It’s a stupid ass flip phone.
Tony tosses it up and pops it off his elbow, back into his palm like he used to do in college. He does it again. The thing spins through the air like a puck.
He finds the single saved number in it, punches the first (raised! rubber!) button. Another button, and then his fingers are flying, instinctive. He bypasses the call itself, gets into the mailbox, then holds the phone to his ear and clears his throat.
His pulse is in his ears, the giddy jitter of not knowing what’s going to come out of his mouth.
“You said to call you if I ever needed help. Well, I need your help explaining something to me, because I’m not getting it. Apparently, I am guilty of some pretty serious fuck-ups in recent memory, what was it again? Oh, not telling my teammates things. I keep my friends in the dark about stuff they deserve to know. Paraphrasing. Well. Welcome to the club, Captain Hypocrisy. Wasn’t a mass-murdering robot exactly, but hey. Baby steps. You’re a natural, by the way. I think you could even teach me a few tricks about delivering the punch line.”
He ends the call.
He could set up some signal, a way to know when his voicemail is heard. Child’s play. But he doesn’t. Today, he just doesn’t care.
It doesn’t matter. Within thirty minutes, the phone rings. Tony watches it whine away into voicemail. And then, because he’s feeling and not thinking today, he opens it up.
At first, there’s nothing. He hears Steve draw a breath.
“You’re really going to use this to—You know what, I’m not doing this. You won’t hear what I say anyway. If you ever once listened to anyone else, we wouldn’t be here. I thought you’d changed, but you, you’d throw your friends in prison rather than fight the really difficult battle. Rather than listen to them. You still take the easy way out. You still think you know what’s best for everyone.”
“You don’t know shit, Tony.”
The line clicks.
It satisfies Tony abominably that in all of that, Steve doesn’t manage a single argument to refute his real accusation.
A few days later, he picks up the phone again.
“I’ll tell you what I do know,” he says, wheeling a small sledge in circles like a baton. “I know you’re way over there and I’m way over here. What good’s a fucking phone going to do me? If I actually did need some kind of help, what in god’s name are you able to do? Get on hold to book a flight, maybe. Take long enough to decide it’s not worth it to either of us. But it’s okay, you know? I don’t need your help. Surviving just fine over here. I always thought it would take more than two people to run a super team, but I was wrong. There. Make that your ring tone.”
It becomes regular. Tony bypasses into the mailbox every time.
It drives Steve absolutely nuts.
“How the hell are you—Forget it, I don’t care. I don’t know why I expect you to use a telephone the way it’s meant to be used. You can’t even face down a straight conversation.”
Five minutes later, while Tony’s still glaring at it, the phone rings again. He jabs it silent, viciously.
“I’m guessing Nat’s still there with you? I damn well hope you’ve stopping plugging her for what she did. If you ever call her a traitor again—” Steve breaks off. Tony can’t hear him breathing this time, but the tension is a thick as glue. “If this is your way of finding yourself all alone again, godspeed, Tony. You keep peeling us down, one by one. Maybe you really don’t need her or me, or anyone, but I think we both know you’re just fooling yourself.”
Tony’s answer is bitten out before he can recover. Before he can think. “Shortest promise ever, eh, Cap?” And then he can’t think of anything else that will fit around the mess in his throat, so he hangs up.
The next day, he regrets giving even the slightest hint of a wound. So he buries it.
“In case you’ve forgotten during your great sabbatical abroad, she doesn’t need you to fight her battles. She put me in my place long before you remembered to do it.” He scratches his chin. Needs to shave. “You know, I think that’s the first really loaded conversation I’ve had with her since the Chitauri. Gotta hand it to good leadership. Keeping the kids in line.” He pauses. “Actually, my chat with Nat was before Siberia. Basically the reason I took my licks and came after you at all. Old news, Capsicle. Pretty much your style.”
It takes three days for Steve to respond. It’s not what Tony expected.
“I wish things had turned out differently.” He sounds flat. Maybe it’s the connection. “But I know you, and I know me. Between the two of us, I don’t think there’s any other way it could have gone. I don’t know when to quit, and you… Well, Tony, you don’t talk. You don’t discuss. You decide and you declare your findings. And I can’t lead that.”
“Would it have mattered if I’d discussed? I don’t remember much discussion when you and your buddy ripped through the middle of Bucharest. Oh, I know, maybe if I’d mailed you this Bronze Age phone first, you could have called me. Said, ‘help me, Tony, I’m in up to my bull-headed neck and I don’t know when to quit.’ Incidentally, the term you’re looking for is stubborn, Rogers. I am intimately familiar with what that looks like, so let’s call it like it is.”
But it doesn’t satisfy. He lies flat on his back in bed, staring at the ceiling and sick to his stomach.
It’s probably a mistake, but he unearths that letter from the drawer he shoved it in and reads it again. It’s such an easy thing, getting angry again. Steve makes it so damned simple.
My faith’s in people.
“Why couldn’t you have a little faith in me?” he demands of Steve’s voicemail. And deletes it. Then repeats it. Adds “I’m people.” Hangs up before he can feel stupid about it again.
