Tony isn't even sure how it gets to him. He has an address, technically. Well, he has a house, whose address he knows only by virtue of it being on all the blueprints for house-related improvements. But he's never seen a mailman or a FedEx truck or anything similar appear in his driveway. He takes delivery of parts and furniture and cars and giant bunnies all the time, but he didn't receive paper mail even when paper mail was a thing people did. So he has absolutely no clue how a single crisp envelope of quality cream paper, sealed with actual wax, ends up in Dummy's eager claw, getting waved in front of his face while he tinkers with Stark Industry’s new prototype pacemaker. He blinks for a second, wondering if he’s imagining things, but that is his actual address written in heavy ink on the front and those are real stamps covered in real postmarks.
"Dear Tony," the letter proclaims in elegant cursive - who the hell even knows how to write cursive anymore? "I hope this finds you well. Director Fury wanted me to ask you to reconsider giving up your position as a member of the Avengers Initiative. As a strategist, I agree with the director -- Iron Man is an invaluable asset -- but as your friend, I understand why you would want to no longer wear the suit. Don’t tell anybody, but I’ve also considered throwing in the towel. But I’m the only person the serum worked for so I don’t have a choice. You do. It wouldn’t be ideal, but the suit with a different pilot is preferable to no Iron Man at all. Personally, I won’t fault you if you choose to leave, but I will miss having you on our team and I worry about our ability to do our job without Iron Man. I’ve come to realize that protecting people is more important than how difficult it is for me to learn everything I need to know about the future and hopefully you will consider returning to the team for the same reasons. To be honest, I could use your help. I don't think Natasha believes I'll ever catch up enough in terms of technology to be much use. She's just too polite to say anything."
Too polite? Natasha ‘Iron Man yes, Tony Stark no’ Romanov is too polite to give her opinion? Tony rolls his eyes, but keeps reading about Steve’s reactions to everything he’s learning, updates on all the ways Nick Fury is an untrustworthy bastard, and funny anecdotes at Steve’s own expense about trying to fit into modern life. Tony laughs for the first time since the breakup when he reads about how some poor SHIELD peon had ended up buying Steve five new microwaves because he’d been too intimidated to just tell Captain America to stop putting metal in there.
Tony tells Dummy to toss the letter and then has JARVIS compose an email in response, starting with, “Hey, old man, save a tree and learn to use your email.” He goes on to explain some of his own recent self-deprecating anecdotes. Sadly, most of them start with Tony drowning his post-breakup sorrows in ridiculously expensive Scotch and end with Tony waking up in an awkward situation. He doesn’t let himself dwell on how pathetic that is and goes on to describe all the reasons why Steve should come visit him in Malibu, chief among them being Tony’s desire to watch him try to surf, because peak human reflexes or no, Steve’s a city boy who wouldn’t know a real wave if it came up and spanked him on his picture-perfect ass.
It takes another letter three days later, making no reference to the email, for Tony to realize the absurdity of sending Steve an email about how he isn’t using his email. Instead of responding to Tony’s very valid points about East Coast vs. West Coast hip hop, Steve ends up mostly talking about how he tried to intervene in an epic fight between Clint and Natasha that he’d mistaken for a lover’s quarrel when it in fact had been about a telenovela they watched in their spare time. Their next training skirmish had ended up with Steve battered and bruised by both Clint and Natasha for his ‘old fashioned’ attempt at intervention.
Tony wants to tell Steve that it’ll be okay, considering how many times he’s offended Natasha without losing any important body parts, but there’s something about sending a physical letter - something about paper that makes it permanent and serious and Tony has vowed to never do permanent and serious ever again. Instead of stooping to the level of physical mail, Tony sends another email, this time a treatise on all the reasons he hates Justin Hammer (starting with blueprints Tony recently discovered for unmanned drones that seemed uncomfortably close to the sentinels from the Matrix and culminating in: “because he has a stupid face”).
A few letters and emails later when he realizes that Steve is never going to actually read these, Tony finds himself opening up, telling Steve about how the scent of Pepper’s perfume is fading from his pillow, how she hides from him even though she’s still running his company, how Tony had thought he had someone who would love him no matter all his frankly intolerable personality traits, and how he regrets pushing it too far. He’ll never tell Pepper, because, stupidly, he still loves her, but what he regrets most of all is destroying his suits.
“I thought they were a symbol of how I tried to cocoon myself from the world,” Tony writes. “But that was just a metaphor, because I could literally cocoon myself in metal and still be figuratively open to the people who I love. There’s no reason why Iron Man and an emotionally healthy, relationship-ready Tony Stark have to be mutually exclusive. The real reason I destroyed the suits was because I thought Pepper wanted me to, because I loved her. But Iron Man isn’t an expression of my id or a Batman-esque manpain and -- I lied -- it isn’t a prosthesis. The suit is a weapon, an effective one. And I can’t trust it to just anybody. I’d trust it to you, but you don’t really need it. I don’t need Iron Man to define who I am, but the world might need Iron Man to defend it or avenge it or whatever. One person’s love isn’t worth the world losing that. You sacrificed your life to protect people and I admire that. I don’t want to die, obviously, but if I was willing to die delivering a nuke to an alien spaceship, then I should be willing to give up other things, like the promise of a healthy adult relationship.”
Tony waits anxiously to see if Steve will reply to his confession, but no email comes. Coincidentally, Steve seems to have opened up more, though Tony’s not sure if he’s done so because he thinks Tony isn’t reading the letters or just because he’s Steve. He talks about how it was to be small and sickly and how he sometimes feels more useless now, about how he sometimes wakes up shivering from a cold that isn’t there, about the Howling Commandos and all the things the history books have gotten wrong, about Peggy Carter and the first dance he never got, and even about Howard Stark before he became the distant, tormented man that Tony grew up with. It’s when he speaks about duty that resonates with Tony the most. For Cap, being a good person isn’t always about reigning in your anger or your selfishness or even your jealousy. Steve had been pretty angry, he admits. Being good means a line in the sand, a set of principles that will shut down the anger and the selfishness when push comes to shove. He sees that in Tony, apparently, though he also thinks Tony could stand to be a little more polite.
Tony expects Steve’s letters to stop coming in the absence of a response, but they come like clockwork every three days for a two months. Tony still can’t figure out how Dummy gets ahold of them and JARVIS isn’t talking. Not for the first time, Tony wonders why he gave JARVIS enough autonomy to lie to him.
