Actions

Work Header

Unsatisfactory

Work Text:

They were home, but it didn’t feel right.

Looking at it objectively, things worked out pretty much as well as Steve could have hoped after what happened with the Accords and what the media likes to call the Avengers’ “Civil War.” After everything that happened between him and Tony, he got the best he could have hoped for. More than he ever thought. They were back in the States, fully pardoned for everything that happened before, living in the Compound, a team once more.

But it didn’t feel right. The world brought them back because Thor and Loki showed up with a ship full of traumatized Asgardians and a tale worthy of a new Norse legend. They spoke of the Mad Titan, Thanos, who was behind Loki’s failed—deliberately botched, according to him—invasion of New York years ago. Thanos, who was collecting the Infinity Stones with the intent to wipe out half the universe. Two of those Infinity Stones were on Earth: one in Vison’s forehead, and the other, the Time Stone, was soon revealed to be in the keeping of a sorcerer called Doctor Strange.

With a threat like that, it didn’t take much time for all of the Avengers who’d fought on Steve’s side to be pardoned and brought back to the States. They weren’t forced into signing the Accords, they weren’t punished at all, really. Unless he counted the punishment of coming back to a cold Compound full of lingering guilt and betrayal and broken friendships.

They spent a total of two months in Wakanda after everything went down between the Avengers. The first month was before the arrival of the Asgardians, when they were still fugitives who were under T’Challa’s protection in secret and unsure what their future would be. The second month was just logistical, waiting for the pardons to go through, for Shuri to double down on figuring out how to remove Bucky’s triggers and fit him with the most advanced arm she could design so that he could fight with them against Thanos, and for them to be transported home.

Back when their future was uncertain, Steve managed to persuade Bucky not to go back into cryofreeze, to stay with them. In turn, Bucky convinced Steve to tell the others the whole truth of what happened between them and Tony in Siberia. Bucky hadn’t been comfortable with the way the others were assuming and misinterpreting Tony’s actions, and Steve was feeling sick with the heavy weight of guilt in his stomach anyway, so he told them all the truth.

Of course, the guilt didn’t really fade after telling the story, and any good feelings he might have gotten from laying everything out were promptly extinguished by the misery that came with the others knowing. Natasha, who’d joined them just a few days before that, was angry with him for promising that he would tell Tony the truth years ago and then not doing so. Even though Steve was pretty sure she knew the whole time that Steve had never told him, she was still upset that he hadn’t done it.

Clint and Scott were mostly just angry that they’d left their families behind for what they’d assumed was a righteous fight for the good of people, but turned out to really just be Steve’s personal fight for his best friend. Steve wanted to argue against that, but he really couldn’t. It was true. He didn’t agree with the Accords, but he could have worked with them if it hadn’t been for Bucky being in danger. And Clint and Scott had been upset ever since they’d seen the death counts on the news from the fight in Romania.

Wanda took a long time to come to terms with what Steve told them. When he was done sharing the story, she got up and left the room without a word, tears in her eyes. Steve was ashamed to admit to himself that he hadn’t expected that reaction; he knew very well that she’d always carried a grudge against Tony, and while he didn’t think she was so cruel as to be happy about Tony’s pain, he honestly hadn’t expected her to be so affected by it.

That shame deepened when she finally came to speak to him a few days later, and he made the connection. The source of all of her pain and rage, the reason she’d been desperate enough to work with HYDRA and Ultron in the first place, was the death of her parents. Since joining the Avengers, she said, she’d tried to follow Steve’s ideals. She’d never completely let go of her anger toward Tony, in part because she still felt he was somewhat responsible for the injustice that was her parents’ senseless deaths. She’d always thought that Steve understood and supported that, not that he encouraged her to hold a grudge, but that he recognized that a wound like that could never really be healed by apologies or time.

And then, to find out that Steve completely turned that logic around when it was his own good friend on the other side… that hurt, she told him. She was upset and conflicted because she could absolutely understand why Tony did what he did. To find out like that, with Bucky standing right there, that his parents’ deaths had been far from an accident, must have been nothing short of horrifying. Steve couldn’t really say anything to that. It was true, and a part of him hated himself for letting it happen, knowing he could have prevented that entire fight if he’d just told Tony earlier.

Sam was possibly the worst. Sam was Steve’s close friend, he’d supported him through everything, but the truth about Siberia broke something between them. Sam was the one who told Tony where to find them, and Steve knew that he harbored some small amount of guilt for being the one to send Tony into that nightmare, that trap that was only sprung because of Steve’s selfish shortsightedness.

Sam tried to be objective, he really did. He listened to Steve’s side of the story with all the patience he ever had, and he seemed to understand Steve’s reasoning. He sympathized with Steve’s need to help Bucky, his fear of losing Bucky or letting anyone else get their hands on him, his distrust of the government and organizations that wanted to control them after what happened with SHIELD.

But try as he might, Steve could never come up with a good reason why he left Tony behind in Siberia with a broken suit and a broken heart. He left a man behind, and Steve could see the disappointment in Sam’s eyes every time he looked at him. Sam still followed him, still listened to his orders, still considered himself his friend. But the disappointment would always be there, and something would always feel broken between them.

His team was still his team. When they returned to the Compound, things more or less went back to normal, at least on paper. Steve went back to being their leader in the field and in training, and the team listened to him, just like Sam. They all obeyed his orders and accepted his judgements. They got past what Steve had told them in Wakanda. But it wasn’t the same. There would always be that knowledge between them, and even if there was barely a hint of hesitation before they did what he told them, even if they still never outright questioned his orders, he still felt there was a loss of trust between them.

Tony was polite to all of them since their return. To an outsider looking in, his interactions with the team were hardly any different than back before everything happened—possibly even more cordial, in fact. It was just that Steve, now no longer blinded by misunderstandings, with his eyes opened by guilt and betrayal and hurt, was finally noticing how tired and broken down Tony seemed. How strained his smiles were when he was with any of them. How his smiles at their jokes that were at his expense—they were always at his expense, never anyone else’s—never reached his eyes. Maybe Steve had never noticed before because none of Tony’s smiles reached his eyes, at least not around them.

It wasn’t as though Tony had nothing to be happy about. Maybe it was those rare moments, where Steve happened to catch a glimpse of Tony actually enjoying himself and others’ company, that made how he acted around Steve’s team all the more striking. Rhodes quickly got into the braces that Tony had designed and was functioning well, back into the armor already. Spiderman had, after initially rejecting the offer, finally come to train with them, and Tony was his mentor and benefactor. Tony and Pepper had apparently gotten past whatever caused their “break,” because they were now engaged. Tony had plenty to be happy about, but he still seemed so tired, so close to being done. With what, Steve wasn’t sure, but the thought scared him.

