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He’s not going to call.

No chance in hell.

But he can’t stop thinking about it.  That old, piece of shit flip phone Steve sent him sits on his desk, idle and taunting.  He tries to focus on work, to recalibrate Rhodey’s new legs to have better response times to the neural impulses.  He tries to keep his eyes on the computer terminal in front of him that bathes the dark room in blue glow.  It’s impossible.  The damn phone is taunting him.  He hasn’t moved it since it spilled out of the Fedex box with the letter yesterday.  He hasn’t wanted to touch it.  He knows he won’t have the strength to stop himself if he picks it up, opens it, finds whatever number is probably programmed inside that he can use to…


He sips his scotch instead.  The ice clinks in the glass, and he tries to focus on the burn of the alcohol as it slips down his throat, on the condensation slick against his fingers, on how angry he still is.  That’ll stop him from doing it.  From calling.  It’s not going to just get better, how he feels.  Steve ruined everything, ruined what they had, tore the team apart.  Sided with the bastard who murdered his parents.  So Tony’s still furious, fuming, smoldering alone in the darkness, far too angry to think about…

Call him.

He sets his glass down and grabs the phone.  It’s light and plastic and made of matte grays and so outdated.  He sweeps his thumb over the cover, feels the smoothness of it, and thinks about Steve’s shield, smooth and shiny and ramming into his body over and over and over again.  Steve’s shield, slamming into the arc reactor and shutting down his suit.  He wonders now if Steve ever meant to really hurt him.  Probably not.  As much as Tony wants to deny it, he knows the truth.  Steve’s a good man, hence the letter.  Hence throwing down that shield and walking away instead of letting anything escalate further, although that’s laughable – how much further could it have escalated?  How much worse could it have gotten?  I could have killed Barnes.  Or Steve.  Tony’s not going to think about that because it hurts too much.  Anger is nice because it tends to be self-defensive, not like guilt.  He’s not going to let his guilt define him anymore, so he settles on anger.

And anger has him tossing the phone in the drawer of his desk and slamming it shut.  No.  He’s not calling.  No.

The thing is he wants to.  He wants to call.  He wants to talk to Steve.  Because the thing is he never meant for anything to get as bad as it did.  He doesn’t want Steve gone.  He’s never wanted Steve gone.  It’s no secret that their relationship has been anything but smooth.  They fight.  Bicker.  Debate.  It’s not easy to run a team of superheroes to start with, and the two of them are beset with differences.  Different personalities, different backgrounds.  Different opinions and perspectives.  They’re like oil and water in some respects.  Steve’s the water.  Calm and cool, flowing gently with a noble direction, necessary for the life of the team, necessary for growth.  Tony’s the oil.  Slippery and reactive and ready to ignite and burn.  It’s a bad metaphor, but it’s so damn true.  They don’t mix, but there’s something to be said for opposites attracting one another.  Tony’s a man of physics and science, so he’s knows that’s true.  Forces exist to balance each other.  He and Steve are like that.

So they didn’t agree on the Accords.  Tony was so lost up in his guilt that he couldn’t bring himself to look, to really look, at what he was suggesting when he brought Secretary Ross and his two hundred page document into the compound.  He thinks now that it was so goddamn stupid that he could ever trust a man like Ross, a man who made Banner into what he is in effect with all of his myriad issues and chased him into hiding once years ago and then had the incredible hubris to act like Steve not knowing the Hulk’s location right now is Steve’s fault.  That’s the very definition of asshole.  And, again, a man who built some sort of crazy, underwater super-max prison and threw the Avengers in there without a proper arrest or trial or any sort of legal process.  And, again, a man who demanded the Avengers come under the heel of the UN and the government, criticizing all the while the casualties and the collateral damage while not even acknowledging that said government nearly nuked Manhattan and let SHIELD become infested with HYDRA like the plague right under its nose.  That’s the man with whom Tony threw in his lot.  He’s not blind – was never blind – to what the government has done, despite their good intentions.  The road to hell is paved with them.

