"Did you hear the news about Cap?" Clint asks, as soon as Tony picks up.
He doesn't even bother saying hello, and Tony's stomach sinks; the tranquil California evening seems much less serene. News that starts that way, in Tony's experience, is never good. He swallows hard, and he tries not to think the thought that starts how far is it from here to the closest liquor store--
"How badly is he hurt?"
There's a second or so of confused silence. "What? No. Oh, man. I'm sorry. It's nothing bad. Didn't mean to scare you."
Tony takes a shaking breath. It's all right. Steve's all right.
It's a careful kind of stalemate he has going on with Steve, a fraught game that he's not sure Steve knows they're playing. He hasn't seen him since he was drinking, and he shuts his eyes like that can hold back the shame. He was so drunk. He doesn't remember much. There was a fight. Steve was yelling at him, practically in tears. There was a fire, and he thinks-- he thinks he remembers Steve holding him, Steve carrying him, but he doesn't know how, or why, and at that point the memory devolves into half a dozen fantasies, the ones Steve would never speak to him again if he knew about. It's not like Steve's speaking to him now.
He knows he's supposed to apologize. Make amends.
He's pretty sure that whoever in AA came up with that advice has never tried apologizing to Captain America. How the hell is he ever supposed to talk to him again?
Tony's in California now, in Silicon Valley with the Erwins, working at Circuits Maximus. He can't have SI back. He doesn't want SI back. He'll have a new life. A fresh start.
Clint's in California too, albeit further south. The West Coast Avengers. Another new life. Tony thinks it sounds nice. If he were Iron Man-- but he isn't, is he?
"Good news, then?" Tony makes himself smile. "Is he finally marrying that girlfriend of his?"
"Bernie? Nah," Clint says. "Don't think so. Not yet, anyway." Tony is a horrible, jealous, petty person, and this shouldn't make him happy. Steve's not his. Steve's never going to be his. For God's sake, he's involved with someone else. "But he's got this new project he wants everyone to know about."
Clint's voice brightens. "Seems he came into some money. Accumulated back pay, from the army. He's setting up a phone line."
The first thought that comes into Tony's head is really, supremely inappropriate, and he says it anyway.
"A 900 number?"
There's a horrified pause, and then Clint starts chuckling. "You are filthy," he says, but at least he sounds kind of admiring. "Man, he'd rake in the cash. No, an 800 number. Toll-free hotline. So that people can report anything they think he ought to know about."
"Oh," Tony says, and he lets the sound fall, disappointed. "So much less exciting."
"I can just picture his face if he finds out about that suggestion."
"You wouldn't be able to see his face," Tony says. "He'd be there covering his face with his hands, wondering what the hell he did to deserve this."
He can picture it now. There'd be blushing. For someone who served in World War II, Steve sure acts like he's never heard a dirty joke in his life.
"Here," Clint says. "Let me give you the number. So you can pass it on if anyone wants it."
Tony scrambles for a pen and writes the number down as Clint recites it.
"There you go," Clint says. "And, hey, if you want to come down to LA sometime--"
"I'll consider it," Tony says.
He's not Iron Man.
He doesn't belong there.
"Hi," Steve says. He sounds warm, friendly, authoritative. It's the voice he uses for dealing with frightened civilians. Tony pictures Steve in full uniform, kneeling next to a small child, smiling. Can you tell me what you saw? he'd ask, and Tony would be there, next to him, suited up, looking on encouragingly.
This used to be Tony's life.
"This is Captain America," Steve says. "Thank you for calling my citizens' hotline. If you--"
Tony hangs up.
Ten seconds later, he hits redial.
"Hi. This is Captain America," Steve says. "Thank you for--"
Tony hangs up again.
Tony's cradling the handset to his ear. It's two a.m. If he were still drinking, he'd be drunk now. He thinks the rest of his life is going to divide like that: when he still drank, and then now. Maybe there's a world out there in the multiverse where he never stopped.
Maybe there's a world where he died in that blizzard.
He hits redial.
"Hi. This is Captain America," Steve says.
It's a recording. It isn't going to judge him. Steve doesn't even listen to these, he's sure. He probably has them automatically transcribed and sorted, and then the important ones are flagged for his attention, just in case someone happens to know something about MODOK or the Red Skull. Steve's never going to hear this. It's just going to sit in a pile of unimportant messages.
The answering machine beeps.
Tony takes a breath.
