The explosion probably shows up on radar screens halfway to Baghdad. The on-duty technicians jerk back in their seats, muttering and flipping switches, and Jim snaps out of a gritty doze, his tipped-back chair landing hard on all four feet. He's up and moving before he's even entirely awake, pushing one of the techs aside to see for himself. The yellow splotch fades off the scuffed screen before Jim's eyes, and he smiles tightly. He's been telling them for three goddamn months that if Tony is still alive, the odds are they're not going find him. Tony will get himself found.
Jim is suited up and waiting on the helipad in under five. Only the way his hands are shaking stops him from pushing the kid in the pilot's seat out of the way and taking the chopper up himself. He straps in dutifully along with the other airmen instead. Takes a deep breath as they go up.
It has to be Tony. Not a cold trail or a false alarm, not this time. He doesn't know how, but he knows it. This time Tony's coming home.
* * *
Jim's had three months to think of something really good to say to Tony when he finds him. This means the first thing that he does is make Tony smile. There's blood and sand caked across half his face, and his eyes are like piss holes in the sand, but he smiles, for real, and Jim's chest hurts, hard. He pushes it down, slings an arm around Tony's neck and pulls him close. "Next time you ride with me," he tells him, and he feels Tony shake, feels a hot hoarse sob against his neck that he's going to choose to believe is laughter.
Things are going to be all right.
As it turns out, the other reason it was useful to have a comeback ready and waiting for the last three months is that when Jim helps Tony to his feet and says "What the hell is that thing in your chest, Jesus Christ," at least it wasn't the first thing out of his mouth. God knows Tony hates it when people are predictable. As it is, Jim feels like he manages to respond to the news that Tony has implanted a fucking electromagnet in his chest cavity with a relatively impressive level of unflappability. He strips off his jacket and zips it up over Tony's chest himself.
On the chopper ride back to base, the wind and the engine noise drown out any possibility of communication. Tony shakes and shudders as the pilot fights the night winds. He feels like a rag doll, but every time Jim bends his head to check on him, Tony's eyes are open. He looks lost in thought, that's all. Maybe a little more emphasis on the lost than the thought-- but after the third spot check Tony just raises his eyebrows, giving Jim this pitch-perfect look. Yes, and? You know, did you want something?
Jim shakes his head, smiling, and settles back in his seat. It's actually going to be okay. Tony's going to be fine.
* * *
When they reach the base at Al Udeid, Tony follows Jim to the infirmary obediently enough. It's well-equipped, clean enough, brightly lit. Better than some Jim's seen. Tony pushes himself up with one arm to sit on the counter, asiding under his breath to Jim and the base doctor about how they could've at least provided a hot nurse and a warm sponge bath-- "I'll be honest with you, she wouldn't even have to be that hot" --but when the doctor comes at him with the pen-light something snaps. Tony jerks his head away, slides back onto his feet again, grinning and cracking jokes, but he's practically stiff-arming the guy to keep him away. The doctor backs off, talking calm and careful, and Jim watches Tony slowly, furiously realizing that the guy is treating him like... well, like a trauma case. He tries to move in again, talking patiently, nice and slow. Textbook, really. Trouble is, the textbook has never applied to Tony.
Tony when he's furious is always a thing to behold, and he shifts into what Jim has always privately called Tony Fucking Stark mode with encouraging swiftness-- "Seriously, do I fucking look like I have a concussion to you, Ted? No, I'll tell you what you can do for me, get me a laptop--" but here and now, it doesn't quite come off. His voice is higher, tighter than normal, half-cracking once or twice in unexpected places. "Satellite uplink, preferably, but I'll take god damn dialup if it's all you've got. Why? I want to check my Myspace is why--" and then he stops like someone punched him right in the chest.
Jim takes the opportunity to take the doctor by the arm and steer him right up to the door, agreeing with him the whole way out that yeah, Tony needs to get checked out, yeah, it's important, yeah, of course, goodbye. Click. The door closes. Jim leans back against it, crossing his arms. He looks at Tony.
Tony looks back, half hangdog, half defiant. He's backed up against the counter, leaning on it hard. His right arm is tucked up against his chest, and he didn't quite manage to wipe the grimace of pain off his face before Jim turned around. "Yeah, yeah, yeah."
"Anything feel broken?" Jim says calmly, kicking himself. He should have planned for this. Should've known this would be Tony's reaction; Tony is the original grade-A control freak. It's something they have in common, because all Jim can think right now is yeah, I should've known. He should've had a nurse technician dissolving a double dose of Valium into an iced chai latte the second they found Tony on the ground.
Too late now.
