Look, Tony’s been through a lot.
Attempted murder, kidnapping and torture, to start.
He’s endured an extensive surgery he was not only awake for on the table but had to be MacGyvered because he was being held hostage by terrorists. Not to mention having to build a suit out of junk to fight his way out, and then not only finding out his pseudo-father was the douchebag that orchestrated the whole thing but was also the one responsible for the shady arms deals going on under Tony’s name.
And that was just his first few months before the superhero business.
At this stage, it isn’t so much a year of similar calamities that Tony looks back on and thinks Another year: older, wiser and alive, as much as it is a continuous cycle of bullshit wherein he looks to the heavens and thinks That wormhole looks damn good right now.
He’s survived the might of the United States Government, the global media, the Hulk on a tantrum, an alien invasion, his own murderous robot child, the loss of his first-born, and getting double-teamed by a pair of super soldiers after witnessing one of them murder his parents.
Suffice to say, the fact that he isn’t dead yet is hugely baffling to him.
He’s got a heart condition.
His sternum’s been crushed a million different ways and there’s an arc reactor in there too which is fucking wonderful because breathing properly is for sissies.
And yeah, he’s a recovering alcoholic, but that liver damage’s been done.
Rhodey’s joked that Tony’s still alive on pure spite.
Almost ten years of superhero-ing later, and Tony’s starting to think his platypus might’ve been onto something because the only thing that’s keeping Tony going right now – between the multiple machines he’s hooked up to – is retribution.
“You know,” Pepper begins almost conversationally, “the best revenge is living well.”
“I don’t want revenge, I want justice.”
She hums, scanning the SI paperwork that she brought into his hospital suite to distract him with the responsibilities he still has left that include the shitstorm he’s found himself recovering from, and the guilt that Rhodey’s not storming into his room to yell at him because Rhodey can’t walk anymore.
“Getting Barnes will be easy enough,” Pepper muses, “Thanks to Project Insight, the whole world knows about the Winter Soldier now. God knows how many atrocities he’s responsible for.”
“I don’t want Barnes.”
Pausing bodily, she lifts her brows at him.
“He’s a pawn to the whole thing,” Tony continues with some bitterness. If only it had been Barnes, if only it had been that simple. “He was a weapon that Hydra used, none of it was ever a conscious choice on his part.”
“Then who do you want, Tony?”
If Pepper is surprised, she doesn't show it and only asks, “What are you going to do?”
He hums, tone deceptively light, “I’m going to move on.” Looking straight ahead, he recited the part of the plan that had taken form in his mind, between one surgery and the next, one nightmare and another, “Focus on the Accords, spread some goodwill, ensure reparations are made worldwide, and live up to the Stark Industries slogan: ‘changing the world for a better future’.”
“How can I help?”
A corner of his lips lifted. “By doing what you do best. Anyone that gets in the way who doesn’t offer a compromise or an alternative solution, I want them crushed. I’ve wasted enough time entertaining other people’s shit. They want the futurist, they’ll have him.”
“And the Rogues?”
Their accusations felt branded into his brain, swallowing up the bad code that had made up his parents’ car accident all those years ago.
They never believed in him, never wanted him as part of the team, never saw him as anything more than a cash cow to bleed dry.
Someone to make endless demands of while constantly taking everything he had to give, all while reminding him how they found his contributions lacking, his presence irritating, his entire existence barely tolerable.
Naively, he kept making excuses for their treatment of him, kept hoping that their carelessness of him had simply been the way their friendship operated.
But he could have never quite brushed off the barbs about where his wealth came from though they’d been happy enough to spend his money. How his superhero-status was only the result of the suit or how his complicated relationship with his father and Obie was simply a ‘poor little rich boy’ spiel. Or, the way they’d dogpile on the mistakes he made, no matter how hard he tried to atone and fix and be better, only to come to the horrible conclusion that none of it was ever going to be enough.
Tony had given them everything he could give.
