If Tony was honest, he didn't really remember the desert. Not in any way that made sense. It had been ... a burning crucible, molten sand and molten sky, a burning panorama that wheeled dizzily in every direction, swaying to the motion of the liquid metal in his chest and his lungs, traced through his veins and burning in his legs. Heat, or pain. Possibly both. After a while, it was hard to tell the difference.
He didn't remember the desert. Not the howl of emptiness, not the great, silent burning. Not until ... not until it was broken. The silence. Not until a sound had broken the stillness, a familiar, illusory throbbing of helicopter blades, dark shapes breaking apart the burning blue. He'd fallen, dizzy from the whoop torn silent from his molten chest, collapsing to his knees in heat and sand and something that wasn't quite pain, not as he remembered pain.
There had still been silence in his head, still been an echoing stillness inside him. Until words, until humour and pain and connection, how was the Funvee, and a shoulder. God. A shoulder bearing up the liquid metal in his head, a sudden shade against the burning blue, and the one solid, unmoving thing in all the empty whirl. A hand holding him close, a shoulder to bear him up, and the crucible broke, it shattered, and Tony clung to Rhodey on the savage hitch of its breaking.
"I got you," said the voice in his ear, soft and cracking around the edges, Rhodey's hand tight and desperate at the nape of his neck. "Tony. I've got you. We're going home now. You goddamn stupid bastard. I've got you, okay?"
Yes, Tony thought, howled, in the emptiness inside his head. Yes, yes, always yes. The world had broken around him, and his chest was still burning, but all the safety in the world lay between that hand and that shoulder, and he didn't care. He just didn't care.
"Yeah," he rasped, forced it out, still laced with metal, still seeding fire. "Yeah, honey bear. Whatever you say."
And he hadn't. Cared, that is. He hadn't cared about anything. About the ache in his chest, or the mutterings of doctors and soldiers and military intelligence, hadn't cared about the molten silence that still echoed in his head, hadn't cared about the burning laced through his limbs no matter what he did and how far mended he became. He wasn't a forged thing, not anymore. Slag, maybe. The runoff from the forges of the Ten Rings. Nothing but corrupted metal, a burning that he couldn't tell apart from pain, and the weight of the silence in his head. And he cared about none of it. Not a thing.
But he was ... He was curious. After a while. Watching Rhodey, watching the way they moved around him, all those other people, the ones that didn't much matter. The ones he didn't care about, when the only solid people in the world were dead in a cave, or across the sea, or standing solid and belligerent and determined beside his bed. Tony watched them, the way they moved uneasily or gently around Rhodey as much as him, soft and reassuring and gentle towards them both, and as the pain in his chest and his arms began to recede, Tony started to wonder. To be curious.
And then, as he noted a few other things, as the connections started to slide into place, a half-hollow schematic of the interactions going on around him ... curiosity started edging a little more towards alarm, and a clutching fear centered on the burning in his chest.
"... Rhodey?" he managed, finally. Wedged upright and awake against a wall of pillows, his legs drawn up to brace protectively in front of the reactor. No-one had commented on that. He'd spent quite a lot of time recently listening to people pointedly not comment.
Rhodey looked up from where he was perched in a chair beside the bed, blinking curiously over at him. He looked tired, still. Lines drawn through the skin around his eyes, creases of worry and pain that hadn't been there, Tony thought, before he'd been taken. He didn't remember them, anyway. Not this deep. Not this drawn.
"Yeah, Tony?" Rhodey asked, mildly curious, edged with concern. Nothing out of the ordinary, nothing strange. The hollow fire in Tony's chest didn't so much as twitch. "You need anything?"
He grinned. Bright and sharp and uneasy, and shook his head, dialing up the grin even as Rhodey leaned forward in alarm, even as Rhodey's eyes sharpened for the sight of it. "Nah," Tony said, waving a dismissive hand. "Just wondering something, was all. Mind if I ask you a question, oh buddy of mine?"
Rhodey's eyes narrowed, those new lines deepening with the increased concern, and maybe a touch of the old suspicion, the old wariness from before any of this had ever happened, from when Rhodey was still just waiting for Tony to reveal what the hell trouble he'd gotten them into now. "Shoot," he said, careful and measuredly flippant, and for some reason Tony felt his grin slip down into something a little less pretend. Just for a second.
Before the question crept back in, and the fear.
"I was just wondering," Tony said, carefully, tilting his head so he could look sidelong and not directly at Rhodey's face. So he could watch the reaction without revealing too much of his own. "Since I don't remember it happening, and I could be wrong, I might be wrong, but I'm pretty sure I would remember that." If the burning in his chest wasn't worse than he thought, wasn't more than he thought, if it hadn't taken that too ...
