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Never Too Late

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(Abandoned Hydra bunker, Siberia, Russia)

 

Sub-zero temperature is not beneficial for a human body.

 

Huh. Who would’ve thought? Tony mused bitterly

 

The painful, biting cold was just starting to turn into an alarmingly numb sensation when his line of thought finally, finally, snapped back from outraged why?! to resigned oh well. And to be completely honest, Tony wasn’t quite sure if that was supposed to be comforting or disturbing. Well, let it not be said that Tony wasn’t a practical man; if he’s got to dissociate himself from his raged and betrayed “ego” (to borrow Nata… - no, Romanov’s words) to survive, then so be it.

 

It’s not his first ride in the build-or-die kind of rodeo, and Tony wasn’t delusional enough to think that it would be his last. So he started with the basic of all basic: checking the inventory. Power is down, main reactor torn apart, the badassium (which is still a better name than starkium, by the way) core might still be salvageable, but the arc reactor as a whole is definitely out for the count for now. And F.R.I.D.A.Y.…. She had been disconnected, hopefully she’s got enough sense to alert… who?

 

Tony cursed silently. Rhodey (oh god, Rhodey…) was most probably still out cold in the hospital (broken spine, might never walk again… no. NOT going there. Yet.) And the Spiderling (Jesus, did he really just took a fetus to a battle?! Without telling his unusually attractive hot aunt?! What is wrong with him?!) was a no go. No way in hell he’s putting that kid into any kind of danger on purpose anymore. Na - Romanov is so out of the question. Tony’d sooner stab himself with a pen than trust her with his anything for the third time. The King (king? Prince? What even is his legal title?) was out of the radar. His motive was all revenge anyway, Tony doubted the young monarch would care enough to check on him. Then that would leave… Vision. God, Vis… Tony hoped his… creation? Child? Grandchild? Nephew? Was okay. He was so young, definitely too young to experience heartbreak. For a being of pure logic and intelligence, he sure was very forgiving… maybe too forgiving. Must have got that one from Tony, then. Well, that’s got to change now. 

 

Oh well, so he couldn’t rely on anyone on his team… not exactly news there. Tony should have realized that since the Mandarin episode. Nobody but Rhodey (oh god… Rhodey…) was there for him. Not after he was declared dead. Not after he got out of the surgery room. Hell, even Bruce fell asleep when he tried to reach out. Was it so hard to believe that Tony was just trying to vent to someone that maybe, just maybe was his friend? Okay, so him laying on a sofa with Bruce on another couch across him was a little bit therapy-like. But come on… Was Tony that low on Bruce’s opinion that he thought Tony was using him as a substitute therapist?

 

Fine, Tony thought bitterly. I’ll just do everything my goddamn self then.

If you want to do anything right, do it yourself, right?

 

Tony might have gone without waiting for the council’s approval, but that didn’t mean he was going against the Accord. The emergency clause wasn’t perfect, but it was sufficient to justify his excursion to god-knows-where, Siberia; especially since he’s got enough sense to at least notify the Russian Aerospace Force before breaking the sound barrier above the snowy landscape. Maybe the Russian Air Force will notice that he got in but never got out? Tony could only hope.

 

Meanwhile though… Tony have to check his… numerous injuries.

Massive headache: concussion, multiple concussion even, judging from how bad his head was hurting.

Numbness on his extremities: frostbite… not good. He’s got to move fast before he lost his ability to make something, anything to help him get out of the Hydra bunker.

Shortness of breath, chest pain: broken sternum (or a fake one at least) for sure. A few ribs too... Tony prayed his lung wouldn’t get punctured when he got up. That would suck.

His whole body was aching, but Tony had made mark I under a much worse condition.

 

So Tony picked himself up from the broken, dead armor and limped his way into the cryo chamber where he witnessed the biggest lie of his life. No time to spare for sentiment and wistfulness, Tony began to dismantle the ice boxes, trying so hard to ignore the dead winter soldiers. The parts he cannibalized from the chamber was enough to make an emergency reactor housing and case for his chest-plate and fix his jets and repulsors enough for an emergency trans-continental flight. It helps that he managed to pick the lock of the bunker’s tool-shed, so he wasn’t limited to the small tool-box he always carried around in his person.

