The phone is for emergencies, so that’s—yeah.
The phone is for fucking emergencies.
And Tony knows, because he’s had Steve hooked up to monitors before at moments when they’ve gotten The Call, that when The Call comes, when it’s an emergency and they have to go, Steve’s heart rate goes through the roof.
Like it’s his first ever battle. Like he’s a raw recruit, like he hasn’t been in a hundred fucking battles with every enemy Tony can imagine, like he hasn’t watched friends fall—
Or looked at another way, exactly like he’s watched friends fall.
So the phone is for fucking emergencies and Tony doesn’t use it. He’s not going to do that to Steve, if it’s not a real emergency.
The day he finds out Bucky Barnes went back into cryofreeze, he gets drunker than he’s been since he thought he was dying. He does it alone, because he’s an icon and there’s no more fucking Captain America for the world to look up to, there’s just him, there’s just fucking him, and Rhodey is out of commission and Nat’s barely speaking to him, and Vision’s too uncanny for anyone to identify with so there you go. Tony Fucking Stark. Earth’s Mightiest Hero.
He’s never had much of a gag reflex (imagine your own dick joke, he’s made them all) so he spends the night slumped exhaustedly over the toilet in his ensuite, wishing he could throw up, wishing he could hear Steve’s voice. He puts his fingers down his throat and keeps them there until his face is streaked wet—
—not tears, he isn’t crying, his eyes are just watering, but if someone saw him, if Steve did, they wouldn’t know the difference and maybe they would feel sorry for him or—
—be realistic, if someone saw him, if Steve did, they’d think, fucking pathetic drunk bastard and they’d leave him.
He doesn’t throw up. He falls asleep eventually. In the morning, his face is tacky with dried tears, and he’s shivering and sore from sleeping on hard tile, and he forgot he had this fucking press conference to talk about fucking Nomad.
It’s Steve, of course. Nomad. Who else could it be? Helping the helpless in mostly countries that haven’t signed the Sokovia Accords, what a coincidence, and Tony and Ross are doing this dance where they each pretend the other one doesn’t know. Ross is trying to catch Tony out in a lie. Tony’s trying to not have to start another war with his best fucking friend.
And not best. Fucking arrogant. Fuck that. What is he to Steve? Government stooge.
As he’s walking towards the press room, trying not to think about how many of these journalists he’s lied to, fucked, dodged, paid off, in his years in the public eye, Ross catches up with him and offers him a file.
(It’s this passive-aggressive shit Tony can’t stand about Ross, except actually it’s everything he can’t stand about Ross, up to and including the fact that he’s seen tape of Ross taunting a captive Zemo and it’s not that he gives a shit what happens to Zemo. He doesn’t, but he has fucking nightmares about Steve being in one of those glass cages, blue eyes bright with defiance, while Ross, while Ross—
He wakes up gasping. He can’t get back to sleep, after those dreams.
Ross knows Tony doesn’t like to be handed things. He knows and he keeps trying it. Pushing, pushing, pushing.)
“Give it to my assistant,” Tony tells him. “And I’ll—”
“It’s about Captain Rogers,” says Ross.
Tony’s not stupid. He keeps moving. You never stop moving; that’s how they get you. He swivels, walking backwards while he talks to Ross. “Is that even—do you get to keep your title once you’ve gone AWOL, or— Look into that, Friday. Captain Rogers isn’t my problem anymore,” and he spins and shoves into the double doors.
He’s got good timing. In another life he could have been an actor. He thinks he’d have been great at it.
They ask him if the Avengers are going to reach out to Nomad.
“Nah, we’re not hiring. Helen.”
Helen asks if Nomad presents a threat to US military interests abroad.
“I can’t tell you how far above my paygrade that question is. You’re gonna have to talk to Mr. Cook about that one. I’m strictly a hired gun these days.”
If he gives any credence to the rumors that Steve Rogers might be providing intelligence to Nomad and his crew, or even—
“If there’s any evidence to support that, it hasn’t crossed my desk yet. Yeah, in the back, blue tie, sorry, I can’t be bothered learning new names these days.”
“Mr. Stark,” says the same reporter. “Returning to the question about Steve Rogers’s identity—”
Tony doesn’t, he does not flinch. “We’re no longer in touch. In the back, blue tie.”
“Mr. Stark, if I may, you and Captain Rogers were close friends and colleagues for a number of years, do you honestly expect us to believe that—”
Tony’s too hung over for this. “I’ve said repeatedly that we’re no longer—”
“—if he does have a connection with Nomad, doesn’t that present a serious threat to America’s national security, and—”
“Is this a fucking joke?” Tony’s voice comes out louder than he intends, and the reporter—she’s from some tiny local newspaper, the Buttfuck-Egypt Herald, she’s not worth his fucking time, out here trying to be intrepid, prying at him, poking around for his weak points. “Nomad’s saving lives. If Steve Rogers has a connection with them, he’s using it to make the world a better place, and all of you here know that. I know we’re all hopping on board the discrediting Steve Rogers train, and it looks like a great place to be, but you just fucking trust me that when the shit hits the fan you’re going to be crying to him to come back and save you and you better hope he’s as good as seventy years of propaganda made him out to be.”
There’s a second of silence, and then an explosion of voices and flash bulbs, and nobody hears Tony say, softly, “He is.”
