Being a liaison in the military’s contract with Stark Industries, as well as a personal friend of Tony Stark, granted James Rhodes special visitation rights to Tony’s inner sanctums where the magic happened – and none was more magical than his workshop in Malibu, California.
It was far smaller than any of the lab space at the factory in Long Beach, and it didn’t have tons of machinery, but Rhodey knew by now where Tony preferred to work, and designing and tinkering had always been his favorite pastimes. Final assembly could be done somewhere else, once Tony was done toying with whatever project he was in the middle of inventing.
It was quite usual for there to be more than just a single project, because Tony worked on several things at once, moving between them on a whim and often without a discernable pattern as far as other people could see. It didn’t have anything to do with deadlines, which infuriated a lot of executives, nor was it about hitting a wall; it simply was how Tony’s mind worked, fluid and ever-changing, one thing sparking another.
Of course, it had to do with interest, too, because sometimes Tony couldn’t be bothered to focus on the thing that needed to be finished the soonest, or which other people would deem the most thrilling project. Tony had his own parameters when it came to determining the value of a project, and the tasks required to bring it to fruition. Rhodey had learned, way back at MIT, not to assume Tony would be interested in something the rest of the world was.
That was why he wasn’t completely surprised to spot a square camera sitting on a worktop, like one of those self-developing Polaroid cameras.
Tony wasn’t sentimental about old technology, other than an occasional vehicle he purchased. He liked his cars and bikes fast, though, and often favored newer models, but that didn’t stop him from hoarding a show piece here and there, or a pile of junk he reconstructed back to its glory days.
An old camera, outdated and rarely used in this day and age, was different. It looked like maybe Tony had built it, too, instead of obtaining it, so Rhodey didn’t dismiss it as something truly random and part of the clutter that sometimes overtook Tony’s work space.
Could be Tony was using the camera to come up with a new innovation. It might not be anything for the military, but Rhodey knew that not all things Stark Industries did were, and that was fine. Tony spent a lot of time developing and designing innovations with military applications, so a couple hours spent on other discoveries was a given.
He could hear a light banging sound coming from the far reaches of the workshop, occasionally quieting down to a couple lighter taps, then picking up again. Rhodey stopped, thinking it might be best if he waited for Tony to emerge. Tony had probably been notified by his house AI that Rhodey was headed his way, and if he forgot – which happened – Rhodey would go and snap him out of whatever he was working on. It just didn’t bode well for one’s health to surprise a man who was potentially waving around a power tool, immersed in his creative tide; Rhodey had heard some horror stories and seen a few close-call reports when other people had done that, and just because there wasn’t AC/DC blaring from the workshop speakers didn’t mean Tony wasn’t in the zone.
To pass the time before he would have to make himself known to the other man, Rhodey looked around the space, spotting a few models for projects he was aware of, as well as several others that looked to be in very early stages of construction. Tony did most of the constructing in his head, however – or on the computer – so one should not assume he had barely started when the physical model could just be a trial to see whether some aspect of his idea would work in the physical world.
Aside from work, there were random items – like the Polaroid camera – which served a purpose only known to Tony. Coffee cups were haphazardly piled up in the sink of the kitchen corner, and a few food cartons were placed in a nearby trash can. It had all the tell-tale signs of bot-controlled maintenance, seeing as no cleaning staff was ever allowed down here.
That was probably a good thing, knowing the kinds of projects Tony worked on, sometimes overlooking safety regulations.
The one thing Rhodey rarely found down in the shop was paper; Tony liked things digital, for obvious reasons, and unless someone else brought him paperwork – which could spontaneously catch fire if he didn’t like it, according to Tony – there was rarely a sheaf to be found.
That’s why a stack of rectangular patches of white caught Rhodey’s attention, pulling him over to one of the tables. He found that they weren’t paper, exactly, but coated like photographs, and seven of them sported half-developed pictures, distorted and impossible to recognize. Why Tony would want printed photos around, Rhodey didn’t know. Maybe it had something to do with the camera he had seen on the other table.
Tony’s personal side-projects didn’t always make sense at first, unless they were for a very particular purpose. Whether the stack of ruined photos was something like that, or just the result of a few hours’ worth of inspiration, Rhodey couldn’t tell unless he asked Tony.
Rhodey stepped away from the pictures, glancing up to see whether Tony had noticed him yet. He couldn’t spot him, and after a few seconds the banging resumed. That didn’t mean Tony wasn’t aware of his presence, but Rhodey supposed he could cautiously approach him so that he could get on with the other tasks on his schedule.
Before spotting Tony, he saw one of his robot helpers; according to the painted letters on the side of its arm, it was DUM-E. Rhodey could never tell them apart beyond the insignia and was adamant that neither could anyone else, except for their creator. The bot was wiping the workstation in front of it with a cloth it held in its mechanical claw. The task at hand appeared somewhat poorly thought out, because the table was littered with tools and random items, around which Dummy was attempting to navigate with the rag.
