"Hate leaves ugly scars, love leaves beautiful ones."
~Mignon McLaughlin, 'The Second Neurotic's Notebook', 1966
Loki had not been completely wrong about humanity.
Not that Tony would say that out loud, at least not where anyone would hear him (yes, he would, because he has never believed in censoring himself to win the approval of others).
But people are like fucking sheep. The general masses don't want to think for themselves, they want to be told what to think, what to feel. They choose a guru – a single person or group of so-called experts, religious or social or political – and let their beliefs be dictated to themselves. They don't want to have to research, to learn, to discover the actual truth of things – hell no, that would take too much effort. It's so much easier to let others do the thinking for them (am I the only one who did the reading?).
Tony is very familiar with the public believing whatever the latest tabloid stories say about him, thank you. He has, in fact, encouraged this behavior. People are so much damn easier to manipulate when they underestimate him. He was intimately familiar with this strategy even before Afghanistan.
It's only gotten funnier now that he's practically considered two separate people, Iron Man and Tony Stark (Iron Man yes, Tony Stark not recommended). The idiots watch the news and see Iron Man going toe to toe with demi-gods and super-villains while Tony Stark just drinks and debauches his way through life, and they listen to the talking heads rant, and they assume they know the reality of the situation.
Tony finds it hilarious that the general consensus is that Iron Man's the dangerous one (take that off, what are you?), and that Tony Stark is the fool – the sometimes charming playboy who should only be taken seriously when he's talking about tech, and even then one would be wise to maintain a healthy level of skepticism.
What no one seems to fucking remember is that Tony Stark created that armor. Iron Man would be less than nothing – literally – without Tony and his genius. Leave Tony alone, however, with access to a half-decent workshop (or a dry cave in the middle of nowhere) and he'll revolutionize the world.
They call Iron Man a hero, fighting for the good of mankind. In reality? Even after going through everything he has, Tony's still a mostly self-serving bastard who generally prefers to not deal with people and has absolutely no problem taking what he wants when he wants it – in fact now would be good.
Except for those very limited few who have managed to worm their way into his insanely-fortified heart. Who through stubbornness, determination, insane levels of compassion – what the fuck ever - have managed to earn his care (and trust - everyone leaves him, that is the one unchanging truth in his life… until it isn't). For those few he would do anything – steal, destroy, kill – anything it took to keep them happy (at his side) and safe.
The Avengers are not included in this number. Not yet, at least – possibly not ever. Oh Iron Man will fight for his teammates, make the sacrifice play when needed (go ahead Cap, crawl). But on the whole Tony does not trust them, does not like them – isn't inclined to let them in where he would be vulnerable to them. Agent Romanoff he will never trust again – not personally at least (fool him once, but never twice). The good Captain is still searching for Howard in Tony, and when he can't find him he throws his way the same shitty disappointed look that Tony's seen all his fucking life. He's not searching for approval anymore, thanks. Thor is a god, supposedly, and while he seems like a nice enough guy, his frame of reference is too foreign – and his feelings for Loki leave him too compromised – for Tony to really want to become too close to him. Clint… is a possibility. His closeness to Romanoff is one strike against him, his continued involvement with S.H.I.E.L.D. another, but Tony can tell that they are very, very similar in many, many ways (do you know what it's like to be unmade?) – Tony's pretty sure they will either become friends or bitter rivals, but hasn't decided which is most likely.
And then there is Bruce. Who has the intelligence to match Tony blow for blow, and yet nowhere near the arrogance – not anymore, not since his one spectacular failure (it's a nightmare). Who Tony finds fascinating beyond reason - a hornets' nest that he just can't help poking. Bruce takes Tony in stride, showing patience – with Tony at least – that exceeds even the levels that Pepper has achieved.
Even before Tony met the man, he had been intrigued by his story – sympathetic in ways he usually wasn't. But that was fine, that was safe, because the chances of them meeting were infinitesimal with Tony avoiding the backwater areas of the world and Bruce avoiding anything resembling civilization (the last time I was in New York I kind of broke Harlem).
And then the world goes to hell, and they do meet, and Bruce winds up being even better in person than Tony had imagined, except for the damned aura of sadness that smothers the guy. Tony finds that painful in ways he'd rather not contemplate (but for the grace of Yinsen…). He gets it, he really does, it's been terrible for Bruce, living in fear of himself all the time. But for Bruce to have let the situation – the world – beat him down so low (the other guy spit it out)… it's just not right.
