There’s only so long that Tony can get away with watching the light blink.
It’s fun, and it’s immensely satisfying considering what the man on the other end of the line has done to his friends, but eventually the real world comes knocking, bringing his guilt with it. When it does, Tony only lets himself sigh once before he stiffens his lip and goes out to meet it.
A few years ago he would’ve thought about Gawain going out to meet the Green Knight, for honor’s sake, and because no one else could. It’s still true that there’s no one else who can do this, but there’s no honor left to gain or lose, so Tony goes to meet it without thinking of pretty stories where the hero escapes beheading with only a scratch to show for it.
He knows he won’t be half so lucky. He doesn’t deserve to be.
Ross makes his demand backed by evidence and an arrest warrant, and just for a minute, Tony considers saying no. He considers sitting in jail, in the most comfortable solitary cell his reputation can buy him, and resting in the knowledge that he will never again have to see the faces of the people he has failed, or the ones who failed him. He considers never failing again, because he will never be allowed to try. It is tempting.
But in the end, Tony thinks of a tide of bitterness broken by how is Rhodes? He thinks of you alright? and a hand on his shoulder. He failed them, and he owes them, maybe even more than he owes the world. In the end, it isn’t really a choice at all. The word no slips away into the ether like a mirage.
And Tony says yes. The first thing Ross takes is the phone.
The days are okay, at first.
Tony wakes when Friday tells him he must; he wakes when Ross wants him. He stands and straightens his sleep-rumpled clothes, takes coffee from the machine that never stops making it, now. He misses the friends who would have stayed by his side, but he can’t involve them in this. His mail has been under surveillance for ages, he’s learned, and they’ll only be in more danger now that Ross has a real excuse to do it.
Ross has a couple promising new leads, and he wants Tony to get him answers—there was a possible fly-by picture of the Falcon in Switzerland, and a cluster of Scarlet Witch sightings in Greece. Sure, that could’ve been Sam, looking for a place to lie low. Sure, that could’ve been Wanda, running rampant in the streets. Sure. He’ll track them down. Nothing Iron Man can’t handle. It’s the least he can do, after all their history together.
Tony sits down at the new workstation and cracks his knuckles dramatically, and then opens his hand to receive a fresh cup of coffee. It’s more than half full for once; it seems all of Dummy’s practice has been paying off.
It only takes a moment to load up the information Ross wants him to investigate, and the screen lights up: two parallel displays of information about the incidents, and a small green circle in the corner, the one that means Ross or one of his analysts is watching. No minesweeper for Tony Stark, not today.
Today he’s going to hunt down the former Avengers.
He failed the people he cares about. He broke the law. And he’s going to do whatever he has to do to make up for what he did wrong.
Tony digs into the sightings reports, pulling information together and trying to weave it into a coherent story, trying to follow the threads back to their sources. This is what Ross wants of him, and so this is what he must do. This is what he does.
And it’s okay, more or less.
Tony takes a long lunch and goes for a walk. He goes to the coffee shop a block away that he likes for the old owner’s friendly words, the way the waitress smiles at him as honest and open as at anyone else in the world. He forces himself to eat because it’s better than starving. For an hour, he talks and laughs and sometimes even means it when he does. It makes him feel almost human again.
He never feels completely human anymore.
It’s a Monday, bright and early—or so Friday tells him—when Tony is awakened for a press conference. He shakes himself alert and all but throws himself into a cold shower, scrubbing thoroughly. When he gets out, he dolls himself up proper, with dabs of concealer for the bags under his eyes and powder for his paling complexion and gloss for his cracked lips. His beard is neatly trimmed and his hair is slicked back so that no one can see how ragged the ends are getting.
He worries for a moment about the suit he bought last month that he liked so much at the time—it won’t do to be seen in public with wool that fine hanging off his frame—but then he remembers that it was retailored a few days ago, and he shrugs into it with relief. A well-fitting suit looks sharp on everyone.
After an hour, Tony Stark looks pretty good.
Good enough, maybe, to make them believe the pretty lies he has to tell for all the questions they want to ask him.
Why did you break up the Avengers?