Vision came back from parts unknown a week after Steve’s team returned. He quickly rekindled his romance with Wanda, and he was as polite as ever to the rest of them. He didn’t offer any opinion or judgment on the Civil War, and Steve was glad for someone, at least, who didn’t look at him with any hint of disappointment or resentment in their gaze. Steve hadn’t seen him since the fight in Germany, after which he went off to explore the world and learn more about himself.

Steve knew he visited Wakanda a few times, in secret, to see Wanda. Apparently he hadn’t ever come to visit Tony, which made Steve feel sad in a way he couldn’t define. Tony wasn’t exactly Vision’s father, but he was certainly one of his creators, and Steve knew that while they weren’t the same at all, Vision was the last remnant of JARVIS, who was very important to Tony. It seemed almost cruel to Tony that what remained of the program he put his heart and soul into didn’t even consider him close enough to visit unless the world was in danger.

After a short period of debate with the UN and the Asgardians, Stark Industries went back into the weapons business, for the sole purpose of preparing for Thanos’s arrival. It was agreed that they were simply the best, and their advanced and sprawling facilities could produce great numbers of high quality items very quickly. They were going to need every advantage they could get in the coming fight.

Steve could see now how he would have reacted, before. It just added to the low, burning shame that permanently accompanied him these days. Before, when he was still blind to the injustices they dealt to each other, when he was still subconsciously looking for reasons to dislike Tony—at first, because he was angry at the world for changing around him and took it out on the son who was both so similar to and so different from Howard, then, later, because he needed a reason to keep not telling Tony what he knew about the Starks—he’d have seen SI’s return to weapons making as somehow Tony’s fault and responsibility, as a problem rather than a reluctant solution.

This time, he could see what he knew he wouldn’t have before. The way Tony’s eyes looked dead and haunted when he agreed to design newer, better, deadlier weapons that could be stockpiled for the fight against Thanos. The way his proud, self-assured posture fell the moment they were away from prying eyes.

“Are you okay?” Steve asked when they were alone, knowing it was inadequate. Hoping his concern sounded as genuine as it was.

Tony smiled again, but it wasn’t his fake press smile. It was a bitter, twisted thing. “Fine. Just making weapons again and giving them away blindly, something I promised myself a long time ago I’d never do again.”

“It’s for the right reasons. You’re helping us defend against a threat that could wipe us all out,” Steve felt the need to say, but the look Tony gave him a moment later told him that he’d said something naïve, probably bordering on insulting.

“That’s what we always tell ourselves,” Tony said, and he sounded so incredibly tired. “There’s always another threat. It never stops. You either have to draw a line somewhere or burn yourself out, eventually. I drew the line, but here I am, stepping back over it. Selling what’s left of my soul to defend the Earth.”

 

 

Sam went to Rhodes first. They’d been friends, or so Sam liked to think, and he sure as hell looked up to and respected the man. He’d been stewing in his own guilt, knowing Rhodes had been injured after he’d dodged that shot. They hadn’t been aiming to kill. If he’d been hit, he’d have been forced to glide to the ground. Instead, Rhodes took the hit meant to incapacitate Sam and nearly died. Ended up with a permanent injury. Getting function back thanks to Stark’s genius designs didn’t change what happened.

He knew Rhodes was loyal to Stark, that they were closer friends than any of Sam’s team save for perhaps Steve and Bucky—and that was a maybe. He expected some anger for what had happened. Even if it was misplaced, he’d gladly take it, if it meant getting some of the burden off Rhodes’s shoulders.

What he got instead was a neutral tone and a forceful insistence that what happened in Germany wasn’t his fault. He’d evaded a shot in a fight. It wasn’t his responsibility to look out for Rhodes in that fight, and it wasn’t his fault Rhodes had been hit instead of him.

Rhodes could clearly see how much it meant to Sam to make the apology either way, so he let him. He accepted it with grace, and then he showed the first real inkling of emotion, of anger over everything that happened, when he asked if there was anyone else Sam was planning to talk to. Sam hoped that was a glimmer of approval he saw when he told Rhodes where he was headed next.

Feeling lighter with the knowledge that Rhodes didn’t blame him for what happened in Germany, he tracked Stark down to make another apology, one that he could only hope would be received as well as the last.

“I’m sorry,” he said, the moment he was beckoned into Stark’s lab.

He could see the confusion. “What for?”

“For sending you to Siberia.” Stark stiffened, clearly uncomfortable, but Sam soldiered on, wanting to get this out. “Steve told us what happened there. What he kept from you, and how you found out there… I’m just sorry. You should never have been put in that situation and I’m the one who sent you there.”

Stark’s eyes were closed, pain in his features, and Sam gave him a moment. He composed himself faster than anyone should rightfully be able to. It was a skill Sam was sure he’d been forced to master early on, being in the public eye as much as he was. The thought was somewhat depressing.

Stark looked him up and down once he’d gathered himself. “If you’d known, if you knew what Steve knew and that he hadn’t told me, and you knew Zemo was setting up a trap in Siberia, would you have sent me?”

“Of course not,” Sam said firmly. He hoped Stark didn’t really think he’d have done something like that on purpose.

“Then you have nothing to be sorry for. You didn’t know. I was trying to help them, and if anything, I should be thanking you for telling me where they were. I didn’t think any of you would trust me enough to tell me.”

Sam could hardly hold himself back from snorting at that. None of them had trusted Stark, that was for sure, but on what basis? He’d been forced to reevaluate that after Steve told them the truth about what happened in Siberia. Steve was capable of being a liar, of being selfish and shortsighted and downright cruel, but somehow Sam had thought that was impossible for Steve. Based solely on reputation, he supposed, and Stark’s had caused him to do exactly the opposite. He’d assumed Stark could never be kind or gentle or caring, and that was as big a mistake as acting like Steve didn’t have human faults.

Stark looked like he knew what Sam was thinking. “I was wrong to attack Barnes, I’ll give you that. He was a victim just as much as any of his targets. I can’t even imagine what they put him through. But I won’t ever apologize for my reaction. Half the world might think I’m nothing more than a robot masquerading as a person, but I have emotions too. Anyone who watches their parents murdered and doesn’t lose it ought to be committed.”

Sam might have internally winced at the wording, a background in counseling making him a little more sensitive to those kinds of callous terms thrown out there, but he understood the sentiment. And he didn’t exactly disagree, certainly not in Stark’s case. “What’s going to happen now?” he asked instead of trying to further the discussion of Siberia.

Stark just raised an unimpressed eyebrow, so Sam elaborated. “To the team. Going forward. After… that, what’s going to happen? We need to be able to trust each other in the field.”

Stark shook his head. “I’ll never trust any of you in the field again. Well, maybe you. Possibly Lang, if he ever gets his head out of his ass, he seems decent and I really don’t know him. But not the others. Absolutely not Steve.”

Sam frowned, but Stark had already caught sight of it and was giving him an unapologetic look. “No need to worry about it. We’re not going to be together in the field. You’re all going to stay down here, protecting people on the ground, and I won’t be with you. We’re already in talks with the Asgardians about sending a specialized team in to try to get onto Thanos’s ship when he comes.”

