaking him and a stray tear slipped from his eye on to the pillow.

"Tony, I'm sorry. I don't mean to. I have just been so worried about you and just hearing your voice makes me so happy. Rhodey would not let me talk to you when picked you up. He said that you were near collapse from exhaustion."

"If he had given me the phone, I would have stayed up a little longer to hear your voice," Tony told her. "I'm a little worse for wear but I'm fine."

"Rhodey told me that you have something in your chest that is keeping you alive." Pepper stated almost cautiously.

"I had to do it. It's protecting my heart." Tony told her as he swallowed hard, trying to get control of his emotions and failing. "It is protecting me like you do." He said sweetly as he heard her tears come anew.

"Is there something you need, Tony? I'll bring it to you myself if you wanted me to."

No matter how much Tony wanted to see Pepper right now, she could not see him like this. She had dealt with him drunk, throwing up and sick as a dead dog but not this way. He was battered and just short of broken. "I need you but not here. This place is hell and I don't want you here." Tony said, trying to convince himself more than anything.

"What do you want me to do?"

"Get me home, please." Tony whispered as his voice broke again. "I just want to go home." There was desperation in his voice that he could not hide. "Where are you right now anyway?"

"I'm in the mansion," Pepper answered, purposely being vague about her location.

"Where in the mansion?"

Pepper swallowed hard and took a deep breath before answering. "Your bedroom," she finally answered.

Tony wished more than anything to be there with her. "Save room for me." He said with a small laugh that was laced with pain.

"You'll be back here very soon." Pepper said as she was trying to reassure him since the pain in his voice was killing her. "Can I talk to Rhodey?"

"I guess he'll want his phone back eventually," Tony sighed as he sniffed a little bit. "I miss you," he whispered to her but there was far more meaning behind those words than what was said. "Rhodey! Pepper wants to yell at you!" he called away from the phone.

"I miss you too," Pepper told Tony, not knowing if he heard her before the phone was passed to Rhodey.

"What is it Pepper?" Rhodey said as he took the phone from Tony and stepped outside.

"How are things coming along over there to bring him home? He wants to go home." Pepper stated firmly.

"I am doing the best I can but he has to talk to the higher ups first and I think they are afraid he'll break," Rhodey whispered. "And so am I a little bit."

"He'll break if you keep him there much longer. Have him meet with the brass all at once to satisfy them and then arrange transport. You will make him much happier."

Rhodey agreed since he knew Pepper was right. Tony was right too. Pepper did take good care of him. "Just one thing Pepper…Tony will need something to wear to go home in. He'll only consent to borrowing my stuff for so long and I know he won't want to land in California in anything less than his best."

"It will be sent over immediately. Thank you again for bringing him back. I know he is probably being a bear about things but he's all I have."

"You'll get him back. Even if he is a little more off than usual. He will be home." Rhodey said as he hung up the phone.

After hanging up with Pepper, Rhodey peeked in on Tony but did not go all in.

Tony had managed to turn off the light again and rolled on his side to try to sleep. From the white-blue glow of the arc reactor, Rhodey could see wet tear tracks on Tony's cheeks. He closed the door a bit more to give his friend some privacy.

As Tony willed himself to gain control of his emotions so he could sleep, Pepper's words lingered in his ear. She missed him. "I love you too," Tony whispered before closing his eyes and letting sleep claim him.