He refocused ruthlessly, grabbed hold of his thoughts before they could skitter too far, and looked back at an increasingly worried Rhodey.
"I was just wondering why half this base seems to think we're soulbonded, is all," he murmured, softly, and watched several things slam across Rhodey's face in quick succession.
Shock, first. Wide and white across Rhodey's face. Then something strange, something complicated, shame and defiance and tangled fear. And then ... then determination, sorrow, with the shame settling queasily behind it.
Tony felt the lurch in his chest. Even through the hollow ache, the thing he still wasn't completely sure was pain, he felt that.
"Because we're not, are we?" he asked, watching the complicated, desperate thing in Rhodey's eyes. "I would remember that, I think I would remember that. They took a lot from me, but I don't think that was part of it. Right?" Edged on desperation, edged on pain. "I don't think I've been living with my soulmate for more than twenty years and not noticed, except for when they blew me up and took me away and I spent three months not feeling him because they blew open my chest ..."
Rhodey'd stood, Rhodey'd shot to his feet to stand beside the bed, the dark solid thing at the center of the burning panorama, the one safe thing in the world, and his hand was suddenly on Tony's knee. His hand was dark and heavy and pressed against the shield for the reactor, for the blue burning in his shattered chest, and the shock of it lurched Tony's world sideways. The shock, and the hollow, distant pain.
"They didn't take it," Rhodey said, low and fierce, his hand tight on Tony's knee and his eyes boring directly into Tony's. "Look at me, Tony. They didn't take it, okay? It's not like that, they can't have that. Look at me. I'm not lying. You know I'm not lying to you."
Tony breathed, a distant, distracted hitch, and the pain in his chest abruptly lessened. Sighed out on the exhale, and oh, that was physical, that was actually pain. Right. Okay. Got it.
"I need you to listen to me for a minute," Rhodey continued, still low, still soft and intense. Leaning close over Tony, his fingers curling almost desperately over the curve of Tony's knee, warm and worn. "I'm sorry, Tony. Believe me, I really am. It was the only thing I could think of, okay? It was the only thing I could think of that would make them let me keep looking. But it's not what you're thinking, and they didn't take that from you. I promise."
Tony blinked, his head twitching absently, an aborted shake when his eyes refused to slip from Rhodey's, when something odd and savage in him refused to look away. He blinked instead, rapidly, trying to clear his head, to clear his chest.
"The ... the only thing you could think of?" he managed, frowning now, frowning into the pained fear in Rhodey's face. Trying to kick his brain into gear, trying to slap it out of the silent howl enough to understand. "Rhodey, you ... Okay. You know what? Explain, please. Explaining now, that would be good."
A smile flickered over Rhodey's mouth, at that. Just a tiny one, just a twitch, barely there. But something eased in Tony's chest for it anyway.
"We didn't know if you were still alive," Rhodey explained, carefully. Sitting down on the edge of the bed, perched sideways to Tony, his hand still on Tony's knee. "You don't have a soulmate, and there was enough blood for a fatal wound, and nobody knew if you were still alive. And after a few weeks, they started making noises about ... about giving up. About leaving you, stopping the search. You were obviously dead, it was pointless. They were going to stop looking. And I couldn't ... I wasn't going to let that happen. Yeah? I couldn't let that happen."
Tony swallowed, his throat prickling, knots and needles. It had been hard, since the reactor, to figure out which burnings were pain and which were ... other things, less real things, or maybe more real things. But he recognised this one. Yes.
"Thanks," he said, softly and trying to be casual, trying not to be as sincere as it came out. His hand reaching up, brushing carefully against Rhodey's on his knee. An ache along the nerves, fire that probably wasn't physical. "I mean ... Thanks."
Rhodey smiled crookedly, a lopsided thing moving amongst the new lines of his face. "Yeah, well," he agreed, as failingly casual in turn. "You weren't dead. I wasn't going to let you be dead. Was I?"
Tony smiled, snorted faintly. Shook his head, because there wasn't anything else he could do. Then Rhodey's expression shifted. Seriousness, something maybe like grief, that flicker of shame still behind it.
"I didn't know you were alive," he said, quietly. Dropping his eyes, tracing the outline of his own fingers, avoiding Tony's gaze. "I would have noticed too, I would have felt if you were mine. There have been plenty of things I've felt towards you, over the years," a small look, a flashing smile, faint and pained, "but not your soul beside mine. We'd both have noticed that, I think." He shook his head, fingers tightening faintly over Tony's patella. "So I didn't know you were alive. I couldn't feel you. And they were going to make me stop looking. So I ... I pretended."