He didn’t mention anything about the future beyond Thanos. Sam didn’t bother asking. Stark turned back to his project, dismissing him, and Sam knew the conversation was over.

 

 

Clint forced himself to walk through the door the second he knew the meeting was over and Stark was alone. It was the only way to just go in and get it done. If he hesitated, he’d start pacing, he’d question everything, and he’d end up not going in at all.

He wanted to be angry. That was easier than anything else. It was easy, back on the Raft, to be pissed at Stark, because he was free and they weren’t. Because in the past, it was always Stark cleaning up their messes, and for once he wasn’t doing it. Because Clint was willfully ignorant and didn’t want to face the fact that it was all his own fault.

Being sedentary didn’t suit him, and as much as he wanted to just settle down, he could never quite do it. He’d retired too early and he knew it, but he couldn’t just go back on the decision. Laura was over the moon to finally have him there all the time, not having to constantly worry that he’d be killed on a mission and she’d be forced to raise three kids alone.

But he was always just a little bit jumpy, itchy, and when the call came in, he was almost eager to go. He’d be back soon, he told himself, and used that to justify leaving his family behind. To strengthen that justification, he’d latched onto Steve’s reasoning, his desperation, and convinced himself he was doing the right thing. That Stark had gone power-mad, locking Wanda up in the Compound, and Clint was going to rescue her and help Steve fight corrupt governments and injustices.

If he’d stopped to think about it for even a damn second, he’d have seen that his justifications were flimsy at best. Wanda wasn’t locked up. She was being protected in a frankly luxurious Compound with her boyfriend, lover, whatever the hell Vision was to her, relaxed and happy until Clint got there and fed her enough bullshit to get her to leave.

She was there for good reason. Clint had seen coverage of the riots after Lagos, the anger, the hatred they directed at the woman they were afraid of. He could understand the people’s fear and their anger; he wondered, himself, what the hell Steve was doing there, and why there wasn’t an official statement made after the disaster of a mission. But he was out, and it wasn’t his concern.

Even once they got to Germany, if he’d stopped to think for even a second, he’d have seen what was really going on. Steve acted like Stark was fighting against them, like he wouldn’t listen, but he would have if he’d been given the chance. Steve’s team was the one who was itching for a fight, who attacked first. There was a whole conversation between Steve and Stark, and while Clint wasn’t close enough to hear it, he knew very well it lasted long enough for Steve to have told Stark about the threat they were supposedly going to fight.

The threat, it turned out, was the thought of Barnes being in any hands but Steve’s, and Steve having to face any judgment or consequences for his half-assed plans and the collateral damage of his missions. And while Stark wasn’t winning many points by working with a slimy asshole like Ross and attacking Steve and Barnes in Siberia—though Clint should have struck that one off the list, now that he knew what really happened—he was undoubtedly trying his best to do what the people wanted, which was to take responsibility and prove that civilian casualties weren’t just collateral damage to him. Unlike Steve.

Which wasn’t fair, Clint knew. Steve was a good guy, he was trying to do what he thought was right with the Accords. Clint understood where he was coming from, with not wanting a bunch of paper-pushers to be deciding where and when they could act, potentially risking lives while they waffled around. But the problem was that the Accords weren’t just coming out of nowhere; they were a response to several missions gone wrong under Steve’s leadership, causing damages that he just plain never faced. He never took responsibility for them, never even apologized publicly, and never did anything to show that he was trying to improve or to prevent those mistakes from happening again.

And the biggest problem, of course, was that everything that went down between the Avengers was never really about the Accords. Steve had drawn Clint, Scott, Sam, and Wanda into his fight, letting them think it was a righteous battle for their independence as heroes and for justice for the people, when really it was just about Barnes, and Steve’s insane need to somehow keep him from having to face the real world in any way.

Actually, that wasn’t the biggest problem, at least not for Clint personally. Clint’s problem was that he was trying to avoid taking responsibility for his own actions. He could philosophize all he wanted about why the Accords split the team or why Steve started a fight he didn’t need to, but the simple truth, the one Clint didn’t want to admit to himself for a long time, was that Clint didn’t have to follow Steve. He didn’t have to leave his family behind the moment Steve called. And he did anyway.

Laura had a few choice words for him when he finally returned. So did the kids, for that matter. He could handle his wife’s anger, even knowing it was well-deserved, and while it made him think, it didn’t truly beat him down. But having his children refuse to talk to him for two weeks crushed his spirit. Combined with Laura’s hard truths, he was forced to sit down and recognize that he’d been selfish, trigger-happy, and stupid, and he had no one to blame but himself.

The other thing she’d forced him to face was his misconceptions about the situation with the other Avengers, and particularly with Stark. That was why he was approaching Stark now, hoping to right at least one wrong from the whole mess before.

Stark looked up from the conference table when Clint came in the room, clearly expecting someone from the meeting to have returned. He looked mildly surprised to see Clint standing there, but didn’t ask. He just waited, so Clint forced himself to talk first.

“Laura told me what you did for them.” It wasn’t exactly what he was planning to lead with, but oh well. Might as well get right to the point.

Stark’s expression flattened. Clint couldn’t tell if it was because he was expecting Clint to be angry for some reason, or because he himself was pissed at Clint.

He still didn’t say anything, so Clint added, “Thank you.”

That time, something like anger flashed across Stark’s face. “I didn’t do it for you, so don’t bother.”

Clint flinched, just a bit. He deserved that, but it still hurt. He felt an impulse to try to explain, suddenly. “Look, Steve told us what went down. And Laura… she definitely knocked some sense into me. I’m not trying to make excuses for what I did, for not thinking more about it, but… it was never meant to be personal. I was going crazy sitting around and I joined Steve because he called and asked. If you’d called first, I would have fought for you.”

He immediately knew he’d said the wrong thing. Stark dropped his tablet onto the table none too gently, and he stood up to step into Clint’s space. Clint could see his fingers twitching, like he wanted to ball his hands into fists but had too much control for that. Still, the anger in his eyes was real and unrestrained.

“You’re a moron,” Stark spat. “I never would have called you. You were out, you idiot, you had everything. A wife, kids. Safety. You’d done good and you got to retire, you got a family. And then you threw it all away so you could shoot some arrows next to Captain Fucking America again.”

The disgust was clear in Stark’s expression. “I’d kill for what you have, do you understand that? I never would have called you. I’d rather let Steve beat me to death than be the reason three kids have to grow up without their father. You were out and the end of the fucking world wouldn’t have made me drag you back in.”

Stark gave Clint one more glare and stepped around him, leaving the room without looking back. Clint stood there for a while, thinking and rethinking, finally understanding that he’d yet again been wrong. It wasn’t about the fact that he’d fought Stark, that he’d been on Steve’s side. It was the fact that he’d come back at all. Stark was right; he had what most agents and heroes wanted, the chance for peace, and he’d put that in jeopardy when he didn’t have to.

