There was only so long Tony could distract himself with the blinking red light and baiting Ross. Same thing with developing the robo-legs for Rhodey. Sooner or later, he would have to face the events of the past several months. So, once he’d - somewhat politely - told Ross to go to hell, he found himself staring at Steve’s attempt at an olive branch and decided, what the hell: he may as well get facing the shitstorm that was his life over with.
Apparently, the universe had decided that Tony Stark was going to be its whipping boy. It couldn’t even let something simple like his name go unscathed: Tony Stank. Talk about kicking a dog while it was down.
No matter what Tony did, no matter how hard and in how many ways he tried to help others, he somehow always ended up the villain and/or the loser. Even when he compromised, even when admitted he made a mistake and tried to fix it, he still lost. Somehow, Steve never even considered compromising or even taking into account someone else’s point of view and got to keep everything: friends, family, and freedom. Oh, and he got new allies and a safe haven.
In that last fight, when Steve had said that Barnes was his friend, Tony had responded, “So was I.” At the time, he was trying to point out how Steve had chosen to support one friend and betray another. Tony had known, at that point, that he had no longer been Steve’s friend.
Except that was wrong. Now that he thought about it, he realized he had never been Steve’s friend. Steve had been Tony’s friend, but there had never been any reciprocity. From the start, Steve had looked down on Tony, deciding, after having just met, that Tony was unworthy. Supposedly, they’d put that aside during and after the Battle of New York, but Tony wondered now how much of that had been Steve’s guilt in the face of Tony’s near-sacrifice. When Tony decided to re-form and sponsor the Avengers, he’d thought Cap had come on board and that they were becoming true friends.
But then Ultron happened and Tony got another taste of Steve’s “friendship”: standing by while Thor attacked an un-armored Tony and then attacking Tony himself when Steve chose to believe the turncoat Wanda about Tony’s motivations. Even with those betrayals, Tony had somehow still believed that he was Steve’s friend. And then even with Steve’s refusal to even seriously talk about the Accords, and his subsequent escape with Barnes, Tony had begged for and received 36 hours to bring them in, hopefully saving them from a worse fate. When Tony had learned that Barnes might be innocent of the Vienna bombing, he’d broken the Accords himself, going behind Ross’ back, to help Steve and Barnes. Every overture, every open hand, had been Tony’s. Never Steve’s. Most of those overtures, Steve ignored, but the few times Steve had taken Tony’s offered hand, he’d turned around and stabbed Tony in the back.
And then…he couldn't even think about it. It was one thing knowing your parents had died; it was another to find out they'd been brutally murdered by seeing them be brutally murdered. He hadn’t been close to his Dad, and their relationship had been rocky, to say the least (he realized now it was probably because they were so similar), but Howard was his Dad. And the opportunity to fix their relationship had been taken from them. And his Mom… He had to take a deep breath to hold back a sob. She had been completely innocent, hurt, and afraid, but the Winter Soldier had murdered her without remorse.
Now that Tony had had time to process his shock and grief, he knew Bucky Barnes wasn’t to blame for his parents’ murders; Barnes and his parents had all been victims of Hydra. But he hadn’t been allowed the opportunity to come to terms with that. Instead, he’d faced the shock and grief - and the betrayal of a man he had thought was his friend - all at once. He’d reacted - not well, he could admit now - but he had been so overwhelmed by hurt and pain, he hadn’t been thinking straight; actually, he hadn’t been thinking at all. He’d just wanted to strike out and hurt them as much as they’d hurt him.
Steve had done them all a disservice by withholding the truth from Tony. He hadn’t trusted Tony to be able to think it through and move beyond the grief and pain. In doing so, he put Barnes in danger. And Steve had revealed himself to be a selfish coward; at least he’d finally admitted he’d withheld the truth not for Tony’s sake, but for his own. He had worked side-by-side with Tony for months, joked with him, made Tony think they were friends, all the while lying (and yes, a lie of omission is still a lie; Tony wouldn’t let Steve off the hook based on that technicality).
The hypocrisy was staggering. Steve withholding the truth from Tony was just another instance of Steve knowing what was best and deciding for everyone. But how many times had Steve railed against Tony for keeping things from the team? How many times had he criticized Tony for not being a team player? How many times had he castigated Tony for thinking he was right and deciding things for others? Every one of those actions, flaws of the highest order for Tony, were apparently virtues for the self-righteous Steve. Tony’s sins hadn’t been that he had been too arrogant or didn’t play well with others; he had sinned by not falling in with Steve’s worldview. All hail Saint Steve: sole arbiter of what is right and just, Tony thought bitterly.
It was obvious now, but it had taken Tony a long time to see it: Steve’s friends were those who agreed with him and bought into his cult of personality. The “civil war” was a perfect example of that. Those on Tony’s side were there, not because of Tony - and in one case, in spite of Tony - but because they agreed with the policy. But on Steve’s side, it was all based on personal relationships. There had been no discussion of the issues on Steve’s side because they were irrelevant. What had mattered was Steve’s choice and they all fell in line. And even those who agreed with Tony on policy couldn’t help being sucked into Steve’s cult: Natasha had agreed with and signed the Accords, but betrayed them because Steve was her friend. Everyone apparently believed that Steve had to be right because of who he was and they followed him like lambs being led to the slaughter.