"No, goddammit, I feel fine--" Tony starts to argue back before he realizes Jim's not actually arguing. He subsides, leaning back against the counter again. "No," he mutters. "I think I sprained my elbow or something, but the rest of it, nah. It looks worse than it is."
"That's probably true," Jim says, and waits till Tony looks up. "Because I gotta say, man, you look like absolute crap."
Tony laughs. "I just... Can I get a shower? I'll chill out, I swear. I just need..." He draws a trailing sine wave in the air that ends in a tangle. Jim reads him fine.
"Yeah, in the other room," he says, and points. "Go on, clean up."
* * *
"So the Mars landing went okay." Jim pulls up a folding chair as Tony splashes around on the other side of the thick, mildewed plastic curtain. Tony started out noisy, cursing at the variable temperature, fumbling and knocking over the travel-size soap and shampoo, and sniping about the quality of the cheap plastic razor Jim reluctantly found him. But he's been quiet in there for a couple of minutes now, and Jim is-- he's not worried. Not about Tony. But he knows how easy it is to lose yourself, times like this, and just watch the water going down the drain...
"What?" Water sprays as Tony waves his arms around. "Ah, fuck. Was it cool?"
"It was excellent," Jim says. It really wasn't. It was one of the shittiest hours he's spent since Tony went missing. He didn't even want to watch, not without Tony there so they could tear up the plans, drink some good Scotch and jump up and down like a pair of twelve year olds when it went okay. He didn't want to watch it, but he had to. Because Tony couldn't, because Tony would've. And of course, it had sucked. "Everything went fine," Jim says. "Jarvis probably taped it for you."
"Oh, not the same," Tony grumbles, shutting the water off. The faucet shrieks as it turns. Jim turns to grab a towel so he can hand it over when Tony reaches out, but instead, Tony slides the curtain back all the way and just stands there, butt-naked and dripping. Jim clenches his jaw but it's actually easier than it's ever been to keep his eyes to approved zones only. That thing in Tony's chest is a hell of an eye-catcher.
The glow is steady, the same eerie blue as the arc reactor. The skin surrounding the round incision looks irritated but not infected. Then he looks up into Tony's eyes, and he realizes real fast that Tony doesn't feel much like keeping to approved zones.
"Don't," Jim says. He's not scared, he's not even angry. He's just drawing a line. Tony is irresponsible. He pushes. He's a disrespectful asshole who doesn't recognize boundaries, walls, or lines in the sand. But he's always given Jim a certain amount of safe space. He's never pushed too far.
At least, not when he was in his right mind.
"No?" Tony steps out of the shower towards Jim. Jim looks him straight in the eye, giving him fair warning. It would be harder to do this, he thinks, to say no, if Tony would only look a little fucking vulnerable. Oh, he'd still say no but he might at least feel bad about it. But the Tony standing here is Tony Fucking Stark, one hundred percent-- the Tony from the European tabloids and the gossip blogs, big as life, standing there with his chin up and shoulders straight, hip cocked and hair slicked back.
"No, Tony," Jim says, because apparently he's got to spell it out.
"I can't believe you're not more glad to see me, Rhodey," says Tony. "Not even a li--"
"In two minutes," Jim says evenly, "an airman is going to knock on that door with some clean BDUs and a couple of hot MREs--"
"Well, god knows I love acronyms." Tony's shoulders slump in exaggerated disappointment, and he's the first one to break eye contact, turning away and reaching for the towel Jim holds. "Seriously, MREs?" he says, toweling off. "Don't tell me there are no good restaraunts in Qatar, I know there are. This isn't my first pony ride. Don't tell me I can't get some soft shell crab, maybe some Thai dumplings..." He knots the towel around his waist and reaches out absently for another one.
Jim tosses him another one, and Tony scrubs his hair for a second, one-handed, still favoring his right arm. Then he takes the towel and dabs carefully around the arc reactor, patting it dry, the glow of it showing briefly through the white nubbly weave. It's weird to watch, and Jim looks away, staring at the tile on the wall instead.
The touch of the towel on his neck startles him, and then he feels the warmth of Tony's hand through it, the iron grip. Tony pulls him around so they're facing each other. He doesn't ambush Jim with it. He never has. He waits until Jim's looking him right in the face and then he leans in and goes for it, a hard and hungry kiss. Tony's mouth tastes sour, like fear and blood and dust, only just barely rinsed away in the shower. Jim's fists are clenched at his sides and Tony makes a soft muffled noise, shifting for a better angle on the kiss. His hand slides away, still holding the towel, and now they're not touching anywhere except their mouths. But Jim can feel Tony's whole body shifting and pushing into it, the power building, just like they were lined up skin to skin. And he can feel how close he is, how close they are to that, right now.