Laura and the kids might have forgiven him for it, because they loved him, and they just wanted him back with them and safe. But Stark, who’d always wanted what Clint had but never got the chance, too much tragedy and hurt and bullshit in the way, saw a man who callously threw aside what Stark himself desperately craved. And he would never forgive Clint for that.

 

 

Wanda cautiously approached the kitchen where Stark was sitting. Walking tentatively wasn’t something she was used to doing around anyone, much less Stark, but this time was different. There were things she needed to ask him, answers she needed, and for once, she wasn’t going to approach it as though he owed her anything. That had only led to both of them being defensive and resentful in the past. And though before, she might have blamed that on him, she’d started to reexamine a lot of those assumptions lately.

It started in Wakanda, when Steve revealed what had really happened between him and Stark in Siberia. After everything, after ending up on the Raft—even if it was for a short time—and being exiled from her home, with Clint and even Sam, occasionally, cursing Stark’s name for causing their problems, Wanda joined in easily, even gleefully. But Steve’s confession shocked her, and it changed something.

Maybe it was seeing Stark as a victim, for the first time. Forced into it by the similarity between them that she just couldn’t avoid, the deaths of their parents and facing the person who’d caused it—even if that person wasn’t really, truly responsible.

And once she’d been willing to see that, it was hard to avoid some of the other similarities between them; things she’d blocked out in the past, refused to see, because she didn’t want to humanize him. She didn’t want to admit that they’d both done things they weren’t proud of in the past but were trying their best to make up for them. She didn’t want to recognize that just like her and Pietro, Stark really didn’t have much of a childhood, even before his parents died. All it took was a few minutes on the internet—somewhere other than a site dedicated to hating Stark—to see that his parents might have been rich, but they were distant at best. There was more than enough speculation out there to be uncomfortable, whether it was actually true or not, about whether his father was abusive. They might have grown up poor and in the middle of a civil war, but at least Wanda’s parents, before they’d been killed, had loved her with everything they had.

She’d avoided him for the first week they were back, not wanting to face those new revelations yet, not knowing what to do with the conflicted feelings inside her. Finally, though, she knew she had to speak to him. She would never find all the answers on her own.

He looked up when she walked into the kitchen. The wariness in his eyes used to give her pleasure—now it just made her feel vaguely guilty. Now that she was looking for something more than just the face of a monster, too, it was so easy to see the other things. Guilt that he shouldered for anything and everything he could. Fear, not a selfish fear but one for the world, for his friends and family, for how very small he was in such a vast universe. And more than anything else, exhaustion. He always looked so tired.

“Do you need something?” he asked, and she realized that she’d been staring.

She moved to the table to sit down across from him. He didn’t lean back away from her, but she could sense the hint of discomfort in him. “I wanted to talk to you.”

Suspicion replaced the fear, not enough to be obvious, but there. As though he couldn’t believe that she would voluntarily approach him for a civil conversation. “What about?”

She opened her mouth, but paused, then, “I’m not really sure.” It was the truth, after all. “I’ve just… been thinking a lot about what happened.”

He sighed, then, slumping back in his seat, that exhaustion evident in his whole body. After closing his eyes and pressing a hand against his forehead for a moment, he regarded her once more. “Look, I owe you an apology.”

That wasn’t what she expected. She had to resist the automatic impulse to reject it, to see it as some sort of ploy. She was the one who approached him and he volunteered an apology; she should be grateful for it, not throw it back in his face immediately. “What do you mean?” She tried to keep her voice even, though if the way his mouth turned down for just a moment was any indication, she didn’t quite succeed.

“I have a habit of assuming people think the same way I do, which is almost never true.” It could have sounded like a boast about his own intelligence, but it just came out rueful. “I assumed that after things started going wrong, especially after Lagos, you would have been curious about what the public reaction was. I assumed you did your research, that you understood the scope of the problem, how many people were trying to crucify you, that people were protesting to have you deported. I never even thought to really sit down and explain that to you.”

He sighed again. “I forget that most people don’t run a business. They aren’t used to looking out for a public response to every little action, and all of the consequences that could come along with it. They aren’t used to PR and stock drops that happen when you even breathe wrong. And most people don’t have the connections I do anyway, to be seeing the government’s response to something or how other countries are taking it.”

He was rambling, she thought, but she understood the point. “You’re saying you asked Vision to keep me confined here assuming I already knew everything you did about why.” There was no anger or resentment in her tone when she spoke about that, not anymore.

“I asked Vision to keep you company here, not keep you confined. I didn’t think keeping you confined was necessary. I thought you understood that if you so much as left to get a cup of coffee, some nutjob might approach you on the street and pull a gun, and then you’d be forced to defend yourself, and the whole shitfest would escalate into an even bigger disaster.”

She didn’t think that was likely, but for once, she made herself try to see it from his point of view. The worst case scenario, trying to plan for disaster. It wasn’t until shortly before they were pardoned that she’d really looked into the response to Lagos and people’s vitriol against her. She knew there were a few people rioting, yes, and some blaming her specifically because she was so visible in that op, but she hadn’t really seen it all. The people burning her effigy. The people calling for her deportation, for her execution. Not just individually, but in groups. Getting thousands to sign petitions to have her thrown out of the country or in prison.

Truth be told, after joining the Avengers, she hadn’t really thought about the fact that she wasn’t a US citizen. Steve welcomed her into the group as a hero, she got a home in the Compound and spending money that came from Stark, and she’d never heard so much as a whisper of legal troubles. She used to think it was because she was respected as an Avenger. Now she knew that was a childish fantasy—the world didn’t respect the Avengers enough to overlook citizenship or the opportunity to sue someone. That was all Stark, working behind the scenes to make sure she was comfortable. Trying to help her without her knowledge, after she’d sneeringly rejected his outright attempts to console her or try to make up for the loss of her parents.

When she didn’t respond immediately, he kept going, almost approaching manic. “I made that mistake with everyone. I thought you all kept up with the news. I assumed you looked into politics, that you wanted to know what was on the horizon for superhumans and groups like ours. You all acted like me presenting the Accords was this huge surprise, well, guess what? I never had to tell Rhodey about them. He knew on his own, because he looked it up, because he kept up. Pepper knew, and she wasn’t even involved with the whole thing. When there was radio silence from the rest of you, I assumed that meant you agreed with them and wanted to just let me work on them behind the scenes. Big fucking mistake.” He sounded bitter, tired, and frustrated. He wasn’t looking at her anymore.

“Oh,” was all she said, because that was really all she could say. She’d blamed Stark for locking her up in the Compound like a child, when really, he was trying to treat her like an adult, assuming that she was taking responsibility for herself. And hearing it from him, it seemed obvious that the Accords were something they should have looked up and known about beforehand.

