“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 snail mail. Iron Man on the other hand…” He shrugged and the smile turned into a sly 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, then tipped his sunglasses at the kid meaningfully. “And keep up the good work, alright? This is the illustrious world of superheroes you’re in now.”
“I gotta say, sir, so far it’s just been paperwork, memos, and manuals.”
Tony let the mock-serious expression drop and chuckled. “That about sums it up, actually.”
He decided he liked this kid and they’d have to grab a coffee or something later, but right now exhaustion was calling Tony’s name, screaming it in fact, so with a quick goodbye, he headed back to the residential side of the Compound. His legs carried him through the familiar space while he scrolled through some of the unanswered messages on his phone, but he quickly decided there was an easier way to catch up.
“So, Friday, my dear,” he talked as he walked, “how are things? My beautiful Compound still in one piece?”
“You’ve been gone for four days, Boss. Hardly enough time for things to fall into ruin.”
“You and I both know four days is plenty. Give certain people here five minutes and they can do some serious damage.”
“Has Peter been doing his summer homework?”
“Do Rhodey’s braces need a tune-up?”
“Not yet. The update we made to the shock absorbers has been holding up wonderfully.”
“Excellent. Did Loki behave himself?”
Tony smiled, feeling flushed with the simple pleasure of being home. “Rhodey and Carol make anyone else cry in training?”
“No, they have not—”
“And if I remember correctly, Stark, you were the one crying.”
Tony nearly collided with the Norse God and had to stumble awkwardly to halt himself, so he graced Loki with a scowl and an exaggerated glare while brushing off non-existent dust from his suit.
“Well, speak of the devil and he shall appear. Hello, Rudolph.”
Loki’s saccharine smile was awfully familiar too. “Your Judeo-Christian devil wishes he were half as devious and delightful as I am.”
Yeah, Tony was ignoring that comment entirely. “I swear we talked about you appearing out of thin air,” he said instead, “I have a heart condition, you know. And— and—” Tony waved the envelopes in his hand as if they were a weapon, “for your information, I was not crying. I was pretending to cry so Rhodey would stop making me spar with Hope. I’m a lover, not a fighter, and let me tell you, that woman? She does not hold back, not even when I bat my eyelashes at her. She’s immune to my charm, it’s ridiculous.”
“Hmm, a true anomaly indeed. With your money and power and those dazzling brown eyes, you usually get whatever you want, don’t you, Stark?”
“Oh, you flatterer, you.”
“Although, I can’t help but notice…” Loki tapped his chin thoughtfully with his pointer fingers. “You’ve been without a lover the entire time I’ve been here, haven’t you? Pity, that, a charmer like you, all alone.”
Reminding Tony about his single status was a bit of a low blow, but honestly, the real sting of his break-up had faded long ago. He and Pepper weren’t together anymore, sure, and when the break-up happened, Tony thought he’d never be happy again, but the cliché about time healing all wounds held up and things were alright now. Better than alright in fact, because he and Pepper were still kick-ass business partners and more importantly, they were back to being friends. In the end, they were both were better off. Pepper was happier this way, less burdened, and in turn Tony was too.
He supposed he did get a little lonely at times now and it would’ve been wonderful to have someone in his life again. He missed that domesticity, the knowledge that someone was waiting for him, someone who wanted him, piping hot mess and all, and despite all the ‘old man’ comments, there were also certain needs that had gone entirely unfulfilled (having nothing but the Trickster snark-flirting with you was hardly satisfying). However, casual hookups with strangers made Tony’s skin crawl—this infamous playboy now needed trust to go with his intimacy, go figure—and Tony wasn’t exactly going out there, meeting new people, making meaningful connections, and bumping into his one true love down at the park or in some cutesy little diner or something.
So mostly he just didn’t bother. Being overworked, still dealing with messes that weren’t always his, none of that helped either, but his new team and family had his back, the world wasn’t at his metaphorical or literal throat as much anymore, and he was protecting people, preparing for threats both big and small, and doing what he was meant to do.
Given all that, Tony was content with his life.
“You know, some would consider it rude to remind a man of his loneliness.”
“My deepest apologies, Stark, I only meant to say… Well…” Here Loki just gave up on the pretenses and made it clear he was checking Tony out. “You don’t have to be lonely.”
“Oh please, and incur Stephen’s wrath? You’re not worth the trouble, Reindeer Games.”
“I’ll have you know I am a generous lover, plenty enough for two. You do know I can clone myself, yes?”
“Blergh, okay, this is heading into the type of kinky territory I do not want to explore,” Tony made a face and began shooing the Trickster away so the man would get out of his way. The god complied, laughing at Tony’s exaggerated disgust.
Tony shook his head, amused and appreciative of the banter, but even though Tony’s absence was short, the actual trip was a grueling four days of business and ass kissing and his creaking bones and aching back had him cutting this snark fest short as well.
Tony, his exhaustion called to him again, go lie the fuck down.
“Alright, as much fun as this is—”
“It could always be more fun.”