Because everyone has their own personal monster, Bruce's is just more readily apparent than most. He doesn't deserve to be threatened, attacked, fucking hunted for it. He's a good man – better than most Tony knows. And that goes for the Hulk, too. Tony owes the big guy his life, more than once – and that's not a debt he takes lightly. Even without considering that, though, Tony's fond of the Hulk. He's straightforward, with none of the duplicitousness that Tony's stuck dealing with day in and day out. So maybe he has some anger management issues, but shit - he's stood between Tony and whatever was trying to hurt him too often for Tony to not like him, to not trust him.
Tony's careful with his heart, because it's always been fragile - even before there was shrapnel threatening it. And yet he can't help but give himself completely to those he deems worthy and just hope for the best (and ignore the lurking shadows - fingers grasping, ripping his heart from his chest). But time and again, Bruce and the Hulk both have proven that they will have Tony's back, that they will protect him from Loki or Doom or Captain America during a bitch-fest. And so he can't help but add Bruce and the Hulk to his list. Because they always try to look out for him, and as far as he's seen no one ever really tries to protect them, and there is no way he's letting that shit continue.
He invited Bruce to Stark Tower, welcomed him into his home (and heart) and so far has never regretted it. Bruce just… fits. At first he was irritatingly hesitant, like he was trying to navigate a floor covered in broken glass, but once he finally got it in his head that it wasn't some dream that he was going to wake up from or some joke that was being played at his expense he started to relax and let go and then… yes. Bruce fits – like Tony knew (hoped) he would – and it's fucking glorious.
JARVIS gets along with Bruce famously, and he and Rhodey can spend hours giggling like little girls over the shit they've seen Tony pull, and Pepper loves having full-time backup against the crazy that is Tony (and Tony pretends he isn't aware that they all threatened Bruce at first, just in case, because Tony is not actually the most overprotective person – or Intelligence - he knows, and they made a mistake once, but never, ever again). Even Dummy likes Bruce, and has taken to leaving actual computer mice – and who the hell knows where he's finding the things, because Tony hasn't owned any since he was eight – on what has become Bruce's stool in the workshop.
And so, when one General Thaddeus E. Ross continues to hunt the Hulk - in spite of the big guy saving the planet, in spite of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s directives and Fury's warnings and Thor's threats - when nothing or no one is able to deter the General from his chosen path – Tony Stark schedules a meeting with the good General. All right, so he uses JARVIS and his S.H.I.E.L.D. badge to bypass security and barge into the General's office - and voices his protests as well.
General Ross laughs in his face. Because he is, after all, just Tony Stark. And everyone knows that Tony Stark is helpless without the Iron Man armor. And they both know that attacking Ross with the armor would absolutely not help the situation (though it would feel so fucking good). Which means General Ross has nothing to fear from Tony Stark – at least in his mind.
And Tony has to rush out of the base as abruptly as he entered, because keeping a straight face is damn near impossible when he knows he's won. Now it's just a matter of initiating the plans unfurling in his mind like a Julia Set – beautiful and chaotic and so very, very dangerous.
Because Tony is anything but harmless. Once upon a time they called him the Merchant of Death, and while Iron Man now seems to fight for truth and justice and all that fucking shit, Tony really just… shifted focus a bit. Yes, he shut down the weapons manufacturing division of Stark Industries, but he still develops them – it's in his blood; it's what he's best at. He's just more careful now about keeping track of to whom his weapons go, about ensuring that they don't wind up in the wrong hands. His client list is beyond selective – specific applications for S.H.I.E.L.D., new and improved toys for his fellow Avengers… and of course, there's himself. After all, what is Iron Man, if not his own personal arsenal (turn the Iron Man weapon over)?
Tony isn't any better a person than he was before Afghanistan, not really. He's just more protective – and who the fuck knew that was even possible – of those people he lets close, more determined to keep them safe. He's become more hands-on in his approach and less willing to trust their fates – or his – to outsiders.
And so he will feel absolutely no remorse when he takes General Ross apart piece by piece; when he rips away anything and everything the bastard ever even thought of caring about until he's left broken, disgraced, alone – and imprisoned if Tony has anything to say about it (and he does).
Because Tony learned the hard way that you have to make your own safety in the world, but Bruce isn't willing to fight – not for himself, at least. So Tony will fight for him – and for Pepper and Rhodey and JARVIS – and will fucking laugh as he destroys Ross and anyone else who thinks they can hurt those he lo… deems important.
And the world won't believe it, will never even suspect a thing, because Iron Man is a hero and wouldn't, and Tony Stark is helpless and couldn't.