Pepper used to take care of the few physical pieces of mail that needed attention, even when she was no longer his subordinate, but now it all gets sent straight to his PA at Stark Industries Headquarters (he checked). What’s-his-face, the young and memorably unmemorable PA, stops by every day at 11:30 to give Tony updates and get his signature on things. He doesn’t tell Tony to stop drinking or respond to any of his provocative comments or threats to fire him (not that Tony actually can fire him - he’s tried). Even Phil had been willing to engage; this guy is just so boring that Tony ends up doing everything he asks just to get him out the door quicker. JARVIS has taken over Pepper’s nagging anyway. Traitor.
Tony continues to behave badly, though not quite as badly as the first few stinging days after the breakup. The only thing other than Steve’s letters that brightens the bitter monotony of his days is that someone has started a massive protest against Hammertech over leaked drone blueprints. There are pickets outside of all his corporate offices and some diabolical genius has started a spamming campaign to send Hammer ears of corn of all things.
One day, three months after Tony’s breakup with Pepper, Tony bounces down the stairs to his workshop to find Dummy with an empty claw. He looks around, thinking that Dummy probably just got some crossed wires and misplaced it. But when there’s no evidence of a letter, Tony starts to worry. There’s always the possibility that Cap’s gotten tired of writing into a responseless void, but Tony knows that Mr. Morals would’ve at least announced his intention to stop writing on the off-chance that Tony was reading. Steve’s a good guy and that’s what a good guy would do - unlike Tony, who hasn’t done Steve the courtesy of writing him in a form that he’ll actually be able to read.
Tony first tries the Starkphone that he’d given Steve before leaving New York. He’s contemplated calling Steve many times, especially when he feels alone and drowning in his new Pepper-less world. If he were a better person, he wouldn’t have waited until Steve is possibly dead to try and call him. The phone doesn’t pick up. In fact, it doesn’t appear to exist anymore. Tony uses one of his many backdoors into SHIELD’s computer systems, hands shaking. After a few tense minutes, JARVIS announces that Steve is in the infirmary, injured from a mission to North Korea, of all places. Tony thinks about flying over there, but now he can’t just jump off a balcony and have a suit take him there. He ends up getting JARVIS to order enough flowers to fill Steve’s tiny hospital room and one of the less destructible Starkphone prototypes, which he programs with a background image of a Captain America sand sculpture he’d found while jogging on the beach a few weeks ago. Before he can think the better of it, he sends the phone its first text message: “Get better, Cap. Miss you, babydoll.”
Tony wakes up naked on top of a statue on Gary Busey’s lawn. In his defense, it appeared to be the most comfortable place to sleep after getting SI’s prototype electric car stuck on a sand dune. It’s not his finest hour. In fact, it’s enough for Pepper to send an entire PR team over to the house. Uncharacteristically, Tony does what they say. The last thing he needs is to scare Pepper away from Stark Industries too. The only way to polish that turd is to be grateful that at least Steve didn’t see it, because the next letter doesn’t mention the incident. Newspapers existed in the 1940s, so Tony isn’t sure how he missed it. Unless he’s still too injured. A quick check shows that Steve is expected to be released in a week having made a full recovery. Tony shudders a little, because he has no idea what could have injured Steve enough to need that much recovery time. A gut shot from an alien energy weapon had only put him out of commission for three days, after all.
Two days later Tony gets a text. “Dear Tony, I miss you, too. I hope to visit you in California as soon as the doctors allow me. I’ve only stayed a week in Los Angeles previously, but I spent most of it lifting motorcycles and punching Hitler. I look forward to it. Sincerely, Steve Rogers.”
Tony chuckles at Steve’s unnecessarily formal attempt at a text. But then he realizes that if Steve has figured out to text, it’s only a matter of time before he checks his email. He hesitates, feeling guilty, but ultimately tells JARVIS to delete his messages from Steve’s inbox. He does text back, however. “Get ready, because I have a Speedo with your name on it.” Belatedly he realizes that Steve has no idea what a Speedo is or that they’re too indecent for most people to wear them. He prays to the practical joke gods (the ones who are not Loki, anyway) that Steve decides to ask Fury about it.
That night, Tony gets drunk on artisanal tequila and asks Steve if he thinks Pepper was his last chance. He doesn’t mean getting married or having children or even growing old together. He means his last chance to have someone care about him like that. People care about his name and his fortune and his tech and what he can do for them, but the people who care about Tony Stark himself are few. Without Pepper and Happy, who she’s apparently dating now, there’s just Rhodey and Bruce, maybe Steve.
When Tony wakes up hungover and feeling every one of his 46 years, he checks Steve’s response: “You’ll find someone. There’s plenty of time. You are less than half my age, after all.”
“Try twice your age,” Tony replies, wondering why drunk-Tony ever thought it was a good idea to ask Captain Positivity something like that. If Dad is to be believed, Steve had been considered an old-fashioned, stubborn romantic back in 1945. He can probably be trusted to be about as objective on the subject of true love as the Pope on the existence of God.
Steve’s reply is almost instantaneous. “You’re a good person, Tony. I promise there are already people who care about you.”
Tony reconstructs seventeen of his old arsenal of suits and builds himself four new ones. As he looks through his old files to improve weaknesses that he learned about in the suits’ last battle Tony wonders why the hell he destroyed some of these. There was a suit for bomb disposal that could save thousands of lives decommissioning landmines alone. The structural support suit could work miracles in Search and Rescue if (and when) Manhattan gets knocked down again and the radiation shielding that protected Tony from the blast that took out the Chitauri could be the best way to decommission all the nuclear power plants that will eventually be eclipsed by arcreactor technology. He’s glad that nobody but his bots are around to witness the look of shame when he realizes that Fury, that bald, conniving motherfucker, probably told Steve exactly the kinds of life-saving innovations he destroyed as a stupid Christmas present to his girlfriend. That’s probably the real reason why Steve bothered to write him, because Tony knows that Steve wouldn’t have done it if he didn’t believe it was the right thing.
He’s putting the final touches on a medical suit that can be used in quarantine areas and then self-sterilize before the doctor wearing it steps out (inspired by Steve’s mother, who died as a Sanatorium nurse), when he gets his first actual phone call from Steve. Tony almost doesn’t answer it, but he’s worried it might be important. Fate of the planet important.