Shaking his head, Rhodey went to move past the bot, but his eyes checked out the contents of the table just in case, to make sure there was nothing dangerous with which the bot might accidentally come into contact. The way Tony allowed his MIT science projects roam around his workshop, it was amazing nothing caught fire or spilled more often, but then, Rhodey knew he was probably being a bit pessimistic about the bots’ skills.
Among the tools, tiny spools of wire, and different size circuit boards, there was yet another picture of the same size as the ones he had seen on the other table. This one, however, bore a fully developed image, and Rhodey stopped to look at it, tilting his head.
It was an image of Tony and his bots, the man standing in the middle, arms thrown over the bodies of the bots that came into the frame from both sides. One of the bots was even looking at the camera. The picture had clearly been taken in the shop, with cables dangling in the background. The look on Tony’s face was relaxed and happy, unlike the stock photos and publicity shots displayed in the media. Rhodey could tell the difference.
Frankly, Tony looked more at ease in his own skin in this photo than any other family portraits Rhodey had seen; the others had always seemed staged, being a picture taken of a wealthy, renowned family. Everyone stood at attention, posing for the camera, their clothes pressed and hair combed to perfection, facial expressions tense.
This one here was something that looked almost spontaneous, and the fact that it was sitting on the table, away from the others, probably meant that Tony aimed to keep it.
“Hey, Rhodey-bear!” Tony called out all of a sudden, standing at the other end of the shop and brushing an oil-stained hand across the side of his face. “What can I do for you?”
Rhodey had momentarily forgotten what he had come here to do. “I, uh… came to check on your progress.”
“You could have called me to do that,” Tony replied with a huff.
“You might not have answered your phone.”
“Sure I would have!” Tony exclaimed, then seemed to think about it as he reached out for a cloth to wipe most of the grease from his hands. “Okay, maybe not, but I would have had one of the bots take your call if I wasn’t in the mood for it. I mean, if I were busy,” he added almost as if to save face, but he really wasn’t trying too hard – especially since he grinned afterwards.
To get back at him, Rhodey reached out for the picture on the table beside him. The moment he picked it up, Dummy let out a whistle that was almost like a protest, and Rhodey’s hand jerked away reflexively, like the robot was going to bite him. He didn’t let go of the picture, though, and it almost felt as though Dummy were glaring at him in response. “This the next Christmas card you’re going to send people?” he asked.
Tony stopped for a moment, staring at him. It seemed almost like he was carefully selecting his next words as well as the reaction he was going to give. “No,” he finally said, short and simple.
Rhodey felt bad, suddenly. It made no sense, but with the robot still staring at him with its tiny camera lens eyes and the change in Tony’s demeanor…
“It’s an experiment,” Tony offered, focusing on wiping his hands, then tossing the cloth on the floor and moving to a nearby sink to wash his hands. Dummy slowly moved to pick up the cloth and place it in a trash bin, then returned to stare at Rhodey.
“I saw the camera back there,” Rhodey said a bit lamely, still uncertain if he had upset Tony somehow.
Tony nodded, scrubbing his hands. “Had some time on my hands, so I thought I would tinker with something. A good old Polaroid…”
Rhodey knew his friend had never been big on taking pictures, so him referring to the classic camera in that way was a little odd. “It’s a nice picture,” Rhodey finally volunteered. “You should frame it, put it on display down here somewhere.”
Tony didn’t reply, continuing to rub off the oil, then rinsed his hands and found another towel to dry them.
“You don’t like the picture?” Rhodey asked, really confused.
Tony gave him more silence.
“Come on, Tony!” Rhodey finally let his frustration come out. “Give me something.”
A tiny flicker of a smile danced on Tony’s lips as he turned to look at him. “You’re so easy.”
“You’re an asshole,” Rhodey pointed a finger at him.
“Fair enough,” Tony agreed, then walked over and reached for the picture. Rhodey handed it over before further mind-games could ensue. Tony looked at the picture, his glance starting casual, but then he stilled and the teasing smile transformed into a genuinely warm one. His thumb slowly traced the edge of the picture.
Rhodey didn’t comment; he knew it might make Tony feel awkward or self-conscious. His relationship with his parents had been a tricky one, and people for the most part didn’t understand how much he cared for his robotic creations that couldn’t really be called sentient, or intelligent, but whom Tony sometimes treated like his pets, or even kids. He obviously had an emotional attachment to them, and as unhealthy as that might be, Rhodey knew him well enough to perceive that this was his little bit of happiness.
“You came here for a reason, right?” Tony mused after a while and lay the picture back on the table where it had been. Dummy looked it over carefully, as if searching for damage, then let out a satisfied beep, approving.
“Sure,” Rhodey agreed.
Tony walked over to a fridge, pulling out a drink and tossing Rhodey a bottle of water, then led them over to check out his progress with the projects in which Rhodey was involved.
Every once in a while, Rhodey spied movement in the corner of his eye, and he saw the bots moving around, doing some routine clean-up, but it seemed like they were hovering around the picture a lot, looking down at it and rearranging the other items on the table, keeping the picture from crumpling.
This little oddball family never ceased to amaze Rhodey, but he was very happy Tony had it in his life.