“I should have told you.” It’s a sigh, and ragged. “I’m…” The line hangs empty for a long time. Then, barely there at all and heavy as stone: “You’re not the one I had no faith in.”
“You wouldn’t listen,” Steve says the next day, in a steady juggernaut of a tone. “Those accords were practically signed before you and Ross showed up. Convincing the rest of us. Corralling the rest of us. It was all just red tape for you. You call me bullheaded, but you don’t stop for anything, Tony. I thought I was debating you there in Berlin, but for you, the argument was already decided, wasn’t it? I was just an obstacle in your way. You see a future, but you can’t for one second see my future, be sure what I’m going to do, or what Nat’s going to do. Or Wanda. Did you see Clint coming? T’Challa? Hell, Zemo’s the only one who actually predicted anything! There was a minute there in the beginning when we could have fixed it all but then the rock started rolling, Peggy was gone and Buck was in trouble, and I didn’t have time to stop, and he wrecked us. He let us wreck each other, and damn it, Tony, if you’d just listened to me for one second—”
It cuts off, whether by accident or design, Tony can’t be sure. He’s dialing before he knows it.
“What would it have taken for you to just say what you were thinking?” he snarls into the phone. “As screwed up as you think my goals were, at least you knew them! I couldn’t have said what was going through your head if you’d held a knife to my throat. You were so against the accords that I could never have yelled loud enough. Did I need to shoot Barnes? Would that have gotten your attention? Maybe if he’d shot me instead, finished the job he started. It wouldn’t have mattered, though, because you know what, Steve? I wasn’t the only one trying to stop you. I wasn’t the only one you bowled out of your way.”
When the phone rings again, Tony snatches it up. Nearly answers. Nearly throws it.
Doesn’t do either.
It’s like listening to a completely different person, one who sounds like his lungs have been knocked through his ribs.
“I will never forgive myself for what happened to Rhodey. There’s nothing I can say that will ever fix what I... Just… I’m sorry. From the bottom of my soul, I’m sorry.”
Tony sets the phone down carefully and wipes a hand over his face.
He doesn’t know how to stay mad. He rereads the letter and remembers for a few seconds. But then it’s gone, wiped away by the pure grief in Steve’s voice.
He replays the message. He can’t stop hearing it in his head, but he replays it all the same.
“Rhodey wouldn’t have been there at all but for me,” he responds at first. Except that’s not the truth, and Tony’s a horrible friend for ignoring Rhodey’s side of it. Which Rhodey outlined for him in crystal clear surround sound while he was giving his all trying to walk again. Tony deletes the message, but that just makes him feel guilty again, convinced it’s somehow still his fault and he’s shirking his responsibility, even though it’s not all his fault, because Rhodey said it wasn’t, but Tony’s never been good at passing the buck even when he knows he shouldn’t have had the whole buck in the first place.
So that’s just great. Now he’s mad at himself, he’s not mad at Steve, and he doesn’t know how to fire off the next salvo.
“I made him legs,” he finally goes with, not thinking, just looking at the wall and letting the devil on his shoulder do the talking. “He’s working it out. He doesn’t blame any of us. Even though he should. He should blame me, and you, and your friend, and probably every single person on this damn team, but he won’t. Even though we, all of us together, screwed him over. We’re lucky no one else got—hell, that no one got killed. Except your buddy. Jury’s still out on what should have happened to him.”
“Buck wrote me a letter before he went under. Cryo-freeze. T’Challa has a lot of tech here that… Well, it’s not important. The letter is, though. Most of it’s just… making sense of things. I’ll read the part about you.” Steve clears his throat. “‘If Stark comes here, don’t get in the way, Steve. There are things I owe that I don’t think I’ll ever settle. Let him do what he has to do.’”
Steve sounds beaten, even in silence.
“So I seem to be in the minority on this. He doesn’t even trust himself anymore. Doesn’t trust me to watch out for him. And why should he? I’ve done a bang-up job.”
Tony holds the phone to his mouth for almost half a minute and can’t think of anything to say.
He thinks of the look on Natasha’s face when he called her a traitor. Of Pepper going her own way, of Steve handing him back his father’s pen. He thinks of Rhodey.
I’ve done a bang-up job.
“You and me both, Steve.”
“You have to know I didn’t want it to turn out this way.” This, while drinking. A mistake. Rhodey is gone, upstate for more specialized therapy. The place feels so damned empty and Ross has been nosing around again and Tony needs a fucking break.
In the end, he’s not even sure whether he sends the message or erases it, but the words remain in his head. Alcohol has never been kind enough to suck away the really nasty details. “I didn’t want to fight you. I never wanted to fight you. But you always fight me. You’re already one foot into the ideal world but you won’t accept that this is the world that actually exists, right here and right now. You choose not to see that Wanda is still such a child, and you choose not to see that Vision is right about everything; regardless of whether he’s fair, he’s right. You think supers should be able to be free and you’re right too, but we’re not free. We are not. The rest of this world won’t allow it, and you just won’t look. And no matter how hard I try, I can’t see what you see, and sometimes I hate you so damn much for that, Steve.”