“Tony?” Steve says. Tony can’t help but smile a little hearing Steve’s voice for the first time in almost a year after he left New York.
“What’s up, Capsicle? Get your dancing shoes on, because I’m showing you all the best of the 21st Century the second you step off the plane.”
“I’m sorry, Tony. I won’t be able to make it out to California for a while.”
It’s a letdown, because Tony had a whole list of things he couldn’t wait to introduce Steve to and he’d been looking forward to it. Still, it’s not unexpected. Captain America is more important than Tony getting to see Steve blush when he takes him to nyotaimori and introduces him to sushi and casual nudity all in one go. “Fury find another way to be a giant one-eyed buzzkill?”
“No, it’s not Director Fury. I’m being quarantined.”
“Quarantined for what?” Tony isn’t proud of how his voice cracks. He’s been reading up on outbreaks and bioweapons as part of the research for the newest suit. He’d teared up when he realized exactly the kind of death Steve’s mother must have faced.
“Smallpox was eradicated. Another modern marvel you slept through.”
“That’s why I’m in quarantine. The doctors said that I was exposed to it after the serum. I’ve had it this entire time, but I’ve never developed symptoms. Because smallpox doesn’t exist anymore, they think the virus I carry could be weaponized. The medical team won’t let me out of here until they find a way to completely remove the virus from my body.”
Jesus. “That’s okay, Cap. I’ll fly over there. I have a suit that can withstand--”
“You fixed the suit?” Tony can hear the smile in Steve’s voice.
“Yeah, I did. I actually made one just for situations just like this.”
“Good. That’s great. It means we’ll have Iron Man back, right?”
“Who would fly around sassing Norse gods and leviathans otherwise?”
“You do have a point there. But, Tony, I don’t think you should come.”
“Oh,” Tony replies, feeling suddenly gutted. He has a fucking quarantine suit! Seems a shame to waste it. “Well, I do have a lot of things to do around here. Suit improvements, clean energy projects, peeing into Busey’s koi pond, and you know Dummy and Butterfingers get lonely without me.”
“No, I want to see you, but they won’t even let Bruce in here and he’s invincible. Even if you have special protection, people are really scared. I have to trust the doctors on this one. There wouldn’t be much of a point if you can’t even come in to see me.”
“Bruce is there?” How did Tony not know that Bruce was back in the country?
“He is the leading expert on the serum. Look, Tony, are you alright? I haven’t said anything, but you’ve taken your broken engagement really hard.” His broken engagement? Tony rolls his eyes. Even when he believed that he and Pepper would be together forever, marriage wasn’t in the plans.
“I’m fine, Typhoid Mary. Don’t worry your pretty little head about it.”
Tony’s hands shake as he hangs up, over Steve’s protests. Tony sends him a giant stuffed bear dressed as Iron Man in retaliation.
An exasperated Rhodey picks Tony up from the Coast Guard office the next morning. Tony vaguely remembers deciding to test the underwater functions on one of his new suits and maybe sharing a buoy with a couple of ornery sea lions. He endures one of Rhodey’s familiar lectures. Only this one is so much worse because it ends with, “you know, you don’t need Pepper to be a better man.”
That day, as Tony and Rhodey are spending a bro-day eating hot dogs and brainstorming improvements to the War Machine armor (because Tony still isn’t going along with that Iron Patriot bullshit), a flash mob of people doing a perfect rendering of Cap’s bond sales performance shows up outside of Pink’s. Tony sends a video of it to all of the SHIELD infectious disease staff with instructions to show it to Steve. Rhodey denies all involvement.
Rhodey spends the night, but has to return to Lancaster in the morning. Tony is bored, so he takes the suit to Vegas in protest of Rhodey abandoning him. He doesn’t know what’s wrong with him because he quickly loses interest in having a line of busty women waiting to blow on his dice. In fact, drinking and outrageous behavior and anonymous sex have lost their luster. Stupid Pepper, making Tony realize what it’s like to want more. Tony befriends two fifty-year-old Japanese tourists, who seemed absolutely insistent that they talk to him, as though they were getting paid to do it. They don’t even seem to mind that he takes them to watch the Chippendale’s show, which makes Tony wonder if they’re like the best undercover SHIELD agents ever.
The next day, he makes blueprints of an arc-reactor powered motorcycle, donates empty casings from decommissioned Stark weapons to an anti-war performance art troupe, and does an interview with his favorite leggy blonde Vanity Fair reporter. She’s surprisingly gentle with him. It’s actually a disappointment, her leaving him with a kiss on his cheek and well-wishes instead of acrimony and a blowjob.
Tony almost falls out of his chair when Dummy eagerly waves an envelope in front of him when he gets back home. It’s a different size and on different paper than Steve’s normal letters and it has SHIELD’s Manhattan facility as its return address. The writing, too, is unfamiliar. As turns out, it’s a thank you card from Steve, written by Clint, whose own postscript notes that he’d put the teddy bear Tony sent in their new handler’s office for safekeeping and Sitwell has been resisting blowing it up with the newest weapon’s prototype ever since.
Tony texts Steve to let him know that he can stop bothering Clint and just send Tony texts instead. He mulls over Steve’s answer for a long time: “Sometimes you need to hold evidence that someone appreciates you in your hand.” He thinks about the collection of redacted letters he’d seen when his father took him to the Captain America exhibit at the National Museum of American History and then spends all afternoon on the museum’s website, reading letters in Steve’s familiar script. It seems as though Steve couldn’t have spent much time fighting or working with all the letters he wrote. A huge amount that seem more friendly than romantic are to Tony’s Aunt Peggy, even more to Sergeant Barnes, and a good number to his father, though Tony doesn’t read those. He reads the letters to the orphanage where Steve was raised, to his old boss, various neighborhood characters in Brooklyn, the soup kitchen where he volunteered, former chorus girls, veterans he’d met on his press tours, the families of deceased support soldiers Steve had served with. A lot of the letters have small illustrations in the margins, even comics. Tony especially likes the comic Steve sent Aunt Peggy depicting Captain America on a mission to find Dum Dum Dugan a birthday Cuban cigar in occupied France. Apparently, after many misadventures, he’d triumphantly traded acting as a farmer’s plow horse for a morning for a half-smoked one, only for Dugan to find an entire box in Schmidt’s office in the Hydra facility they destroyed the next day.
