“Thanks, Alex. Is this everything?”
“Sure is, Mr. Stark. Can’t believe you still get snail mail delivered, sir.”
Tony smiled brightly at the new administrative aid. “To be fair, Tony Stark doesn’t get any. Iron Man on the other hand,” he shrugged and that smile turned into a grin, “what can I say, he’s popular with the six year olds. Anyways, thanks for these,” he gestured with the hand holding the thick stack of colorful envelopes and after exchanging quick goodbyes, headed over to the elevator.
“Friday, my quarters, please.”
“Of course, Boss. Also, I would be remiss not to warn you,” her voice followed him into the elevator when it opened up, “one of the letters in the stack was not written by an Iron Man fan. The address on it… It belongs to them.”
The venom in her voice— that Tony did not remember ever programming— was difficult to miss and Tony groaned. “Dammit, is Rogers seriously resorting to snail mail now? Do we have to reject him over every form of communication before he gets it through his thick skull that we washed our hands clean of them?” He rolled his eyes. “Next thing we know, he’s going to Morse code us all to death.”
“Don’t know about Morse code, Boss, but I did scan the letter. No chemical traces, no foreign substances, no trackers. It also passed through the security incantations Dr. Strange had placed on the Compound perimeter, so no malignant magic either. Just paper and ink.”
“This is Rogers. That’s all he needs to do a lot of stupid shit.”
The elevator stopped and Tony didn’t bother with another disparaging comment. He weaved his way through the study, into the bedroom, and threw the letters onto the bed to give himself a minute to undress. The shoes came off first and then the suit jacket ended up thrown over the recliner. Tony loosened his tie as well, letting it hang around his neck, and undid the two top buttons of his dress shirt. He loved wearing a sharp suit— he looked fantastic in them, no shame in that— but wearing it all day long was overkill. So many damn meetings, so little time.
Feeling less overdressed, Tony plopped onto the bed and picked up one of the more colorful envelopes, leaving the conspicuously plain white one alone for the moment. He’d need to work up to that and reading kids’ letters, looking over their art, hearing about their hopes and dreams, it always put him in a good mood. Falling back against the plush pillows with a small sigh, he lost himself in the enthusiastic, multi-colored ramblings of the future generation.
It had been just over a year since that damn “Superhero Civil War”, just over a year since Tony was left behind in a cold bunker in Siberia, suit disabled, chest busted open, all promises of family and friendship dashed.
Lying on that frost-covered floor, for seventeen hours, slowly bleeding out and freezing to death, gave Tony a lot of time to think. Looking back on it, he knew it was a moment that could have easily pushed him into the arms of depression. Family fractured, trust destroyed, betrayals suffered. He could’ve given into that inner voice that sounded like Howard, or sometimes Obie, he could’ve listened and believed that he deserved what Rogers did to him, that Tony Stark wasn’t really worth the trust and love of others. He could’ve just given up and let himself die on that damn bunker floor.
He wasn’t sure which god out there took pity on him— with his luck, probably Loki— but that wasn’t what happened. No, instead of getting depressed, Tony just got angry. It was a boiling, seething sort of fury and it must’ve been what kept him warm, warm enough to survive until Vision and a rescue team showed up to scrape his half-busted form off the bunker floor. He was angry. He was determined. He refused to let Rogers, the darling of America, Howard’s golden boy, be the one to break him down. Tony Stark had just about enough of shitty teammates and shittier friends.
He could and would do better.
His determination wasn’t about revenge though, as tempting as it would’ve been to get payback. Sure, Tony could’ve easily hunted down the “Rogue Avengers” (a cute little moniker bestowed upon them by the social media at large). They all initially fucked off to Wakanda, according to the trackers in their uniforms no one bothered to disable; then they left the hidden country a month later, leaving Barnes behind, most likely because T’Challa kicked the rest of them out. Since most of the world still viewed them as criminals and they were short on both resources and allies, they laid low, so Tony left his former co-workers to their lives on the run as long as they kept out of trouble and stayed out of Tony’s way.
After all, he had more important things to focus on.