“—I am dead tired and need a long nap. Pencil me in for this Saturday— and no, not for your wild clone shenanigans with Stephen,” Tony held up a hand and tried not to grin at how ridiculously pleased Loki looked with himself, “I don’t need to know what you two do in the privacy of your own home. No, pencil me for a sparring session. It’s been a while since I kicked your ass and you’ve been getting lippy.”
“Looking forward to it, Stark,” Loki simpered and waved him away. Tony didn’t bother looking back to see the god poof back out of existence like the show-off that he was, content to keep walking towards the elevators.
“Friday, my quarters, please,” he asked, daydreaming about collapsing into his soft, inviting bed and sleeping for days.
“Of course, Boss. Before you nap, however, I must warn you about something.” Her voice followed him into the elevator. “One of those letters was not written by an Iron Man fan. The address on it… Well, it belongs to them.”
The venom in her voice—and Tony did not remember ever programming that into her subroutines—was difficult to miss and Tony couldn’t help but groan, letting his head thump against the glass behind him.
“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, just because there was no one here to judge him for being childish. “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 traces of harmful chemicals, 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 we’re talking about, baby girl. ‘Paper and ink’ is all he needs to accomplish a lot of dumb shit.”
The elevator stopped and opened into Tony’s quarters, so he 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 the suit jacket followed, thrown carelessly 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 one could deny that—but wearing it all day long was overkill. So many damn meetings, so little time.
Feeling less overdressed, Tony plopped onto the bed with a satisfying groan and let himself sink into the mattress, eyes closed and muscles finally letting go of the tension they had accumulated over the last few days. It was divine.
Unfortunately, despite his body’s insistence to kick back, relax, and enjoy both his comfortable bed and the peace and quiet of his rooms, his mind still swirled with thoughts and memories, all dredged up by this one ridiculous letter.
The infamous ‘Superhero Civil War’ was just over a year ago. Only one year had passed since Tony was left behind in a cold bunker in Siberia, suit disabled, chest busted open, and 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 and looking back, he knew 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, one that sounded like Howard, he could’ve listened and believed that he deserved what Rogers did to him. He could’ve 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 kept him warm, just warm enough to survive until Vision and a rescue team showed up to scrape his half-busted form off the floor.
Without opening his eyes, Tony trailed his fingers over his clothed chest, knowing exactly where the scars were (both old and new) without needing to feel them beneath his fingertips.
He remained angry, all through the rescue, the long hospital stays, and the return to a belligerent Ross, a frenzied media, and a half-empty Compound.
Anger quickly grew into determination. 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.
Tony could’ve easily hunted down the ‘Rogues’ (a cute little moniker bestowed upon them by the social media at large) to exact some form of revenge. According to the trackers in their uniforms no one bothered to disable, they were all in Wakanda for a while (the only place on Earth Tony’s trackers couldn’t pick up on a map); they left the hidden country a few months later, likely because King T’Challa finally got fed up with footing the bill and kicked them out. Tony didn’t have a tracker on Barnes, but through the grapevine, he found out the man chose to go back into a cryo chamber and was left behind.
Payback was tempting, but since most of the world still viewed his former co-workers as criminals and they were short on both resources and allies, they laid low, so Tony left them 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 worry about than payback.
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—and it was a wonder that man had 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 a round of mutual, awkward apologies, they fell back into the easy camaraderie they shared 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, but he quickly got over the heartbreak, their petty Earth squabbles barely pinging on his godly radar.
His far more insufferable little brother, however, took the whole thing to heart and proceeded to rant about ‘these pathetic mortals ruining all of his hard work to bring them together to fight the Mad Titan’, insulted Rogers’ entire familial lineage, and flirted with Tony, all in the space of one breath.
Tony wasn’t sure which part had endeared the god to him most effectively, but in the blink of an eye, the brothers became a regular sight, seamlessly integrating themselves into the Compound’s daily life. Another benefit of having these two around was seeing the lovely Jane Foster more often (she was often kidnapped away from poor Thor to spend time with the science squad) and now one Dr. Stephen Strange actually visited them voluntarily, despite his often-communicated disdain for ‘people running around in tights’.
It was when Tony caught the Sorcerer Supreme in a hallway closet making out with the Trickster that Tony realized his life was fucking bizarre and left it at that.
He also decided he didn’t quite mind this new and improved version of ‘bizarre’.
Some new faces joined them as well. Hope van Dyne saw past her own father’s prejudices and decided to sign the Accords, putting both her Wasp Suit and her killer business instincts to good use. One Carol Danvers, freshly descended from space, 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 night and day compared to what Tony knew from before. The contrast was so stark in fact that 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 to say a simple thank you.
Everything was looking up and slowly fitting together into one cohesive puzzle.
And then the pardons came.
Tony couldn’t help his snort, which echoed through the quiet room and the sound of it made him finally open his eyes. Plain off-white ceiling stared back at him. He hated that day, when the news broke and he realized everyone would be a stone’s throw away again, although he couldn’t remember if it was genuine heartbreak or petty bitterness that truly got to him.
Neither his team nor the Councils (US or otherwise) had anything to do with the pardons, 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 and determination wouldn’t have been enough. He would’ve caved, 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 (plus one freshly woken Bucky Barnes) 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. Instead, he let his very eager team handle his former teammates.
