It was at once the simplest and the hardest thing for him to do.
There was no doubt, none at all, that he needed to talk to Steve. They'd done too little talking over the course of the conflict, and when they had, it had been far too late to bridge their divide. Now was the last time he could talk to Steve before it became too suspicious. Even though it was now, more absolute than ever, far too late for anything to be resolved between them.
He dismissed the guards and disconnected the security cameras and microphones from the main S.H.I.E.L.D systems. The only record of this meeting would be the one in his head, in Extremis. This was private, intensely so, and the entire episode that led to this moment had always been, on certain levels, very personal to either of them. Possibly the reason everything had gotten so out of hand was because they had both been partly driven by their own experiences.
Standing in the metallic, windowless room and looking at Steve, the sight of the other man made his heart seize, almost reminiscent of a cardiac arrest (and it had been a while since he had felt that unique, terrible sensation). It was so difficult, even now, for him to get the words out, to explain the choices he had made. Even though it had to be said, not in the least because he owed it to Steve, it was still so very hard to begin.
It was hard to imagine, that only two days ago, he could've actually said something that could've made a difference. Could've perhaps, at the very, very least, made that last meeting more... pleasant. But no, it hadn't gone that way. Instead, he had chosen to walk away at that time, a decision he had regretted slightly right after he'd done it, but by now it had turned into full-blown guilt. It was cold comfort to know that he could finally, truthfully respond to the questions and accusations that Steve had thrown at him that day, and that this conversation would stay between them and only them.
Oh hell. He hadn't known, hadn't expected that it would be their last real meeting, because honestly, this one didn't count. And that was the problem, wasn't it? Things had gone well and truly south so rapidly in a way that he hadn't been able to predict and he’d only realized it when it was too late. And because he was Tony Stark and life loved to fuck with him, of course it had to be one Steve Rogers in the center of it all.
If he stood there and just stared any longer, he was definitely going to chicken out. So with a deep breath, he removed the helmet, a sign to himself and to Steve that this was going to be no-holds-barred, face-to-face, as honest as he could ever be with his thoughts and emotions conversation.
Or rather, a confession.
He had made it a point to himself when he made the decision to see Steve to be as steady as he could, to cut all the unnecessary babble that he would usually say when he was stressed or uncertain, or god forbid, afraid. He probably failed at not babbling, but he was rather convinced that he still had a point even in those ramblings, because Steve needed to know the whole story and Steve had always been patient, been patient with him. He would hear him out, he would... and it wasn't as if Steve could go anywhere now.
It turned out that once he had started, he was hard-pressed to actually stop. Even when his voice started cracking from all the emotion and his rising volume, even when he could feel the tears welling up in his eyes and threatening to actually fall... He'd gotten so far now; he couldn't - wouldn't - allow himself to stop. He told Steve everything.
Well, perhaps not everything, like how he'd felt oddly hurt by Steve’s accusations from two days ago (though perhaps it wasn't really strange, because he'd predicted what Steve would do, had expected how Steve would react but it still hurt, so very much). But with the way he sounded, with the way he was really honest-to-god crying now, Steve could probably tell.
Then finally, finally he'd gotten through to the end of all that he'd wanted to say. All except for one last thing, the most important thing. The answer to Steve's last demand.
He could still recall all it so clearly, from Steve's expression to the tone and volume of his voice. Even if Extremis hadn't been recording that encounter, he knew he would never forget any aspect of that particular meeting, that particular demand.
"Tell me, "Director Stark", tell me, was it worth it?? Was it WORTH it?! TELL ME!"
No, Steve... "It wasn’t worth it," he breathed, his voice the barest whisper as all the guilt and despair he was feeling threatened to pull his voice under.
It wasn't worth it. It just wasn't. No matter how grateful the parents of Stamford were, no matter how the public reacted to the result of the conflict, none of that could even begin to tip the scales the other way now.
Of course nobody, save the villains, wanted Captain America to die. Those who knew him, who really did, never wanted their friend, Steve Rogers to die. For him, privately, the only thing worse than Steve’s death, was actually causing it. Because he always hurt the ones he loved (just look at Happy, at Pepper), and in Steve's case, while he hadn’t pulled that fateful trigger, he might as well have had.