"This message is for Captain America," he says. "It's not a tip. I'm just-- I'm just a guy trying to put his life back together. I've made a lot of mistakes. Bad choices. I'm trying to start over. It's hard. I keep-- I keep coming this close to slipping. And Cap always meant so much to me. And I wanted to thank him, to apologize for--"
Oh, God. He can't. He can't.
He hangs up and puts his head in his hands.
Then Bethany is kidnapped.
He suits up -- he has to suit up again -- and he still can't save her. He's not fast enough. He's not good enough. He's never good enough.
One drink could make him forget.
It could make everything stop hurting.
He calls the number.
"I did everything I could," he says. Steve doesn't judge him. Steve's not really listening. "She's not coming back to me." He has the presence of mind not to mention names. Not to say that it was a kidnapping. That might get flagged. "I do all I can and it's never enough, and, God, Cap, I just want a drink, and it's-- it's so hard not to. I'm so... inadequate. I don't think you ever really understood that. How could you? You're you. Next to you, I'm nothing."
That's pathetic, he tells himself.
He hangs up.
The next morning his phone rings. He picks up.
"Mister?" says an unfamiliar voice. Sounds like a high school kid, maybe. "My name's Ram. I'm with the Captain America hotline. I think-- I think you might want another one of our numbers, sir. New number. Special."
Oh, God. Someone heard him.
He wonders if it's possible to die of shame. He swallows a few times. He can't quite speak.
"What number?" Tony asks, hoarsely.
The kid gives him a number. Tony writes it down.
"What does this even go to--" Tony starts to say, but the kid interrupts him.
"Call it," the kid says. "It will help."
Tony sits there, phone pressed to his ear, until he gets the dial tone.
Then he hangs up.
He goes to New York. He gets beaten up because, well, this is his life.
The Avengers are in New York. Steve's in New York.
He can't see them. He can't.
He gets back to Circuits Maximus with Cly just in time to see a fireball blossom over the ridge, the beautiful dome shattering into shards. A bomb. No. Not Morley.
He floors it, is half-caught by the blast, is careening down the slope, and then he's out of the car and running across uneven ground, just in time to see them take Morley's body away.
He doesn't get to leave his old life behind. He doesn't get a fresh start. Everyone he cares about dies. This is what Tony Stark does. He brings death. He can't help it. He clawed his own life back from Stane, his sobriety, but everyone else is falling.
Maybe he should give in. Maybe it doesn't matter.
That's not what Steve would want, he thinks. That's not what Captain America would do.
Well, Captain America's not here.
He's sitting on the edge of a creaky bed in a dingy Palo Alto hotel room. He has nowhere else to go. He curls his hands in his pockets and pulls out a scrap of paper. A phone number.
What the hell, he thinks. He literally has nothing else left to lose.
He dials. One ring. Two rings. Someone picks up.
"Hello?" Tony says. "A kid gave me this number. Said his name was Ram."
"Hi," a warm, rich, baritone voice says, on the other end of the line. "This is Captain America. I've been expecting you."
Tony's goddamn heart nearly stops, and then his senses reassert themselves. It's not Steve. Oh, it's damn close -- whoever it is has the tone right, that charisma that invites you to trust him, and he even has the accent almost right, that blend of old-fashioned vowels, a voice for radio, mixed in with a slightly more modern tone, a pronunciation Steve's spent a decade acquiring. But he's just a little bit off. Maybe too nasal.
"You're not Captain America," Tony tells him.
There's a thoughtful pause. "Maybe I'm a Captain America."
"I don't think it works like Santa Claus," Tony says. "There's not a Captain America at every shopping center for Christmas."
The stranger's laugh is a little too high-pitched for Steve. "Be great if there were, though, wouldn't it? You're a big Cap fan, huh?"
The noise that comes out of Tony's mouth then is some kind of muted sob. "The biggest."
"Well, then," the man says. "Right now I'm your Captain America."
Unexpected tears prick at Tony's eyes, and all he can see is Steve's face, the last time he saw him, Steve asking him why he was drinking, Steve's face outlined by fire, and then Morley Erwin's body in the flames.
He falls back on the mattress and shuts his eyes.
He wonders if this is the kind of phone call where you ask Captain America what he's wearing.
He's pretty sure Steve wouldn't have approved that.
"And what does Captain America have to say to me?" Tony says. It's not a question. His voice is flat and dead.
The reply, when it comes, is exactly like Steve's voice. "I'm proud of you."
Tony catches his breath. Tears fall from his eyes and start to drip down the side of his face.