 

Dragging the dead armor pieces to the (slightly) warmer tool-shed was a work of miracle, one that left tony dangerously winded and shaking from exhaustion. Broken ribs was not fun. By the time he managed to drag the armor and all the necessary parts to the tool-shed Tony was tired, aching, and his fingers was starting to turn into an alarmingly blue-ish shade. Tony closed the shed’s door, trying (a little vainly but, still,) to preserve what little heat he could.

 

Tony started to twist and fiddle and pound some metal scrap into a semblance of a plate, his tired mind wandering while he let his hands do the disturbingly familiar routine. Without any mentally stimulating upgrade to install, Tony instead focused on things and people he needed to take care of once he’s out of the bunker.

 

Rhodey. His best friend, oldest friend, in fact. The one who took care of him ever since he was just a scrappy, tiny kid at MIT, getting bullied daily because he was just too smart, too young, too loud, for people to stand. Rhodey who, despite Tony’s best attempt at self-destructing, despite the numerous disappointment he inflicted to Rhodey, despite all the time Rhodey snapped and get mad at him for his childishness, his irresponsible antics, always came back to take care of him. Always got his back, always proud to be Tony’s best friend, his brother. 

 

He’s going to be okay. Tony swore to himself. If he’s not then I’ll MAKE him okay. I’ll fix my Rhodey -  I’ll fix my brother.

 

Pepper. The love of his life. The one woman he couldn’t live without. Too bad he realized too late just how much she meant to him. Too bad he was just so bad at emotion and feelings to be a good man for her. To show just how much he loved her. Too bad he just couldn’t keep his promise to get better for her, to take care of himself first, to grow up and be an adult for her.

 

No, Tony interrupted his own morbid thought. I’ll come back to her. I’ll apologize, I’ll beg, I’ll grovel if I have to. I am not losing her. Never again.

 

Happy. Everyone knew that man was just as emotionally constipated as Tony was. Happy, with his dry humor, his carefully maintained aloofness to hide all the embarrassing affection he felt towards his friends. And Tony just played along, didn’t he? So glad to finally find someone he can keep his public mask on while still being genuine friends. So glad to finally find a friend who show affection the easiest the same way as him: constant ribbing and friendly quip.

 

Have I ever actually said how glad I am to have him as a friend? Tony mused, well, I’ll just tell him that when I met him after this; might make him fluster and blush a bit, too.

 

Vision. The sometimes painful remainder of JARVIS. What was left of his… self-made friend? When he made JARVIS he used the human Jarvis’ imprint, voice set, mannerism; Jarvis’ virtual DNA if you will… and as much as his family paid for Jarvis’ services, Jarvis was Tony’s closest approximation of a dad. Not a father that would be what Howard was (…I blamed him for mom’s death for, what? Two decades? He was a major dick, but he deserved so much better… FUCK Rogers.) Vision was made of what was left of JARVIS after Ultron tore him apart - does that make him JARVIS’… son? Human Jarvis’ grandchild? Tony’s nephew?

 

God, I’ve distanced myself so much from him all his existence. Tony internally grimaced. Looks like absentee uncle is a thing now… I hope I still have a chance to fix that.

 

That spider-man kid… Spider-kid? Underoos? Peter… Peter Parker, that’s his name. Tony stopped working for a second to cringe at his own idiocy. He brought a 15 years-old hyperactive fanboy of his into an all out battle with his ex-teammate. He, unwittingly, employed the service of a child soldier. All while lying to the kid’s legal guardian. Granted, Tony wasn’t expecting “team cap” to not hold their proverbial and literal punches at all like that. Tony was under the impression that Rogers would at least hold back a little. But really, Tony should have known better…. Would Rogers really realistically hold back? After Bucharest? After Germany? The red-white-and-blue tinted glass was lifted all too late it seems….