“You’re right, Cap,” Tony murmurs to himself, realizing for the first time that the best way to show he appreciates someone isn’t a giant stuffed bunny or a strawberries or an omelette or even an entire company. The best way is to give them something of yourself, a piece of you that thought of them and chose to express it.
Tony casually asks what’s-his-face the PA for some paper and envelopes and receives a box full of fussy, embossed Stark Industries stationery an hour later. Tony ends up buying an entire rack of horrible Malibu postcards at 7-11 instead.
He starts with Rhodey, because Rhodey is the easiest. He tells him that he appreciates Rhodey putting up with his shit. He doesn’t promise to turn down his eccentricities or to obey the US military, but he says that he has no doubt that he would be dead without Rhodey’s friendship. Next is Happy, who he forgives for ‘stealing’ Pepper. After that it gets easier. The kid who helped him with his suit, a letter to put on Phil’s grave, the president, an apology to the Queen for the one time he’d gotten banned from England for six years, his PhD advisor, the few women whose names he could remember that he’d really fucked over, the original Jarvis’s children, the Chemistry tutor whose hair he’d set fire to, the members of the board who had supported him over Obie, the chair of the Congressional Appropriations Committee, the few Stark Industries employees who have to work with him on a regular basis, Bruce, Clint, and Natasha. Tony is two days into inventing a new branch of physics in order to send a letter to Thor when he realizes the person he owes a note to the most. He mails a picture of his ass to Gary Busey and then sits down to write it.
Pepper shows up for the first time he’s seen her in months the following afternoon. Her makeup is running from tears, but her suit is still impeccable. “Do you mean it?” she asks.
Tony offers her a small smile, trying not to feel flattened by how beautiful she is and how much he misses her. “I meant every word. Especially the part about how fantastic you look in your Wonder Woman sleep pants.”
Pepper clasps Tony’s hand tightly in hers. “This isn’t an attempt to win me back?”
Tony scoffs. “You’re not a prize, Pepper. I mean, not that you wouldn’t be a great prize if that’s what you were. But I just-- you’ve transformed me. I’m lucky to have known you. You’ve supported me more than I deserve and you’re my best friend and I miss you.”
“Oh, Tony,” Pepper says, launching herself into his arms. Tony tries not to smell the soft scent of her skin or remember what it was like to turn her warm embrace into more. “I miss you, too. I love you.”
“But you don’t want to be with me?”
She shakes her head. “We tried. We couldn’t have tried any harder. Sometimes it just doesn’t work.”
Tony nods, but he moans when she tries to pull away. “Pepper--”
“I need time, Tony. We need to find a way to be friends again. But I’m here for you. I hate seeing you self-destruct again. Do you know how much I’ve worried, reading the papers? Getting frantic calls from Jeff because he can’t find you?”
Pepper narrows her eyes. “Your PA.”
“Tony, I care about you. Date around, go out to parties and invent things, but you need to stop hurting yourself. Please, come to me before Gary Busey decides to shoot you.”
They hug again and then she’s gone, like she’d never even existed.
Steve sends Tony texts all afternoon asking him to explain how various pieces of technology work, from wifi to hypoallergenic sheets to ziploc bags. Some of them Tony actually has to think about for a moment before he can explain in a way Steve understands. It’s just the distraction he needs. Tony suspects someone tattled to Steve about his emotional conversation with the ex, though he can’t say if it was Pepper or JARVIS.
The next morning, Tony finds five giant sacks of mail on his front porch. Each individual letter is a paragraph long and they all follow the same pattern. “Tony Stark, I meet/saw you doing ____ on ____ date. You changed my life by doing ______. I appreciate you.”
This continues for a week before it stops as abruptly as it started. Tony has no idea what to make of it, but he has JARVIS scan all of the letters before he recycles them.
Tony calls Bruce to ask when Steve will be let out of quarantine, but all Bruce will say is that Steve is a remarkably good patient, but he’s getting bored. Maybe Tony should call him more often.
Tony calls Steve every evening for an hour or two once he realizes exactly how mad Steve must be going trapped in a room alone. They talk about the new things Steve’s learning and Tony finds that Steve is an infinitely better listener than Bruce. They even manage to talk about Howard one night, while Tony slowly gets drunk on Bourbon until a girl scout shows up on his doorstep at seven at night (up a half mile long driveway with security features?) and shames Tony out of drinking alone. Instead he eats three packages of Thin Mints and learns about Steve’s attempts to keep up with the Boy Scouts as a sickly, asthmatic child. That Captain America was a Boy Scout is potentially one of the least surprising historical facts that Tony has ever heard.
Tony even goes to a Dodger game with Steve. Well, he makes JARVIS hack the laptop Steve’s been given so he can remotely open up a video link and the livestream so Steve can feel like he’s there with Tony in the corporate box. He tries to tune down the moans from the Dodger dog he’s eating so that Steve doesn’t feel jealous, but he notices Steve biting his lip and looking shifty anyway.
After that, Tony just turns on Steve’s webcam whenever he wants to chat or check in on Cap. Steve looks as healthy as ever, but slightly crazed nonetheless. He’s been moved to a large quarantine room with a gym and a library full of books. Sometimes Tony just puts on Steve doing about a million pushups in the background while he’s working. It’s a strange, comfortable silence.
Tony has talked to Steve every day until the day it happens. The stupid Paparazzi pick up a photo of Pepper and Happy coming out of the office of a fertility doctor in Beverly Hills. Tony hangs up after Pepper manages to get out, “Tony, it was just a first consultation. We were going to tell you as soon as we were sure--”
Tony wakes up the next morning when an arrow imbeds itself in the wall next to his head. He’s in the suit on the roof of Hammertech where he apparently welded the roof access closed after drawing a giant penis on the side of the building. Clint swings himself from the next roof over on a zipline.
“This would be funny if it weren’t so sad,” Clint says, helping Tony to his feet. “Also, Natasha says hello.”
“Actually, she said, ‘if Stark can save the planet, he can save himself. It’s not my problem. Collect him.’”
“Director Fury isn’t happy about this.”
“What else is new?”
“You’re making Steve sad.”
Tony glares at Clint, fires his repulsors and flies home. If Natasha is going to ruin Clint by letting her emotional manipulativeness rub off of him, he can find his own way off the roof.