He put himself back together, one stitched up piece at a time. He got Rhodey walking again. He put every resource, connection, and dollar at his disposal to fix the mess left behind, whether that meant rebuilding the destroyed overpass in Romania and the demolished airport in Germany or rewriting the lackluster draft of the Accords sitting on his desk.
He got Secretary Ross out of the way— it was a wonder he’d stayed out of jail this long given the list of crimes Tony unearthed when he took the time to look— and gained allies along the way.
Bruce came back home and after an awkward apology on both their parts, they fell back into the easy camaraderie they had before Ultron. Thor literally crashed landed on their lawn one night, dragging his ‘reformed baby brother’ along with him. The break-up of the superhero boy band left Thor disappointed and sad, but he got over it quickly, their petty Earth squabbles barely pinging on his godly radar. On the other hand, his far more insufferable little brother proceeded to rant for an hour about them “ruining all of his hard work to bring the Avengers together” and then, after accepting that the old Avengers were no more, spent half his time on Earth posting anonymous pro-Tony posts on the internet and trolling Captain America fans. That was the exact moment Tony realized his life was fucking bizarre and left it at that, letting Friday monitor the Trickster god for any truly nefarious activity.
Some new faces joined in as well. Hope van Dyne saw past her own father’s prejudices and decided to sign the Accords, putting her newly minted Wasp Suit and her killer business instincts to good use. The Sorcerer Supreme came on the scene when Tony and Vision were fighting some magician wanna-be and the good doctor, despite the snark and his token disdain for “people running around in tights”, ended up sticking around too. Carol Danvers joined the superhero brigade later on and of course, there was the friendly neighborhood Spider-Man who refused to stay on the sidelines and miss out on all the fun.
Slowly but surely the New Avengers were formed. Between Hope and Tony, they were well-funded. Between Rhodey and Carol, they were well-managed and the new dynamics were like night and day compared to what Tony knew from before. The contrast was so stark in fact Tony had to wonder how the hell he ended up spending years living with people who never respected him, never trusted him, never even bothered with a simple thank you.
Night and day.
He and Pepper weren’t together anymore, but they remained business partners and friends and both were better off for it. Pepper was happier this way, less burdened, and in turn Tony was too.
He was happy, as strange as that was after everything that went down. Sure, he was a little lonely at times, would have loved to have someone to come home to, so to speak. Plus, he still had needs, there was no shame in that either, but nowadays they were a lot harder to fill because casual hookups with strangers made his skin crawl— this infamous playboy now needed trust to go with his intimacy, unfortunately— and so he just didn’t bother. Plus, sure, he was a bit overworked and still dealing with messes that weren’t always his, but his new team, his family, had his back, the world wasn’t at his metaphorical or literal throat, and he was protecting people, doing what he was meant to do and preparing for threats both big and small.
Everything was looking up, slowly fitting together into one cohesive puzzle.
And then the pardons came.
Neither his team nor the Councils (US or international) had anything to do with them, but a group of ‘well-meaning’ US politicians (some of whom loved Captain America and some who just hated Tony) somehow managed to garner enough support to convince the President that the pardons were a good idea. They blathered on about mercy, unity, strength.
What this group of politicians didn’t expect was for Tony and the New Avengers to tell them all, politely, to go straight to hell. Rogers and Company wanted to be Avengers? They could fill out the applications. They wanted to fight crime as their own team and needed equipment and weapons? They could buy them at fair market value. They needed money to do that? They could get a damn job.
Tony hated to admit that, had their return happened days, weeks, maybe even a month after Siberia, Tony’s anger, his determination, wouldn’t have been enough. He would’ve caved to them, again and again, giving and giving until there was nothing but a walking shell of a man left behind.
Steve would’ve convinced Tony to forgive, to move on, to sacrifice himself for the sake of the bigger picture. For the sake of their family.
In fact, Steve did try every one of those things after the Rogues finally touched down on American soil just over a month ago.
Thankfully, this time it didn’t work. Tony refused to even meet with the Rogues, let alone forgive and forget, and instead he let his very eager team handle his former teammates. After all, nowadays Tony was just the tech guy.