Even if they never quite understood how much of his soul went into the tech they used and abused, how much attention he paid into ensuring their comfort and happiness and how much of his heart he’d put on the line by inviting them into his home; Tony allowed himself to care about them and in their own way, they knew.
They just didn’t care enough about him to reciprocate in kind.
Tony wasn’t even asking for a lot: just a seat at the table, just a considering thought to how he’d feel, just the decency to look him in the eye and not lie to him.
Though, perhaps all of it had been their way of telling him all along.
Perhaps he’d only been delusional about their friendship, about their “family”, but now he supposes, he knows better. Now, Tony hears them loud and clear: “They wanted a bad guy, they’ll get him.”
It’s surprisingly easy to take over the world, at least, once you’re properly motivated.
Spite, Tony has discovered, works beautifully. And having Extremis activated helps too, now that it’s stabilized and made a home in his bloodstream.
He’d call the use of it an unfair advantage but needs must.
His fragile, unenhanced body wasn’t going to make it out of that hospital no matter how much money was thrown at it, and for all the accusations thrown his way, at the very least, being more machine than man turned out to be a foreshadowing he gleefully exploits.
Not that anyone outside of his immediate circle knows.
For all the world is aware, Tony’s numerous attempts to save his own life post-Bunker were for an experimental fountain-of-youth operation.
He’s not so much a silver fox anymore as he is a spring chicken.
Extremis turned back the clock to the Tony Stark of the Afghanistan era, and the arc reactor had popped right out of his chest like an ill-fitting button. Tony doesn’t miss it, but he will miss the sprinkles of salt and pepper in his hair, and the laugh lines that visually reminded him that he did that enough to warrant their existence, but an improvement of his physical form is hardly a downside. His increased healing factor and increased endurance is worth the trade-off regardless.
Now he can get into video conferences with any one of the international delegates at any time that makes them more agreeable.
The additional time wasted on sleep is spent absorbing information fast enough to get another five or so PhDs, though formally he doesn’t bother because all he needs is the background knowledge to make sure he isn’t wasting anyone’s time when he pursues their expertise.
Tony now has the never-ending energy to sweet talk anyone down the rabbit hole of the tomorrow he’s got in mind; twirling them around his finger at the best of times or bending them to his will at the worst.
He’s even got the time to vet young minds around the globe who’re getting lost in the cracks of systems that are failing them and ensuring that education is advancing wherever he can get the countries to agree to it. Tony’s gained the contacts to get these kids mentors and support and the resources to help build the world that even he hasn’t thought of yet.
Even saving people has gotten easier.
Who knew accountability and transparency made people trust you more?
Tony and the New Avengers can lend a hand in natural disasters and hostile extraction situations, they can get involved in terrorist takedowns, level out cartels and stomp out rebellions with little more than a request to the Accords liaisons.
(It wouldn’t have worked out so smoothly without Extremis, at least not until Tony developed the tech to do it, but Extremis really is the gift that keeps on giving, increased connectivity around the world made communicating between Avenger coms and the UN council so much easier.)
That between all of that, Tony’s still pumping out new tech – medical, prosthetic, body armor, communications, and green energy – it’s a good thing he doesn’t sleep.
He’s got a world to run.
Though Tony certainly trusts the New Avengers more than the old ones, Tony operates the Legion alone. It’s a skill that’s made infinitely easier with Extremis, but even with it, the need for more AIs to support and manage his growing network greatly improves his mood rather than sours it, upon discovery.
With Rhodey spending a large portion of his time in PT and recovering, and Pepper is busy making sure the world keeps chugging along as Tony directed it to; Tony can admit to being a little lonely.
Plus, he’s always wanted a lot of kids.
Friday is thrilled to be a big sister, and Hailey and the twins, Tadashi and Jocasta, are born.
Friday is dedicated to being Tony’s right hand, just as Jarvis had been.
Hailey is charged with securing all information gathered in the network, running numbers on any foreseeable threats to the world at large and shutting down anything that may endanger their operation as a whole.