Tony had never bought into that cult. Maybe he was immune thanks to his Dad never shutting up about Steve. Or maybe it was the disastrous start to his relationship with Steve. Regardless of the reason, that made Tony the enemy. So no matter what Tony did, if Steve disagreed, Tony had to be wrong. And Tony was the one to suffer the consequences.
After Ultron, Tony had taken all the blame, among both the team and the public. He hadn’t fought it because he knew he was at fault. But Steve, the leader of the Avengers who attacked a couple of his fellow Avengers, came through completely unscathed, still the hero in everyone’s eyes. Tony left to save the team (and to attempt to save his doomed relationship with Pepper), but failed on both counts. Steve hadn’t been confronted by grieving mothers; only Tony had. Steve had withdrawn to the Avengers compound and insulated himself from the public, ignoring the evidence of his own mistakes, always insisting he was right.
Somehow, Steve managed to keep nearly everyone in his self-declared family, even in exile. He broke multiple laws on multiple occasions, in multiple countries, hurting innocent members of the public who had just being doing their jobs in the process. But instead of facing a prison cell - or any form of justice, for that matter - he was being treated as an honored guest in Wakanda, along with the friends he’d broken out of prison.
Tony, on the other hand, had lost nearly everything. Even though he’d lost his parents over two decades ago, the recent revelations made him feel like he was losing them all over again. He’d already lost Pepper (and he could pretend they were just taking a break, but deep down, he knew better). His best friend was paralyzed, and as much as Tony loved Rhodey, the guilt he felt whenever he looked at his friend was beginning to taint their friendship. His other best friend - JARVIS - he’d lost a while ago and his relationship with Vision was...ambiguous. Despite Vision siding with Tony, Tony knew it wasn't because of loyalty to Tony.
And he’d lost his team. Back all those years ago, when he’d first started out as Iron Man, he’d told Pepper that he finally knew what it was that he was supposed to do. And it wasn’t completely about making up for his past; he knew that he could actually do some good for the world. For a while, he did it solo, but over time, he’d learned the importance of being a part of a team. He’d learned what it was like to have someone watch your back. He’d learned that coping with nightmares was easier when you weren’t the only one, when someone else understood what you were going through. He’d learned what it was like to be a part of something bigger than yourself. And he’d learned what it was like to have a family, not one based on blood, but on choice, and on love.
It was gone now. In these cavernous halls, with only his last 2 friends, he was more alone than he had been in years, maybe more than he’d ever been before. When he was younger, he had filled the emptiness with parties, alcohol, drugs, and sex. The thought of doing that now turned his stomach. He knew they were extremely poor substitutes for family and friends. And he also knew from bitter experience that they wouldn’t take away the pain and probably wouldn’t be able to mask it, even temporarily.
But he knew he was right, even though being right meant he’d had to make a deal with the devil. He’d had to side with Thaddeus Ross, a man Tony would have happily thrown off a cliff because of his treatment of Bruce. But the man was the Secretary of State, appointed by the elected President and confirmed by the elected members of the Senate, so it wasn’t as if Tony could just ignore that Ross was a legitimate representative of the American people. He’d kept Wanda confined to the Avengers compound, but considering that she wasn’t an American citizen and the fight they’d had to get her a visa in the first place (not surprisingly, the government hadn’t been pleased when they’d learned she’d been part of Hydra and had originally sided with Ultron), plus that she had been almost solely responsible for the deaths in Lagos, her visa could have been revoked - or worse. Keeping her at the compound until things calmed down would have kept her safe. And he’d had to hunt down and fight his friends, but he knew that if he let others do it, they wouldn’t have been so merciful. They weren’t easy choices to make, and he had some regrets, but he had thought they were necessary to keep his team safe, while also protecting the public.
The irony of it all was that Steve had proven all the fears about enhanced individuals were correct. The US had undertaken Operation Rebirth as a response to Hydra and specifically to the Red Skull, who had taken the concept of the ubermensch to terrifying heights, believing they were better than everyone else and were entitled to rule over them. Steve wasn’t bright red, but he was getting far too close to Red Skull’s example for comfort. There was an elite group whose members believed themselves to be above the rules and laws of the rest of society; was he describing Hydra or Steve’s Avengers? Admittedly, there was a big difference between the two, because the Avengers weren’t deliberately murdering people, but to the loved ones of those who had been killed by the Avengers’ actions, was there really a difference? Tony himself had been called a murderer as all this began.
Of all the many stories his Dad had told him about Steve, one in particular stood out: Dr. Erskine telling Steve to be a good man. Tony had to admit he was probably not the best person to decide what makes a good man, but selfishly acting in your own best interest and ignoring the best interests of others probably did not qualify. But Tony had no idea how to get through to Steve, to show him how so many others were seeing him, not as a good man who saved people, but as a criminal people feared. Maybe he should send the Star Trek episode and movie (the original, not the new one) with Khan and the fictional Eugenics Wars. If the original Star Trek series could point out the idiocy of racism by showing people who had the colors black and white on opposite sides of their bodies, maybe it could also point out to Steve the dangers of enhanced individuals believing they weren’t bound by laws made by the rest of society.