Oh, the Rogues were pissed about the stonewalling, about the ‘childish stubbornness’ and the ‘dangerous lack of cooperation’ on the part of the New Avengers. They even cried about it to the public, but the New Avengers’ good reputation, carefully earned over the past year, spoke for itself and the support for the Rogues remained minimal, composed mostly of hardcore Captain America fanatics and Tony’s many professional and personal rivals.
Tony placed the last letter, the pages of which were filled with bright doodles of Iron Man, Spider-Man, and a very Picasso-esque rendition of the Wasp, on top of the pile and then studied that damn white envelope sitting innocuously on the other end of the bed. He should burn it. He should take the damn thing down to the lab and burn it in the incinerator, scatter the ashes from the top of Stark Tower, and maybe invoke Loki’s name in an incantation or something. Tony was not ashamed to admit that he was petty enough to sic the Trickster god on Rogers.
He should do all those things, but already he resigned himself to the fact that curiosity would get the best of him. It was both one of his best and most reckless personality traits.
Kudos to Rogers for using snail mail again to get a direct line of communication to Tony.
Alright, let’s see what kind of half-assed apologies and passive aggressive nonsense he came up with. At least there’s no insulting, out-of-date tech this time around.
He reached for the envelope, tore it open, unfolded the paper, and promptly realized that it wasn’t Rogers’ tidy scrawl (he hated that he had the man’s handwriting memorized). A glance at the bottom of the letter where it was signed confirmed his suspicions.
With a raised eyebrow and renewed curiosity, Tony leaned back again and began to read.
I wasn’t sure this letter would get to you, but I had to try. I thought about meeting you in person (you’re too easy to track down for someone of your importance), but that would have been both imposing and selfish.
Even this is selfish. I know no apology will fix what I’ve done. It won’t bring your parents back, it won’t fix the destruction I left behind. It won’t fix what happened between you, Steve and the others. Might not help you at all, so this apology, it’s selfish, isn’t it? Just to help me sleep better at night. If it makes a difference, I still won’t be able to sleep.
But for whatever it’s worth, I am sorry. I’m so sorry. For your parents, for fighting you in Germany without knowing anymore than what Steve told me. I’m sorry for fighting you in Siberia, for leaving you behind when you were hurt.
I wish you would’ve taken more than just my arm back in that bunker.
I’m not sure if there’s something I can do to make up for what happened. I don’t have money and most of my skillsets are frowned upon, but if there is any way I can help, or if you just wanna shoot me between the eyes to even out the score, just say so.
Being back in the States, I’ve had a lot of time to think. Can’t sleep with that damn witch across the hall, so I got nothing but time. I made mistakes, hurt people who weren’t my enemies. First time I was free of Hydra’s control and all I did was do more damage.
I’ve been reading up on your work. Green energy, technology, the new Accords. All of you are doing amazing work and I’m sorry Steve and the others are getting in the way of that. They shouldn’t have ambushed Rhodes and Danvers like that. A damn charity event for sick kids. I don’t know what they were thinking. Rhodes and Danvers held their own though. Soldiers through and through.
Steve is also thinking about coming to that green energy conference. Thinks he can get a moment with you because you’re the keynote speaker. No idea if this letter gets to you in time, and knowing you, you probably already know, but felt like I should warn you.
They used some of your tech to help with the triggers, by the way, so thank you for that too. T’Challa’s sister probably could’ve done a better job with it than the doctors, but she didn’t want to help any of us. I don’t blame her. The doctors did well enough though. My brain feels like it’s been scrubbed raw, but at least some lunatic won’t be able to control me anymore. Thank you for giving me that freedom. Again, I have nothing to repay you with but empty words.
You seem like a good man. I wish I got the chance to know you under different circumstances, but I guess that’s selfish too.
Wherever life takes you, I wish you well.
James Buchanan Barnes
“Huh…” Tony exhaled the breath he was holding and just kept staring at the letter in his hands.
Not what I expected. At all.
Tony read and reread the letter while slowly making his way over to the kitchen, led there by a late afternoon caffeine craving.
