"We've got something. Single figure. Seems to be heading away from target. Should we check it out?"
"It's the wrong side of the mountain."
"Could have been an observer."
"Possibly. Colonel? Want us to check it out?"
Colonel James Rhodes-- Rhodey to his friends-- felt a touch of surprise and relief when Captain Morrison turned and asked him to make the call. He was just riding shotgun on this mission; Morrison had let him join his crew as a friendly favor and he had stayed silent for that reason only during the discussion. While the odds were low that the failed missile launch that had put them in the air would give them a lead to Tony Stark's location, the odds of finding Tony wandering around in the middle of nowhere were practically non-existent.
"Do it," Rhodes said. "If they're heading away from the target, they might have information about what's going on over there."
Morrison nodded and passed the order on to the other pilot. The two HH-60G Pave Hawks heeled over with Morrison taking the left, falling back slightly to give the spotter the lead. As they turned away from the column of smoke that had put them in the air, Rhodey leaned over the co-pilot's shoulder to look ahead at the golden dunes now spreading out before them.
Rhodey knew this whole mission was a long shot, but he didn't have many options left. He was running out of time. The only reason his superiors had allowed him to bounce back and forth between here and Edwards was due to Tony's value as a military asset. But the trail was now cold; there were no leads, no demands, no videos, and Rhodey knew the order to return to his duties at Edwards-- and to stay there-- was only days away.
He wasn't sure what he was going to do if nothing turned up before the order came down. He owed Tony too much to give up now, even if all he was going to end up finding was a cold dead body.
"Figure doesn't appear to be armed," the spotter said.
"We'll do a flyby to make sure before we get any closer," Rhodey said as he spotted the figure in question cresting a dune a few degrees to their right. As they shot past him, the man looked up and started to wave an arm in the air.
It was impossible to get a good look at the guy since he was on the shadow side of the dune, making any identifying details blur together. All Rhodey could make out was the shape of the man as he fell to his knees, holding a hand up to give them a 'V' sign. There was something wrapped around the man's head, and he appeared to be wearing a dark sleeveless t-shirt with a circular logo on the front and pants that looked a little ragged below the knees; but there was nothing that told Rhodey who or what the guy was doing out here.
"Doesn't look like he was planning on taking a hike across the desert," Morrison said as they turned back towards the figure.
"No, it doesn't." Rhodey clapped Morrison on the shoulder. "Take us down."
The Pave Hawk cautiously settled to the ground a safe distance away; the backwash from the rotating blades flipping sand into the air and obscuring their view of the man. Rhodey jumped to the ground, along with a four-man team, and ran towards the figure.
The man's hand dropped heavily into his lap as they approached. Going by his body language, he seemed more relieved than concerned by the fact he now had four men and a circling helicopter pointing their guns at him. Rhodey braced himself for bitter disappointment as he took in the man's dirty clothing and scraggly beard; but when the man tilted his head back, and Rhodey saw Tony's familiar brown eyes peering out from the rags wrapped around his head, Rhodey had to restrain a very unprofessional whoop of joy.
Rhodey slowed then stopped in front of Tony. "How was the fun-vee?" he said casually, as if it hadn't been three months since they had last seen each other.
There was a huff of amusement, and then Tony closed his eyes and smiled. Rhodey thought that smile had to be one of the most beautiful things he'd ever seen as he knelt down and reached out to rest a hand on Tony's shoulder. Tony opened his eyes and met his gaze.
This close, Rhodey could see dried blood on Tony's right shoulder, lines of pain etching his face, and a mix of disbelief and hope in his eyes. "Next time," Rhodey said, his throat closing up as he stared in amazement at Tony, "you ride with me, okay?" He wrapped Tony in a one armed hug and found himself fighting back the threat of tears as he held Tony. All he wanted to do was wrap both arms around the man; but the damage to Tony's shoulder kept him from following through on that impulse.
Pulling himself together, Rhodey gave Tony another minute to catch his breath before asking softly, "Tony? We need to get you out of here. Think you can make it to the helicopter?"
Tony nodded, then took a deep breath and straightened. The sun had dipped behind the mountains and in the premature twilight blanketing the desert floor, Rhodey realized what he had assumed to be a logo in the center of Tony's sweat and bloodstained t-shirt was, in reality, a device attached to his chest-- and that the device was softly glowing.
He gripped Tony's arm, horror filling his guts as he hissed, "What the hell?" Instinct made him reach out to grab the thing as he tried to figure out how to get it off Tony without setting something off, but Tony grabbed his wrist.
"Need it," Tony breathed.
Looking at the determined expression on Tony's face, Rhodey reluctantly backed off. "Just tell me if it's safe, Tony," Rhodey said.
Tony nodded. "I made it," he said.
Rhodey raised an eyebrow at that but accepted the answer as a yes. Rhodey carefully pull Tony up with him as he got to his feet. Tony was hardly stable when they were finally upright, and Rhodey wasn't happy about the hiss of pain he heard when Tony reached up to pull the rags off his head, but Rhodey knew better than to say anything.
Sucking in another deep breath, Tony looked at the team surrounding them and announced, "Let's get this show on the road." His voice was rough and unsteady, but clear nonetheless.
It took longer than Rhodey would have liked to get Tony to the Pave Hawk; whatever strength had carried him through his ordeal was clearly fading fast. Rhodey knew they were an easy target but he was not about to try and carry Tony as long as the man was still conscious. He'd never hear the end of it.
Halfway there, Tony frowned and asked, "How'd you know where I was?"
"Didn't. We were checking out a report on a failed missile launch when we spotted you."
Tony breathed out a laugh. "Ah yeah, that. Um, that was me."
