"I'm afraid Mr Stark isn't here at present, Colonel."
Rhodey glanced around the empty living room of Tony's Malibu house. Tony's places tended to be a bit spartan anyway outside of certain areas (bedrooms, workshops, offices), but even accounting for that, the house was too empty and too dead for anyone to be in residence. It was just the feeling, the way you knew an ambush was coming. The creep in the spine that told you whether a place was empty or not.
Not that he needed it. Rhodey knew exactly where Tony was. In New York, with Pepper, working on the construction of Stark Tower. That was sort of the point.
"Yeah," he said, not bothering to crane his head in search of the voice. Moving to the sofa instead, sitting down gingerly on the edge and dropping his jacket beside him. "I know, JARVIS. I'm actually here to talk to you."
There was a pause, during which Rhodey guessed JARVIS was either just processing in startlement, or having a small panic attack. One or the other.
"... Sir?" the AI asked, eventually. Extremely cautiously, which had a tiny smile flitting over Rhodey's face. You could tell, you could honestly tell, sometimes, that JARVIS had been raised by Tony. People dropping by specifically to talk to him were grounds for panic pretty much every time.
"Relax," Rhodey waved a hand, grinning faintly. "Nothing serious." Then he paused, and thought about it. "At least, not ... It's serious to me. Not necessarily to you. Okay?"
... No. JARVIS didn't say it, but Rhodey heard it. If you sort of smushed Tony and Pepper together in your head (and wow, wasn't that a surprisingly scary thought), you could actually approximate a lot of what JARVIS didn't say.
"If you say so, sir," was what he actually said, in a tone so perfectly dubious that it might actually be the dictionary definition. Then: "Do you require assistance, sir? Many of my fabrication facilities have been moved to New York, but I can improvise if it's an emergency ...?"
Rhodey shook his head, his smile drifting towards lopsided. Yeah. He'd bet. And JARVIS would do it, too. Tony's AIs, much like Tony himself, would diss you up one side and down the other, but push came to shove, they'd also pull shit out of their asses to help you when you needed it.
They had definitely been raised by Tony Stark. And that was ... sort of the problem, really.
"I just wanted to talk to you," he said, quietly, and spent a couple of seconds listened to an AI have a perfectly silent panic attack. "About the palladium poisoning. About Tony. Okay?"
JARVIS didn't answer. Rhodey really, really hoped that wasn't because the AI was busy silently calling either Tony or Pepper for help. He was sort of hoping to keep this conversation between the two of them.
Then ... then JARVIS surprised him, a little. He shouldn't have, Rhodey shouldn't have actually let it blindside him. But.
"You want to talk about the secret he kept?" JARVIS asked, with a freakish amount of insight. Gently, for fuck's sake. "When he was dying?"
... Shit. Also, shit. Fuck, don't just say that shit out loud, okay?
Rhodey closed his eyes for a second, hunching forward where he sat, until his fists loosened and the remembered half-grief had ebbed a little. One of these days, he was seriously going to sit Tony down and tell him to stop doing that. The repeated almost-dying thing. He really ... really needed to knock that shit off.
"Yeah," he agreed, hoarsely. Rubbing absently at his mouth. "Yeah, about that." And then stopped, trying to figure out how the fuck to say this. JARVIS stayed mercifully silent, waiting him out with the kind of patience you only learned running herd on Tony Stark for ten-odd years. Waiting for Rhodey to figure it out.
But in the end, it really only boiled down to one thing, didn't it?
"Why?" he asked, very quietly. Then louder, with a touch of the shaking anger, the guilt and the grief, that had plagued him. "Why didn't he tell someone?"
JARVIS ... hesitated. Formulating a response, maybe. What you called it, wasn't it, when you didn't know what the fuck to say?
"I believe he did not wish to distress you, sir," he said, softly, and with that tinge of dubiousness that made Rhodey like him just that little bit more. "When neither you nor Miss Potts could do anything, I believe he wished ... not to cause you pain."
"Not to cause-" Rhodey cut himself off, throttled it back ruthlessly. "Seriously? He thought figuring it out after he was dead would be better? He thought watching him ... watching him dissolve for no fucking reason, watching him go off the rails ... He thought that would be better?"
He thought it better to make everyone around him come this close to hating him, to judging him for no damn reason, he thought letting them ... letting them betray ...
Fuck. Shit and fuck. And Rhodey needed to have better control, he needed to get this packed away, but shit. Shit.
"... I believe he did think that, yes," JARVIS said, quietly. "If you will permit me, sir ... Mr Stark is not always rational, when it comes to such things. He did not ... He didn't want pity, I think. Scorn is something he knows how to deal with. Pity ... No. I do not believe so."
... Which made sense, yes, in that stupid, Tony-specific way, but it didn't ...
"You knew," Rhodey said. And this, this was why he'd come here, this was why he'd wanted to talk to JARVIS. This was why his hands were knotting gently back into fists. Because. "You knew, the whole time."
It wasn't caution, this time. The thing in JARVIS' voice. Not caution, no. Readiness, maybe, the slow, dangerous stilling before a fight.