The intelligence community doesn’t know she’s incorporeal, but god, are they scared of her. Tony thinks it fitting that Hailey has Aunt Peggy written into her code.
The twins, on the other hand, are on watchdog duty. With King T’Challa’s permission, it isn’t a difficult task.
If Tony sneaks a peek at the princess’ tech on the server, it's only because he needs the reminder that the world isn’t destined for the shitter if minds like hers are out there. (And if he subtly suggests that the princess make her mark in the international community by mixing diplomacy with her genius technological advancements, that’s an argument the royal siblings can hash out on their own.)
Tony finds out quickly enough that though the twins are basically meant to be ghosts in their task, the Rogues will know their names soon enough.
Jocasta finds the Rogues unimpressive and takes great offense to the information derived from Friday’s servers about them, particularly their less than stellar treatment towards their father. Jocasta, though, at her core is a troublemaker, and after seeing her interact with Harley, Tony has his suspicious about where his youngest gets it from.
She manages to hack the system of the villa the Rogues are housed in, and every few days, their internet goes dial-up or the fridge throws up ice-cubes with frightening accuracy.
That his little girl has managed to proactively shut down any attempts of the Rogues to reach out to contacts and rebuild their reputations by fostering nostalgia over who Captain America was and what the Avengers were in New York, is a reminder that she’s just as protective as the boy that inspired her existence.
Tadashi, on the hand, is better and worse than his twin for a different reason.
While there was really no need for both of them to be watching the Rogues, Tadashi had a habit of mother-henning while Rhodey was away, and with Tony already dealing with Friday reminding him of his very few physical limits, sending Tadashi on Barnes’ case had been a precautionary measure wrapped in a bid to keep his son occupied.
Princess Shuri may have scrubbed the triggers free from Barnes’ noggin, but Hydra wasn’t all gone and making sure Barnes had that extra layer of protection was a more prudent move to secure him rather than simply protect him.
Of course, with Tadashi, it might as well have been.
The reports Tadashi had prepared like clockwork on Barnes was depressingly grim. While the triggers were no longer a concern, it seemed that Barnes’ very personhood was put into question – that he wasn’t the Bucky of Before hit Rogers particularly hard – and as a result, Barnes had to withstand Rogers’ less than helpful lectures of who Barnes was supposed to be.
It didn’t take long for Tony to hop on board too, much to his own annoyance.
It didn’t help either that the Witch had found it necessary to poke at the brainwashed assassin whenever she could. “Apparently it’s an old game,” Tadashi informed. “The Wakandans are wary of the Witch and are unwilling to intervene. The Rogues don’t believe Sergeant Barnes and I’m doing my best to circumvent her where I can.”
Tony exhales through his nose. “Bring up the data from Strange, I think its time you learned some magic tricks, baby boy.”
In the midst of it all, keeping an eye on the Rogues and keeping the world turning, Barnes manages to find out about his AI guardian angel, and Tony listens in amusement as Tadashi reports on their day together.
Most of it is training Barnes on healthy coping mechanisms, talking him through breathing techniques and yoga.
But they also have discussions, Tadashi sneaks Barnes ebooks and movies, and they talk history and debate themes and plot devices, and finally, Tadashi ends off the report like he’s a nervous kid asking if his new friend can come to visit, “He really is very nice, father.”
“This wasn’t in the plan, y’know,” he informs, trying to be stern.
“But father, I love him,” Tadashi pretends to whine, and Tony can’t help but snicker. “Alright, alright. I assume you know what to do to secure this little chat?”
“I do, be nice.”
“I resent that,” Tony retorts with a roll of his eyes before a screen comes to life and Barnes is staring at him.
“Well,” Tony begins, “aren’t you a sight for sore eyes?”
Frankly, the man looks terrible.
His eyes are practically sunken into his head and he’s looking particularly pale, his hair is greasy, and his clothes are baggy. For someone living in the lap of Wakandan luxury, Barnes looks like a college student who’s given up on life.