 

I’ll make it right. Tony promised, I’ll explain myself to his aunt, I’ll help him explain to her about his powers, I’ll keep him from making the same mistakes I made with that palladium poisoning. He’s going to be better than me, he’s going to make his own mistakes because he’s sure as hell going to avoid mine. Bonus point if I can get the kid to meet Harley. They’re going to hit it off, I don’t know why I don’t think of that sooner.

 

And Harley…. 3 years of knowing him have been good for him. Tony could honestly say now that his relationship with the spunky kid from Rose Hill, Tennessee was… enjoyable. The kid’s smart, mouthy, brave (a little on the impulsive side, but who am I to judge), what’s not to love, really. Maybe Harley was the reason why Peter caught Tony’s attention so much from the moment they met. Both of them were little balls of genius brains trapped in bodies too small, too young for anyone to take seriously. Both courageous to the point of borderline idiocy. Both seemed to genuinely like him. Which, of course, returned sentiment.

 

But while Peter was shy and prone to stammering and babbling (kind of like me pre-M.I.T., now that I think about it), Harley was never afraid of ‘saying it like it is, Tony.’ The boy seemed to suffer from a curious lack of brain-mouth filter. Not that Tony could fault him, being a genius did that to people sometimes: ‘brain too fast. Mouth cannot compute, error, error.’ He would know, of course, he’s a genius who went through puberty too, once. Hell, he still did that sometimes, and he’s inching towards 50 now.

 

I wonder if Harley watched that airport mess already. Jeez, I am the worst  role model in the world, I swear. Kid better not go all wild west on that guy, what’s-his-name, E.J.? I’m so hacking his phone after this. ‘Not illegal if I don’t steal his social security number’, right , Harley? Your words, not mine.

 

The thoughts of the people he still hold dear made his fingers twist this very stubborn wiring with renewed determination. Yet, with every hopeful plans for his loved ones, new worries about the obstacles back home kept on popping out into his psyche like mushrooms after a storm.

 

Ross. The U.S. Secretary of State was upgrading from the power-hungry general that hounded his… teammate into the dangerously unstable law-maker that was just begging to be knocked down a few peg. Alright, Tony could understand “team cap” (team crap?)’s apprehension about having to work with ex-general Thunderbolt. But did that excuse their giant 'FUCK YOU' for the people of 117 sovereign nations who were simply demanding their due rights of protection against their unreliable, self-declared protectors? No. The Accords might not be perfect, and the Council might contain some bad apple like Thaddeus Ross, but the will of the people of democratic, sovereign nations of the earth was clear: accountability, integrity, and dependability. And if “team crap” couldn’t be bothered to listen to the demands of the people they said they wish to protect because they couldn’t get over Ross’ cooties…. Well, Tony didn’t need them to depose Ross after all…. If Ross was under the delusion that Tony visited his ex-teammates just for Rogers’ location then “Mr. Secretary” was in for a surprise. Why would Ross let the world’s most dangerous hacker in to the secret supermax prison where he, presumably, detained team crap’s personnel without following the proper protocols, where he, undoubtedly, hide almost (if not all) the evidence to all his illegal experimentation on human (and super-human) subjects, past present and future, was beyond Tony. Even during Tony’s flight to Siberia he still received the snoop from the multiple cutting-edge bugs he implanted during his visit. By the time he got back home, Tony would have all the evidence in the world to bury Mr. Secretary Ross in his own prison for decades, at the very least.

 

Still, Ross has proven himself to be one slippery bastard. One without reservation to resort to violence at that. Tony would need to be in top shape, not only legally, but also physically to confront him. Unfortunately with all the injuries he suffered and was still suffering (Tony’s fingers were positively blue now), Tony was afraid that to attain that level of physical well-being, he’s got to resort to a… very specific method.

 

Damnit, Pepper would blow a gasket (or an armrest) when she heard about this…. But looking at his frost-bitten fingers, he was positive that without extremis, there WOULD be a permanent damage. And Tony refused to sacrifice his ability to create for the backstabbers that called themselves heroes.

 

Tony tried to fill his brain with all sort of ideas and equations for his version of extremis, hoping in vain that it would block his mind from the inevitable side effect of such tampering on human genetic.

