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Winter's End

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“Friday, can we run that scenario one more time? I want to see how the additional shock absorption units interact with the current structure of the braces.”

“Will do, boss. Would you like me to run the necessary calculations to determine the delta in the overall integrity of the model?”

Tony tapped his finger against the cup of coffee in his hands. “Yes, let’s run simulations on all the stress factors, I wanna see how much damage these puppies can take.”

The previously paused classic rock music resumed after Friday’s affirmative response and Tony’s attention shifted back to the holographic simulation. He swiped away the projected outline of leg brace schematics and scrolled through several other project files. God, he had a ton of work on his plate. 

No rest for the wicked, right, Tony?

He spared one brief thought to each project as he skipped over it (reviewing the latest batch of Accords edits, troubleshooting the new reactor models that were introduced in Japan last month, some necessary tweaks to the defensive protocols of the Avengers Compound, and a Starkphone update that he was supposed to have finished for Pepper a week ago), but he finally settled on the file he wanted.

The schematic of the latest Iron Man suit bathed the lab and Tony in bright blue. After zooming in over the chest plate, Tony began to take the hologram apart piece by piece, effortlessly deconstructing the virtual suit. This particular upgrade wasn’t a priority by a long shot, but Tony’s own chest had begun hurting, waves of gnawing, aching pain. The hurt was partly physical (evidence of Tony’s long recovery), but mostly, it was phantom pain, like distant echoes reverberating through his chest, a taste of metal clashing against metal, and the only thing that dulled this particular ache was this - updating the suit designs, adding more protections, finding every potential weak spot and compensating for it. Structural reinforcements, back up arc reactors, insulators—

A sudden chill ran through his whole body, intertwining with the pain. The icy pins and needles forced a tremble into his hand, this time carrying with them a memory of frost-covered floors. He had to clench his fists against the table and close his eyes to hold himself together. 

Don’t think about the pain, don’t think about the damn cold, just focus on the suit. 

Logically, he knew this was his feeble attempt to cope with his experience in Siberia. The betrayal, the fight, the subsequent hours spent in a freezing bunker before rescue arrived. Just like after New York, he was using his suits to deal with the trauma - some irrational drive to make his suits invulnerable, because maybe then he could make himself invulnerable too. 

A childish thought, he was well aware, but at the end of the day, working on the suit did chase away the pain and the chill, so it was better than drowning himself in alcohol.

With renewed determination, Tony focused back on the schematics and got to work.

It was Friday’s tentative “Boss?” that brought him back to reality. Glancing at the clock in the bottom right corner of the holographic screen, Tony realized he spent over two uninterrupted hours on the suit. Huh, he could’ve sworn it felt like ten, twenty minutes tops.

“What’s up, my girl?”

“Colonel Rhodes is requesting permission to enter the lab.”

Tony scoffed. “You can tell Honey Bear that he doesn’t need permission to do anything.”

“I will let him know.”

“Thanks, Fri.” He saw the door to his lab open up. “I mean… he is the boss, after all,” he raised his voice and directed that at Rhodey himself, who entered and skillfully maneuvered his wheelchair through the controlled chaos that was Tony’s lab. 

Calling the man “boss” brought a certain amount of satisfaction to Tony because that was exactly who Rhodey was now - the official US Avengers team leader. Years of military and leadership experience on and off the field, pragmatism, the ability to deal with anyone, from a scared civilian to Villain of the Day to the slimiest politician in Washington, and years of dealing with the worst of Tony’s crap. Yes, Rhodey was perfect for the job.

“Damn straight I’m the boss, Tony, but last time I entered without notifying Friday first, I almost got a face full of fire extinguisher foam, courtesy of your demented robotic children.” 

“Aw, you love Dum-E and you know it. You’ll appreciate his extinguisher skills the next time you’re on fire.”

“Unfortunately, that happens far too often when I hang out with you, Tones.” 