To Tony, Steve's death changed everything. He could bear Steve's hate; bear the loss of their long friendship. It wouldn't be easy, but it'd be manageable... in time. But this. This unforeseen, unpredicted death, Steve's death. He couldn't handle it.
He didn't know how he hadn't seen it coming. He thought that he'd factored in everything that could've had the slightest impact on the outcome of the superhuman war. Yet none of the scenarios, even the least likely, worst-case ones, had featured Steve dying.
Tony had to admit, that even after Goliath's death, he had not believed that the same could possibly happen to Steve. He had believed, perhaps naively (and wasn't that so ironic?), that no matter what happened, it would never come down to having Steve die. He'd accounted for scenarios in which he himself died, and those scenarios had not fazed him the slightest.
He had wanted to minimize the casualties in this conflict, but there was one casualty that he had refused to let happen from the very beginning... and that had led to his most fatal mistake.
In all the madness that arose from having to juggle handling politicians, the public and protecting his fellow superheroes (including and especially the ones who had rebelled against Registration) all at the same time, he had forgotten that all this in-fighting presented the perfect opportunity for the bad guys to slip unnoticed into the chaos and deal a potentially lethal blow to the superhero community.
Everyone had forgotten that the real villains weren't each other, forgotten that a good number of villains were still out at large and in all likelihood, waiting for the perfect opportunity to wreak havoc again. And they were served one such golden opportunity on a perfectly gilded platter, all because Tony Stark hadn't been able to foresee it.
He hadn't (couldn't) imagined a future without Captain America, without Steve Rogers in it. That was the fatal flaw in all he had planned.
Now, he was forced to live in such a reality.
It was perhaps fortunate then, that he'd had enough experience putting on a front, and the Iron Man helmet was always a good cover. Literally. He couldn't exactly afford to look like he was halfway down the path towards suicidal with how most of S.H.I.E.L.D already didn't like him (to put it mildly) being in-charge. Nobody had noticed that he was wearing his armored suit more often too, though admittedly it had only been two days, so that was fortunate. In reality, Tony was breaking, collapsing, dying on the inside.
Two days since their last meeting. It felt like two eternities. He would have preferred it if that were the case; he'd be able to come to terms with his version of reality more easily if that amount of time had actually passed... and if Steve had died in some other way that wasn't due to yet another one of his massive screw-ups.
He honestly didn't know how he was still running day-to-day operations within S.H.I.E.L.D, how he was still meeting with the government that had driven him to pick the distasteful but only viable option, but most of all, he didn't know how he was still even existing, even going through the motions of life at this point.
No, Tony knew. It would have been easy, far too easy to have just let his anguish consume him and leave him a useless, hopeless wreck. The moment Steve had been shot on the courthouse steps, his breath had caught and the first thing he’d felt was disbelief. Tony had then told himself that Steve had survived worse than gunshot wounds, and it wasn't until he'd seen the hospital report that he'd realized that Steve was dead, that the gunshots had been fatal. He'd somehow managed to get through the rest of the day through indiscriminate applications of some of Extremis' other abilities (something he’d sworn to stop doing for what it had almost cost him the last time, but at least this was better than turning back to drinking, right?). However once he'd gotten home, he'd - for the first time in ages - shut down all the communications and links he had courtesy of Extremis and let all his emotions overwhelm him.
At that point in time, it would've been so easy to have just not stopped himself from drowning and suffocating in his guilt and pain, to not even attempt to wrestle his feelings down and see the bigger picture that was the world and how they needed some semblance of normality and stability in the face of seeing their greatest hero being gunned down. But through that emotional upheaval, one thought still stuck with him, and that was that Steve wouldn't have wanted his death to cause more dissidence, which would surely happen if nobody stepped up to properly deal with the ramifications of Captain America's very public assassination.