He looked back to her at that, snapping out of whatever he was thinking. His gaze became sharper suddenly. “Don’t think this is all on me, though.” He sounded like a reprimanding parent and the abrupt change had her blinking in surprise. “I understand that you didn’t necessarily know how serious the problem was after Lagos, but you still didn’t do anything about it. Yes, Steve was the leader on that mission, and if he took you into a situation you weren’t trained for, that’s on him. But ‘just following orders’ isn’t a defense, and if Steve didn’t do something to address that, then you should have. You’re an adult, and you should be able to recognize when you have gaps in your training. You let Steve treat you like a child and that’s on both of you.”

She bristled, but forced herself not to say anything right away. He was talking to her like a child while reprimanding her for not acting like an adult and she wanted to yell at him, or just leave the room, but… that would prove his point, wouldn’t it? And the more she thought about it, the more that slight feeling of shame in her gut grew.

He was right. After Lagos, she’d felt terrible, she’d been stewing in guilt over the deaths she’d caused, even if it was an accident. But then Steve came and talked to her, he made her feel better, he convinced her to keep going. But what did they do? He didn’t mention training her in containing bombs. He didn’t talk at all about trying to do anything for the families of the people who died. He didn’t do anything different to prevent it from happening again, and neither did she.

And they never approached the public. That hurt the most to recognize. After everything that had happened to her, all of her anger over her home and her parents being treated like collateral damage that didn’t matter to anyone, she’d done the exact same thing. How many people now saw her the same way she’d once seen Stark, as a monster who caused destruction and then went on with their day, not knowing or caring about the lives they’d ruined?

“You’re right,” she said. Once again, she didn’t know what else to say. She wasn’t sure how to ask about what she should have done differently, how she could change from now on.

He looked genuinely surprised at her admission, and maybe that made him realize just how aggressive his tone had become, because he sat back, something like regret twisting his features. “Good. I’m glad you see that. But I still… The Raft. That never should have happened. Not you ending up there, all of you—you broke the law and you went to prison, whatever any of you might think, that’s what happens.” He sneered slightly and she knew he was thinking of Clint and Sam, and the things they’d said to him in that place.

Stark sighed again and deflated once more. “But that collar they had you in… They felt like they needed a way to counteract your powers, they could never keep you contained otherwise. But that was inhuman. That should never have existed. I didn’t approve it, no one decent would have. And it goes deeper than I thought—when I started digging, trying to find it and get rid of it or show someone, I got pushed back hard by people even I probably shouldn’t screw with. Not when we’re trying to work together for once to face Thanos.”

That truly surprised her. That Stark disapproved of how she was treated on the Raft wasn’t entirely unexpected once she’d accepted that he wasn’t some cackling madman out to get her. But that he’d gone so far as to try to find out who’d been responsible for that and make sure it didn’t happen again or to anyone else was a shock. It deepened that guilt when she compared his actions after the Civil War, helping them even after they’d all betrayed him, to her own after Lagos.

It also made her think about other things she’d been avoiding. Questions that she wasn’t sure she wanted the answers to, before. Now, she couldn’t help it. It burst out of her. “Why did you take the fall for Ultron?”

It was his turn to look genuinely surprised. He just stared at her, and before she could stop herself, she was going on. “Banner was involved as well, he helped you create it. And I was the one who gave you the vision in the first place, who made you take the scepter and use it.”

His expression turned haunted, but not surprised, and it confirmed for her that he’d known, perhaps since the beginning, that she was the one to give him that vision. It just increased her confusion. When he still remained silent, she found herself confessing more than she’d planned to. “I realized that you let yourself be blamed for it all. You fought it at first, but you gave up far too quickly. You let them think you were completely responsible.”

This time she was the one rambling, words spilling out too fast. “You kept me completely out of it. You let them all blame you and you alone. And I… I encouraged them. I helped them think it was your fault, your idea.”

He looked at her, and this time she couldn’t tell what he was thinking. “Why?”

She bit her lip. “Because I was angry. I still hated you for my parents. And… I was afraid. I saw how they turned on you, even though you’d fought with them. Even though you were their ally. I thought… if they knew that I was the one who pushed you into it, they would turn on me, too.”

He nodded grimly. The sad thing was that she couldn’t tell whether that was true or not. Steve had accepted her despite knowing her past, and when she’d made mistakes, he was understanding and kind. Yet the moment Stark made a mistake, they all vilified him immediately. Maybe it was never about what she’d done, but who she was—namely, not Tony Stark.

“I drove you out of your own home and your own team,” she said. She seemed to be on a roll with the uncomfortable confessions. “And Steve seemed happy to be rid of you. I assumed it was because you were as terrible a person as I’d always thought, and they were looking for a reason to get rid of you.”

He smiled, but it didn’t come close to reaching his eyes. “You’re not wrong. Steve wanted to get rid of me so there was less chance I’d find out the truth about my parents, but I’d still let him use my money to search for Barnes.”

That was too much to deal with all at once. Wanda pushed her chair back, standing up to leave. The conversation was hurting her and she hadn’t really gotten any answers, just even more questions.

She stopped in the doorway, however, and turned back, just for a moment. She thought about Steve’s confession, and what she knew about Siberia. She thought about those hours spent staring at that bomb, waiting for death. She thought about the pain when they used the Mind Stone on her, the elation when she first discovered how to use her powers. The rage that had sustained her for so long. She wasn’t sure what was left inside her now that that rage was gone.

“If it were me,” she said quietly, “I would have killed them.”

He just looked at her for a long moment. “You didn’t kill me.”

She shook her head, heart heavy. Whatever was left in place of the rage, it hurt. Maybe she preferred being angry. “I don’t blame you for my parents anymore.”

She turned to leave; she couldn’t take any more of this. Just as she turned the corner, his voice drifted after her.

“You should.”

 

 

Natasha stopped Tony in a hallway, trying to tell herself that it wasn’t an ambush or an automatic reflection of her training, just a coincidence. She couldn’t even make herself believe it in her own head.

It wasn’t really worth it to try pretending that she was anything but a Black Widow. She’d briefly tried to ignore it in the past, to become someone else, and she’d failed. Spectacularly. Tony had never trusted her, never even really believed her. When she’d been acting as a honeypot, believing herself superior because she’d successfully tricked and seduced him, he was really just using her in a misguided attempt to get Pepper’s attention. When she’d tried to make herself vulnerable for Bruce, all it did was make it hurt even worse when she ultimately betrayed him, and now he wanted nothing to do with her.

There was nothing more between her and Bruce, that was for sure. He was on the other side of the world, calling in regularly to talk to Tony as a favor to his friend and because he knew the Hulk would be needed in the upcoming battle, but he had no interest in formally coming back to the Avengers and he wanted nothing to do with the rest of them. She couldn’t really blame him.