It was a mutual decision that resulted from our differing goals.
Where are they now?
What about the fight in the airport?
A misunderstanding, caused by the man named Zemo who is now in UN custody.
Any truth to the rumors that you tried to kill Captain America?
None at all.
When night falls one day, Tony knows where Natasha has been.
The partial match that Ross found was not in fact the Black Widow, of course. It is, of course, someone who looks like her, or the software wouldn’t have pegged it as a match at all, but the total lack of sighting reports in such a public area suggests that something else is in play. There is, of course, a chance that the Black Widow had gone down a crowded street, been spotted by a camera and no one else, and left absolutely no other trace, but it doesn’t exactly seem probable. More likely, this was just a woman who looked similar to the Black Widow.
This is what Tony passes along to Ross at the end of the day, along with a thorough debunking of yet another Falcon sighting. Even the most basic photo enhancement reveals a Lufthansa jet, nothing like a winged man.
Ross nods, and accepts his work, and puts the arrest warrant back in his drawer for the night.
The screen goes dark.
Friday makes Tony and shave and wash his face, and she trades his clothes for something cleaner, something he can wear the next day. It’s easier to change once than twice.
Tony gets ready for bed, and then he grabs another cup of coffee and goes to work. The light in the corner is red.
Careful, Stark. Don’t get too close.
What were you thinking, Natasha? Where were you going? Surely you know better than to let yourself be seen? What was your plan?
Tony had passed the image off as nothing more than a mistake, but he can’t do that every time. He can’t hold Ross off the real trail forever; there’s only so much that a known genius can play dumb when he’s told to weave the threads together.
What he can do is find some other threads to follow. He has to; he owes her no less for supporting him as far as she did. He owes her still more just for being herself, hero and friend.
At the Milan airport, he finds an incident report for an employee, a young man who got a minor head injury at work when someone’s luggage fell. It’s enough to be made suspicious, Tony thinks. Perhaps Natasha was stowing away and found herself discovered; perhaps she had to get away clean any way she could. He deletes a word or two of the incident report, enough to suggest her light footprints. That’s a trail he can follow tomorrow, a false thread to weave into the story that will unravel when Ross pulls on it for real.
Tony did break the law, and he did fail his friends, but that doesn’t mean that those are the same thing.
Half the night is gone, and Tony’s running out of time to do his real work, to make up for his failures. He needs sleep, or he won’t be able to do what he must come morning. But Tony is too tired to spin another new thread.
The most he can do is pan around for traces—real traces—of his friends, just in case, and of his enemies. He’s not even surprised when he finds none of the former to cover up, but plenty of the latter to flag and slip under the UN committee’s nose, hoping to get them to bite. Ross is a rabid dog drunk on the power of ordering Tony Stark around—for once, he says, as if no one has ever manipulated Tony into doing something he didn’t want to before—but if Tony’s quiet and careful not to get caught, the committee might be willing to listen, to let him help people. He has to try.
Tony wants so much to believe that he was wrong when he told the team that this was the best option. He wants to believe that it would be right to fight his way out and run away and cast off the weight of guilt on his shoulders, if only to be able to breathe again. But all he can think of is Rhodey, it hasn’t changed my mind, and he knows he can’t back out now.
He has to protect the people that he put in harm’s way.
The days are okay, at first. Then Ross starts to get frustrated with the lack of results.
No, that’s a lie.
Ross is frustrated with the lack of Captain America. With a figurehead like that, a man could do anything. He could patch his political career, he could swing public opinion definitively, or he could even admit to the world that the UN is hunting down their beloved superheroes. Having Captain America is a superpower in itself, and it’s one that Ross covets desperately. Each morning the pile of tasks he leaves at his jackal’s door gets a little larger; now two leads for Tony to follow, now four, now a half dozen, until he feels like he has a hundred and eight different things to worry about every day. None of them turn up Captain America.
Tony takes longer lunches now, not to try Ross’ patience but to bolster his own. He comes to know the old man who owns the coffee shop and the young woman who helps him run it, he learns about the love life of the waitress with the friendly smile. There’s a book shop only a few streets over, too-nice and expensive, because this is Manhattan, but smallish and charming on the inside.