Honestly, Tony had known then (and still believed it right now) that he probably wasn't in the right frame of mind to handle all of that. But at the same time, he didn't trust anybody else with it, and he owned it to Steve to keep pursuing the path he'd strongly believed was right. He hadn't expected, hadn't remotely wished for Steve's death, but nonetheless it meant that he had to keep going on and not have let Steve die in vain. That was the only reason why he'd managed, after a long endless night, to get himself under enough control to function with a semblance of being a reasonable human being (and wasn't that a lark?) and start a new day. A new day without Steve.
It hadn't been the first time he'd met a new day without Steve, far from it, and in recent times, he hadn't so much as seen Steve unless it was to arrange a secret rendezvous or when they were physically fighting each other. But it had been the first time he'd known for certain that there would be no chance of them patching up ever again.
Slumped in his seat, Tony made himself look up and at Steve. It was so unnatural to see such absolute stillness from Steve. It wasn't just the fact that he wasn't breathing, that his chest was no longer rising and falling. It was the lack of a vibrant aura that had always emanated from Steve that always seem to make him more animated, more alive than anyone else even if Steve was merely standing still.
The last time he'd seen Steve so still and unmoving, it had been years ago when they had first discovered Captain America encased in ice in the Artic. It hadn’t hurt at the time to see Steve so motionless, because they'd all thought that he was dead and that the ice had merely preserved the dead body whole. But even after they’d thawed Steve out and realized that he was actually alive, the memory of how he'd been found hadn't hurt because he’d yet to know Steve Rogers. Had yet to see past "Captain America" to see Steve Rogers the man himself, had yet to find himself so utterly charmed by the man that he had then proceeded to quite unconsciously fall in love with over the years. That was when he didn't consider the fact that he'd probably been one of the biggest fans of Captain America since he was a boy and there'd still been a fair bit of hero worship towards Steve at the beginning.
Yes, Tony could finally acknowledge the feeling that had been lurking in the recesses of his mind in relation to Steve. But of course it had to take Steve dying to make him face the truth. He was certain that even the repressed knowledge of those feelings had motivated him to try to end the war as fast as possible, motivated him to try to reach out to Steve one last time before it was too late. In the end, it was still too late.
I love you, Steve... and I'm an idiot for not admitting it sooner.
In the end, it seemed that he still couldn't verbalize everything to Steve. Even if it were just to the other man's...
No, despite having planned to come clean to Steve this time, Steve didn't need the burden of knowing (though could it really be classified as "knowing" seeing how this conversation was really all mostly for Tony's own benefit, to try and ease some of his guilty conscience? Not to mention that Steve was...) how Tony really felt about him, even all the way through the height of their conflict. There was a part of him that was still paranoid that, somehow, this talk he was having could be found out and the last thing he needed was for all and sundry know that he was hopelessly in love with Steve Rogers for years.
Mostly, he probably didn't want to even contemplate how Steve would react if he knew, as impossible that was now. Somehow, letting those words touch the air of the cold room where Steve lay seemed to be the equivalent of Steve actually being able to hear them and hence know.
He was being melodramatic and illogical, but keeping this sentiment solely in his head (in his heart) made it feel that it was less likely that Steve would find out about it. In the end he was still a coward for not wanting to leave the tiniest hint of a possibility that Steve would find out and have to respond to it. After everything that had happened, it would be a miracle for Steve to even want to be friends with him, let alone return any romantic feelings.
Never mind that logically, rationally, Steve would not know because Steve was gone. Gone.
Still, Tony couldn't help but wonder that if he had acknowledged, even if it were just to himself, the feelings he had for Steve much earlier, even before the first hints of trouble had been visible, if it would've changed anything with regards to the registration act and hence the war.
Perhaps it would, perhaps it wouldn't. Perhaps things would've been all the worse than it was now if he’d let emotions influence more of his actions than he already had.
He would never know now.
Days later, he heard of Reed's research into alternate universes to see how they'd resolved their Civil Wars and Tony could not stop his hysterical laughter or the simultaneous, fresh wave of tears when he learnt about how Natasha Stark and Steve Rogers’ marriage on Earth-3490 had averted Civil War.