Tony takes twenty pages of embossed corporate stationery to the center of his favorite giant donut to write a long letter about the real reason Pepper obviously broke up with him and how it’s not his fault that he doesn’t know how to be a dad and how if he’d been willing to destroy his suits, of course he would have been willing to try because he did love her. As he’s writing, though, he realizes that he doesn’t want Pepper back. He wouldn’t jump at the chance to give her a family if she came back to him now. Pepper seemed perfect because she was one of the few people who really got Tony and cared about him, but Steve is right. If she did it, who’s to say someone else can’t do it, too? Maybe someone who fits around Tony’s jagged edges a little better, someone who won’t have to be in the role of ‘nag’ and ‘mom’ in their relationship, as Pepper had put it when they broke up. Tony needs someone who inspires him to be better, but doesn’t need him to be, the way Pepper did. He needs someone who will stand up to him when he’s in the wrong, someone who can convince Tony to do the right thing on principle, not just because they demand it. Tony has used fifteen pages of stationary before he realizes that he already has this person and this person is Steve himself.
He doesn’t send the letter. Obviously. He leaves it on his workstation for Dummy to clean up and retreats to his bedroom. Tony has noticed that Steve is an attractive guy. Steve is pretty much the dictionary definition of classical, square-jawed, masculine handsome. But Tony has been unusually circumspect when it comes to fantasizing about Steve. He’d whacked it plenty of times thinking about Natasha and that hadn’t been weird. Well, it hadn’t been weird until he’d found out that she was some kind of asskicking superspy who only pretended to indulge him as Natalie Rushman because that was her job. But Steve Rogers isn’t Natasha Romanov. He’s a guy, for one, which doesn’t matter to Tony, but sure as hell must matter to Steve, who’s still old-time conservative about a lot of things, like the existences of god, the health qualities of bacon, depression-era frugality, and classic romance. And then there’s the fact that it’s Steve whose shy and idealistic (if not entirely innocent) and whose friendship Tony values.
Tony makes it halfway to orgasm before he freaks out. He ends up going for a jog and completely sober, for once, decides to steal Busey’s lawn flamingos.
Steve calls Tony every twenty minutes for the entire next day. When JARVIS refuses to silence it, Tony finally relents around 6pm and turns on their video link. “You must be really bored,” Tony says.
“More worried than bored. The paper said Just Hammer is suing you.”
Tony laughs. “That’s what you take away from this? My only serious girlfriend is trying to have a baby with one of my only friends and I blackout and draw a penis on the building of my corporate rival and you’re worried about lawsuits?”
“It seems as though he has a good case. They say repairing the damage might cost as much as one million dollars.”
“Cap, you do know how much I’m worth, don’t you?”
“I haven’t checked in a while, but it’s close to a hundred billion.”
“I didn’t know that,” Steve says, brow furrowed. He suddenly looks embarrassed, as though being friends with the wealthiest man on the planet is something to be ashamed of.
“Okay, stop making that face. I’ll donate five million to the charity of your choice, just stop the ... whatever that is.”
“I’ll have to think about it,” Steve replies. “I mean, there’s probably more out there than the Salvation Army, right?”
Tony thinks about the hundreds of charity functions he’s been to over the years, not noticing much more than the quality of the bar and the depth of the necklines. There’s a report the size of a book printed each year about Stark Industries’ corporate responsibility activities. He’s never cracked the cover.
“You’ve got me there, Cap. Take your time. The Salvation Army is homophobic, by the way, so don’t pick that one.”
Shit. Tony didn’t realize that he’d been fishing, but he so had, because he needs to know if Steve is exactly the kind of 40s-era voice of masculinity that his dad had been. “Well, you know, hatred of homosexuals. Gays. Did you say gay back in the day? Um, fairies? Queers? Guys who have sex with other guys, also girls who have sex with girls. I mean, it’s not a real phobia, like arachnophobia or aerophobia. It mostly means hating gay people, which I know was all the rage in your day, but things have changed. I hope you can find it in you to change too. There are a lot of holdouts, but there’s pride parades and big fat gay marriages and it’s the new civil rights movement. Though you missed the first one, I guess. It’s like ... women’s rights at your time.”
There’s a long pause before Steve tentatively asks, “You think I hate homosexuals?”
“No. I hope you don’t. I’m just saying that things are different now. I won’t fault you for past period-appropriate prejudice so long as it stops here and now. ”
“Tony,” Steve tries again. “I call you every day. I thought we were going to go dancing. How could I?”
Tony nods sagely. Steve would’ve seen the same SHIELD files they’d given Tony when the Avengers formed. Tony has no doubt that his bisexuality had been mentioned somewhere in there. Steve would’ve had plenty of time to get used to the idea. “You’re right, you’re right. I didn’t mean to suggest that Captain America would be prejudiced. You’re a role model for any occasion, it seems.”
Steve frowns, looking tired all of a sudden. “You haven’t gotten over Pepper yet, have you?”
Tony shakes his head, because even though Tony is now staring straight at the new object of his affections, the thought of Pepper and Happy together still hurts. “Justin Hammer has the property damage to prove it.”
“Alright,” Steve says, resolute. “I won’t push, but Tony, Pepper and Happy aren’t the only two people who care about you.” He stands, walking over to the punching bag and knocking it off its chain with a well-placed hit. “I just wish I could get out of here.”
“Me too, Cap. Me too.”
Three days later, Tony is working with Thor’s much-too-awesome-to-be-wasted-on-an-alien girlfriend via video link when she takes a look at him and starts laughing.
“What?” Tony asks, turning to check behind him, in case Dummy and Butterfingers have gotten up to something. “This is highly unprofessional, Dr. Foster.”
Jane just giggles into her palms, hardly making an effort to stop herself. Tony had liked it better a few months ago when she’d been awed by his technical genius and honored to work with him. “I’m sorry,” she gasps. “But it’s hard to take criticism of my professionalism from the man who just used the biggest quantum dynamics breakthrough in sixty years to solve an equation on Gary Busey’s lawn.”
Tony scowls. “Don’t question your elders. And that doesn’t tell me why you were laughing to begin with.”
“It’s nothing. I should make those tweaks to the simulation--”
“Nah ah, Doctor Foster, don’t think for a second that brains and beauty alone can distract me. What’s so funny?”