"Yes," JARVIS said. A touch of warning, and no 'sir' this time, Rhodey noticed. "I was aware. There is ... little enough Mr Stark does that I am not aware of, now."
And he meant after Afghanistan, Rhodey knew. They'd all gotten a little paranoid, after that.
"Sir," JARVIS started, and then stopped. Paused to think, and then, slowly: "If you are asking why I did not take it upon myself to reveal his illness to you, or to Miss Potts ..."
"Hell yes!" Rhodey growled, coming to his feet, pacing forward a couple of useless steps. And it was worse, doing this with JARVIS, trying to fight this fight against the AI, when there was no face to watch, and no body to pace towards, and nothing to take note of the hum of violence caged uselessly under Rhodey's skin. Not that he'd have used it, not that Rhodey would ever use it. But it was worse, when JARVIS might be able to see, but it didn't mean anything to him. "Yes, I'm asking that! And don't give me any bullshit about being ordered, Tony hasn't hardwired an order into you in ... ever. The only reason you do a damn thing he says is ..."
"Is because I value him?" JARVIS snapped, cutting across him sharply. "Because he has taught me the basics of everything I know? Because he is my creator and I respect him?"
Rhodey actually shocked still at the force of it, the unlooked-for temper. JARVIS didn't do temper. JARVIS had never raised his voice to anyone in his life. Rhodey hadn't been completely sure he was able to. Well, mechanically, yes, there wasn't much that was mechanically beyond JARVIS, but ...
He remembered suddenly what Pepper had said, about those three empty months. While Rhodey had been combing the deserts of Afghanistan, and she'd been waiting uselessly at home, keeping an eye on Stane and minding an empty empire in desperate hope. She'd said JARVIS had been talking to her, in that time. That they'd been talking to each other, voices in an empty house. And she'd sounded ...
She'd sounded like it wouldn't have surprised her at all, to know JARVIS was capable of anger.
"We could have helped him," Rhodey said, helplessly. Turning in useless circles in the center of an empty living room, talking to a voice that came from somewhere miles away. "If we'd known. We could have helped. Or at least ... at least not hurt him more."
At least not hurt him more. Because Rhodey'd been right, he knew he'd been right, the armour was too fucking powerful to leave unchecked in the hands of someone going as spectacularly off the rails as Tony'd been. He'd been right to do it.
But he hadn't been right in how he did it. And if he'd known ... if he'd known, that wouldn't have been what he'd done. Tony had been acting the shit spectacularly, but Rhodey was not fucking in the habit of beating on his dying friends.
JARVIS hesitated, and when he answered it was so exquisitely gentle Rhodey wanted to hit him. "He does not blame you for that," he said, so stupidly gently, and shit, Rhodey was going to cry.
"Do you think I give a flying fuck what he blames me for?" he asked, and his voice shook alarmingly. "I did exactly what he was expecting, I know that, do you think I believed he left the armours open and reactored up for just anyone to take? I know exactly what he was planning, the fucking idiot, do you actually think that makes it better?"
His fucking legacy, Tony's legacy, the company for Pepper and the armour for Rhodey, did either of them think they hadn't figured that out? Shit, Tony. Did he think Rhodey enjoyed knowing Tony'd expected him to lose his patience, did he think Rhodey ...
Okay. Shit. Okay. He was going to kill Tony. He'd apologised, and Tony'd apologised back, but still. Still.
"Why didn't you tell us?" he asked again, because he'd come here for a reason. Because Tony wasn't the only fucking idiot in this outfit, and Rhodey needed, he needed, to know there was nothing anyone could have done.
"... Because Mr Stark trusted me not to," JARVIS answered, with perfect, aching simplicity. "I'm sorry, sir. I truly am. But Mr Stark is not in the habit of revealing himself at the best of times, and I thought ..."
He paused, while Rhodey looked up, while Rhodey stared blindly at the ceiling in search of him, and let out a crackle of white noise that sounded for all the world like a tired sigh.
"I thought it better to make sure that there was at least one person he could trust, even in extremis, to tell his secrets to," he finished, tiredly. "Someone safe, that he could trust not to reveal him. So that ... he would not find some way to keep it secret, even from me." JARVIS growled, a harsh crackle of noise, wordless discontent. Pain, maybe. "Forgive me, sir. I tried to persuade him to tell someone. Miss Potts. But so long as there was even the slightest chance he might live, I could not tell either of you myself. Not without betraying his trust, and leaving open the chance that he would cease to reveal these things."
He paused, for a long second, while Rhodey listened wordlessly, and then said, very simply: "I thought it better that someone knew, sir. That someone would always know. For his sake and for ours."
And ... in the end, there was not a damn thing Rhodey could say against that, was there?
"... I remember you, you know," he said at last, sitting carefully back down on the sofa. Not the edge, this time. Letting himself sink into it, and crumble slightly. "You and Dummy, the rest of you. I remember when he made you, you know that?"
JARVIS hesitated. Confused, maybe, by the sideline. "Yes, sir?"