The jab was meant to be a joke, but Tony’s heart clenched nevertheless, especially as the wheelchair finally came into full view when the other man managed to get himself across the lab to join Tony at the hologram table. That damn chair was a constant reminder that people around Tony did get hurt far too often. Even though five months had passed since the “Civil War” (Tony hated the name, but that was the trending hashtag at the time and it stuck), Rhodey’s recovery was still moving at a snail’s pace. The logical part of Tony accepted that his best friend’s body still needed time to heal, but having patience was nearly impossible when all he could see was a great, brave man who sacrificed too much, now confined to that stupid chair. This was exactly why Rhodey’s braces were always number one priority on Tony’s to-do list and he was almost ready to build a working model. Everything else be damned, he would get his best friend walking, running, and flying in no time!

Thankfully, Rhodey seemed to be handling his injuries much better than Tony did, but that was because, in addition to all of his other amazing qualities,  Rhodey also had the patience of a damn saint

“So, what brings you to my humble abode, Honey Bun?” Tony asked before glancing at the clock again. “I didn’t miss our dinner date again, did I?”

“No, no, just wanted to talk, that’s all. You know that spending so much time down here by yourself isn’t good for you, Tones.”

“Hey, I spend time outside!”

Yeah, on your way to and from the Accords Council sessions and SI board meetings.” The disapproval in Rhodey’s voice was as thick as molasses. “You need to lighten your load; not everything is your responsibility. There are people here who can help you. Your life can’t revolve around your work.”

“I swear to god, Rhodey, if you tell me I need to get a hobby, I’ll—”

“Hobbies you have plenty of, what you need to do is rest and maybe— oh, I dunno, have some fun once in a while?” 

Yes, because it was so easy to rest and have fun with the Council and the media breathing down their necks, foreign governments demanding reparations, SI stock fluctuating with every gust of wind, and finding your entire worldview suddenly in shambles (after spending several years in denial, because god, there were so many signs, but Tony had always been good at denying the obvious).

He said none of those things to Rhodey. Instead, a resigned sigh escaped his lips and he gave his friend the best set of puppy dog eyes he could manage in the attempt to end this conversation. “I just have a lot of projects, that’s all. We’re still dealing with the aftermath of everything. Once we pick up the pieces, I’m sure things will lighten up.”

“Speaking of your projects, Tony…”

Ah crap, that was Rhodey’s “we need to talk” face and it never meant good things for Tony, because that face was the inevitable precursor to a stern lecture and plenty of what were you thinking? and oh god, Tony, not again.

“I had an... interesting conversation with one of the Council aides earlier today. Lorraine is her name, I think? Sweet kid, she's gonna go far.” Rhodey had been drumming his fingers against his thigh, but they stopped when he pinned Tony with a steely glare. "And while she was telling me about her masters thesis at Yale, she happened to mention that last Monday, you had an informal discussion with the US Council members regarding— oh, what was it she said? Oh yeah - a pardon?!”

The way Rhodey nearly spat the word out made his less than stellar opinion of the idea very clear.

“See, I knew you weren’t here just to check up on me and talk,” Tony accused petulantly, trying to avoid the subject because this was at the top of the list of crap he did not want to discuss right now. 

“Hey, we are talking,” Rhodey was not backing down. “Seriously, man, a pardon? What were you thinking?” 

There it was. Alright, so it seemed they were having this conversation after all. Tony reluctantly admitted that he probably did owe his friend that much. “If it makes it any better, the Council brought it up first. I just— didn’t disagree with them… And I was going to tell you once it was more than just an idea.”

The disapproving furrow between Rhodey’s brows didn’t budge. “It doesn’t make it better. What you should’ve told the Council is that you won’t have any part in this. Maybe we can’t stop them, and maybe we’ll have to provide your Retro Framing tech for the deprogramming, but you sure as hell don’t have to be personally involved.”

“That’s the thing, Rhodey, I— I think I do want to be involved.” 

“…What?” The word was part incredulous and part angry, and before Rhodey could start in on a righteous rant, Tony hurried to explain further. 

“The Council brought it up first, yeah, but it’s something that’s been on my mind for a while now… You know, once I actually had the chance to breathe and think… The tech I have, it may be the only thing that can help him with the deprogramming and I’m the one who knows the tech best… It’s in everyone’s best interest if we get rid of any and all traces of Hydra in his head…” The chuckle that followed was devoid of humor. “Funny, isn’t it, how much easier it is to think logically when you haven’t just witnessed your parents’ death with the killer and his bestest best friend standing a foot away from you?” 