“I don’t know how to live in the world you see,” Steve says, so Tony must have sent it. Which makes him drink again. “It’s too dark there, and there’s no hope.”
Tony toasts the black night beyond the window. “You got that right.” And then he’s sick all over the floor, and it’s not from the booze. He hasn’t even finished his second glass.
God. When did he start thinking like that? Seeing all the shadows and none of the light?
“Don’t think like me,” he rasps into the phone in the middle of the night. “Don’t ever think like me, Rogers. Not you. One of us has to like this world enough to actually help it. One of us still has to like himself.”
He wants to tell Steve what it’s like to be in this place, rooms and hallways and corners full of the ghosts of his team. He wants to lay it down for the levelheaded, to be reassured, to be gently reminded that he’s making more of it than is there. But he’s scared that he’s not allowed anymore.
When he can sleep, he dreams. Steve’s shield comes in like a swinging scythe, into his chest, his stomach, the plating around his neck, until Steve raises it over his head with both hands and rams it down, not through the arc reactor, but through Tony’s face into the floor. On the good nights, he bolts awake before they get to the end, soaked in sweat and gasping aloud. On the bad nights, he doesn’t.
Sometimes, he wakes with words on his lips—Finish it, Steve. Finish it—and then can’t remember whether, that day in Siberia, he actually said it out loud. He always remembers that for a second there, he thought Steve was really going to kill him.
It’s easier when Nat finally comes back from wherever Hill asked her to go. She doesn’t commiserate; that’s not her way. But the base is warmer somehow, less empty, and he knows she understands the chokehold of nightmares better than most.
One night, he slams up out of a dream scrabbling for the phone, the plastic slipping in and out of his grip. He’s already halfway through dialing before he realizes.
“Would you?” he rasps into the darkness. His fingers tremble over the buttons, and his heart has lodged in his throat. He stares down at the little green screen, the number still missing the final two digits. “Would you actually have taken my life?”
He knows Steve wouldn’t. During the day, he knows.
He shuts the phone without finishing the number and the room plunges black again.
“Don’t say that to me.”
Tony stares at the phone. For a second, he’s terrified. Did he actually send that message?
No. No. He didn’t. He remembers.
He puts the phone back to his ear, afraid he’s missed everything. But Steve’s pause is long. When he rallies, he sounds labored, the words all crammed up.
“Tony, you’re the one who, who changes the world, who always sees the best in it. How to make it better. Everything you do is to make it—Listen, there was nothing left of me, but when I didn’t have anything, you gave me a—” He takes a deep, audible breath. His sigh is not a release. “I just wanted it to come together for once, to make sense. The old me and the new me. And it was never going to again, don’t you get it? All of that was gone, and then suddenly it wasn’t. It was right here. He was right here, and I thought… History was working against us, we were all working against each other, and everything fell apart before I could stop it, but then—”
Another silence. Tony is afraid the message space will run out before Steve finishes.
“In Siberia,” Steve says, “when you opened that door. For just a few minutes, it was you and me and Buck together. It was the best I’ve felt since they pulled me out of the ice.”
For a second, Tony can’t breathe.
“I should have known it wouldn’t last,” Steve confesses, very quietly. “But damn it, I wanted it to.”
Tony doesn’t want this one to end. But everything ends.
Mostly he’s tired. His body aches like a bruise even when he’s slept. He looks at his empty base, all the echoing halls and spotless surfaces, and just wants to shut his eyes. Sleep until it resolves itself into something different.
He’s still angry, but now other things itch to the surface.
He spars with Nat. He calls his lawyers. He reads Steve’s letter again. He ignores Ross’s calls, then Ross’s demands, and finally, Ross’s injunctions until they go silent. He glowers at Steve’s shield where it sits in the armory and knows that what it really battered through wasn’t the arc reactor at all. His trust is still broken in halves on the ground and he can’t articulate any of it, not even to FRIDAY alone in his workshop. The words jumble and toss like froth whipping over a sea.
If you need me—I’ll be there.
One afternoon, he picks up the phone Steve sent him and knows exactly what he wants to say.
Come home. Please. You should be here. You should all be here. I’ll take care of the legal mess, and the rest of it… we’ll work it out when we work it out. Duke it out again if we have to, but can you just… You said this place and this team have always been mine, but they aren’t the same without you.
At first, Tony thinks the sound is far off. The second boom, however, shatters all the windows on the east facade. Glass rains into the room. Tony shields his head with one arm and calls the suit.
The prototype he’s been halfheartedly working on strafes the hallway walls on its way and wraps around him with a thought. An instant later, bullets pepper the metal like tiny blades. The compound’s many warnings rise like an unholy siren, and grenades fly through the broken window, thunking to the ground. White smoke snakes across the floor.
“Nat!” Tony shouts over the comm, but another explosion drowns out any response. The mask isn’t down yet and he’s still holding the phone. He jams the call button.
Steve picks up immediately. “Tony?”
Another boom rocks the entire building, sending Tony to his knees. He coughs against the smoke, pressing the phone to his ear. “Steve.”