He jerks away, gritting his teeth, ready to tear a strip off Tony Fucking Stark. Fucking Tony. Sometimes Jim thinks Tony's never done anything but play games with him, over the years. But he's always played it safe, or safe enough. He's always at least paid lip service to the idea that this thing between them isn't something Jim can ever take lightly, that his career, his life is nothing he's willing to risk. He's never--
"My bad," Tony says quickly. He looks... honestly confused. His mouth quirks helplessly, and Jim's anger collapses and dies away. He keeps forgetting-- Jesus, they could have done anything to him, out in the desert. It's hard to remember that Tony's hurting right now, has got to be, when he looks so much like he always has. Fucking invincible Tony Stark.
"It's fine," Jim says. "You're all right, you know."
Something that might be a smile flickers across Tony's face, and he takes a deep breath, then straightens up. "No, seriously, though, that laptop I asked for like, twenty minutes ago, is anyone on that? We're flying out of here to, where, Frankfurt? All I need is a phone. Five minutes on the phone. You think the base switchboard can get me Frankfurt? There's a couple shops right there that have got my measurements on file, I'll settle for Armani if they can't spell Strenesse. Hell, I could call Munich, they could have it to Frankfurt by the time we get there..." He slings his towel around his neck, absently. "What time is it in Munich?"
Jim checks his watch. "Two in the morning."
"Fantastic, great. Five minutes, that's all I need. If the problem is the long distance I can pay you back, you know."
He doesn't bother flipping Tony off. Back outside, in the real world, the airman knocks at the door to the infirmary. Jim goes to answer the knock.
* * *
They sit in mismatched folding chairs at a table that wobbles every time one of them sets an elbow down, and eat salty lasagna MREs. Tony is wearing BDUs, somebody's button-up uniform shirt and combat boots, which is just goddamn hilarious. Jim isn't really hungry, but he picks at his meal to keep Tony company. Tony cleans his out in about two minutes, then pushes aside his empty tray and hooks two fingers into Jim's, dragging it across the table. Jim lets it go rather than lose a hand.
"So I'm assuming," Tony says, mouth full, not looking up, "Pepper and Obie already took care of all the... scholarships. Foundations and stuff."
"What?" Jim says, but he catches up quick. Adam Pratt, Ryan James, Lauren Burns. The three kids in Tony's humvee. Three little pictures in a column along the left side of the cover of Time magazine. WHERE IS TONY STARK? Pepper had asked what he thought would be appropriate. "Yeah. Yeah, they did."
Tony frowns at his lasagna. "Did you go to the services? Or were you..."
"I was here looking for you. But they went. Pepper and Obadiah did."
"Good." Tony mumbles. His eyes are flickering back and forth like they always do when he's putting something together in his head, but everything else about him is unnaturally still. "Okay." It's weird to see him sitting there, motionless, with nothing more interesting to concentrate on than some overcooked green beans. Tony's usually a fidgeter, always drumming his fingers on the table, always moving. Like a shark. He must be tired. He just needs some sleep. He'll snap out of it.
* * *
The shower, the meal, and the clean clothes actually mellow Tony out enough to let the doctor take a look at him. The doctor gives him a sling for his arm, some codeine, and a wheelchair for the flight to Germany. Luckily for him, he does it in that order, so by the time Tony staggers out to the airstrip, leaning hard on Jim's arm, he's too fuzzy to object to being wheeled around like an invalid.
Whether it's drugs or just general exhaustion, Tony stays passed out for most of the flight. As they land he wakes up, and stays awake just long enough for a pretty representative from a German couture house to help him into the crisp new suit he managed to order before they left Qatar. Tony flirts with her in schoolboy German when she leans in close to knot his tie. His accent is horrible. She doesn't seem to mind.
He helps Tony down the ramp when they finally land in sunny California. "I am not going down the ramp in a wheelchair," Tony tells him as the plane taxis to a stop. "Here, come on. Help me."
"Tony, there's not going to be any media--"
"I don't care if there's no media, there's gonna be someone with a camera, and I'm not doing it."
"All right, all right. Will you wait till we're completely stopped, please?"
"Fine." Tony slumps back, hand tapping impatiently at the armrest of the chair.
Tony's sudden 180 when it comes to concern for his public image is just one of the things that doesn't make any sense about forty minutes later, as Tony torpedos Stark Industries' weapons division in front of God, the press and everybody. From the looks on Pepper and Obadiah's faces, they didn't know it was coming any more than Jim did, which is... not a comfort. At all.