 

How it would turn him too closely into the very being that had left him in this situation in the first place.

 

* * * * *

 

Several hours later, Tony, body shaking and swaying and shivering from exhaustion and cold, finished his repair on the armor. Nobody came, which meant either nobody was moving to help him (deliberately or otherwise) or they were still searching for him (unlikely, since he hadn’t moved from his last known location.)

 

Well, there’s no use in guessing and fearing the worst, so Tony simply donned his patched armor, flipped on his mask and watched with cold-numbed anxiety as the HUD flickered to life and F.R.I.D.A.Y.’s (slightly panicked) voice crackled in his ear.

 

“. . . OSS?! Boss do you copy?!”

 

“Hey baby girl.” Tony answered tiredly.

 

“Scanning for immediate injuries.” F.R.I.D.A.Y. ignored Tony’s greeting in favor of checking her boss’ level of physical injury. Tony simply winced at the report he undoubtedly would receive soon.

“Boss, I detected several injuries with almost 100% chance of having a permanent effects. Including the frostbite on your extremities and compromised lungs from your broken ribs. You also suffer from a severe head trauma and concussion, rapidly worsening hypothermia and hypoglycemia, I also detected that your heart is in an even weaker condition than it was before. As per protocol ASCLEPIUS, I have supplied both Dr. Wu and Dr. Cho with the details of your injuries. I also took the liberty to inform both Ms. Potts and Colonel Rhodes about your position. Both are currently on video call to discuss about the best way to retrieve you. Shall I update them with your medical situation?”

 

At this Tony, weak and exhausted and in pain, simply answered, “sure, baby girl. Tell them I’m going extreme.”

 

F.R.I.D.A.Y. answered after a brief pause. “Are you sure about that boss… maybe you should wait for Dr. Wu and Dr. Cho’s Medical opinion on the matter?”

 

“No, F.R.I.D.A.Y., I’ve been thinking about it. Tell Dr. Wu and Dr. Cho to prepare the extremis version 4 and the cradle.”

 

“... Done boss. Incoming call from both Ms. Potts and Colonel Rhodes.”

 

“Not now, F.R.I.D.A.Y.. Ignore it, tell them I’m sorry and get the Spiderling home.”

 

“Boss…”

 

“I have a splitting headache, my innards are in scramble, and my fingers are falling off, literally. Not now.”

 

“Very well. Call ignored, message received.”

 

“F.R.I.D.A.Y, do you still have the footage of what happened here?” Tony asked after a beat of hesitation.

 

“I have the recording taken from the suit’s camera, boss. Should I take the footage from the bunker’s security camera?”

 

“Yes, copy the recording and delete the original. Same with that… tape. Save everything in my safe server.”

 

“Done boss. Should we head home now? Your injuries are most severe.” F.R.I.D.A.Y’s voice was hesitant and unsure. Under other circumstances, Tony would be overjoyed over this display of authentic emotion shown by his latest A.I…. but needs must.

 

“sure baby girl. Daddy’s real tired. Take me home.”

 

“Gladly boss.”

 

The Iron Man armor began to take flight, taking his pilot away back to home.

 

“And F.R.I.D.A.Y?” Tony asked, voice barely a whisper.

 

“Yes boss.”

 

“Thank you.”

 

“For you boss, always.”

 

Tony swore he cried a little before he lost consciousness.

 

 

(St. Elisabeth-Krankenhaus, Leipzig, Germany)

 

Colonel James Rupert Rhodes was one of the U.S. Air Force’s best and brightest.

 

People seemed to easily forget the latter in favor of his, simply put, stellar career as an Air Force Pilot. A soldier, a fighter. They tended to look and him and Tony together and quickly assign Rhodey with the “brawn” part of “brain and brawn”, overlooking the fact that Rhodey was an MIT Aeronautics Engineering graduate. A literal rocket scientist. And hell if Tony hadn’t used that punchline multiple times before.

 

With that thought, Rhodey woke up with a start.

 

Alone.

 

Why was he alone?

 

Where was Tony?