“What are you reading, Tones?” Rhodey’s familiar voice broke through the thoughts whizzing around Tony’s head and he looked up just in time to watch Rhodey’s eyes narrow. “That looks like a letter. Only one person sends you letters.” The disdain was practically dripping off that word. “Is there a shitty cellphone attached to this one too?”
“Nope,” Tony popped the p with casual nonchalance and then handed the paper over to Rhodey as he walked by, “and now it’s two people writing me hand-written apologies. Surprisingly, one of them is better at it than the other.”
Rhodey caught the name at the bottom too and let out a surprised hum. The letter quickly pulled Rhodey in and Tony left him to it, content to start up the coffee machine and wait for a hot cup of smooth, black-as-tar caffeinated goodness.
While Rhodey was reading, Tony decided he also wanted some fresh berries and he had just enough time to pull them out of the fridge and prep himself a bowl before Rhodey let out a matching “Huh…” of his own and then gave Tony a bemused expression.
“Right?” Tony motioned at the letter, then popped a raspberry into his mouth. “That was my reaction too. Sure as hell didn’t expect the Winter Soldier to be writing me apologies.”
“Actual apologies too, instead of the crap Rogers sent you last year.” Rhodey glanced down at the letter again, scanned a few lines. Tony let him, using the pause to also pour the now-brewed coffee into his favorite Hulk-themed mug. “Sounds like they got rid of the triggers at least,” Rhodey added eventually, “which is a damn relief, I gotta say.”
“Yeah, the BARF modifications came through. Sure wish they were better at following directions over there in Wakanda though. I specifically told them to keep my name out of it.”
“He sounds lucid too, aware of what’s going on. Although he’s not really having a good time with Rogers and Co, is he? He sounds—”
“Depressed? Yeah, I know,” Tony interjected quietly. They all came far this past year, but there was no denying those first few month were rough and there were some dark, awful places Tony found himself in when the anger and the determination weren’t enough to keep him going. He knew what it was like to find yourself without hope. “Sounds like Maximoff is causing him trouble too. I couldn’t sleep either when she was here. Maybe she’s setting off some assassin instinct of his, I dunno.”
“Uh, being uncomfortable around her? That’s not assassin instinct, Tones, that’s common sense.” After a beat, he scoffed too. “You know, this is just like Rogers. He spits in our faces, destroys everything in his way, ruins the Avengers, almost kills you. All for Barnes, right? But now… Now he’s not even bothering to take care of the guy? Barnes sounds miserable. This is what Rogers upended the entire world for?”
Tony shrugged, polished off a few blueberries, then took a sip of his coffee. “Getting Barnes the help and support he needs requires an admission that Barnes isn’t that smiling, flirty, happy-go-lucky guy from the forties anymore. That’s who Rogers ‘upended the world for’ and I can’t see him easily accepting that his long-lost love or whatever got replaced by this broken ex-assassin who probably has Swiss cheese left for brains. You know how Rogers is. He sees what he wants to see, reality be damned.”
Letting the letter drop on the table, Rhodey stood up, grabbing his own empty mug to place it in the dishwasher. He shook his head, then aimed a crooked smile at Tony. “Rogers screwed all of us over, turned his back on everything. What if, after all that, he loses Barnes anyways?” He huffed, amused at his own question. “Talk about some sweet revenge, huh?” When he glanced at his wrist watch though, his expression turned into a grimace. “Shit, how is it so late already? I should run. Carol and I are putting together some new training material and you know how she is about everyone being on time.”
“Tell her I said ‘hi’ and let me know if she kicks your ass for being late again!” Tony called out at Rhodey’s retreating back and laughed when the man just flipped him off and kept on walking. Tony remained where he was, sipping his coffee, nibbling on his berries, and mulling over the sudden influx of some very interesting ideas.
Sweet revenge indeed.
“Friday,” he called out after a minute, “earmark a Starkphone for me from the storage room, one of those gaudy IM Anniversary models, and have it brought up here please. I think our assassin friend needs an upgrade. Letter writing is so last century.” He tapped his fingers against the mug, willing himself not to grin like some damn Bond villain. “Step one to luring the former Winter Soldier away from his BFF and into our evil, evil clutches - shiny new tech.”