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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 determine the delta in the overall integrity of the model?”

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

The previously paused classic rock music resumed after Friday’s affirmative chirp and Tony’s attention shifted back to the holographic simulation. He swiped away the projected outline of leg brace schematics and scrolled through the rest of the project files.

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 introduced in Japan last month, some necessary tweaks to the defensive protocols of the Avengers Compound, and a Starkphone update he was supposed to have finished for Pepper a week ago—and kept flipping until he found the file he wanted.

The schematics of the latest Iron Man suit expanded and bathed the lab in familiar blues. After zooming in on 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, not by a long shot, but Tony’s own chest had begun hurting hours ago, the gnawing pain crawling up and down the mostly-healed flesh. Tony’s recovery was a lengthy one, but he knew it was mostly phantom pain by now, distant echoes reverberating through his chest, metal clashing against metal. 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, parachutes, insulators—

A chill ran down his spine and the icy pins and needles forced a tremble into his left hand as a memory of frost-covered floors forced its way into his head. Tony hurried to put the coffee mug down and clenched both of his fists on the table before squeezing his eyes shut. 

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

The logical part of his brain knew this was his feeble attempt to cope with Siberia. The betrayal, the fight, the subsequent hours spent in a freezing bunker before rescue arrived, all of it left a mark—physical and otherwise—and just like after New York, Tony was using the suits to deal with the trauma, driven by some irrational need to make the suits invulnerable. To make himself invulnerable too. 

A childish thought, he was well aware, but at the end of the day, working on the suits did chase away both the chill and the pain and it was far better than his earlier coping mechanisms. Everyone preferred Tony’s diligent tinkering to him drowning himself in alcohol.

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

It was Friday’s tentative “Boss?” that brought him back to reality and glancing at the clock at the corner of the holographic screen, Tony realized he spent over two uninterrupted hours on the suit. They felt like minutes to him.

“What’s up, my girl?”

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

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

“I will certainly let him know.”

“Thanks, Fri.” He watched the doors open and raised his voice to be heard across the lab, “I mean, he is the boss, after all!”

Tony heard Rhodey’s answering snort and continued to watch, this time with a familiar pang of guilt, as Rhodey skillfully maneuvered his wheelchair through the controlled chaos of Tony’s lab. 

Getting to call Rhodey ‘the boss’ brought a certain amount of satisfaction at least. It was the truth too, a well-deserved change in the hierarchy. Years of military and leadership experience on and off the field, pragmatism, the ability to deal with anyone and everyone, from a scared civilian to some rambling villain to the slimiest politician in Washington, and years of dealing with the worst of Tony’s crap made Rhodey more than qualified to lead the Avengers.

“Damn right I’m the boss,” Rhodey said when he reached Tony, “but last time I entered without notifying Friday, I almost got a face full of fire extinguisher foam for my troubles, 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 words were meant to be teasing, but Tony’s heart clenched nonetheless, especially now that the wheelchair was in full view and Tony could no longer ignore it. It served as his constant reminder that people around Tony did get hurt far too often. Five months had passed since the ‘Superhero Civil War’ (Tony hated the name, but that was the trending hashtag at the time and it stuck), but Rhodey’s recovery was still moving at a snail’s pace, even slower than Tony’s. Tony knew he needed to accept the time Rhodey’s body needed to heal, but having patience was nearly impossible when all Tony could see was this brave, incredible man who sacrificed so much—too much—now confined to that wheelchair. 

There was a reason why Rhodey’s braces were always number one priority on Tony’s to-do list; he was almost ready to build a working model and then it’d only be a matter of a few more months before Rhodey was back up on his feet. Everything else be damned, Tony would get his best friend walking again.

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

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

“No, no, I just wanted to talk, that’s all. You know that spending so much time down here by yourself isn’t good for you. You need to go outside, see the sunshine.”

“Hey, I spend time outside!”

“Right, right, and when is that? On your way between 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, Tones. Not everything is your responsibility and there are people here who can help you. Your life doesn’t have to revolve around work.”

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

“Nah, you have plenty of hobbies. What you need is rest and—oh, I dunno, I’m just spitballing here, maybe have some fun once in a while?” 

Tony tried not to scrunch up his face in displeasure. It wasn’t so easy to rest and ‘have fun’ when the Council and the media were constantly breathing down their necks, foreign governments demanded reparations, SI stock fluctuated with every gust of wind, and you found your entire worldview in shambles—after spending several years in denial despite all the signs. Oh, there were so many signs, but Tony had always been good at denying the obvious.

He said none of that to Rhodey. Instead, Tony pulled out 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 that happened with Ross and the trial. Once we pick up the pieces, I’m sure things will lighten up.”

“I’m sure they will. I just worry about you, that’s all.”

“You’re such a mother hen, Rhodes, it’s embarrassing.”

Rhodey’s lips twitched. “It’s cute how you think you’re not the biggest mother hen in this entire building, Tones. I get it though, really, I do. There is a lot on our plates, which is why I’m wondering why you’d add something else to yours.”

Uh oh, that was Rhodey’s ‘we need to talk’ face and it never meant good things for Tony; 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 a—let’s call it an interesting conversation with one of the Council aides earlier today,” Rhodey continued. “Lorraine is her name, I think? Sweet kid, she’s gonna go far, although I hope she gets herself out of politics.” Rhodey had been drumming his fingers against his thigh, but he 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 last Monday you had an informal discussion with the Council members regarding a—oh, shoot, what was it she said again? Oh, right. A pardon.”

