Tony swears as he stumbles on the shifting sand, twisting his ankle and hitting the sand on his side. The hot sand burns his bare arm, but he’s got more important things to worry about, like keeping sand out of the only thing keeping him alive.
“Get up. Stark men are made of iron.”
Tony makes a noise of bewilderment, turning to find the source of the voice.
It’s his father.
“What the Hell?!”
Howard looks at him sternly, flat disappointment in his eyes. Wow, he hasn’t missed that look in nearly two decades.
“You need to do better, Anthony. I expect more from my son.”
“Ooh, breaking out the full name,” Tony snarks, “You must be pissed.”
Great. He’s talking to his hallucination. It makes sense; he’s been out here for half a day without food or water, bruised to Hell with a concussion to boot. It’s a miracle he hasn’t already keeled over from heatstroke.
Howard continues to stare at him, remote and austere like he’d always been.
“Couldn’t you, I don’t know, do something different? I mean, you’re a figment of my imagination, be creative.”
“Stark men are made of iron, Tony. Remember that.”
Surprisingly, Howard’s “motivational” speech does actually work, and Tony picks himself up, trudging forward with determination. That’s right, he’s strong, he’s enduring, and he still has work ahead of him. The world is made of iron, vital to the structure of the modern world.
Fuck, the sun’s a bitch. He has no idea what he’s going to do after sunset, because nights get cold, fast. He knows - Yinsen told him - stop thinking about that stop stop stop - that there’s civilisation near the mountains. His captors had to get their food and supplies from somewhere.
Now he just has to find it.
The wind blows past him, hot and dry, and it’s at least a change, if not a comfortable one. It’s fierce and angry, and he hears a rumbling under it. There’s a line of gold-brown on the horizon, bubbling and lengthening into a sheet.
Shit shit fuck there’s a fucking sandstorm heading his way -
“Okay, okay, think think think,” Tony muttered, looking around him in the futile hope of finding shelter.
Yeah, no dice there. The storm’s going to hit him in less than thirty seconds, and all he has are the tattered of his singed and bloody clothes.
All he can do is hit the ground and pray.
Sand billows over him and Tony curls up into a tight ball, ignoring the crushing pain of shifting his torso to bend around the fist of unforgiving metal replacing chunks of his sternum and ribs, pressing against his lungs and heart -
blackened little morass -
- And he can’t breathe, can’t get any air through the cloth over his mouth and, too weak to pull in any oxygen, and this is how he’s going to die, defeated by nature, when he burned an entire terrorist camp just to make it this far.
His muscles strain, licking in place, because he needs to survive just a little bit longer, surely the sand will pass. He doesn’t think about how sandstorms can last anywhere from hours to days.
White-gold sparks across his vision, even with his eyes scrunched up tight. He’s not getting enough air. He’s going to die.
Oh God, what’s Pepper doing here?!
She can’t be here, it’s too dangerous, she’ll die in burning sand like the soldiers that that bright-eyed boy who wanted a picture like Rhodey like Yinsen, she can’t be here.
Pepper doesn’t leave. “Tony, come on,” she cajoles, “You have a board meeting. You can’t miss this one, too.”
Tony almost jerks and opens his eyes. The board members. Stark Industries. Illegal weapons sales. He has to fix it.
“You always say engineers fix the broken. Don’t give up.”
He knows this tone, can imagine Pepper’s bright, fierce expression. She’d worn it the day she barged into his office the first time. Bright Pepper, a spitfire under all that gentility.
“Come home, Tony.”
Tony passes out.
Sometime later, the sandstorm does, too.
Every breath feels like coal down his nose and mouth and throat and his eyes are crusted over and his everything hurts. Swallowing feels like glass scraping down his throat and his mouth tastes like shit. He’s got sand in places it shouldn’t be and his cuts sting like a bitch.
He grunts and rolls onto his side. Standing up is going to suck.
It does, in fact, suck very much, especially since the sand shifts under his feet and sends him tumbling down the dune.
“Motherfucker,” he groans, forcing himself to sit up. Sitting up is good. It’s like, 90% of the battle. Ish. Maybe 80%. No less that 70%, tops.
His mother stands mournfully beside him and Tony heaves himself up with a surge of adrenaline, eyes wide. “Don’t,” he warns the hallucination, “Not a word out of you.”
His mother looks like he had another blowout fight with his father, and Tony stalks forward determinedly. Fucking hallucinations - who was next, Jarvis? Yins - Obi?
He ignores Maria’s wispy “Merchant of Death” and trudges on.
It doesn’t take long before he hears whirring above him, and relief floods through him so powerfully, his vision goes fuzzy.
Oh God it’s over. It’s finally over.
And then Rhodey drops onto the sand, unclipping his helmet and running towards him.
A flash of heat let’s him know he’s collapsed to his knees, but all he can see is humvees exploding in front of him, soldiers jerking back with a spray of blood sprouting from their necks, bullets raining down and Rhodey nowhere at all.
“How was the funvee?”
Tommy laughs because if he doesn’t, he’ll cry. Because this - this is too cruel. Pepper, Obadiah, his parents - okay. But Rhodey? His best friend, his confidante, his brother - God, his subconscious really hates him.
This is it. This is how he dies. A life unfulfilled, a legacy in ruins; he doesn’t have the strength to fight his hallucinations and keep going. Stark men are made of iron, but iron rusts, iron melts, and all he can think about Rhodey tousling the rat’s nest his hair was as teen, promising he’d never have to worry about bullies as long as he was around.
But Rhodey’s not here, can’t be here, and all he has is this painful facsimile of what he can’t have. At least he sees Rhodey whole, without blood or bullet wounds or condemnation in his eyes.
At least he has that.
“Next time, you ride with me.”
He feels Rhodey’s arms around him, smells dust and gunpowder and that shitty aftershave Rhodey likes, and yeah, he’s probably going to Hell, but at least he gets one last glimpse of Heaven, one last glimpse of home.
Tony closes his eyes and lets go.