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Castles Made Of Sand

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Sometimes, Tony wondered if he’d just died stumbling around in that desert and everything up to what he was thinking was some kind of bizarre hallucination.

Tony had the urge to slam his hand against the wall, just so the pain would wake him up. He didn’t want this, if it was only going to be ripped away in the end. He took in the exhaustion that weighed down Rhodey’s shoulders and remembered the pure relief that Rhodey had shown when he’d seen Tony stumbling across the desert. He wasn’t quite sure how he got so lucky to be Rhodey’s friend, but Tony hoarded every bit of kindness and affection Rhodey showed him, tucking it deep inside himself as he waited for the inevitable.

It was hard to keep track of time when you have no clocks and you were only dragged outside once. A legacy of weapons in the wrong hands and the guttural demands to help lay waste to the world. Time was just a word there. He counted time by the amount of water being vomited up and the color of bruises, a patchwork of colors, a gruesome rainbow on his skin. He counted time between meals with sand in them that he ate anyway and the pangs of thirst and hunger that he ignored. Rhodey quietly informed him he’d been gone three months.

It didn’t feel like three months.

“All done Tones.” Rhodey said quietly, breaking him out of his thoughts. He had been bandaging his shoulders and cleaning the cuts and bruises on his face with careful efficiency. Tony locked down the memory of similarly gentle yet firm fingers doing the exact same thing. It wouldn’t bring Yinsen back.  “We’ll get you to a doctor when we get back.”

“No doctors.” Tony said hoarsely, pressing his palm to the reactor.

“Tones, your injuries…” Rhodey said but Tony cut him off.

“No doctors, I mean it.” Tony said firmly and Rhodey sighed but nodded. “Give me your phone, I want to call my mother.”

“Tony…” Rhodey said, and Tony took in the hesitant look on his face, tainted with sorrow. Denial rose, trying to block what his mind had figured out within seconds.

Rhodey would have called Jarvis and his mother to inform them as soon as he could.

And if he was hesitating now...

“Give me a phone.” Tony said, hysteria rising. “Give me a phone Rhodey. I want to talk to my mom. I want to talk to Jarvis.”

“Tones, calm down.” Rhodey said, putting his hands out in a placating gesture and Tony shook his head, panic and denial making him gasp. The reactor pressed against his lungs, heavy and cold, a mockery of what he went through only to lose it all again.  He tried to struggle up but Rhodey placed his hands on his shoulders and tried to keep him lying down. He backed off instantly when Tony made a terrified whine and slapped his hands away.

“Get off me.” he gasped, his voice coming in harsh pants. “Give me a phone Rhodey. Give me a damn phone.

“Tony you've got to calm down before you pass out.” Rhodey said, his hands twitching uselessly at his sides. “I'll explain, just please lie down.”

“You can't...they can't be.” Tony said, ignoring him and kicking the blanket off him, staggering up on shaky legs. “No. They're not...they're not...you're lying to me Rhodey. They can't be…”

“They’re dead.” Rhodey said, like the words were dragged out of him. A high pitched whine filled his ears and he stared at Rhodey uncomprehendingly. The words sounded like the shouts when they forced him under, slow and echoing. “Your parents. Jarvis. They’re gone. They’re not coming back. You can't call them.”

“They said they’d be there when I came back.” Tony said, his voice sounding frail and weak. Rhodey inched forward, slowly wrapping Tony in a hug, the scent of leather and cologne the same since Tony was fourteen with a vendetta against the world. “Jarvis was gonna make me cake. They can't be dead.”

“I’m so sorry Tony.” Rhodey whispered, sorrow and grief heavy in his voice. “I’m so sorry.”

“They weren’t supposed to leave.” Tony whispered, dimly registering the wetness of Rhodey’s shirt as he tightened the hug. “They promised.”

~

It was two hours later when Tony finally broke free from the numb haze and he started to make his calculations. He pushed the grief away, locking it tightly away. There wasn’t time to grieve right now.

“Obie’s all right, right?” Tony said, extracting himself from Rhodey’s comforting hug reluctantly and accepting his water. “And Pepper? And Happy?”

“Yeah, Pep and Happy were driven out of their minds with worry, but they’re all alive.” Rhodey said, “The thing in your chest…”

“Later.” Tony said, placing a hand over it protectively. “No one knows about this Rhodey. No one .”