 

Frantically, Rhodey reached for the bell button near his bed, only to suddenly notice the lack of feeling in his legs. He stilled. Rhodey remembered everything, of course… he remembered his fall… remembered his best friend cried for him.

 

Tony.

 

With renewed fervor he reached for the red button and punched it. A few minutes later, a nurse hurried inside to explain to Rhodey in a what he already knew and had already began to accept.

 

Broken spine. Permanent paralysis.

 

But the nurse didn’t say anything about the one thing, or rather, person he really wanted to know about.

 

So he asked, “where is he?” And wow, did his voice just cracked. Although whether it was from disuse or from his utter, primal fear for his best friend, his little brother, Rhodey didn’t know. “Where is he?” Rhodey tried again, clearer, although still just a touch better than a rasp.

 

The nurse, evidently new, judging from his youth and the sudden spike of German accent in his stuttered response when faced with Rhodey’s unconventional question, tried again, “Colonel Rhodes… sir, your spine -”

 

“I’m an Air Force pilot, god damn it! I know the risk! Where’s my best friend?! Is he okay?!” Rhodey exploded.

 

He knew even before he lost consciousness when he hit the ground that something was going to be broken permanently.

 

He knew from the height and the velocity of his fall, from the angle at which the War Machine armor careened towards the earth, from the way his heavy armor prevented him from righting his body into a proper free-falling position, from the utter panic and terror in his best friend’s voice, screaming for him as said best fried raced downward in a futile chase to catch him.

 

In the few seconds between his call for help and his crash landing, Rhodey had made peace with his imminent permanent injury… in whichever form it would take. He’s practical like that.

 

What he didn’t get was the fact that he was alone in the hospital room. That didn’t make any sense. He didn’t expect his family from Philly to come and visit him on the drop of a hat… after all it was Rhodey himself that had made sure that every time he get into the hospital he was the one who would tell his family about the severity of his injury, baring death and 24 hours unconsciousness.

 

But even then he never woke up alone in a hospital room. Either Tony, Pepper, Happy, or any combination of those three would always wait in his room. Tony, for all his poor attempts at grouchiness and fake nonchalance was never able to stay more than 3 hours outside of Rhodey’s room whenever he got hospitalized (which was way less often than the other way around.)

 

Tony could never hide the underlying fear and concern in his eyes whenever Rhodey was bedridden. Tony would always make sure that either Pepper or Happy would get in the room and stay before he (hesitantly, always hesitantly,) walked out of the room, looking back at Rhodey at least once every 5 seconds as if he was making sure that Rhodey was still alive.

 

So to wake up in an empty room in a hospital was understandably a jarring experience for him. Especially since the last time it happened…

 

“Please tell me Tony is still in the U.S.” Rhodey whispered meekly. Unable to hold back the memory of the first time he woke up in a similar situation: hospitalized during his search and rescue mission when Tony got kidnapped in Afghanistan.

 

That was the only conclusion possible: Pepper would be swarmed by SI’s inventors and the media, demanding her explanation on Tony’s disappearing act. She wouldn’t be able to leave her office, only able to check on Rhodey using voice or video call. Happy would be the only one left to handle Tony’s search party during Rhodey’s absence; and Rhodey would nag and beg Happy to just leave him and go search for Tony already whenever he stay in the room for more than 15 minutes.

 

“... Colonel Rhodes, I’m so sorry… but Mr. Stark flew to Siberia in pursuit of Captain Rogers and the Winter Soldier about 12 hours ago…. His A.I., F.R.I.D.A.Y. was cut of from her connection with the Iron Man armor almost an hour after that…”

 

Rhodey couldn’t even bring himself to listen to the nurse after that. Too numb and too scared for his best friend’s life to care about anything else.

 

“What do you mean cut off? F.R.I.D.A.Y. is always connected to Tony’s armor.” He replied hoarsely, already aware of what that fact implied.

 

“I am not privy to the details, sir… but I must insist you stay in the bed and rest to avoid further damage to your spine. Even now a search and rescue effort has been conducted to retrieve Mr. Stark from-”

 

“Call Pepper.” Rhodey interrupted coldly

 

“I’m… sorry sir?”