Tony blinked. Stared, his eyebrows creeping incredulously up his face. "Pretended," he repeated, a little flatly, a little distantly. "You ... you said we were ..."
"No," Rhodey shook his head, quickly. "I never said it. Not directly. I mean ..." He shrugged, looked aside uneasily. "I just kept saying you were alive. That we had to keep looking. That I knew you weren't dead. And they maybe ... assumed. And I might have ... I might have let them."
And he wasn't looking at Tony now, he wasn't looking at anything now, his shoulders hunched and ashamed, and Tony gaped at him. Blankly, utterly emptily, because ...
"Why?" he whispered. Not shock, not pain, he didn't think pain. Just confusion. "This goes on record. It has to, they always note soulbonds in the records. Just in case, so they know if someone's going to ... to blow a gasket or fall down dead from severance shock, or ... Never mind. Whatever. They think you're bonded. How the hell are you ever going to find your real soulmate when everyone thinks you're bonded to me?"
It was ... the hollow burning in his chest, and the terror that they'd broken that part of him, that they'd cut it out and there was nothing but an emptiness under the reactor where it had been, and Rhodey hadn't had it cut, Rhodey'd just given it away. Just handed it away, just like that. Either his future bond, or his career, because either Rhodey hid the real bond, denied it and the deepest part of himself, or everyone figured out he'd been lying, that he'd lied about what was possibly the single most sacrosanct thing they had, and you didn't do that, no-one did that, why would you do that ...
"I didn't care," Rhodey said, Rhodey cut in, flat and intense and something, something burning, something lancing through the molten metal in Tony's chest, through the fragile shield of his knees in front of the breaking. "Tony. They were going to leave you. They were going to leave you for dead, and I wasn't letting that happen. Okay?"
He paused. Shook his head, the determination faltering, and the shame creeping up behind it.
"I didn't care," he repeated, almost absently, and the shape of the phrase had changed, the tone. Something so much darker under it. Something bitter. "I'm sorry, Tony. I really ... I really am."
He shook his head, a bitter crease of his lips, and met Tony's eyes head on as he carefully raised his hand from Tony's knee. Holding Tony's gaze, looking for something there, Tony didn't know what, as he brought his hand across the barrier of Tony's legs and pressed it, carefully, over the reactor. Watching for a flinch, maybe. Something. Tony stared at him, Tony blinked at him, waiting for a molten burning that had already broken, back in the desert he didn't really remember and the desperate safety of that hand at the nape of his neck.
"They didn't take it from you," Rhodey said quietly, watching him with a soft, sad smile. "And the first person you're worried about is me?"
Oh. Well. Yeah. Because if he was supposed to be bonded to Rhodey, what about his future bonding. There was also that, yeah.
Except ... Except maybe not.
"I don't have a soul," he said. Blurted. And then shook his head, flashed up a hand ahead of Rhodey's already opening mouth, Rhodey's frown of concern. "Strike that, no, obviously I have a soul." A pause. "Well. Probably. I probably have a soul." He waved a hand. "Never mind. We'll go with yes, I have a soul. But ..."
He pressed his lips together, trying to think, trying to grab hold of the shape of the thought, the schematic, around the silence in his head and the fire in his chest. The fire that was ebbing slowly, had been ebbing, now that he thought about it, ever since Rhodey had told him he wasn't allowed to die.
"I've never felt it," he said, softly. Letting his knees slide down a little, reaching up to wrap his hand lightly around Rhodey's wrist instead. Feeling the weight of that dark hand on his chest, hiding the shattered glow. "What you're supposed to feel? The way they talk about it. Knowing someone's there, somewhere. Feeling that someone ... exists, I don't know. The way you know. The way you're supposed to know. I've never ... I've never."
The hollow fear, the clawing desperation. That he hadn't known. That he'd had it, all that time, and he hadn't known, the numbness, the hollowness, that Rhodey had been feeling something all that time, and he hadn't known, and then they'd cut it from him. Not that they'd cut away something he hadn't had yet, but that they'd cut away something he had, and he'd been too ... something, soulless, too something to realise that he'd had it all along. That it had been right there.
And it hadn't, that wasn't the fear, Rhodey'd been lying, Rhodey'd been pretending, he hadn't lost the thing he'd never know he had. And that hand was pressed against his chest, pressed against the light and the molten emptiness, and it wasn't lying to him, and it was still the safest thing in the whole goddamn world, and he still had that. He still had it.
"I don't have a soul," Tony whispered, softly. "Never did, never have. I wasn't ever going to be ... I don't think I was ever meant for that. They didn't take it from me. There wasn't anything to take."