Steve isn't. Steve wouldn't be. Steve isn't ever going to be, not again.
But something inside him that he didn't even know was hurting, raw and broken, is now softly soothed. This is exactly what he needed.
"You're a good man," the stranger says, "and from what I hear you've had a hard life, but you're strong. It's tough, but you're doing the right thing."
Tony bites his lip, hard, so he won't make a sound.
"They told me you just quit drinking," the stranger says. "I know it's hard, but you're so brave. I'm here for you. Captain America's right here for you. Captain America's not leaving you."
A small, strangled noise escapes Tony's throat.
There's an awkward pause.
The stranger coughs. "Is this okay, mister? Is this good?"
Tony realizes he's clutching the phone so hard his hand is throbbing. He's a drowning man being thrown a life preserver.
Phone sex would have been less personal than this.
"Yeah?" the man asks.
Steve's never going to know it's him.
Tony breathes in and out and just says it. "Can you tell me you're proud of me again?"
There's a soft huff, like an amused laugh, like the stranger is smiling to himself. "Sure thing."
Tony curls up on his side and squeezes his eyes shut and tries to picture Steve smiling at him.
He knows what he has to do.
He heads to LA, to the West Coast Avengers' compound, brushes aside Hawkeye, and stands in the middle of the workshop. The armor is half-built, red and silver. Waiting for him.
He needs to be Iron Man.
He picks up the phone.
"This is Captain America," the stranger says.
Tony smiles. "This is the alcoholic you were talking to the other night."
"Hey," the man says, offended, and he sounds a hell of a lot like Steve. "Don't be so hard on yourself, mister. Still sober?"
"Still sober," Tony confirms, and he contemplates the gauntlet laid out before him. With a bit of work, it will be functional. He could be Iron Man. He has to be Iron Man. He doesn't want to be Iron Man. "Kind of wishing I weren't." He pauses. "I've got a question for you, Cap."
"Hit me," the stranger says. It's not very Steve.
"If people who knew you-- if they were hurt, because they knew you," he says, and he's rummaging in the drawer for a wrench as he talks, like his hands already know what his brain hasn't yet decided, "and if there were something you could do to save them, would you?"
Now that he says it, the answer is obvious.
There's a pause. "Is this superhero business?" he asks. "I mean, is this the sort of thing I need to actually tell the real Cap about?"
Tony blinks. "You know him?"
"I can get in touch with him, yeah."
Tony takes a deep breath. He starts to put the gauntlet together. He should have known there was only one choice.
"It's superhero business. I'm one of them. I don't need to talk to him," Tony says, finally, as the gauntlet fits neatly around his arm. "But if I don't come back, if I don't call again, could you-- could you let him know I'm sorry about how we left off? Let him know, if I don't make it, that I was trying to do the right thing?"
The pause this time is somehow astonished. "Who should I say the message is from?"
Tony smiles a pained smile. "He'll know."
"Okay," the stranger says. "Whatever you're doing, mister, I'm sure he'd wish you good luck."
Tony is Iron Man.
Tony is Iron Man, his friends are free, and Stane is finally, finally dead. Killed himself.
He feels hollow. Empty. He's missing something. Someone. And he knows damn well who it is.
His phone rings.
"Hi," the man on the other end of the line says. "This is Captain America."
It's Steve, it's Steve, oh God. It's not a recording. It's not an impersonator. It's really him.
"Steve," Tony says, weakly, and he can't say anything else.
"Yeah, Tony," Steve says, and his voice is warm and fond now. That's the quality the other guy was missing. Steve sounds like this when he talks to him. Maybe just to him. "That's my name."
Tony's shaking. "So what's up?"
"I saw Iron Man in the news," Steve said. "I thought maybe we could talk. I know we haven't talked since. Since." He stops. He doesn't want to name it either.
"I'm sorry," Tony says. He's reaching out, grasping at thin air. "I'm sorry about-- I-- I miss you."
"Nothing to be sorry for," Steve says, easily, like it was so easy to say, like it doesn't hurt him to speak. "I wasn't kind to you. And I'm sorry. I'm just-- I was so happy to see you in the suit again. I miss you too. A lot. I'm so glad you came this far. I was so afraid of losing you. But now you're here, you're flying again, and that-- it means a lot to me."
"Are you proud of me?" Tony asks, and he immediately claps his hand over his mouth like he can somehow take it back.
Steve doesn't even pause. "Always."
It's exactly what Tony needed.