“I won’t tell anyone.” Rhodey promised, “Can...can I see it though?”

Tony hesitated, hands splayed protectively over the reactor. He could feel the hum through the fabric, the stifling heaviness weighing him down on the inside. He couldn’t even differentiate it from the grief anymore.

“Not right now.” Tony said, thankful when Rhodey only nodded and nudged his glass so he would drink again. He was barely restraining himself from just gulping the whole bottle. Water that didn’t taste of dirt and wasn’t stale. But he’d learned how to ration, how to stretch it out until his mouth was dry and exhaustion started dragging him. It wasn’t easy making a single person's ration last two people, but they’d managed. “Later. Just...later. Tell me how...later. I can’t…”

“That’s alright.” Rhodey said calmly, “I’ll keep the brass off you. Just focus on recovery alright?”

“...I want a cheeseburger.” Tony said, soaking in Rhodey’s startled laugh.

“I’m not sure your stomach can handle it, we’ll get a nutritionist for you.” Rhodey said, some of the tension blessedly easing out of his shoulders. “But sure. You want watermelon with it too?”

“You promised not to bring up Boston again.” Tony said, something tight inside him loosening at the familiar banter. “It was to be wiped from our memories.”

“Maybe our memories but I have pictures.” Rhodey said, making Tony swat his arm.

“You’re a monster.” Tony said, “Boston was just embarrassing, and I’ve seen plenty of embarrassing things.”

“You attract them.” Rhodey said with a smile. He checked his watch, his smile fading a little. “We’ll be landing in about forty-five minutes. The media will be there, but just ignore them and get to the car. Happy said he’ll be waiting, and Pepper and Mr. Stane are gonna be waiting when you get back to the SI offices..”

“Got it. You’ve known Obie for years, you could just call him by his first name by the way.” Tony said, missing the grimace on Rhodey’s face as he set his glass down.

“It’s...a respect thing Tony.” Rhodey said carefully, “I may know Mr.Stane, but not that well. It’s just polite.”

“You’re just weird sugarplum.” Tony said, “You brought me clothes right? I want to change.”

“Bag beside the bathroom.” Rhodey said, nodding to it. “Holler if you need help. I don’t want you shifting the bandages too much. The numbing agent should have set in by now but it still needs to soak in so you can heal faster. Should hold off on a shower for a little bit more.”

“Fine, but you’re getting me three cheeseburgers now.” Tony said, walking carefully across the cabin to pick up the bag. “I’m still nineteen, I can be a demanding teenager for another year yet.”

“Something tells me you’ll be no less demanding at twenty then you’ll be at nineteen.” Rhodey said.

“Rude. I am offended platypus.” Tony gasped dramatically. “What have I done to deserve such rude comments? You’re going to make me cry.”

“Go change Tones, I’ll get Happy to bring you some damn cheeseburgers.” Rhodey sighed, a fond smile as Tony winked and disappeared into the next room.

Rhodey sighed when Tony was out of his sight, slumping and rubbing a tired hand over his eyes.

“Nineteen.” he murmured into the silent cabin. “ Nineteen .”  

 

Chapter Text

Either you answer the phone, or I will, and I don’t think your military buddy would like knowing you’re here.” Tiberius Stone said, chuckling the phone at Tony. “Which reminds me, get out.”

“You’re gonna break my heart Ty.” Tony said sarcastically, sliding out of bed and wincing at the soreness. He inserted false cheer into his voice as he answered the phone. “Honeybee, what brings you ringing this early in the morning?”

“It’s eleven.” Rhodey said flatly, “Where are you?”

“Shit really?” Tony yawned, stretching slightly. Ty rolled his eyes and jabbed at the door again before walking out. “How’d the meeting go?”

“I’d rather tell you in person.” Rhodey said, “Happy said you sent him to Pepper two days ago and haven’t been seen since.”

“Hmm,” Tony said distractedly, gathering his clothes and pulling them on. “Hey, wanna get dinner at Francesca’s and you can fill me in while we eat?”

“Sure Tones.” he said wearily. “You need Happy to pick you up?”

“I’m a big boy now Rhodey-bear.” Tony said, stifling his pained wince as he shifted and the reactor was jostled in the wrong way. “I can handle calling a cab. I’ll meet you in half an hour.”

Also, Happy would undoubtedly tell Rhodey where Tony was and then he’d have to endure a four hour lecture on reasons why ‘Tiberius Stone was the devil’ and Tony needed ‘to stay away from that psychopathic bastard’.