He’d heard, recently, about Sharon Carter’s eulogy of her aunt and somehow wasn’t surprised that Aunt Peggy had been just like Steve: doing whatever the hell she believed was right regardless of what anyone else thought, and never suffering the consequences, while everyone around her suffered instead (he could still remember the sadness in Jarvis and Ana’s expressions when, as an oblivious 7-year-old, he had asked why they didn’t have children). The post-WWII SSR files and the early SHIELD files had been very interesting reading. He still couldn't figure out how Aunt Peggy had not ended up in prison - or at least deported - after breaking a Soviet spy/assassin out of prison and then letting her go free among the populace.
And don’t get him started on the stupidity of Aunt Peggy and Steve’s plan to rescue Barnes during the war. Where had they expected his Dad to land the plane, and then later take off from? Planes need space to land and get airborne, but the Hydra prison had been in the middle of a forest. How was an unarmed, silver - not camouflaged - plane supposed to avoid being shot down or destroyed, especially when it was a sitting duck on the ground? And how were they going to get all of the POWs they rescued on his Dad’s plane? There had been 400 or so of them. Had Steve intended to rescue only Barnes, leaving all of the others behind? (Considering recent events, Tony could actually believe that had been the case; no one mattered to Steve but Bucky Barnes). It was not a great plan. It was just another example of Steve acting recklessly and putting others in danger to save his friend. If Steve hadn’t succeeded through sheer luck, he, Aunt Peggy, and Tony’s Dad would have - rightfully - had their asses handed to them.
He sighed, rubbing the bridge of his nose, trying to figure out where it all went wrong. Steve and his friends had acted as if they would have been locked up solely for not signing the Accords, but that had never been the case. Ross told them they could sign the Accords or retire. It was only when they continued to act, fighting members of the public and their former teammates who had complied with the Accords, that they were locked up (truthfully, Tony wasn’t really upset Steve broke them all out of prison; he’d never wanted any of them to be locked up and the conditions at the Raft were more horrific than he’d imagined). He just could not figure out what was so wrong with oversight and safeguards designed to protect the people they were supposed to be protecting. The only explanation was that Steve and his cohort put their own needs over the needs of others. It was exactly the thing that superheroes shouldn’t do.
His gaze landed, once again, on Steve’s letter. Now, after everything, after Steve’s betrayal, taking away the people Tony had thought of as friends and family, after Steve ran away to a safe haven where he didn’t have to follow the law, he’d apparently decided it was (finally) his turn to make the overture and open his hand to Tony, offering to help whenever Tony needed it. Tony snorted in disbelief. Seriously? Did Steve actually think Tony would ever want Steve’s “help”? He’d had enough already, thank you very much. More than enough, even. Was Steve so deluded that he’d believe Tony would ever be able to trust him again? How many times was Steve going to betray Tony before Steve thought it would be enough to permanently break their supposed friendship? Or did he think he could keep abusing Tony and Tony would just keep coming back for more? He knew about the cycle of violence and repentance abusers used to keep their victims from leaving; was that was Steve’s friendly behavior had been? One moment attacking Tony and the next joking about elevators lifting Thor’s hammer?
If Steve was so concerned about Tony’s welfare, supposedly being glad Tony wasn’t alone and offering to help, then why had he hidden the truth about his parents’ deaths from Tony? Why did he nearly kill him? (The paralyzing fear that Tony felt when he’d realized that, if he’d still had the arc reactor, Steve would have killed him - making him suffer an agonizing death as the shrapnel shredded his heart, unable to get help because the suit would have been without power - had fueled a new set of nightmares that had Tony jolting awake, screaming, every night). He had thought Steve was going to bash his head in or cut it off with the shield, and in his more masochistic moments, Tony wondered if that would have been a better outcome: killing him outright instead of letting him live, having lost nearly everything but the guilt.
Next to Steve’s letter, the burner phone he’d sent lay innocuous on the desk. It was adorable that Steve thought Tony didn’t know where he was or that Tony wouldn’t be able to get ahold of him whenever he wanted (Same thing with Bruce; did people really think Tony couldn't track his own tech?). He was tempted to destroy the burner phone, but the worst part was, Tony knew there was a bigger threat coming and it would take all of them to defeat it and protect the Earth. And Tony knew that once again, he would compromise and extend a hand to Steve, asking for his help. What burned, what dug the knife deep into the place where Tony’s heart had been broken by Steve’s betrayal, was the fact that Steve knew Tony would come begging for his help, and even made that easier by sending a phone. Even after everything, Steve probably thought he was still Tony’s friend and that rendering help would forgive all of his sins. Tony knew he would be tempted, drawn in by Steve’s magnetic personality, into being fooled that Steve actually cared. He’d just be setting himself up for more pain and betrayal. But if that's what it took to keep the people on Earth safe, then Tony would do it, regardless of the personal cost. That’s what a hero would do and to his dying breath, Tony would never stop trying to be worthy of that title, no matter what anyone else thought of him.