"Yeah." Tony glanced at him and grinned. "I made me a bigger stick."
Rhodey grinned back. "They let you play with their missiles?"
"No." The grin faded, and Tony looked away as he added softly, "They let me play with my own missiles." He didn't say anything more. Rhodey could see the muscles in Tony's jaw clenching up, and for just a moment, there was a look of bewildered anger on Tony's face as they reached the helicopter.
What happened to you out there, Tony? Rhodey thought as he helped Tony up into the helicopter. After settling him into the gunner's seat behind Morrison, Rhodey grabbed a blanket and draped it around Tony then stood beside him as he watched their progress back to Bagram Air Field. As the Pave Hawk cut through the growing darkness, Tony leaned sideways in the seat, resting his weight against Rhodey.
When Tony started shivering as he huddled under the blanket, Rhodey muttered without looking down at Tony, "I've got your back."
He doubted Tony would be able to hear him over the noise, but Rhodey saw a tiny nod of acknowledgement out of the corner of his vision. Tony did not look up. Halfway to the base, Rhodey was sure Tony was snoring.
When they landed, a trauma team was already there waiting for them. Rhodey gently shook Tony awake. There was a moment of sleepy confusion, but then Tony seemed to figure out what was going on. He got to his feet without assistance, walked over to the stretcher the team had brought, and then fell right back to sleep as soon as he was down. Rhodey rode with Tony to the hospital complex, then left him in their care as he tried to remember everything on his 'Tony's back' to-do list.
First thing on that list was to contact his superiors to fill them in on the situation. Not that he would have anything to add to what they already knew-- information would have started flying out of Afghanistan the moment they radioed back they had Tony.
Once he got that out of the way, he started looking for a plane to fly Tony home in. He knew as soon as Tony regained consciousness, it was going to be virtually impossible to keep him in place. Best to have a plane standing by for when that happened.
It took less time than he expected to cross that item off the list. He found there was a fully crewed C-17 transport already waiting for him. Apparently, getting Tony out of the hot zone was a priority for more than just him.
Taking advantage of the few free moments he had gained before his next round of phone calls-- he was just waiting on the doctor's report before starting in on those-- Rhodey decided to grab a quick shower and change into some clean clothes. He wouldn't get a chance to do either of those things once Tony was awake.
As he stood under the hot water and thought about what a pain Tony was going to be when he found out his jet had been sent home without him, and how the two of them were probably going to be at each others throats by the time the C-17 hit California's airspace, Rhodey unexpectedly lost it.
There had been another to-do list in Rhodey's head; one he had memorized for an entirely different type of trip home with Tony.
A silent trip home.
He braced one hand against the wall, put his face under the showerhead and let the water wash his tears away.
A half hour later, Rhodey was leaning against the doorframe to Tony's room watching his friend sleep. Deep down, Rhodey admitted this was more in line with what he had expected. IV tubes and wires from various types of monitoring equipment all led down to figure in the bed. The blanket over Tony only covered him from the waist down, and Rhodey could see where each tube and wire was attached to Tony's body.
Rhodey couldn't remember ever seeing Tony so still and quiet. Even on the few occasions when a night of heavy drinking left Tony passed out on whatever piece of furniture happened to be nearby, there was always some odd quality about him that made him seem like he was still in motion.
That quality was missing from the figure in the bed; and the Arc Reactor imbedded in Tony's chest only emphasized that fact. It was still a little unnerving to see it there, but once Rhodey had a chance to really look at the device, that emotion had been somewhat mollified. The original sketches for the Arc Reactor had been thumb tacked to the wall of Tony's old workroom; and it was easy for Rhodey to line up his memory of the top view sketch with the device Tony now had stuck in him.
This miniaturized version of the Reactor looked indestructible. Unfortunately, Tony did not. However, Rhodey knew where Tony was concerned, looks could be deceiving.
Pushing away from the door, Rhodey pulled out his cell. There was one last call he needed to make before Tony woke up and started making demands.
There was a click on the other end of the line, and Rhodey said into the expectant silence, "He's sleeping right now; otherwise he'd be talking your ear off about his little adventure."
There was a moan from the other end. "Oh my god." Virginia "Pepper" Potts, Tony's personal secretary, took a deep breath and asked. "He's all right then?"
"Yeah, he's all right, at least as all right as you can expect under the circumstance." He paused, unwilling to tell her more.
Pepper took a deep breath, and then her voice was calm and professional as she said, "I'll find out when the insurance claims come through, Rhodey. Tell me how bad he is."
"He's dehydrated, sunburned; he's got some heavy bruising all over his torso along with some minor scorch marks up and down both arms. He's lost weight, pulled several muscles, got shot in the shoulder…"
It was Rhodey's turn to take a deep breath. "And he's got some shrapnel lodged near the wall of his heart, and the only thing keeping him alive is a device he's got implanted in the middle of his chest."
There was silence as Pepper struggled with that information. When he had first heard that, it had almost been enough to crush Rhodey's hope that everything would soon be back to normal-- until he considered the smile on Tony's face back on the dune, and the Arc Reactor smack in the middle of his chest.
He was beginning to think Tony might outlive them all.
"Pepper, he's all right. Trust me, he's all right."
"Okay." Her voice cracked. "Okay," she said again, a little steadier. "How long will he have to stay there?"
"We'll be leaving here as soon as I can safely move him."
"All right. Just let me know when you'll be coming in." She paused. "And Colonel Rhodes?"
Rhodey smiled. "You're welcome Miss Potts." There was a click as she hung up. Rhodey flipped the phone shut and slipped it into his pocket as he headed back to Tony's room to wait for his friend to wake up.