* * *
He follows Tony out, catching up to him halfway to the towncar. "Tony!" he shouts, and Tony glances back, then nods to Hogan. Hogan holds the door open for him and Jim slides into the back seat, next to Tony. "What did you just do?"
"I took accountability. I realize it looks weird on me but I figured you'd be familiar with the basic concept at least," Tony says. "Hogan, drive. Come on, let's go. Round the block, wherever, let's just--"
"Yes, sir," Hogan says, and they pull away from the curb just as the media crowd pours out of the double doors in confused pursuit.
"Accountability... " Jim shakes his head. "Tony, we tracked down the weapons that were used to attack the convoy. A military shipment was hijacked outside Kabul a week before the attack."
"Oh, yeah?" Tony says, staring at him. "Really?"
"Okay, yes, they were Stark weapons. But it was the ground forces that lost them. Your company wasn't-- Tony." Tony is staring out the window, watching the scenery go by like he's never seen it before. Jim grabs Tony by the shoulder, makes Tony turn to look at him, but Tony won't meet his eyes. "You weren't responsible."
"Hogan, stop here," Tony says suddenly. Jim glances past him. They're outside the arc reactor bay. He doesn't think he's been in there for years; Tony probably hasn't either. Stark Industries don't do much with it these days. It's been a dead end, scientifically speaking. Until now. Hogan pulls over to the curb and Tony, of course, has the door open even before the car has completely stopped.
He follows Tony into the bay.
The arc reactor churns within its cell, the humming noise reverbating off the high metal walls that curve around it. Jim watches the energy spin and recoil on itself, thinking about the miniature version wedged in against Tony's ribs. Can he feel it, hear it? Is it a constant hum in his head, or is it like his own heartbeat by now?
"Tony," he says, and Tony hunches his shoulders, awkwardly leaning with one arm on the railing, the other arm still tucked in the sling. "Talk to someone."
Tony sighs, staring into the heart of the reactor.
"Talk to Pepper, talk to Obadiah... hell, talk to Jarvis. This is not... you're not dealing." Even if it's obviously true, he's not going to say 'you need help.' Tony could have come back paraplegic, missing an eye and hallucinating blue fairies and Jim would not have said 'you need help.' He likes to think that on good days he's at least a little smarter than that.
"I am dealing," Tony says. "I'm dealing myself out."
"Look." Jim sighs. "It was not your fault that convoy got attacked. You can't take that on yourself, it's--"
He blinks as Tony turns on him, snapping, "Don't you think there's something a little, I don't know, backwards about you of all people telling me to let it go? That I wasn't responsible, that I should stop caring about the consequences of my actions?"
Sometimes Jim gets really goddamn tired of feeling like he's the only person in the world who ever calls Tony Stark on his bullshit. "So putting thousands of people out of work on an impulse, that's the responsible move. That's you taking the big picture into consideration."
"Huh," Tony says thoughtfully, "I really thought your response there would be 'I'm not telling you to stop caring.' But you went right on past that. Interesting. And okay, first of all, we do other things besides make weapons. People can be re-assigned to different departments. Those that can't or don't want to be, I'm prepared to write generous severance checks in order to help them through the rough transition of immediately being snapped up by all the companies just fucking dying to get their hands on the Stark talent pool. Oh wait, I'm sorry, I forgot, you don't actually care about what happens to J. Random Employee-- you're just trying to guilt trip me. Don't do that. I've got--" He snarls, shakes his head and starts over. "I don't need that."
"Tony," Jim says slowly. "Whatever you went through back there. I get that it messed with your head. I get that. Trust me."
"Rhodey..." Tony turns away, running his free hand back through his hair.
"You ever want someone to talk to, I'm here. I mean it. But this is not... This is not the direction you really want to take."
There are people above Jim in the chain of command who have a stupid notion that he's actually got some influence over Tony Stark. He's always done his best to disabuse people of that idea, partially because he never wanted to be promoted or named for a particular project because of some connection to Tony. But mainly because he knew, he knew that someday Tony would pull some unbelievable shit like this, would go completely off the rails, and Jim wanted it to be very, very clear at that point in time that Tony was never his pet genius. Or anybody's. Oh, Tony is patriotic, he's a philanthropist, he believes in the common good. All of that, sure. But he's also frighteningly self-absorbed, and nobody knows that better than Jim. If Tony someday decides that he's contributed enough to his country's national defenses, and what he really wants to do for the rest of his life is fuck off to Ibiza, drink appletinis and design swimwear for supermodels, nobody's going to stop him. There's no one that can.