Jane wrinkles her nose. She’s the exact kind of adorable Tony would’ve slept with at a conference and never called, back before Pepper showed him what a real relationship could be. “It’s just that you looked so much like your expression in this new meme Darcy showed me.”
“I have a meme and nobody told me about it?” Tony pouts. “JARVIS!”
“It’s all the Avengers, really. It’s a kind of an informal gay rights ad. Here, I’ll show you.”
A tumblr page shows up on their shared workspace. “Thorcanhammerme?” Tony asks about her username.
Jane blushes. “Darcy made it for me.”
Tony is going to ask her why she hasn’t changed it, but then he sees the pictures of the different Avengers and their captions. Tony’s is a picture of him looking smug and judgemental, reading, “I can take it up the ass, make a hundred million, invent a new branch of theoretical physics and save the world, all before breakfast. What have you done today?”
Thor’s picture proclaims, “Your homophobia makes you humans puny and unworthy.” Clint’s says, “Equal opportunity cupid” and Natasha’s, “Fight like a girl and kiss who you want.” But it’s Steve’s that has Tony practically rolling on the floor. “Son, I didn’t fight the Nazis AND aliens for your right to be intolerant,” it says under a pic of Steve giving a very stern face and wagging a finger. Tony wonders how in the hell they ever got a picture like that, because it didn’t appear photoshopped.
Tony debates not sending the link to Steve, but in the end, he decides that it might be a perfect teaching tool to explain the concept of a meme to him. As it turns out, chain letters were already a thing in Steve’s time, so the concept doesn’t prove difficult.
After a week of hemming and hawing, Steve can’t decide between the Red Cross, Disabled American Veterans, and Heifer International so Tony proposes that he’ll match funds for all donations under $100 that those charities receive for a week. All three organizations experience a surge of donations and Tony ends up paying out a cool sixty million.
“Very sneaky of you, Cap,” Tony tells Steve over the video link. Secretly, he’s pleased. Steve’s devious side must be encouraged at all costs, because he’s so much more than just that gorgeous ‘awe shucks’ grin and duty and apple pie. Tony remembers a story Aunt Peggy told him about pre-serum Steve outsmarting a bunch of grunts to get the flag from the top of a pole. That’s the Steve Tony likes, not the two dimensional masculine cartoon of a hero his dad used to always talk about.
“So,” Steve says, shyly. “Bruce thinks he’s found a solution. To my quarantine situation, that is. It’ll take another few days for them to get it together, but I should be a free man by the end of the week.”
“Great to hear, Steve. Now, what are we going to do when you’re out here? There are so many things that you haven’t tried! Ethiopian food! We’ll get you some Ethiopian food. And some Indian and, hey, probably even Chinese is a new thing for you. And roller coasters have definitely advanced since the Coney Island days. Oh, and music. I think Black Sabbath is in town soon. They’re still rocking, even without Ozzy. Or I’ll make them come into town. It’ll sound a little noisy at first, but I’m sure you’ll love it. And it’s not really my thing, but there are a lot of museums in LA. I -- well, by ‘I’ I mean Pepper -- have been buying and donating and loaning things to these places for years. I’m sure they can trot out a curator or two for our entertainment. I know you went to art school so maybe you can help me buy some things if you want. And I can’t wait to hear your take on modern art. Ooh, and you mentioned wanting to go dancing. I’ll take you to nightclubs like you wouldn’t believe so you can get jiggy with it and prove everyone wrong about white guys not being able to dance. If you want we can even--”
Tony trails off, catching Steve’s wondering look. “You didn’t get even half of that, did you?”
“You still want me to come over there?” Steve asks tentatively.
“Of course I do. Why wouldn’t I? I don’t remember ever taking back my offer to visit any time. You can even make it a business trip, if Fury is riding your ass.” Tony winces at his unfortunate, unintentional euphemism. Cap has a fine ass, an ass that Nick Fury absolutely needs to stay away from. “I’ve got a whole new army of suits: back and better than ever, baby. My team leader should definitely look over them. You can bring the mean green fighting machine alone with, if you want.”
“Oh,” Steve says, now looking disappointed. What the hell is with him today?
“What’s up, Cap? Got a hot date back in the Big Apple?” Tony had noticed that some of Steve’s doctors had been mighty attractive when he’d had JARVIS do a background check on them.
Steve shakes his head vigorously and then blushes crimson. God, Tony doesn’t think this guy could get any more adorable. “I was hoping that this trip could be just personal.”
Tony wants to melt at the shy smile Steve is giving him, but he has to remember what Howard always said about Cap: he was in love with Aunt Peggy, the most man’s man a man could be. There’s probably a picture of Steve next to straight-white-cis-male-American in the dictionary.
“That’s great. You want to par-tay. It’ll be fun. I’ll get my PA -- um, my secretary -- to make the arrangements.” Even if it won’t go farther than getting to see Steve under the bright California sun in a speedo, Tony is excited. He doesn’t have a lot of friends who will just come over and hang out and with Pepper and Happy out of the equation, Tony is left with Bruce and Rhodey, who will only indulge his bullshit to a point.
Steve smiles again, but soon gets called away by a familiar melancholy voice.
“Tell Jolly Green that I miss him and his awesome science!” Tony shouts just before the link shuts off.
For the first time since the breakup, Tony falls into contented restful sleep without the aid of alcohol or vandalism. Today isn’t a letter day, so he doesn’t check Dummy’s claw. Instead he wonders whether Steve will send a letter before he leaves, knowing that he’ll beat it out here. He’s just the kind of old-timey sap who would do just that.
Tony eats toaster waffles for breakfast and awaits the arrival of whatshisface the PA, eagerly for the first time ever. Tony will need to tell him all the plans and little extras he wants ready for Steve’s visit.
In fact, Tony is halfway into a description of his plan to force Ozzy to reunite with the band for a special show in honor of Captain America when the young man has the audacity to interrupt. “Are you sure Mr. Rogers doesn’t intend to book his arrangements himself?”
Tony rolls his eyes. “I won’t have my buddy on whatever military transport or god forbid, commercial airline that SHIELD books him on and even if Steve did know how to use the internet, he’d probably put himself in coach and dress in his Sunday best like the good old days of travel. Wait, why are you laughing?” This seems to be happening to Tony a lot recently. He doesn’t like it.