They have a vintage poster of Captain America on the wall, very like the one that Tony had had as a child. This Captain is as far removed from him as the real one, thirty years or a confiscated phone away. He tries not to take it as a sign.
He tries not to think about Steve, the way he would’ve liked this little shop, the way he would’ve sat in that chair in the corner with the good lighting and looked out the window, drawing passersby, maybe, or perhaps a friend captured from memory. Somehow, in Tony’s mind, this Steve who sits in the comfortable chair and draws with the sunlight gilding his hair and the graphite staining his fingers—this Steve is completely different from the one who kept his bitter secrets to the end, the one who roared with rage and beat Tony into the ground. There aren’t two Steves, he knows, but he almost wishes there were.
It would be so much easier to hate him that way.
It would be so much easier to admit that he wants Captain America back nearly as badly as Ross does.
The days are okay, at first.
Tony wakes when Friday tells him he must. He straightens his clothes and drinks his coffee. He misses his friends. Ross tells him what to do, and he does it.
When lunch comes, Tony takes his time, and his walks are more ambitious. He clings to the outside world, to the people and the places he has loved, to prove to himself that they are still there. He breathes in the exhaust and the insults and the chatter in the air, to prove that they are still there. If they are real, if the world is real and somewhere in it are people he loves, or loved, or loved him, then he can face Ross again.
He does what he is told. He weaves the stories together for Ross, twisting the separate threads together. Ross accepts his meager offerings and puts the warrant back away. Another night safe.
Another night to work double time, frantic and indebted, to be sure that the work he does during the day never gets too close to its conclusion. Another night to do everything he used to do, everything he ought to have been doing, as an Avenger and as Iron Man.
Another night to indulge in the foolish, stupid hope that he, the failure, the man so easily deceived, could rework international legislature into something his friends—his former friends, maybe—could sign.
Friday forces him to eat, and then to sleep, and the nights are okay, too.
Tony wakes when Friday tells him he must. He straightens his clothes and drinks his coffee. He misses his friends. Ross yells at him until he feels better.
None of the leads are panning out, he complains. Here are three more possibilities. Follow them up. Figure them out. Do it now. Do you want to go to jail, Stark?
Tony has behaved well this week, so he gets the weekend to himself.
He wakes when Friday tells him he must. He straightens his clothes and drinks his coffee. He misses his friends. He goes down to the workshop, and builds and bends and breaks metal until he feels better.
Stark Industries is starting to fall, the markets complain. There are no new ideas coming out of R&D. At least improve on the old ones. Build them now. Do you want your company to die, Stark?
Tony wakes when Friday tells him he must. He straightens his clothes and drinks his coffee. He misses his friends. Ross yells at him. Things aren’t getting better.
Even among dozens and dozens of sightings and facial matches and twitter posts and images taken by conspiracy theorists, nothing concrete has turned up. Tony hasn’t been holding up his end of the bargain. He’s failing at betrayal, and he wants to laugh hysterically.
But maybe he hasn’t really been trying, Ross considers, still and always angry with Tony. Maybe he’s been half-assing it to let them get away scot-free? Maybe he doesn’t remember that they broke the law, caused millions of dollars of property damage, and then disappeared? Maybe, though it seems impossible for any sane person, maybe Tony has forgotten what they did to him, him personally? Has Tony forgotten that the Witch buried him in a ten-ton pile of cars, or that the Captain nearly killed him? Has he overlooked his own best friend’s paralysis in favor of those mushy, sissy feelings of past companionship?
He has, though he doesn’t say it aloud. He has loved them all, his friends, his teammates, his family, too deeply to truly hate them for what they’ve done to him.
How is Rhodes? He would want Tony to keep fighting, if he knew. Tony can’t afford to lose the days, or he’ll lose the nights as well, and if he loses the nights, he might as well give up on his friends altogether. He might as well betray them for real.
No is the best objection Tony can come up with, in the end. No, of course he’s trying, of course—
But Ross doesn’t want to hear it. His fingers drum menacingly against the arrest warrant on his desk, and he puts Tony on house arrest.