“See, this is exactly why I think this is a bad idea, Tony! How— how can you even think about a pardon after what happened?” 

“We both know what Hydra did to him. God, we saw the files… Those fuckers didn’t spare any details in their thorough documentation. It wasn’t—” Tony swallowed hard, “it wasn’t his fault…”

Rhodey’s expression softened and it was obvious the man was conflicted, but it didn’t take long for anger to overtake mercy. 

“I get that, I do. But what happened in that bunker, that wasn’t mind control, okay? Fuck, Tony…” The name came out sounding like a plea. “You don’t know what it was like… I was the one who had to sit by your bed, while you struggled with every breath because your damn chest was caved in with that blasted shield. I had to listen to those doctors list every fuckin’ thing those assholes did to you… Every bruise, every broken bone… You know how much internal bleeding you had, you idiot?”

Tony didn’t bother hiding the shame he felt in the face of that pain, all that worry he must have caused. “I have an idea…”

“Yeah? Well then, why in the hell would you want to be involved?”

Looking away from the indignation in his friend’s eyes (on his behalf, and it still managed to surprise Tony how much his best friend actually loved him), Tony took a moment to contemplate the question at hand. Why would he want to help? After all, there were still plenty of nights where he woke up covered in cold sweat as the image of his mother’s dying breath— his father’s name on her lips— lingered in his mind for hours afterwards (the other nights were filled with cold blue eyes and the shield coming down, over and over, in an infinite loop, until his mind forced itself to wake up).

Tony didn’t deny that his pain and the betrayal he suffered were real, but in the light of day, away from the nightmares and the bad memories and the bone-chilling cold, it was easier to think more clearly and Tony knew that if he allowed that pain to drive all of his decisions and prevent him from being the better man, it was no better than letting Hydra win. Because at the end of it all, his parents weren’t the only victims that December night and Tony wouldn’t— couldn’t— let Hydra claim another life for themselves. He would do what needed to be done, even if he knew that he might lose a part of himself in the process.

Tony’s voice was quiet, but determined when he answered. “Because it’s the right thing to do. He deserves a second chance, Rhodey…” 

“Oh, Tony…” This time, Rhodey’s gaze remained soft and full of affection. “They never deserved you. You know that, right?” The man shook his head at Tony’s dismissive scoff, but didn’t press on. “Are you sure about this then?” he asked instead. “I know the pardon itself will probably take months to push through, but once it's done and once he's here, it will mean having to see him every day, guiding him through the deprogramming… Are you sure you can handle that?”

“I’m sure, Rhodey…”

He wasn’t sure, not at all, but no one could ever accuse Tony of backing down from a challenge… or of having any actual self-preservation skills. “And if I can’t handle it, I’m sure you’ll be here to provide valuable guidance and snarky commentary, right, Platypus?”

The comment had the intended effect of drawing a smile out Rhodey, despite the man’s best efforts to remain serious. “Someone has to watch out for your sorry ass.” A resigned sigh and then, “It is just one pardon, right? None of the other assholes of the year are coming back?” 

“God, no!” Tony replied immediately. “None of them have the excuse of Hydra screwing with their head for decades. However,” Tony had to caveat reluctantly, “now that Ross is out of the picture, others have been shifting towards more... sympathetic stances on a whole slew of issues. And while I am perfectly happy with Ross rotting away in some dark hole for all eternity, a more humane Council does mean someone somewhere might end up getting the rest of them pardons too, especially if some big scary villain comes along, but I'm sure as hell not going to be the one encouraging them.”

“Oh good,” Rhodey replied sarcastically, “at least you’re not completely crazy.” 

“Nope. Only a little bit crazy,” Tony quipped and flashed the man his patented grin. Neither commented on the fact that there was little feeling behind Tony’s smiles these days.

Rhodey looked up to the heavens with a sigh, probably contemplating how much of a mess this was going to be and asking whatever heavenly deities were listening for some kind of strength, but when he looked back at Tony, he was a man who accepted his fate. “Alright, I’ll settle for a little bit crazy. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but… I guess we’re getting Bucky Barnes a goddamn pardon.”