After all, nowadays, Tony was just the tech guy.
With a reluctant sigh, Tony sat up, gave his back a stretch, and after a few things made a satisfying pop, he leveled a suspicious look at the pile of envelopes.
The Rogues had been pissed about the stonewalling since day one. They griped about the ‘childish stubbornness’ and the ‘dangerous lack of cooperation’, they even cried about it to the media. Thankfully, 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.
Apparently, rants on Twitter just weren’t enough anymore and the Rogues were resorting to old-school letter writing as a way to wriggle their way back into Tony’s life.
It took a full minute to talk himself into moving, but in the end, Tony left the conspicuously plain white envelope alone, picking up one of the more colorful ones instead.
It made better sense to work up to Rogers’ nonsense and reading kids’ letters did always put him in a good mood. Cute art, the kids’ hopes and dreams, their stories about school or their wild made-up adventures (some about the Avengers even), he loved it all.
Falling back against his plush pillows, Tony let himself get lost in the enthusiastic, brightly-colored ramblings of the future generation.
Tony admired the bright doodles of Iron Man, Spider-Man, and a very Picasso-esque rendition of the Wasp one last time and placed the last letter on top of new pile next to him. With nothing else left to read, he studied the damn white envelope still 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 this time. At least there’s no insulting, out-of-date tech to go along with this letter.
He reached for the envelope, tore it open, unfolded the paper, and promptly realized that this wasn’t Rogers’ tidy scrawl (he hated that he had the man’s handwriting memorized). A glance at signature towards the bottom of the letter confirmed his suspicions.
With a raised eyebrow and renewed curiosity, Tony leaned back 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 bring anyone I killed back to life. It won’t fix what happened between you, Steve and the others either. Might not help you at all, so this apology, it’s selfish then, 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 had 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 want to 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 next month. Thinks he can get a moment with you because you’re one of the speakers and the security isn’t as strict. No idea if this letter gets to you in time, and knowing you, you probably already know, but thought I should warn you.
They used some of your tech to help with the triggers, by the way. Thank you for that too. T’Challa’s sister didn’t want to be involved though and I don’t blame her, but the other doctors did well enough with the tech. 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 give back 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 and kept staring at the letter in his hands.
Not what I expected. At all.
Tony reread the letter while slowly making his way over to the kitchen, led there by a late afternoon caffeine craving. There was no way he’d be taking that nap now anyways.
“Hey, Tones, I didn’t know you were back already,” 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. “What are you reading? 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 must’ve caught the name at the bottom too because he 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 read, 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 managed the same sort of “Huh…”and gave Tony a bemused look.
“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, not 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 pour the now-brewed coffee into his favorite Hulk-themed mug. “Sounds like they got rid of the triggers at least,” Rhodey added, “which is a damn relief. One less thing to worry about.”
“Yeah, the BARF modifications came through. Sure wish the Wakandans were a bit better at following directions though. I specifically told them not to mention my involvement, but at least Barnes doesn’t seem too put out about the fact that the oh-so-evil Tony Stark helped fix his brain.”
“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.”
Things were better now, much better, but there was no denying those first few month after Siberia were rough; there were some dark, awful places Tony found himself in when the anger and the determination weren’t enough to keep him going, some he still had to bring up with this therapist on occasion to avoid falling into that pit of despair again. He knew what it was like to find yourself without hope.
“Sounds like Maximoff is causing him trouble too.”
Tony nodded. “I couldn’t sleep either when she was around. Maybe she’s setting off some assassin instinct of his?”
“Uh, being uncomfortable around her? That’s not assassin instinct, that’s common sense.” After a beat, Rhodey scoffed. “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? Is this really what Rogers upended the entire world for? I mean, hell, Barnes sounds miserable.”
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 hasn’t had a good night’s sleep in decades and has the equivalent of Swiss cheese in his head after the hell he’s been put through. You know how Rogers is though. He sees what he wants to see, reality be damned.”
Letting the letter drop on the table, Rhodey grabbed his own empty mug and walked over to the counter. He shook his head as he placed the mug into the dishwasher. “Rogers, he screwed all of us over, ruined his reputation, turned his back on everything… but what if, after all that, he loses Barnes anyways? Talk about some sweet revenge, huh?”
“I suppose so.”
Rhodey glanced at his wrist watch and grimaced. “Shit, how is it so late already? Sorry to cut this short— and I do want to catch up— but I should run. Carol and I are putting together some new training material and you know how she loves to give me hell when I’m late to anything.”
“Yeah, yeah, go, get out of here. Tell Carol I said ‘hi’ and let me know if she kicks your ass for being late again.”
Rhodey rolled his eyes and just flipped him off as he walked out and Tony was left to his own thoughts once again. He remained where he was, leaning against the counter, 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 when he settled on a decision, “earmark a Starkphone for me from the storage room. One of those gaudy Iron Man Anniversary models. Have it brought up here please. I think our assassin friend needs an upgrade, don’t you? I mean, 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.”