"... Tony," Rhodey rasped, soft and hollow, sorrow and sympathy and worry, and he probably didn't believe it, Rhodey didn't think things like that, Rhodey didn't know about the silence in your head and the emptiness in your chest, and why the fuck had Rhodey handed everything away, why would Rhodey give away all the things he could have, just for ... for blood in the desert, and the chance for someone not to be dead?
Tony grabbed hold, wrapped his hand convulsively tight around Rhodey's wrist. And then he asked, because he had to, because why not. "Why would you do that," he asked. "I could have been dead, you didn't know that, I could have been dead and then what? Why would you do that, when you didn't even know I wasn't dead?"
And Rhodey stared at him, Rhodey stared blank and bewildered into his eyes, and then ... then Rhodey smiled. Soft and lopsided, startlingly white. Startlingly real. Rhodey looked at him, and smiled.
"Because I wanted you to be alive," he said, so softly. "Because I've never felt anything either, I've never known anyone existed, and I wanted. I wanted you to be alive, and it was worth selling something I've never had to make it so." A breaking grin, a burning panorama. "I've got you. You're not mine, but I've got you, and I really didn't care beyond that." A crease among those new lines, alive and so very bright. "I don't care, Tony."
Tony swallowed. And again, the burning in his chest, metal and fire and the wheel of silence, and that hand pressed close, that hand holding tight.
"I want to keep you," he said. "I can't ... I don't know how to make the thing they have, the thing they mean, I don't even know if I've got a soul, or I'd figure out ... I'd figure out how to forge something for you, I'd make something for you, but I can't, and I want to keep you." A swallow, a smile, wild and fierce and full of old suspicion. "You didn't even know I wasn't dead, what is wrong with you."
Rhodey laughed. He laughed, and surged up the bed, surged up over the subsiding crest of Tony's knees, one hand on Tony's chest and the other curling around the nape of his neck, the dark solid thing at the center of the world, and then his forehead was resting against Tony's, and the crucible broke against the shade.
"It'd be handy to know that, yeah," Rhodey allowed, holding him close, his fingers tight and desperate, his voice soft and laughingly low. "It'd be good to have that, to know you exist, to feel you exist." He shook his head, rocked gently along Tony's brow. "But that's okay," he murmured. "That's okay. Next time, you'll just ride with me, how about that? Next time, you ride with me, and we'll blow the sons of bitches up together, and then it won't matter if I feel you, because you won't be dead." A hitch of breath, soft and sighing. "How about that, hmm?"
Yes, Tony thought, yes in the hollow howling, between those hands, in the safety of that shade, yes, always yes. All the things he'd never had, all the things he'd had for twenty years, the things that didn't lie, the things that were always safe, the things that were Rhodey. Not a soulbond, no. Never that. But something fiercer, maybe, something more frail, a scarred, forged thing, and he'd never needed the other anyway. He'd never felt it, and never needed it. There was a man who'd search for him without knowing he wasn't dead, who'd lie for him and sacrifice a whole future for him, and who the hell needed a soul in the face of that?
"I'm keeping you," he whispered, soft and low into Rhodey's ear, wrapping his arms around those shoulders, the shattered glow kept safe between their chests. One last warning, one last chance. "If you don't leave now. I'm keeping you, and I'm not going to care."
Rhodey chuckled, soft and dark, a fire not in Tony's chest but in his belly, in his heart, in his head, low and banked like forges. "I never used to lie before you," he said, softly. "Not like this. Not to the whole goddamn world." He shook his head, cruised his hand from the nape of Tony's neck up across the back of his head, cradling Tony's skull, cradling him close. "Do you really think I spent three goddamn months looking for your probably-dead-ass because I was planning to let you go now?"
Tony laughed. A hitch, a roll, and the crack of a vast and burning crucible, the final shattering of the burning wheel. Yeah, he thought. Yeah, well. When you put it like that ...
Tony kissed him. Tony grabbed him, and kissed him, and held onto him with fingers laced with metal, laced with fire. "Yeah," he said breathlessly, in the gaps between kisses. "Yeah, okay. Yeah. Next time, you ride in the Funvee. Okay? Next time we do that."
Because Rhodey was the dark thing at the center of the world, and Tony was a goblin, Tony was a demon, Tony was a forged and soulless thing, but he could break open a crucible the size of the world on that one solid thing, and nothing mattered beside that. Beside Rhodey. Nothing mattered beside him.
"I'm keeping you," he whispered, the devil and the demon to a man who'd lied to a world on the chance he'd be alive. "I've got you, and I'm keeping you. Next time, you ride with me."
And when Rhodey kissed him on the roll of the laugh, for the first time, the fire in his chest wasn't hollow at all.