Jim calls Tony on his bullshit. He doesn't have any illusions that it actually makes any difference. He has absolutely zero control over what Tony does. If Tony wants to drive his company and his career off a cliff, Jim isn't going to be able to stop him.
"Hey, Rhodey," Tony says, voice low and almost inaudible over the white-noise hum of the arc reactor. "Remember when I asked you to come work for me and you, y'know, didn't want to?"
Jim narrows his eyes. "Remember when you said--"
"Yeah, yeah--" Tony at least has the decency to look embarrassed about bringing it up.
Tony waves his free hand. "So clearly you remember--"
"And we didn't speak to each other for three months? Do I remember that, is what you're asking."
"Right, so-- yeah. Obviously you do. Listen, I know that I promised I would never ask that again."
"Oh my god. Are you seriously--"
"I know! I promised! So let's chalk this up to a head injury or the codeine or something, because... I'm asking again. Rhodey-- seriously. I don't even know what I'm going to do after this. I mean I have some ideas, but... Listen, you wouldn't even have to be working for me. And I'm not asking you to, you know, resign or retire or anything. You could be an independent consultant. I just..." He trails off, then pre-emptively grimaces, somehow magically sensing that this is not going well.
"You are unbelievable," Jim says, stunned.
"So I'll take that as a no, subject closed, fine," Tony says forcefully, "but let's just recall, it's been what, less than twenty-four hours since I was being held captive in a cave in Afghanistan, so keep that in mind when you decide how much of a jerk you're going to be about it."
"Tony," Jim says, matching Tony's raised voice decibel for decibel, "if you're too fragile to get yelled at, then maybe, just a suggestion, but maybe you're too fragile to make major decisions about the future of your goddamn company!"
"Yeah, I'm now officially bored with this discussion." Tony mutters under his breath.
Jim has a personal rule that he's not allowed to punch Tony in the head, no matter the provocation. Whenever he feels the impulse, he thinks about the armored tanks Tony has yet to build, the smart missiles Tony has yet to design, and the brain cells that Tony would probably lose if Jim ever just said the hell with this and socked him one. It has saved Tony from a concussion more times than anybody knows.
Considering that Tony isn't going to be producing weapons any more, Jim thinks it might be time to rethink his rule.
"Sorry," Tony says suddenly, as if he can read Jim's mind, but when Jim looks up, he honestly looks... contrite. Or as close as Tony Stark ever gets. "No, sorry. I'm being bitchy. I'm sorry."
Jim is pretty sure he's never actually heard Tony sincerely apologize for anything. Even when they weren't speaking to each other, for those three long months, and then Tony showed up one day with two supermodels, a pre-approved pass for a three-day leave, and four tickets to the Superbowl, he never actually said the words. So this is... well. It's something. He decides maybe he won't punch Tony in the head.
"Sorry... no, me too," he says. "I don't mean to get on your case about this, Tony, I just..."
"Yeah, you do. And it's okay, I get it." Tony half-smiles. "You're the big picture guy. You always have been."
Jim sighs. Thinks about saying it, thinks about not saying it. Fuck it. "Hey. I care about you too, you know."
"Yeah, I know." This is where a regular guy would punch you in the arm or something, but Tony just ducks his head, looking up at Jim through his eyelashes. Somehow it hasn't gotten any less cute than it was when he was twenty-two. Damn him. "And I..."
Thank God, Jim's cellphone rings. Jim grabs it from his belt and then he realizes what it must be. The shit rolling downhill because of Tony's press conference has just reached Rhodes-level. "...All right. I gotta take this."
Tony looks at him for a long moment, and then nods. "Yeah. I suppose you do."
"What can I tell them?" Jim asks evenly.
"Well, give 'em lots of hugs and kisses from Tony," Tony begins lightly, but Jim doesn't crack a smile. "No? Okay, tell them that I'm tired of every problem looking like a nail and I'm not building any more hammers till I figure out how not to see... How to not see nails. Shit, that sounded better in my head. Wait, let me start over. Tell them..."
Jim just walks away. Sometimes you have to. God knows Tony isn't ever going to get tired of listening to his own voice. It would be encouraging if it weren't so fucking infuriating.
He walks out into the sunlight and his cell reception improves. His mood doesn't. Hogan catches his eye as he passes Tony's car, but Jim waves him off. He'll just walk.
Tony will come back. That's the general consensus on the conference call Jim finds himself on, anyway. Tony is volatile, geniuses are like that. He's been through hell, but he'll get bored, he'll get restless. He'll get over himself. He'll understand where his best interests lie. Everybody agrees. This won't last.
As for Jim-- well, he doesn't make any promises.