 

“Call Pepper for me god damn it! My brother is MISSING! His A.I is disconnected which means his Armor is either out of power or destroyed or it’s in the god damn space! Call Pepper now or so help me-”

 

“Sir, I must insist you calm down before you aggravate your injuries further. I will see what I can do about the call, but you must stay put in bed in the mean time.” the nurse tried in a strained voice.

 

“Fine, but make it quick!”

 

Rhodey was going to find his best friend. And if he had to level the entire Siberian tundra to do it… then by God he WILL save his brother, spine or no spine.

 

* * * * *

 

“Rhodey!”

 

Pepper looked... well she looked awful.

 

Still beautiful, don’t get him wrong. Her blazer unwrinkled, not a single hair out of place. Not surprising, of course. Pepper was, no mater what the media said, the woman who earned her way to the top of Stark Industries with skill and competence. No, she did not get the chair because she was pretty; she got the chair while looking pretty. And no, she did not get appointed CEO by Tony Stark because he dated her. Even if their relationship never progressed to anything beyond friendship, Tony would have still trusted Pepper with the CEO seat.

 

But still, for all her carefully maintained composure, Rhodey could see the way her right index finger tap her table incessantly. The way her eyes are loaded with the weight of lost, the way her shoulders, usually held with a casual confidence, now squared unconsciously, ready to snap a moment’s notice.

 

Pepper was breaking down in silence.

 

“Pep… where’s Tony? Have you found him? Where’s his last location? Have you send anyone-”

 

“Siberia, no, we have his coordinate but it doesn’t point to any landmark on any map, and no, I can’t send anyone because Ross refused to give any clearance for any rescue mission.” Pepper’s mouth went dangerously thin on the last one.

 

“What?! What the fuck is his problem?! The recipient country’s government is the one who gives clearances! Can’t you take this to the council?”

 

“I can’t! Ross is cockblocking me and the whole council is on fire because Rogers threw a hissy fit!”

 

There was a time when Rhodey, like any other child who was born and/or raised in the United States of America, admired and aspired to be just like the legendary captain. Hell, he was the reason Rhodey strove so hard to be a soldier at least twice the captain’s caliber.

 

Never in a million years would Rhodey imagine to see the Captain America act like a toddler in a temper tantrum. Even Tony’s debauchery filled days were easier to handle than this… monumental fuck up.

 

Tony’s temper tantrums were always limited in their destruction range: himself and anything inside the room he exploded in. When he emerged from the room he would always lead with an apology, followed immediately by an attempt to fix the room and anyone who he accidentally hurt, and then, after every damage has been sufficiently fixed and/or mitigated, he would disappear to his workshop for hours or days, depending on how much he regretted his actions. A self imposed time out, and a productive one at that.

 

Rogers’ temper tantrum, meanwhile, destroyed a tunnel, a UN official building, and an airport, followed immediately by avoidance of law. All the while broadcasting about how right he was and how wrong and evil the accords was because the United Nations was apparently a government now, and a corrupt one at that.

 

All these done outside on the United States. While wearing a flag of a spandex as a uniform and bearing a shield painted red white and blue.

 

Sure, there were some points in the accords that gave Rhodey the jibbies. Mandatory DNA sample? Tracking bracelets? Indefinite detainment without trial? Yeah, no thanks.

 

But even Rhodey could see Ross’ fingerprint on all the suspiciously fascist regulations. The rest of the accords actually made sense and was very much sane and reasonable.

 

And the whole thing was amendable.

 

Rogers could just protest by holding a press conference and bat those baby blues while crying the world a river about “human right violation” and “right to privacy and equality before the law” and voila, amendment signed and sealed.

 

But nooo… he just got to knowingly break multiple laws on multiple sovereign nations, all of which are known accords supporters.

 

This is the greatest strategic mind in history? Yeah, no.

 

“I can try to-” Rhodey said finally before he was cut by F.R.I.D.A.Y.’s Irish lilt.

 

“Ms. Potts, Colonel Rhodes, I have reestablished connection to boss’ suit.”