The way Rhodey spat that word out said all that needed to be said about his opinion on the idea.

“See, I knew you weren’t here just to be nice and check up on me,” Tony mumbled, petulant and trying to avoid the subject since this particular tid-bit was at the top of the list of things he did not want to discuss right now. 

“Hey, we are talking.” Unsurprisingly, Rhodey refused to back down. “But seriously, Tones, a pardon? Why? What were you thinking?” 

And there it was. It seemed they were having this conversation after all, Tony’s reluctance be damned, but he admitted he probably did owe Rhodey that much. “If it makes it any better, the Council brought it up first. I just—didn’t disagree with them. I was going to tell you once it was more than just an idea.”

The disapproving furrow between Rhodey’s brows didn’t budge. “That doesn’t make it better. You should’ve told the Council you won’t have any part in this. Sure, maybe we can’t stop them from going through with it 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.”

Tony slumped onto his forearms, letting his gaze settle on the tabletop first, eyes absently skating across the bits and pieces of his projects, before he looked at Rhodey again. “That’s the thing though. I think I do want to be involved.” 

“…Excuse me?”

Ton could hear both the incredulous tone and the beginnings of righteous anger, so before Rhodey could start in on him, Tony hurried to explain. 

“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 to think. I know we’ve all had our, uh, disagreements a few months ago—”

“Oh, is that what we’re calling it now? Because I’ve been calling it destruction of property and attempted murder.”

“—but isn’t it in everyone’s best interest to get rid of any and all traces of Hydra? The tech I have, it may be the only thing that can help with the deprogramming and I’m the one who knows the tech best.” 

“I didn’t think you’d want to help at all.”

Tony scrubbed a weary hand over his cheek; his laugh was tinged with bitterness. “You wouldn’t believe how much easier it is to keep a clearer head when you haven’t just witnessed your parents’ gruesome murder with the killer and his bestest best friend standing a foot away from you.” 

“See, that’s exactly why I think this is a bad idea. How can you even think about a pardon after what happened?” 

“We both know what Hydra did to him though. God, Rhodey, we saw the files. Hydra was a lot of things, all of them fucking awful, but oh boy, did they take their torture documentation seriously. Those fuckers didn’t spare a single details, so it wasn’t—” Tony swallowed and forced the phantom images of scribbled words and ghastly images out of his mind. “It wasn’t his fault.”

Rhodey’s expression softened. He was obviously conflicted, but it didn’t take long for hurt to overtake mercy. 

“I get that, I do, but what happened in that bunker, that wasn’t mind control, okay? Fuck, Tony.” The name was a plea to listen. “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. I had to listen to those doctors list every fuckin’ thing those assholes did to you. Every bruise, every cut, every break. Do you know how much internal bleeding you had?”

Tony hated hearing the worry in Rhodey’s voice, the hurt he knew intimately from spending his own hours at Rhodey’s bedside, begging him to wake up. “I can probably guess. I was there too, you know.”

“Yeah? Then why the hell would you want to be involved again?”

Looking away from the indignation in Rhodey’s eyes—on Tony’s behalf and it still took Tony by surprise sometimes to see the proof of his friend’s love so clearly—Tony took a moment to contemplate the question. 

Why would he want to help? After all, there were still plenty of nights he spent waking up in cold sweat as the images of his mother’s dying breath—his father’s name on her lips—lingered in his mind for hours. Other nights were filled with cold, blue eyes and the shield coming down, over and over and over, in an infinite loop, until his mind forced itself to wake up, but Tony supposed those dreams weren’t relevant here.

He didn’t want to pretend his pain and the betrayal he suffered weren’t real, but in the bright light of day, away from the nightmares and the bad memories and the bone-chilling cold, it was easier to think beyond his own pain. Allowing that pain to drive his decisions was no better than letting Hydra win—Hydra, the same monsters who tortured an innocent man and who killed Tony’s parents. Howard and Maria were not the only victims that December night and Tony wouldn’t—couldn’t—pretend otherwise. He would do what was needed to be done, on spite alone if he had to, even if he knew he might lose a part of himself in the process.

Tony’s voice was quiet, but determined when he said, “I want to be involved because it’s the right thing to do. He deserves a second chance.” 

This time, when Rhodey’s gaze softened, it was full of an affection Tony didn’t have the words to name.

“They never deserved you, you know.” Rhodey shook his head when Tony scoffed, but didn’t press on. “Are you sure about this then? 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, dealing with all this… baggage. Are you sure you can handle that?”

“I’m sure, Rhodey.”

Tony wasn’t sure, not at all, but no one could ever accuse him of backing down from a challenge—or having working 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?”

Despite Rhodey’s best efforts to maintain his serious visage, the comment had the intended effect of drawing out a smile. “Do I even have a choice in the matter? I mean, you’d be dead without me, Tones. ” Rhodey laughed at Tony’s enthusiastic nod to confirm that claim. “It is just one pardon, right? None of the other assholes are coming back?” 

“God, no. My guilt only extends so far and none of them have the excuse of Hydra screwing with them for decades. However,” Tony had to caveat, “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 shows up. I won’t be there to encourage them along though.”

“Oh good. At least you’re not completely crazy.” 

“Nope. Only a little bit,” Tony quipped and flashed his patented grin. Neither mentioned 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 to give him strength, but when he looked back at Tony, Rhodey was a man who accepted his fate. “Alright, I’ll settle for a little bit of crazy. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but lets get Bucky Barnes a goddamn pardon.”