Tadashi had insisted he looked better than when he first started looking in on him, and that reminder makes Tony grimace.
“How’re you doing, Frosty?”
Barnes doesn’t quite smile, but his voice sounds lighter, “Been better, been worse; can’t complain.” He cleared his throat. “I just…I wanted to say thank you.”
He shifts uncomfortably. “For everything. I know…I know what you’re capable of, and you didn’t end me in that Bunker last year, so…thank you.”
Tony shrugs. Being thanked for not killing people is literally the lowest compliment he can think of, but he hadn’t expected anything to begin with so he’s surprised when Barnes adds, “And for Tadashi. I know you didn’t mean to send a friend my way, but I still appreciate it.”
“Yeah, well, Dash kind of has a mind of his own,” Tony says with fond exasperation.
“I…just, I want to know why.”
“I know you’re watching us,” he says slowly, “and no, Dash didn’t say anything, but I figured that was what was going on. What exactly are you up to?”
“You think I’ll give up my evil plans just because my kid’s got a soft spot for you?”
“No, but I…I can help.”
His surprise must show on his face because Barnes hastens to continue, “I could never ask you to forgive me for what happened with your parents or for what went down in the Bunker, and I could never make up for all the things I did as the Fist of Hydra, but I should spend the rest of my life making up for it.”
Quietly, Hailey pings a file Tony’s way, and with nothing but a glance that shares his vision of Barnes’ resolute expression, Tony asks, “Aren’t you tired of serving other people?”
Barnes considers him before saying, “It’s different when I get to choose.”
Tony scans the information Hailey has gathered, apparently given freely by the man before him. Information taken from Hydra; the tethers that the Witch still holds to them; hidden safe spots created by both Romanoff and Barton; an exit strategy Lang has planned to get out of Wakanda; the lawyers Wilson is secretly meeting with and the plans Rogers intends to enact himself once he’s waited out the world’s anger at the Rogues’ ability to evade responsibility.
Quietly, he repeats, “I can never atone for what I did as the Winter Soldier, but I should try.”
All the weak points were highlighted; every hot spot and trigger point emphasized for maximum damage; a personal dossier on how to end a man’s life without killing him.
Tony doesn’t take his eyes away from Barnes as he reminds, “The world wasn’t betrayed by the Rogues.”
“No,” Barnes began slowly, his gaze never wavering, “but you were.”
Like dominos, once one falls, the others follow.
Lang escapes as he planned and is recaptured after giving him just long enough to think he could get away with it.
His rights are read. He gets dragged back to the States. He stands trial. His daughter refuses to acknowledge him. Tony doesn’t feel anything at the devastation in his face.
Lang was the one who chose the American hero over his family.
Wilson gets his lawyers. He returns to the States to work out a deal. He is dishonorably discharged. His sentence is light, all things considered, and he serves his community hours with a support network of veterans, a group given funding by Stark Industries.
Rhodey doesn’t pretend that Wilson hasn’t disappointed him, and neither do the other vets.
When the reporters ask why Wilson did what he did, he tells them it was because he believed in Captain America, and he’d been wrong. The admission crushes the Pro-Cap rhetoric.
Barton, on the hand, gets cocky. He gets caught and dragged back to the States in a similar fashion as Lang, but he’s all bravado and devil may care.
Tony’s derision is palpable when Barton demands Tony’s aid in cutting him loose, and just like that, support for “Team Cap” sours.
Barton gets the book thrown at him; Laura files for divorce; the kids make it clear that they no longer have a father.
It doesn’t take long before he’s trying to find an out. Any out. He offers his skills as a mercenary to anyone willing – willing to pay him – willing to go against Tony Stark – and then he gets a visit in his cell. The nerves of his hands are crushed.
Strange looks at Barton with pity.
The little spider Barton’s hinged his hopes on is taken in-route to the States before she appears before some shadowy council of the spy-community. Romanova’s crimes are read aloud, and she admits her role in them – what she was ordered, and what she did instead.