The days are not okay. Maybe they never were.
Tony wakes when Friday tells him he must. He straightens his clothes and drinks his coffee. He misses his friends. Ross gives him a whole list of threads to tie down today; most of them are what Tony expects, but one is not. Ross wants to know the identity of the American man with superstrength who broke up an alley mugging in Nigeria yesterday evening.
Tony has a panic attack.
When he recollects himself, Friday pulls the conference window back up, and he pulls out another wild lie to explain himself. Ross barely seems to take notice, but his fingers drum a little faster against the warrant on his desk, as though he suspects that something is wrong with Tony, or worse, that something is wrong with the information he has brought to Tony to investigate. It makes Tony feel tight and strained, but he puts up with it, because he knows the alternative.
You alright? Always. He has to be.
He can’t let it happen. He can’t let his friends, or former friends, or whatever they are to him now, get hurt because of him. They’ve been hurt enough because of Ross, because of the Raft, because of Tony himself. No more. However bitter he is, however little he likes them in his lowest moments—he can’t.
Tony works with manic energy, racing along the threads he untangled last night before diving into the new one, the stranger to him.
In all likelihood, it’s nothing. It’s just another person with enhanced abilities, just someone who wanted to help, just no one. In all likelihood, Ross has found an actual ghost to chase among the glass projections Tony has provided to him. There is every chance that this isn’t what—or who—Tony thinks it is.
But he still thinks it is.
It would be so like Steve to forget that he’s meant to be laying low, the idiot. Tony ought to let him get caught, just to prove the point. Tony wants to let him get caught, or at least something selfish and vindictive inside of him does. For a whole minute, his fingers hover over the keystrokes that will turn up Steve Rogers in a poor neighborhood in Lagos. He could pull that string so easily.
But he doesn’t. He’s never going to, and he knows that now.
That night, when he finishes laying out the threads he’ll weave tomorrow, Tony lies in bed and cries.
Any truth to the rumors that you tried to kill Captain America?
None at all.
Tony balances on the edge for weeks, months maybe. Time is nothing but a haze anymore, the world a solipsistic hallucination. Now that he’s on house arrest, the days are twice as long, and the nights are twice as short. He misses his coffee shop, he misses the people who talked to him like he was anyone else and made him feel like that, too. Everything has to be done in the too-short span of night, keeping tabs on his enemies and salaries for his employees and shields over his friends.
He doesn’t let himself look at the literal shield in the corner of his workshop; the guilt when he does is too great.
It’s assuaged, a little bit at least, by the work he does every night to keep the shield’s owner safe. Steve is traveling aimlessly, as far as Tony can tell. He’s not completely stupid—he is in disguise—but he’s just not good at going under the radar. He has such presence at all times, and he doesn’t even seem to realize it. It’s the little things Tony has to watch out for: tweets about that hot American guy who came into the shop, barely-in-frame photos of a very recognizable profile, snippets of an undisguised voice in the background of a video. One by one, he covers them up, distorts them, sneaks them by right under Ross’s nose. It helps, and it makes Tony feel better too.
Not enough to make up for the shame of losing control of himself in Siberia, but enough.
Enough that somewhere in the midst of a sleep-deprived and half-starved night of work, Tony can look at the heavily edited and improved copy of the Sokovia Accords on his desk and think I forgive you.
He can look at the signed approval from the committee, awaiting only a highly probable ratification and a signature from another founding Avenger—half a victory—and think please come home.
He thinks maybe he would even ask, if he could.
Then Tony loses track of Steve, and he panics. If he doesn’t know where he is, then he can’t hide him, can’t stay a step ahead. He’s on equal footing with Ross, and that’s no equal footing at all.
He gets up the courage to walk over to the lifeless shield. To touch it, even.
Please, Tony thinks. I know I wasn’t right, and you weren’t right either. Just come home.
Deeper down and kept secret even, perhaps, from himself, he thinks, I need you.
Tony panics, and he slips.
It’s a stupid mistake, and one Friday should have caught—but no, he won’t blame her, not his sweet, sassy girl who’s done more than anyone else to hold him together. It’s not her fault. It’s just a stupid mistake, and it’s Tony’s mistake. He knows he’s been pushed too hard, been pushing himself too hard.