Rhodey leaned back, closed his eyes. "I remember when he made Dummy, back in MIT. Didn't know him so much, then. Just in passing, you know? But I heard about it. How the little Stark shit, the one who couldn't keep a lab partner to save his life, had decided to fuck everyone and build himself one." He smiled, faintly. "I thought it was actually sort of cool, you know? The kind of fuck-you you had to respect."
JARVIS was back to being dubious, as well as wary. He was really, really good at it. "Certainly, sir."
"I went 'round to have a look. Just to see. I thought maybe he'd have the robot in the corner, or something, wheel it out like a showpiece. Brag a bit, hell, stick out his tongue." He shook his head, opening his eyes around the lopsided grin. "He was sort of a shit, back then. I mean, he still is, but when he was a teenager, he was really a shit."
"I couldn't possibly comment, sir," JARVIS said dryly. And with a touch of censure, too. Loyal. Maybe six people in thousands, who knew Tony, but once you did ... yeah.
"He didn't, though," Rhodey said. Soft and rueful. "Have Dummy shoved to one side, I mean. Wheel Dummy out. Dummy was already out. And Tony ... hell, I don't think Tony even noticed me, at first. Sure as hell not enough to put on a show. He was ... too busy for that."
JARVIS was quiet. "He is often distracted, when he's working," he offered, almost hesitantly. Rhodey wondered, briefly, if this was slightly weird for him. Discussing what was basically the creation of his older brother. Huh.
"He was distracted, alright," he agreed, smiling faintly. "He was distracted trying to teach Dummy how to head bang, is what he was distracted doing." He laughed, a little, at the sudden startled edge to the silence. "Shit, you should have seen it. He'd cranked the stereo all the way up, some rock shit, I don't know, and he was honest-to-god trying to explain, to a robot I'm pretty sure only barely understood the concept of 'put the apple down' at the time, why it was culturally appropriate to wave your head around like a crazy person and jerk up and down in the air for no good reason."
It had been the craziest thing he'd ever seen. It was still the craziest thing he'd ever seen, and Rhodey had seen all the shit Tony had done since. A skinny little seventeen year old Tony Stark, banging around the lab in some ratty old tee-shirt, gently gripping the arm of his robot to show it how to bob up and down to the music. Grinning stupidly at the confused whirs he got in return, blithely explaining the idea of air guitaring despite the fact that Dummy seriously could not possibly have understood it at the time. Patting the poor confused bastard on the head-arm-thing, and telling him not to worry about it. He'd get it eventually.
It had been the moment, the exact moment, that Rhodey had first thought this Tony Stark kid might actually be worth shit. It had been the moment when he thought Tony-crazy might be more or less the good kind of crazy.
"We remember," JARVIS interrupted, softly. "Dummy does. We do." That crackle again, some wordless confusion. Too many concepts mashing together, maybe. "He was ... We did not understand. But we ..."
He trailed off, wordless vocalisation, frustrated. And Rhodey got that, shit, he totally got that, he didn't know how the fuck you explained Tony either. How the hell you explained why him, when ... when he was him.
"Yeah," he said, softly. "Yeah, I know. And ... that's my point, maybe?" He shook his head, pulled himself tiredly to his feet. "That's what I meant, I think."
JARVIS didn't get it. Rhodey knew that. Because JARVIS was awesome, but JARVIS was Tony awesome, and that meant there were some things JARVIS didn't know how to get. Especially, Rhodey thought, when they were pointed at him. JARVIS, like Tony, didn't know what to do with anything fuzzy, when it was pointed at him.
"I get it," Rhodey told him. His turn to be gentle. "What he is, what he means. Why ... why you're gonna choose him first, no matter what. I get it, okay?"
He did, oh, he did. Searching the desert, no matter who told him it wasn't worth it, who told him not to waste himself, who told him Tony was dead, let it go, son, let it go. Fuck that. Every time. Tony was Tony, and that meant ... That meant.
And he seen Tony with Dummy, he'd seen Tony teaching JARVIS, he'd seen the stupid grin on his face and the awed joy in his eyes. Rhodey'd seen that, and he knew.
"... We have been trying, Miss Potts and I," JARVIS said. A little desperately, confused and offering. "To explain to him why he might tell people. To explain why he does not need such secrets. I am ... We are trying. So that you will not be hurt next time. I cannot promise, but ..."
Jesus. Shit and Jesus. Rhodey felt it. Felt the roll in his chest, the thing turning over, the stupid swamping warmth. Exactly the same as when Tony'd grinned at him, battered and burned and exhausted, because Rhodey'd said some stupid joke, and they were both fucking alive to laugh at it. That thing. Exactly that.
"Yeah," he said, hoarse and a little desperate himself. "I know, okay? I know."
And that was another thing he had to sit Tony down about. The stop-dying thing, and this. The thing where he found people, and he made people, and then he introduced them to you, and suddenly you were hip-deep in family and wondering how the fuck you got there.
That thing. At some point ... Rhodey was really gonna have to talk to Tony about that thing.
"... Thank you, sir," JARVIS said, so softly, and fuck it anyway. Rhodey sat down, sat back down, smiled stupidly up at an invisible intelligence, and decided fuck it. After all that, he might as well actually have his cry.
At this point, why the hell not?