Tony, however, felt like an open door, like something unfinished. She knew very well that he was sentimental, more vulnerable than he would ever admit, and constantly trying to hide a deep need for acceptance and true friendship. He’d also thought he had a family in the Avengers, but unlike Natasha, he’d thrown everything he had into it, and when it blew up in his face, he was devastated rather than grimly unsurprised. Maybe it had something to do with the fact that Natasha’s failures with people were usually because of her own shortcomings, while the real fracture in the Avengers—Steve’s betrayal—wasn’t Tony’s own fault.

She tried to tell herself that she didn’t want to manipulate him, that she really just wanted his friendship back. Despite her training, despite what most people thought of her, she was still human, she still had feelings, she could still make mistakes. She’d honestly thought she had a friend in Tony, somewhat of a kindred spirit too, and since Germany and helping Steve, then leaving for a while to escape the heat after the Accords situation, and eventually coming back along with Steve and his team, things had been… different. Unsure.

Tony treated all of them politely, which was the first indication that something was up. He really, truly didn’t seem angry with any of them, not the way she’d seen him before when he was genuinely angry with someone. He wasn’t looking for petty revenge or insulting them at every turn. He was entirely focused on the coming threat, and if she needed a single bit of proof that the threat was real and serious, it was that Tony hadn’t once said anything about how he’d been right all along, back when he talked about what was coming and they all dismissed him. He didn’t throw it in their faces; just grimly talked about what needed to be done.

But the polite neutrality was forced, she could tell. He seemed tired more than anything, but something in her truly hurt at the thought that she might have lost what trust she’d built with him. It was always a bit of a personal challenge to her, trying to become friends with Tony, to learn the truth about the man beneath his many masks. He might not have been trained specifically for deception or sabotage, but he was even better at hiding his true self than she was.

She thought she knew a lot about him, but every time she started to believe she understood him fully, he would surprise her again, or do something completely unexpected. He was eternally unpredictable and that bothered her. She liked to be able to predict people. It made her feel safer.

She definitely couldn’t escape her training.

So she stopped him in the hallway, determined to get to the bottom of their awkwardly polite interactions. His eyes gave nothing away—just more exhaustion. He always looked so worn down.

“Tony.” She thought about trying to lower her voice, sound vulnerable, appear less threatening, but it wasn’t a good idea. He would see through it, and it might put him on the defensive. She wanted answers, not snark. “We haven’t really talked since I got back.”

“Is that a problem?” He sounded genuinely curious, and she tried not to be hurt by it.

“We both know nothing is the same as it used to be, even if Steve wishes that were true.” She couldn’t stop herself from throwing in the tiny dig at Steve, that small attempt to maybe gain some shared ground with Tony. From the unchanged expression on his face, it didn’t do much. “I just wanted to know where we stand.”

He once again just looked at her, still impossible to read. “What do you think?”

She wasn’t sure what to say. Was that a challenge, a demand for answers, an expectation for an apology, or something else? She tried to settle for something safe. She’d turned her back on him in Germany, and he was surely still upset about it. “Steve was never going to stop at that airport. I was trying to minimize damage. Either he and Bucky would’ve gone through T’Challa, or T’Challa would have gone through them. And I know you didn’t want either of those things to happen.”

He nodded. “That’s true.”

His attitude hadn’t changed, however, and it bothered her. There was still that unnatural neutrality, that lack of emotion in his face. “Did it change your opinion of me?” she challenged, perhaps not wisely.

He gave her a tiny smirk, but there was no real amusement in it. “Not really.”

It was hard to tell, with the way he was holding everything in, whether that was meant to be an insult or not. “What is your opinion of me?” she tried instead.

He looked her in the eyes for a few long seconds, then tilted his head. “What do you think of me?”

He could have just been trying to be difficult, but she got the feeling that wasn’t it. He really wanted to know, and she wouldn’t get her answer until she gave him one. More specifically, until she gave him a truthful answer. So she did.

“I don’t know.” His eyebrows twitched up minutely, and she knew she’d made the right choice by being honest. “When we first met, you were a target. My job was to push you, to find the right weaknesses to exploit so you could be more easily manipulated by Fury and SHIELD. That was my specialty, and it was all I was focused on. You were a job. I didn’t form a real opinion.”

She took a deep breath. Laying it out like that stung a little, in her pride and also her humanity. “When the Avengers formed, I pretty much did the same thing. Fury didn’t want you digging too much into SHIELD’s affairs, and the best way to keep you away was to keep you distracted. The best way to do that was to keep you at odds with Steve, at least a bit, and to keep you feeling like you had something to prove.”

He nodded again, and he looked unsurprised. She wasn’t exactly expecting shock, but she thought he’d be at least a little surprised that she and SHIELD had intentionally encouraged dissent between him and Steve. As for keeping him down, trying to impress them, that he clearly knew. He knew it from the moment Fury waved that report in his face. Tony Stark not recommended, what a load of bullshit, and they all knew it. They successfully played on his insecurities, yes. But even then, he was determined to do what was right, and he was willing to put ego aside to do it. Not that anyone else appreciated that at the time.

Now, she scrutinized him and tried to decide what she actually felt about him. “I think you’re too emotional. I think you wear your heart on your sleeve, and you trust people way too easily. It makes you easy to manipulate and easy to betray. But that might just be my training talking. I was never allowed to be like that.”

It wasn’t really an attempt to gain sympathy from him, just a statement of fact. She shrugged, trying to pretend the admission didn’t affect her at all. “I’ve always tailored my opinions of people to whatever my bosses, my handlers, whoever was in charge wanted to hear. I don’t know if I’m capable of forming a real, nonbiased opinion all on my own.”

That was an exaggeration. She wasn’t helpless or stupid. She was capable of independent thought. It was just that after years of training to be the perfect spy and assassin, she could no longer tell what came from her own, natural thoughts and what was drilled into her by others. It was impossible to look at someone and judge them without scanning them the way she would a mark.

He let out a breath and again, his mouth quirked up humorlessly. He looked at her, eyes roving over her face, for so long that she nearly said something more. She was far beyond needing to consciously resist the urge to squirm, but she was truly unsure whether she should say anything else.

Finally, he grimaced and backed up a step. “You want to know what I really think of you, Natasha?”

She nodded, trying to squash the trepidation.

He wasn’t angry or vindictive. He didn’t look at her with disgust or with lust. He wasn’t the type of person to lie in an attempt to manipulate her, and so she knew his answer was genuine when he told her, “I pity you.”

 

 

The battle was approaching. Most people were starting to show signs of the stress, a frenetic sort of energy permeating everywhere. The government had tried to keep the operations mostly quiet—not a secret, necessarily, just not too loud—to keep the public from panicking, but the closer Thanos got, the more obvious it was that something terrible was coming.