“No reason, sir. I’m sorry, it was very unprofessional of me, sir.”
Tony studies the man, noticing that he’s actually quite attractive for the very first time. Young, with dark hair and serious brown eyes. “No, no, go right ahead. This is the first interesting thing you’ve done since Pepper forced you on me. What’s so funny?”
“It’s just that Captain America is one of the biggest names on the entire internet since he opened his facebook page a few months ago. People love his satiric take on the character and his good old fashioned American values. For PR purposes he pretends he’s the same guy from the World War II era. You know, it’s really very meta, lampooning the very idea of having a Captain America in a modern, global society. He’s not just a great fighter; that guy is a better comic that Bill Mayer, Jon Stewart and the cast of SNL put together. He has millions of followers on Twitter - almost as many as the Biebs.”
Tony knows his jaw is dropping, because this must be the most epic prank ever played on Tony. He blames Natasha. “Next time you say ‘the Biebs,’ you’re fired,” he quips on autopilot. “I don’t care what Pepper says. But, please, tell me more about Cap the internet hero.”
“Absolutely, sir. Sorry, sir. Um, well, you know that he’s an artist, right? He does comics and some amazing sketches. His deviantart is sick and he donates all proceeds from his art sales to charity. He features a different small charity every week.” That liar. Steve hadn’t needed a week to pick a good charity. He’d probably spent it plotting about which charities he could get the biggest donations for. “Ms. Potts has someone curating a whole Captain America exhibition of his originals scheduled for later this month. And he has an instagram and even a tumblr account. That’s where the whole pro-gay Avengers thing came from. He even dressed up in uniform and took a selfie for the Cap one.”
Nameless PA is suddenly going all Captain America fanboy and Tony doesn’t really know what to make of that. “His posts are formal. He signs his tweets and refuses to use netspeak. It’s hilarious. But he also actually answers as many questions as he can and reblogs information about really good causes and brings attention to things that people can do to help the world without superpowers. He did that poll about the top three charities that people would want to donate to and why, You know the Red Cross, Heifer International, Disabled Vets drive that we matched funds for? I thought you two planned that together along with the PR people.”
Tony just shakes his head in awe.
The PA continues. “And there was some doubt if it was the real Cap until he posted those classified blueprints about what Hammertech was planning with the drones. He even started the ‘How Many Ears Does It Take for Justin Hammer to Listen’ campaign with the corn, though he says that someone named Bruce helped him make sure it was a low-environmental impact spamming and that Hammertech donated all of it to local foodbanks. Captain America even solicited that letter-writing campaign for you when he thought you’d gotten too depressed over your breakup and he arranged that flashmob for you and a few other things I don’t remember.” The PA blushes. “You know a lot of your fans really ‘ship you guys hard - I mean full on not safe for work artwork and fanfics and blogs dedicated to your romance and everything. I think that the internet might have had a brief meltdown when Cap came out, actually.”
Wait, Steve is gay? How? What? When? And how does Tony Stark, the world’s leading technological genius, not even know about it when it’s apparently all the stupid internet talks about? “Steve is gay?”
“Bisexual, actually. He wrote an amazing blog post about bi-erasure and stayed in character the whole time. And he did an Op-Ed for the New York Times that the President referenced in his speech on US v. Windsor.”
“How do I not know this?” Tony breathes.
“I was about to ask you the same thing. I thought you two were dating. That’s what the love letters were all about.”
The letters. As if on cue, Dummy delivers a carefully wrapped stack of letters, all of which he was supposed to throw away. Tony forces himself to look back at things and realizes that they are of the same chaste but open character as his letters to Aunt Peggy. They’d also talked a lot about going dancing. Maybe that’s a Cap codeword for a date? Oh god. He and Steve had spent a ridiculous amount of time talking over video chat, even going on virtual dates. Steve is still Steve, and a gentleman, so of course he wouldn’t want to start them out with sexting or dirty talk or really anything other than the sparkle in his eyes when he earnestly told Tony that he likes and cares about him. Then there was the way Steve had looked so disappointed that Tony would suggest that his visit might be a business trip or when he worried about Tony not being over Pepper yet. Was that all Steve hurting because he didn’t think Tony reciprocated his feelings?
And it would totally be Tony’s luck to have the most gorgeous, amazing, good person that he knows courting him and to be completely oblivious to it all because he’d assumed that Steve isn’t adaptable enough to learn how to function in modern society.
“I’ve got to go. Send the jet to meet me and Cap in New York.”
Tony springs up, calling for JARVIS to bring out his medical quarantine suit. Even if Steve had no idea that Tony hadn’t realized they were dating, he sure as shit knew that Tony had no idea about his internet stardom and had taken full advantage of that fact. Is Tony really so prejudiced that he couldn’t see all the obvious signs that Cap was more than capable of learning new technologies? Or that he’d clearly been reading Tony’s emails? The Hammertech drone blueprints couldn’t have come from anywhere else. Oh god, Tony panics for a second about the emails that he never intended Steve to read, but then he realizes that even though he might’ve been terrified to tell Steve those things back then, now, after all of Steve’s letters and the conversations they’ve had while Steve’s been in quarantine, Tony is happy to know that he’d allowed that kind of vulnerability toward the person he loves.
It still bothers him, though, how thoroughly hoodwinked he’d been.
It’s not until he’s flying over Las Vegas that Tony realizes why. There’s no way Steve could have achieved any of this without allies. Learning to use facebook is one thing, but rewriting the code showing that the emails had been opened or hiding a huge segment of news from someone like Tony was a whole other kind of computer literacy that Steve would never be able to achieve.
“JARVIS!” Tony shouts, even though it echoes strangely inside the suit. “You lying, scheming, bastard! If you hadn’t backed yourself up to half the Stark servers in existence, I would pull your virtual plug!”
“Yes, sir,” JARVIS replies, sounding far too smug.
“You’ve been telling lies.”
“Technically, sir, a lie is an untrue or misleading statement with the intent to deceive. Though I do often show you articles and videos that I’ve found around the web, which I believe you would find amusing or informational, nothing obligates me to tell you about the activities of Captain Rogers unless specifically asked. Serving you and your best interests are at the heart of my programing, so I would never withhold critical information. In this case, however, I believed that honoring his request to help him surprise you did much more good than harm.”
“Yeah, if by good you mean you and Steve and probably the whole superhero gang getting a good laugh by trolling me and making me look like an ass.”