He leaves, after that. He doesn’t take any more questions, because if he keeps talking about Steve he’s going to cry. There’s video of him leaving. His eyes are weary, bloodshot.
By the time he gets home, Friday’s pulled together what he asked for, Ross’s files on Nomad, implicating Steve, Steve’s last few locations.
Wilson’s with him. There’s pictures. Wilson’s how they’ll get him, Tony knows that. They’re too scared to touch Wanda, and Wanda’s been on her own before, anyway. Clint’s been theirs for years, they still think they can get Clint back. But Sam Wilson’s vulnerable, and he’s close to Steve. He’s how they’ll reel Steve back in.
Rhodey calls, and Tony sends it to voicemail.
He rubs his thumb along the edge of Steve’s flip phone as he scans through Ross’s files. It’s a habit he’s gotten into, something comforting about the feel of it.
It’s possible that Steve isn’t the point at all. It’s possible Ross is using this, Steve, to bring Tony to heel. The State Department’s been asking about his tech, fishing around, wanting new weapons, new ways to hack into other countries’ systems. None of this is covered in the Accords. Tony’s brain isn’t enhanced and the State Department doesn’t have jurisdiction.
Give the government an inch.
God, he’s tired.
Captain Rogers isn’t my problem anymore. What a lie that was. He closes his eyes and he can see Steve’s face, eyes cast down, the fringe of his eyelashes. If Ross finds Steve, he’ll shut him away, deeper than the Raft, deeper than the sea. Ross doesn’t like to lose.
Rhodey thinks Tony’s in love with Steve, but it isn’t that. Nothing works without him, is the thing. Steve could hold the entire broke world together with the sheer force of his will, and without him, land masses are crumbling every place Tony tries to set his feet.
The phone vibrates under Tony’s thumb.
He thinks he’s maybe hallucinating. DTs. Serve him right, honestly. He’s treated his body like shit, it’s a miracle it hasn’t rebelled before now.
The phone vibrates under Tony’s thumb.
He pulls it out, opens it up, clamshell fucker. He forgot that opening the phone up answers it, and when Steve’s voice says, “Hello? Tony?” he’s so surprised that he nearly drops it. “Tony?”
“Hi,” Tony says. He doesn’t say Steve’s name. He doesn’t trust himself.
“Oh,” says Steve, soft.
For a while they don’t say anything. Tony can hear his own breathing, too loud, desperate. He’s hung over is why. Finally he gives up. “You okay, Cap?”
“Yeah,” Steve says. His voice sounds like the way he gets when he’s concussed, vague and dreamy, but Tony doesn’t think he’d be Steve’s first call in the case of concussion, so he just waits. “Yeah,” Steve says again. “I, uh. You did a press conference.”
Tony groans. “Don’t read too much into it, Cap, I’m unbelievably fucking hung over.”
He waits for the judgmental sigh. Steve hates it when he drinks. But Steve says, “I wish I were there with you,” and he doesn’t sound angry, just sad.
“Yeah, well,” says Tony. “You blew that to shit when you—fuck, I’m not—what do you want? What do you want from me?”
“I don’t know.” Steve’s voice is small.
If Steve had called him up angry, Tony would have known exactly what to do. But sadness—Tony doesn’t think he can take Steve’s sadness. “Ross has been tracking you,” he says.
“Yeah,” says Steve. “Me and Sam’ve been laying some stuff down for him, just to— Don’t worry about it. We’re keeping an eye on him.”
“Fuck, don’t tell me this shit, Steve! What the fuck am I supposed to—you know we’re on opposite sides, right? What’re you gonna tell Sam’s mother when you get him killed cause I ran right back to Ross and told him you’re laying a false trail?”
“Good point,” says Steve dryly. “I know how much you love cooperating with Ross.”
“He’ll use Sam.”
“I know that,” says Steve, calm.
Tony should be furious, but Steve’s certainty settles him a little. If Steve Rogers has a plan that involves Ross never finding Sam, then that’s what’ll happen. There’s a whole song about Steve Rogers and his plans. “Do you,” he says. “Need anything.”
“You called,” Tony points out. “Was that in aid of something?”
“Oh,” says Steve. He sounds a little surprised. “No, I’m—I wanted to thank you, I guess. For sticking up for me. I know I’m not the most popular—it’s—I know if I were there and I did something like that, went off message like that at a press conference, you’d call it a dumbfuck move and— But you, I mean—you meant it.”
Yeah, he meant it.
“I’d come,” says Steve. “I’ll always come back, if you need me.”
“I know,” says Tony, very close to casual. “You said that. In your letter. Didn’t really need a whole phone call for it, especially considering you haven’t—” Cared enough to call before, is what he wants to say, but he bites it off.
“Yeah.” Steve sounds sad again. “Well, I—it meant something, hearing you—it meant something, to me. I wanted you to know that. I’ll—I’ll let you get back to—I’ll let you go, okay?”
Stay, Tony wants to beg. Come back, I need you, I can’t do this by myself, please, please. “Okay,” he says. “Yeah. You’re—you’re welcome, I guess. Don’t let Ross find you.”
“I won’t. Take care of yourself, Tony.”
A long time after he hangs up the phone, Tony sits staring down at it in his hand.
If Steve gives a shit about him, he’ll call back. He’ll call back and say more.
The phone doesn’t ring.