Bucky supposed he should have felt fear, but he really didn’t. After everything he’d been through at HYDRA’s hands, it was hard to really be afraid of much. Even before that there was the war, the one he’d been practically born into. Life was just one war after another. The stakes were bigger this time, but it hardly mattered to Bucky either way. Whether it was a World War and the US was in danger or it was Thanos and half the galaxy was at risk, it was Bucky’s whole world either way.

He had Steve. He had a beautiful new arm, nothing like that heavy weapon HYDRA forced on him, courtesy of the Wakandan princess and Tony Stark. Shuri had helped with the triggers in his head and while he’d never be free of the nightmares and the memories of all the horrifying things he’d done, at least he couldn’t be controlled anymore. If he had to spend his whole life fighting wars, so be it. At least he had his freedom now.

People were frantic, trying to tie up loose ends in their lives before Thanos arrived and potentially brought about the end of the world. People were getting married left and right, reconciling with distant family and friends or, alternately, finally cutting out those they’d resented and hated for years. Some were going truly crazy, selling all their possessions and running off, but most were just trying to settle everything they could. Just in case.

Bucky didn’t have much to settle. Most of his life was left behind in the past. The only thing he really had when he got his independence back in the present day was Steve, who was by his side and determined not to leave him. The one loose end he wanted to tie up, the one wrong he desperately wanted to right before this was all over, was avoiding him.

Tony Stark. The man he orphaned. The man he fought, and abandoned. Who nonetheless reached out, when a threat appeared on the horizon, willing to put everything else aside to save the world.

Stark was ridiculously busy, preparing for the coming invasion. He was acting as the head of Stark Industries’ reopened weapons division, as well as Iron Man. He was barely even around the Compound or the other Avengers anymore, mostly at his own request, Bucky knew.

Bucky could hardly blame Stark for not wanting to be around them, but he so badly wanted to talk to the man. To apologize, even though he still wasn’t sure how or what to say. Even though he knew most of the others had already found Stark and tried to talk or apologize in their own ways—and all of their attempts were woefully inadequate. They all seemed miserable afterward.

The two people that really hadn’t been able to get close in the last month or so, though, were Bucky and Steve. Stark was avoiding them like the plague, even when they actually tried to seek him out.

After weeks of trying to get close, finally, days before the battle, Stark called Bucky to his lab. Stark wanted to make sure a last minute upgrade to his arm was installed according to Shuri’s specifications; she was too busy in Wakanda to come and do it herself. With the hours before Thanos’s arrival down to double digits, no one could afford to be flying across the world unless it was absolutely necessary.

“Barnes, come in.” Stark waved him into the auxiliary workshop with one hand as he used the other to finish whatever he was doing on his tablet. He constantly seemed to be involved in at least three things at once these days—that was part of what made it so hard to talk to him. But as soon as Bucky was seated, arm laid out on the table, Stark put aside whatever else he was doing to focus his full attention on Bucky—or rather, on his arm.

Stark usually worked in silence, at least on the arm, so it wasn’t unusual this time. Occasionally Stark muttered to himself or asked Bucky to do something, but this time it was Bucky who spoke up first. He finally had the chance to say something to the man and he wasn’t going to waste it, even though there was a slight risk with his arm opened up and Stark’s hands wrapped up in delicate wiring.

“Stark, listen…” Bucky waited until Stark raised an eyebrow, showing he was listening, even if his gaze was still on the insides of the arm. “I’m sorry.” It felt pathetic as soon as he said it, totally inadequate, but he couldn’t come up with anything else at the moment.

He could easily see the tension that immediately gripped Stark’s whole body, though his hands never stopped their work on the arm. He didn’t look up at Bucky face—if anything, he seemed to be concentrating harder on his work. When he spoke, however, his voice was surprisingly steady.

“It wasn’t your fault. You weren’t in control.” It sounded suspiciously like something Stark had told himself a hundred times, desperately trying to make himself believe it and never quite succeeding. But he sounded more genuine and less rehearsed when he added, “For what it’s worth, I’m sorry about what they put you through.”

He didn’t say anything more. He didn’t apologize for Siberia, and Bucky was glad. Steve was angry about it for a long time, going on about how Stark betrayed them and tried to kill Bucky, but Bucky could never bring himself to feel righteously angry about it the way Steve did. After what he did, after what Stark saw in that bunker, to Bucky, he only reacted like any person would.

Bucky did wonder if he should bring it up, though. If he might get further with Stark if he was the one who apologized for that whole clusterfuck. Maybe he wasn’t in control when he killed Howard and his wife, but he was in control when he teamed up with Steve to beat down a grieving, heartbroken man. He was in control when he left Stark there in that freezing bunker, in enemy territory, in a broken suit.

“About what happened…” he tentatively tried, “in Sib—”

He was cut off by Stark finally making furious eye contact. “I have nothing to say to you about Siberia,” Stark bit out.

The tight rage in his voice should have stopped Bucky short, but he felt some inexplicable urge to keep going, to try to explain. “I’m not—I wasn’t trying to talk about your—about what happened. Just… Steve—”

Stark once again cut him off. “We don’t need to talk about Steve either.” He looked back down at the arm, moving more stiffly now but still working.

Bucky swallowed and tried to hold still. “I just… I want you to know that I didn’t want that to happen. Any of it. I didn’t want Steve to do all that. I don’t… approve of everything he did.”

Stark was silent for a moment, digging deeper into the arm. The odd, tingling feeling of someone working on the arm sparked up into Bucky’s shoulder, but there was no pain. Stark was always careful with that. “You should,” Stark said after a few seconds. The anger and tension were still clear in his voice. “He burned down the world for you.”

There was another jolt through the arm and then Stark sat back, snapping the plates of the arm back into place and standing up with jerky movements. “I’m done here.” The anger was quickly seeping out of his posture, replaced with that ever-present defeat and exhaustion.

Stark turned his back and Bucky started moving toward the door, but stopped. He didn’t want to leave things like this. “I never wanted any of that,” he whispered. Stark straightened slowly and turned to look at him. “I didn’t want anyone to get hurt for me. I didn’t… I didn’t want Steve to choose me over you.”

Stark huffed a laugh that was anything but amused and looked down at the floor, shaking his head as he moved toward where Bucky stood. Bucky was still, watching, as he approached. He wasn’t sure whether Stark was planning to hug him or hit him, but then Stark diverted, heading toward the door rather than straight at Bucky.

As he passed by, he stopped, reaching out to pat a hand over Bucky’s chest twice. The touch felt benign, but Bucky internally flinched at the reminder of the arc reactor that he tried to rip out of Stark’s suit in Siberia, the thing he now knew used to be implanted in Stark’s chest, keeping him alive.

“Don’t worry about it, buddy,” Stark said. The nickname was as humorless and fake as his smile. “Most people would.”

And he walked out, leaving Bucky standing there feeling worse than when he came in.

 

 

The battle came.

It was everything they’d been building up to, everything they’d feared and more. There was some comfort in knowing they were prepared, in feeling that they’d done everything they could to be ready, but that hardly mattered when the time came. When lives were in danger, and eventually lost.