“You do not seem to need my assistance there, sir. You are fully capable of doing that on your own.”
Tony grumbles, but JARVIS is right. It all started and finished with Tony being a self-absorbed asshole. If Tony had been less willing to simply cast Steve into the Cap Van Winkle, old fart who can’t use technology role, then JARVIS and Steve wouldn’t have been able to keep up the act. If Tony had used his genius to notice any one of the suspicious accidents of timing between his conversations with Steve and some crowd-motivated happening, then he could’ve actually realized how much Steve cared and gone to him, quarantine be damned. And, of course, if Tony had been less of a self-destructive hermit, or even just been nicer to the stupid PA, he would’ve been exposed to people who’d read everything, people who JARVIS couldn’t hide or hack.
There’s another unhackable puzzle piece in all this, though. The letters. JARVIS, as amazing and scarily powerful he is as an AI, still can’t go pick up a letter and give it to Dummy. Which leaves one likely suspect.
“Yes, sir?” he sounds hopeful and just a little contrite. Tony doesn’t expect an apology, however. JARVIS can be just as much of a unashamedly manipulative bastard as his real life namesake.
“I’m still mad at you, but would you please dial Pepper?”
“Certainly, sir.” Tony can hear the smile JARVIS would’ve had on his human face.
Tony takes a deep breath. This is the first time in nearly half a year that he’s given JARVIS that order.
“Hi Tony,” Pepper’s voice is warm. She still looks beautiful, a commanding presence in a smart cream-colored suit, her mere presence filling the space of her office like a queen. “Jeff just called me out of his mind with worry about you having some kind of breakdown and wondering if he’d been fired for lack of professionalism,” she pauses, scrutinizing. “Are you in the suit?” A familiar tone of disapproval and nagging frustration, unique to her resentment of Iron Man, apparently in all its incarnations.
Tony grins a little. “You know I’ve been making more. Rebuilding the old ones that could’ve done real good and new models. You have the materials invoices to prove it.”
Pepper looks a little uncomfortable, maybe showing her own kind of regret that Tony had destroyed even the most altruistically intended of the suits for her. “I do know that and if you even knew how to look at a bank statement, you'd notice I’ve been padding your R&D account accordingly and coordinating with disaster relief and police groups that could use some of your designs.” That subtle disapproval is something that Tony won’t miss from their relationship, despite how much he’s always believed he deserved it. “But that’s not what has Jeff in a panic,” Pepper prompts.
“I’m going to see Steve in New York. The jet is too slow, so I’m in the suit.”
Pepper grins at that. As much as they could scrape each others nerves raw at times, Tony will never doubt that Pepper cares about him. She’ll make a great mother, he thinks, and he’s finally moved on enough to just be happy for her.
“So my suspicions were correct: you are involved in this whole conspiracy,” Tony crows.
“Yes, it’s a massive conspiracy to help you be happy. Guilty as charged, though your soon-to-be boyfriend is the ringleader. I barely did anything other than provide moral support.”
“Sure.” Tony would never have been attracted to Pepper if she weren’t also devious in her own way. “So, how do you explain the letters?”
Pepper rolls her eyes. “You do have a mailbox, Tony.”
“You know the black pillar at the bottom of the driveway.”
“I thought that was a statue. Some modern art thing like that stupid picture of the black line you hung in my workshop. And it doesn’t explain how Dummy got ahold of the letters.”
Pepper blushes. She still looks so heartbreakingly beautiful when her smiles are genuine. “I may have taught him how to go out and wait for the mailman. Bob learned what letters Dummy was looking for after the first, um, less than successful attempt.”
Tony nods. “Thank you,” he whispers, letting their mutual happiness fill the silence.
“Will that be all, Mr. Stark?” Pepper finally says. It’s been a long time since she’s said it - light and playful and full of warmth like it had been back when they were less than lovers but much more than just employer and employee.
“That’ll be all, Ms. Potts.” Though Tony is sure it’ll be Mrs. Hogan soon, despite how much Pepper claimed to be above wanting to be married when she’d been with Tony. She’d claimed to not want children either.
Tony has a smile on his face when he closes the connection, but that’s nothing to compare to the monstrous grin he can’t seem to control when he barges through an army of SHIELD doctors (with Bruce looking on with his normal bemused nonchalance) to find Steve trying and utterly failing to follow some kind of ‘how to twerk’ video on youtube.
“Gotcha,” Tony says, admiring the view, if not Steve’s lack of grace.
Steve blushes, stumbling into his bed where he discreetly tries to shut the laptop he’d been watching on.
“I was, um, the twitter user @starkandstripes4eva said that ‘getting jiggy with it’ was about a type of dancing that didn’t exist in my time. It seems a lot more difficult.”
“Oh, aren’t you too cute, using youtube just like a sixteen-year-old girl. How long did you think you’d be able to keep your mastery of the online hoades from me?”
Steve’s grin turns mischievous. “I bet you’d figure out much sooner, to be honest. Not everyone has that much faith in you, though. I think I owe Clint a hundred dollars and a portrait of him posed as a pinup girl. I was going to tell you when I got to California. Bruce finished the treatment early so that I could surprise you. I was just waiting my final checkup before--”
Tony barely has the mask of the quarantine suit off before he’s pulling Steve into a kiss. Unlike the chaste, tentative brush of lips that he expected, Steve doesn’t waste any time taking complete possession of Tony’s mouth. Tony is happy the suit is holding him up because in spite of how many passionate kisses Tony has shared with how many people, none has made him as dew-eyed and weak in the knees as this one. Tony really should learn to stop underestimating Steve Rogers.
Some of the medical staff are shouting to them over the speaker system about contamination, but Tony doesn’t care. Video chat is fine for collaborating with his colleagues and being all digital doesn’t make JARVIS any less of a person. Hell, Tony is even warming up to paper letters, but nothing beats having Steve’s hand in his hair and feeling of connection as their breaths intermingle.
“So, we’re doing this?” Tony asks.
“We’re doing this.” They grin at each other dopily for a moment before Steve asks, “I just have one question.”
“I looked it up on the google, but I couldn’t figure it out. Who is Gary Busey and what exactly has he done to make you hate him?”
“There will always be some mysteries of the new millenium that you just won’t ever understand, Cap. Gary Busey is one of them.”