Something had to give.
Ross is furious, of course. He won’t stand for being betrayed, even by someone who was only threatened into working for him in the first place. He won’t stand for anything less than exactly what he wants. He confiscates Tony’s workshop, and his technology. He narrows Tony’s house arrest to the penthouse, which is stripped down to its barest bones. All of Friday’s outgoing communications are disabled. None of this is a surprise.
What is surprising, Tony notes almost dispassionately, is that Ross finally shows up in person, to make very clear how angry he is. It’s surprising that he manages to have so much presence even in a space that is so completely Tony’s, a space that he designed and built and lived in himself. Maybe, Tony thinks, it’s because Tony has already been letting him in, into the workstation, into the conference screen, into his mind every hour of the day. Maybe it shouldn’t be surprising that Ross has so much power over him.
What is surprising, Tony thinks as he falls to the ground, is that Ross actually snaps, physically, and drives his fist into Tony’s face.
Tony spits blood, and something in him just—breaks.
Any truth to the rumors that you tried to kill Captain America?
None at all.
Tony doesn’t move for a day. He just sits in the locked-down penthouse and lets Friday’s concerned voice wash over him without processing any of it. He drinks when Dummy brings him water, and cries when Dummy tries to hold his hand, and he doesn’t move.
There’s no reason to anymore. He’s lost.
There is a sound coming from the drawer of Tony’s vacant, unused desk. It stops, and starts again a moment later. At first he doesn’t understand what it means.
“Boss,” Friday says gently. “Call for you.”
Oh. Oh. But it can’t be—
Tony crawls over and leans against the desk to investigate, and there, nestled safely in the top drawer as innocently though it had been there collecting dust for months, is the phone. It can’t be, unless it is. Unless Ross, for some reason, brought it back.
To see what Tony would do, maybe, or to use Tony’s desperation to track down the prize he really wants. Tony can almost see it, the identical copy sitting in Ross’s desk, in the same drawer as the warrant, or maybe in a lab somewhere surrounded by analysts. Tony’s no good as a pawn anymore, so Ross wants him for bait. But Tony isn’t alone in his prison.
“Fri, could you—?” he asks, because he was always going to answer it, and it would be stupid pretending otherwise. It’s been a long time since his anger was enough to ignore it, and his hatred was never enough. Because she’s perfect, Friday reroutes the call immediately, plays it over her own speakers. The rush of gratitude he feels for her is almost painfully strong; she’s still here, and she won’t leave. Some things are too deeply rooted in the Tower, in Tony, for even Ross to weed them out.
The first sound that comes is breathing, unsteady but familiar. He doesn’t know when he learned the sound of Steve’s breath.
“Steve?” he says. His voice cracks; Dummy leaves his side for the first time in hours to bring him more water.
“Yeah, Tony, it’s me. How are you doing?” Steve asks, not without awkwardness, but his tone is low, gentle, kind; he sounds like he cares. Tony’s eyes are hot and he stifles a weak sound into the back of his wrist. The bones of it are sharp against his mouth.
“Oh, you know,” he says roughly, and he gulps down the water Dummy brings him eagerly. When he speaks again, the words don’t cut his throat with broken edges. “Terrible.”
There is a long pause, not quite silent, not quite awkward, and not quite uncomfortable, either. Tony’s not sure what to call it, but it’s definitely not bad, just sitting and breathing and hearing Steve on the other end doing the same. He can feel his tense and atrophied muscles relaxing involuntarily, just hearing Steve’s sounds nearby. It riles him, a little, that his first comfort in months comes from the man who caused so much of his discomfort, but he revels in the long-denied sensation of ease. He hasn’t felt safe in such a long time.
“I’m sorry,” Steve says eventually. It sounds automatic; it probably is, knowing him. “I just want to help…”
“You always do,” Tony says, a little spiteful. But that’s automatic, too—Tony’s feelings for Steve have always been dual in nature, bitterness for the man who was both idol and ghost of Tony’s childhood, fondness for the man who lives in his home and leads him into battle. He feels both at once, with nearly equal strength.