Steve fought with his team like he should. He fought side by side with Bucky, just like old times, yet something felt like it was missing. Iron Man’s absence on the battlefield was keenly felt, at least by Steve. He was infiltrating Thanos’s ship with his own team of experts from Earth and around the galaxy, and their role was vital, Steve knew, but it still just felt wrong not to have Tony backing him up.

He hadn’t really realized how much he relied on Tony’s input in the field. He’d complained before about Tony’s need to constantly be talking, about his inability to just follow orders, but it was obvious, fighting against Thanos’s armies, that Tony’s quick thinking was an advantage Steve was lacking now. There were some close calls that could have been avoided if he had another pair of eyes—and a mind as quick as Tony’s—watching from above. Situations that he was just a touch too late to deal with, and some of them didn’t end well.

Thankfully, Tony’s team got their jobs done quickly. Thanos was forced out into the open before any of his people could get to Strange or Vision and the Infinity Stones they held. Thor and his team of heavy hitters moved in to take Thanos down, and, after a few horrifying twists and turns, they succeeded.

The Earth won. Thanos was dead.

The celebrations afterward were as elated and rowdy as Steve had ever seen. Even with the serious injuries, the hundreds who died in the fight, and the destruction in the places where the battles happened, the world was safe, billions were kept from slaughter.

Steve was happy as well, maybe more so than he’d been at any point since he came out of the ice. Bucky was alive and well by his side—barely scratched in the fight. Some of his team were down with injuries, possibly permanently, but they were all alive. In the face of what happened with Thanos and what Steve and his team did, the Avengers were universally welcomed back with open arms. Any lingering anger toward them after the whole Accords debacle had evaporated.

Still, Steve couldn’t help but notice Tony’s absence from the celebrations. He made a token appearance at the beginning, shook hands with most of the Avengers, and then disappeared. Steve couldn’t help the pang of sadness. He thought the battle against Thanos would bring them all back together, just like old times, but it didn’t. Tony had his own team, and they did their jobs far away from Steve and his.

There was a ceremony thanking the Avengers after everything. Tony was invited—he was the guest of honor, really, and Steve knew he was the one everyone wanted to see, after what he did—and he did show up, but only for as long as he had to. He accepted the speeches and the awards and the praise with grace, with none of his usual showboating. He smiled at the rest of the Avengers, but it never quite reached his eyes, and Steve remembered what he said before the battle about selling his soul to defeat Thanos.

Two days later, Tony announced Iron Man’s retirement.

He left, moving out to the countryside. Pepper moved with him; they ran Stark Industries from afar, still highly involved in the company, but pulling back from the busy city and from superhero work. A month later, pictures of their wedding showed up online. Steve saw the Spiderman kid (sans suit) and his aunt in the pictures, as well as Rhodes and even Bruce, but none of Steve’s team were invited.

Steve tried calling Tony a few times. He wasn’t sure what he wanted, but he felt like there was something left unsaid between him and Tony and he didn’t like it. He considered Tony a friend, and after everything, he just wanted to be able to talk to him again. To congratulate him on his wedding, at least, even if Tony had pulled away and truly didn’t want to be an Avenger any more. But all of Tony’s numbers had been changed, and FRIDAY was no longer installed in the Compound.

Tony was still supporting them; he hadn’t cut off the Avengers. He gifted the Compound to the organization, but he slowly began pulling his funds back. Over the course of a year, Tony and Stark Industries transitioned out of any active support of the Avengers Initiative, instead giving the financial responsibility for them over to the government program that they now officially operated under.

In turn, SI released an entire line of advanced prosthetics, revamped their clean energy projects, became involved in restoration and advancement all over the world, and put out world-changing new tech like never before. Steve smiled, though it was bittersweet, every time he saw the release of some new miracle from the company. Clearly Tony’s drive to create was as strong as ever; he really just didn’t want to be Iron Man anymore—at least, not in public. There were still occasional pictures of the suit out and about that popped up online, sometimes accompanied by another, more petite suit in blue, but Iron Man stayed retired.

A year and a half after the defeat of Thanos, the media got wind of the first big bit of news on the Stark front in quite a while—Pepper had a baby. Pictures took months to show up online, but Morgan Stark was known worldwide soon enough, though her parents took great pains to keep her out of the public eye and make sure she would grow up as a happy, relatively normal child.

Steve tried sending letters to Tony. He didn’t know the address of their place, and when he went snooping online to try to find out if a crazy fan might know, the ones he tried were all returned by the postal service. He really found himself focusing on it, more than he probably should. He just wanted so badly to be able to talk to Tony again.

Finally, he tried going to Fury to ask about contacting Tony. The meeting didn’t go the way he imagined. He’d thought, if he encountered resistance from Fury, it would either be because he genuinely didn’t know where Tony was—unlikely—or because he didn’t want to bother Tony unless there was serious danger that would require the return of Iron Man.

Instead, Fury gave him an almost pitying look, sighing. “Stark performed admirably in the final battle against Thanos. He gave more than we ever could have expected to the preparations, and he didn’t disappoint in the field. His team did their jobs and beyond.”

It sounded like he was reading off a script, until he sighed again and straightened to look Steve right in the eyes. “Stark saved all our asses with that trick with the gauntlet. Thor’s team wouldn’t have been able to get close if it wasn’t for Stark and he nearly died doing it. We went to him immediately after it was all over—there were already whispers that Iron Man was planning to retire after the battle with Thanos.”

Steve’s heart sank. Fury had already gone to Tony, and clearly hadn’t been successful; what chance did Steve have?

“He only requested one thing from us when it was over.” Steve’s head snapped up and Fury gave him another pitiful smile. “That we leave him alone. Forever. He gave us everything and all he wanted was peace. Considering everything, well… he put himself through hell for more than ten years, and even though sometimes he made it as difficult as he could along the way, he never failed to help us when we needed it, or to give what we wanted. After all that, we could grant him that one thing. We’re no longer watching him. We’re keeping a few interested parties away. He’s happy with his family, and we’re respecting that.”

Steve went home with a sick feeling in his stomach. Hearing Fury say that was painful. After everything they’d been through together, what Tony wanted more than anything was to be left alone, to forget about the Avengers. To hear Fury call Tony’s work with them “hell” without hesitation… that hurt.

Steve returned that night to the beautiful, updated Compound that he lived in for free, where he trained with friends who were alive and well and lauded by the public as superheroes who’d saved the world—hell, the galaxy. Even those friends who would no longer fight with them—Clint’s leg would never be the same and he wanted to go back to his family, and Natasha, looking for atonement that didn’t involve violence, was working with charities for orphaned children now—still came by to bond with their friends, to share stories, to be close. Steve’s best friend was alive and well and fighting by his side once more, exactly as it should be.

He looked around at all of it, everything he had, everything he could ever want, and wondered why he felt so empty inside.