Her acts of rebellion aren’t all mercy, some of them were a lot worse than what the organizations she’d been under had asked of her.
Tony hadn’t fathomed how much red was truly in her ledger.
Former SHIELD agents that had clawed their way to the world of the living after Project Insight’s data dump make themselves known.
That video is even more chilling than her pseudo-trial.
Romanova is alive, but she doesn’t want to be.
Pepper presents it like a head-on-the-platter.
Tony sighs. If anyone had the best chance of worming their back into his good graces, it was her. He had hopes for them, he will admit, and having to dole out this punishment is bittersweet until it’s not.
Whatever hole she’d been thrown into and forgotten in, she sings every secret of his she was able to unearth; every angle she knew of that made Tony pliable to manipulation: aim for Rhodes, aim for Pepper, twist his robots, hurt his pseudo-sons.
No one is dumb enough to entertain her.
Hailey makes sure no one ever hears her again while Friday personally ensures that the Black Widow myth dies with her.
The intelligence community doesn’t know who to fear more. Aunt Peggy and Pepper had always been the scariest, most capable women Tony’s ever known, it’s only fitting that the AIs he created after them would have similar reputations.
“What about the Witch,” Barnes asks quietly.
“Are you invested?” Tony returns, brows lifted in curiosity.
Barnes looks better than he had two months ago when they first made contact, better in real life too now that he’s back on United States soil.
Wakanda hadn’t agreed with him enough, not when the Witch was still close enough to hiss in his ear.
“I remember her,” Barnes admits, and Tony isn’t surprised. Barnes had, after all, been the one to dump Maximoff’s Hydra file in Tony’s hands. “I know I don’t get a say, but I want her gone.”
Tony smiles. “Then, we’ll both get what we want, won’t we?”
Tadashi does the honors.
While Barnes has enjoyed the part of Rhodey embedded into his youngest son’s code that is all understanding and empathy, unleashing the fierce protective drive and vengeance brings its own comforts. With Strange and Loki’s fusion of magic tricks under Tadashi’s proverbial belt, the Witch isn’t safe.
For so long, Maximoff was everything Tony was not.
She demanded revenge and bloodshed in the same breath that she commanded amnesty for the crimes she was willing to commit. She relied on her innocent visage and the hairline fractures of the rest of the Avengers’ discontent with Tony, and that was all she needed to destroy them from the inside.
Ultron would have been proud of her, but then again, Ultron had been woefully corrupted. Maximoff would know what that felt like.
Tadashi began with a lullaby that permeated the Witch’s room in Wakanda like a perfume. It lulled her further into sleep, into a false sense of security. And then, just as her nightmarish vision was forced on them – on Tony, on Bruce, on Barnes – Tadashi raged war.
Every minute of her recorded “training sessions” with Hydra, every second of destruction she wrought, every ounce of pain she squeezed was repaid in full.
Maximoff didn’t know remorse before.
She will now.
For the first time since Bruce’s return to civilization, he smiles.
The Witch doesn’t stop screaming.
If Tony ever had to go into a supervillain monologue, and the “good guy” demands to know why, Tony doesn’t think there’s anything more powerful than replying, “Because I could.”
So, when Rogers returns to the United States alone with no allies to speak of and having to sneak into the Tower to get to Tony’s penthouse just to have someone talk to him, Tony wants Rogers to ask, why.
Instead, Rogers asks, “Where’s Bucky?”
Not that he's surprised. Tony had always been just a means to an end – a colleague he was forced into working with – a bank account he could spend. Nothing Tony could do would ever hurt Rogers because simply put, Rogers didn’t care about Tony.
Rogers only cared about Barnes.
Barnes, who Tony can feel approach from behind him. Barnes, who unashamedly presses his front flush against Tony’s bare back before pressing a kiss against his skin and hooking his chin on his shoulder. Barnes, who's voice is a smooth, warm purr as he coaxes, "Come back to bed, darlin'."
From the look on Rogers' face, Tony thinks that works just as well.