It’s not like Tony didn’t know that.

“Tony Stark has been confirmed to be back from overseas, but has still not been seen even after a week and a half. Obadiah Stane gave a statement three days ago saying that Stark Industries was glad to have him back and requested privacy for the young heir. It must come for quite a shock for the teenager as Howard and Maria Stark died only-” The anchor cut off as Ty muted the TV.

“Another round then?” Ty said in vicious amusement as Tony dragged him back into the bedroom. He was pathetically grateful that the blond didn’t mention his shaking fingers.

~~~

“Not going to tell me I’m late?” Tony said, sliding gingerly into the booth.

“Nope.” Rhodey said simply, looking at the menu. “Brass isn’t happy.”

“When are they ever?” Tony said, tilting his phone up when it beeped. 'Stage 3 of Project: Just A Rather Very Intelligent System Completed' flashed across the screen and Tony locked it and slid it into his pocket. “What you tell them?”

“What do you think I said?” Rhodey said, finally looking at him. Tony looked away from the mix of concern and anger.

“Antonio!” the owner of the store, Francesca said happily, bustling over to him. She patted his cheek and continued talking in Italian. “ You look so thin Antonio. I’ll get you some food .”

Thank you, Francesca.”  Tony replied, and the smile he gave the older woman was small but genuine. “ You’re looking beautiful as always .”

“Haven’t lost a bit of your charm.” Francesca said, squeezing his shoulder lightly. “ You’re always welcome here Tonio .” She switched back to English to talk to Rhodey before Tony could reply to the casual offer of support. “And you, young man, you’re looking too thin too. You boys are dreadful at taking care of yourselves.”

“Well, we’ll try to drop by more often so you can stuff us with more food.” Rhodey said and Tony let them chat a bit and order while he checked on the project.

“I don’t think you told them about this.” Tony said, once Francesca had patted his cheek, looked at him with entirely too much motherly concern and had gone to get them entirely too much food. He wasn’t totally surprised, considering how many times he had come here with his mother. He shoved the thought away and pretended the heaviness in his chest was only the reactor as he answered Rhodey’s earlier question, tapping the reactor lightly. “But the brass are notoriously stubborn, so I have no clue what you did tell them.”

“They want to send someone to interrogate you.” Rhodey said bluntly. “It’s a miracle they even let you come back. I told them about the Ten Rings, and how you built a bomb to get out. And that they’re still scouring the desert to find out where the hell you were being held. But there’s been murmurings that you built them something. And-” he kept talking over the bitter bark of laughter from Tony. “ And I said I already asked you before we even left and that I full believe you didn’t build them anything because you told me so. Mr. Stane is handling things at SI, but Pepper is telling me that the Board is starting to push for you to make an appearance.”

“Tell them I’m mourning.” Tony muttered.

“Tony, you know they don’t actually care whatsoever,” Rhodey said, “And you’re not mourning. Mourning isn’t pretending you’re dealing with it and then disappearing to god knows where. I know you’re not going back to Stark Manor.”

“Guess it shouldn’t be called that, no Starks there anymore.” Tony said blithely, staring at a pattern on the wall of the booth. “I’ll talk to Obie, he said he’d keep everything running when I got back anyway. I’m busy. And I bought a warehouse, I’m turning into my personal lab. Was planning to anyway before…”

Before. The magic word. There was Tony Before, and Tony After. Before was when he had no care, drinking and fucking his way through college in places no one asked for his ID, to go home and draw and write out the thoughts that buzzed like angry wasps in his head. Little stingers wanting to be heard, and drawn, and made to life, to kill more people because that’s all he was taught to do. Before was having parents and a bulter that was more a dad than his actual one. After was restless nights watching the door because he couldn’t sleep without someone standing guard. After was sending Happy away so he could take questionable substances and fuck until he forgot, because he expected reporters and paparazzi outside Ty’s apartment and that was better than the silence of the guest suite in SI, or the emptiness that shouldn’t be in Stark Manor. After was waking up unable to breathe and wearing more layers because he was so cold, and trying to blame it on the reactor.

“We’re worried about you Tones.” Rhodey said when Tony scratched at the table and didn’t continue.