“I know it can’t be easy, talking to me again,” Steve says. “I can go. Or—stay. Whatever you want, Tony.”
It’s like flipping a coin. For a long moment, it hangs suspended in the air, unsure whether it’s going to turn up heads or tails, bitter or fond. Will he send away the man who kept such an awful secret from him, or will he allow him back in, a little bit, and try to make things better? All at once a beautiful lightness sweeps through Tony as he realizes that it matters what he decides. He has no obligation to make either choice, no punishment if he chooses wrong. For the first time in months, it’s up to him to choose what he wants.
“You really would, wouldn’t you?” he says, awed.
“Of course I would,” Steve says. As though Tony hasn’t had every choice stripped away from him by guilt or by debt or by Ross outright. As though, for him, it was never in question.
Abruptly, Tony finds himself crying again.
“Stay—just, stay,” he manages.
“Of course,” Steve replies, and there’s a smile in the turn of his voice.
And so they talk, sometimes. Tony has nothing but time, now.
It’s not easy, at first. They have too much pain between them for that. But they try.
They keep talking. Tony’s voice gets steadier with more water and more practice, and his words start to come more smoothly. Tony is more world-weary than he used to be, but some of the bitterness leaches out of him as he remembers what it was like to just talk with Steve, long afternoons at the dining table and post-mission adrenaline crashes on the couch and the way they used to snipe at each other while they fought side by side. Steve has changed, too. He can hear it. The righteous anger is still there, sometimes, but the stubbornness is softer, tempered with something almost like wisdom. It makes him gentle in a way he could never quite be before.
They’ve both changed, but not so much that they don’t still fit together, like they always did, like they always should. The past few months have hurt, but not enough to break them.
Tony thinks, maybe, they have too much love between them for that.
Steve calls, and this time he’s outside. Tony can hear it. For a long moment, it’s all he can hear, Steve’s words fading into the background.
For Tony, all that exists is the sound of a gentle breeze rustling against the microphone, the rush and squall and indignant honking of cars, the sound of voices murmuring, the rise and fall of conversation like an echo of his own breath. The sounds of the outside world, of people, of life—they drown out everything except his heartbeat. Tony thinks maybe he’s crying, but he doesn’t care enough to swipe at the wetness on his face.
That’s the world out there, and it’s real, and somewhere in it are people he loves, and loved, and loved him. It makes him strong enough to straighten his spine again, to stand.
He thinks of Gawain, again. He thinks, for the first time, that maybe his imprisonement is the scratch to save him from beheading, that he’ll come back in a year and a day to cut Ross down to size. He thinks of the possible improvements to the Accords on file with the committee, and he thinks that maybe now he has the tool to do it.
Steve is right there, and he’s real too.
“Tony?” Steve is saying. He sounds concerned. “Are you okay?”
“I think I will be,” Tony says.
“Tell me you’re safe, Tony,” Steve asks one day. Tony wonders if his incarceration is public knowledge yet, and decides it doesn’t matter. There are no secrets between the two of them, not anymore.
“I’m home,” is what Tony says. “For the foreseeable future.”
“Ross,” Steve growls. That isn’t a question. “Anything I can do?”
He really means it, Tony thinks. Steve is so angry on his behalf that it finally, finally tips the uneasy scale toward fondness, finally stirs all the feelings Tony has suppressed these long months. Something that feels very like Iron Man wakes up in his heart, his strength arising from powerlessness. Tony wants to try—but it’s more than emotion. He’s going to try.
“If this were something I could fix by breaking down the door, I would’ve done it already,” Tony says cautiously.
“I am pretty good at punching things,” Steve agrees self-deprecatingly. “But I’ve been thinking lately, and… there’s plenty of other things I can do, too. I’m real good with a pen, for one.”
Steve is hinting, but he’s leaving it up to Tony to make the choice. To offer this solution because he wants to, and not because he must, because he’s backed into a corner. Tony thinks of honor again, thinks of what he’s supposed to be. He thinks of winning the right way, not settling for the lesser evil.
Tony takes a deep breath, and he asks.