“I know.” Tony said. And it was true, he did know. He worried in the same way Happy did, with cheeseburgers he regretted as he tried to throw it up, but couldn’t because his body still worked like a prisoner with too little food and too little nutrients. He worried like Pepper did, cheek kisses and soft hands and gentle hugs and fire in her eyes as she saw the bruises and cuts that hadn’t faded and the feeling of his ribs through his shirt. He worried in the same way Obie did, with the same smile Tony saw through his childhood, the anger he tried to conceal when he saw Tony injured, the heavy pats on his back and the promise he didn’t have to worry about SI. They all worried and he hoarded the bits of love and affection and hated the way they looked at him so concerned. Like he was two steps from shattering and they needed to hover with duct tape. “I’ll talk to the Board soon. Make a press statement.”

Lie about how he got out. Lie about the feeling of betrayal when he saw Stark painted across the bombs. Lie about what happened. Lie about the simmering rage and the trapped scream in his throat building.

Who knew, maybe he’d learn how to scream again.

“That’s not the point Tones.” Rhodey said, ignoring the plates that Francesca placed between them with a smile and last pat to Tony’s cheek. “I’m not blind to your deflecting. This is serious.”

“I’ll handle it.” Tony said, picking up his fork. “And I’m hungry, so eat first, talk later.”

~~

He hated himself when Ty didn’t look surprised to find him at the door and let Tony manhandle him backwards while watching with cold amusement.

He didn’t ask why Tony refused to take his shirt off.

~~

The sun was rising as Tony let himself into the building he had bought, a garage with an apartment overhead and enough space. He didn’t really use the apartment, the bed was used as a holder for the clothes thrown on it. He could have easily bought a penthouse, one that overlooked Manhattan with a bed big enough to have orgies on. He got rid of that idea real quick, the beds too soft and the rooms too open.

“Hey bud,” Tony murmured to DUM-E as the bot rushed across the floor, steering away the enthusiastic bot from his chest. “Not the chest you dummy. Squishy human remember?”

The bot thrilled and spun in a circle as Tony stepped past him to the computer screens hooked to the wall. Stage 3 was almost complete, and then there were two more stages until the AI came to life. He would have preferred to stay with him, but he was pretty sure passing out almost immediately would alarm his baby AI. Taking a seat and accepting the wrench DUM-E decided he needed, he threw the ball for him to race after and bent over the code again. He was so close to finishing, a week and a half of sleeping too little and working hunched over a laptop until lines blurred. He only stopped to refill his water bottle and chew on the nutrient bars as he worked.

“Alright DUM-E, get over here.” Tony finally said, stretching carefully to avoid hurting his ribs, rubbing at his chest in an effort to warm it up. The bot was sleeping, or as close to, but perked up with an excited whirr when Tony spoke to him. “Time to meet your baby brother. Maybe he’ll be able to keep you in line and away from spilling water all over me in the middle of an important project.”

The bot let out a dejected beep and click, lowering his head to bump Tony’s shoulder gently like his own version of puppy eyes. He only rolled his eyes and watched the progress bar tick up, leaning his head on DUM-E’s arm.

“Initialization process finished for Unit “Just A Rather Very Intelligent System.” The achingly familiar British voice made Tony lose his composure abruptly, despite him trying to prepare for it. He heard the whirr as the camera linked to his laptop zoomed in on him as he turned his head to press his face against DUM-E’s blissfully cold arm, fighting the tears. There is a pause and then the voice speaks again. “...You seem in distress. Can I be of assistance?”

“I’m good.” Tony croaked. “How are you feeling JARVIS?”

“Is that my unit designation?” he asked. “JARVIS?”

“Yeah, that’s your name buddy.” Tony said, turning to look back at the computer and camera. “How are you feeling?”

“I…” and the hesitation makes Tony smile. “My processors are running well. I...feel fine.”

Good,” Tony said, “Let me know if you need anything JARVIS, anything at all okay? DUM-E, meet your brother JARVIS. JARVIS, this is DUM-E.”

DUM-E beeped at the computer and moved forward till his claw tapped the camera with a plink .

“That’s his way of saying hi.” Tony said, slumping back in his seat. “Welcome to the family JARVIS.”

“Thank you Sir.” JARVIS said. It’s different, much better than the ‘young sir’ he was used to hearing in that voice.

“Let’s see if everything works.” Tony said, drumming his fingers on the reactor. “Pull up a file, and label it ‘Mark ll’ for me.”

“Of course, Sir.”