But something had to be done.  Something to rein in the problems the Avengers cause in the world.  Vision was right, still is right, and Tony knows it in his heart.  The Avengers themselves invite challenge and catastrophe.  What was it Banner said on the eve of their formation?  “We’re a chemical mixture that creates chaos.  We’re a time bomb.”  Steve can’t see that because Steve sees the world strictly in black and white.  That’s one of the many things that divides Tony from him.  Tony’s older, wiser hopefully, and willing to concede that nothing is as simple as doing right all the time when right can be defined by a dozen different men, a dozen different circumstances, and an endless mess of conflicting motivations.  Agendas.  Checks and balances.  Sometimes they’re necessary.

Still, his rationalizations that the hypocrisy in his stance is okay to help the greater good can only take him so far. Clint’s accusations and the way Wanda was so defeated and Sam’s silent anger haunt him.  Tony’s so disgusted and ashamed.  The Accords sound good in theory, look good on paper, and he’s still not sure they’re not a viable solution.  But this whole fiasco with Barnes beautifully demonstrated why they can’t be the answer as they are.  Can anyone trust the government, the UN?  Can anyone put faith in people with agendas?  He couldn’t years ago when he was hauled before the Department of Defense, when they demanded he give them Iron Man.  He absolutely refused, told them off, told the world that he was their savior.  He trusted himself to be that – their savior.

Somewhere between the Mandarin and here he’s stopped trusting himself.  And he knows he doesn’t trust Ross.  He never has, not even during the height of the insanity.  He looks back on it now, on the crazy road he walked to get where he is, and it doesn’t make any sense.  It doesn’t make sense how he lost his faith in himself and his friends.  How does a man who spat in the government’s face eight years ago at the mere mention of surrendering his tech and serving the Department of Defense end up the government’s goddamn lapdog?  War makes strange bedfellows.  He tells himself that all the time along with a bunch of other bullshit platitudes and excuses.  I didn’t have a choice.  I did the best I could.  I did what I had to.  Logically he knows that’s true.  Logically something had to be done before the governments of the world came down on the Avengers and came down hard.  Logically he can almost convince himself it wasn’t his fault.  Logically and almost.  The philosophical questions and their practical implications still keep him up at night.

But not as much as his regret.

He never meant for it to end like this.  How could he have ever expected Steve to simply agree, knowing what Steve saw and experienced with SHIELD’s collapse and HYDRA’s resurgence?  He supposes now that it’s possible he never believed that Steve would capitulate and sign, but that makes it worse, because then some part of him realized at the time that their relationship would be a consequence and he didn’t care.  It was more important to wipe his hands clean of the blood that’s been staining them for forever.  Was it worth it?  The Accords shouldn’t have done this to them, but it was like throwing a match on oil.  Ignition.  Explosion.  Boom.  Their whole world falls apart.  His whole world falls apart.  There’s not much left, and he’s sitting alone on the charred, scattered remains, day after day, night after night, trying to make sense of the wreckage.

So the thing is he’s not sure if any of it was worth it.  All he does know is that Steve is gone, and he never wanted him to leave.

Time heals wounds, or so they say.  It also has a way of making things permanent.  The days slip away, the nights, and all the sudden it’s a few months since Siberia, the heat of summer cooling into a tepid, gray autumn.  The compound has become so quiet.  Tony didn’t notice at first just how quiet, but it’s stark now.  Silent as a grave.  Barren and dark and lifeless.  Empty.

He never does well with quiet.  Or empty.  Tonight he stands in the living room, long shadows stretching across the vacant orange couches, across the shining coffee table where his glass of scotch sits untouched for the moment, across tile floors that are gleaming and unblemished, across the darkened kitchen and down the corridors.  He feels uncomfortable as he sweeps his eyes over it all.  It’s the same as it has been since the fracture.  That’s what he’s taken to calling it all.  The fracture.  Where the Avengers shattered, maybe forever.  He can hear them all now, the ghosts of conversations past.  Sam and Rhodey laughing.  Vision gazing at Wanda that way he does.  Natasha, the way she always has her eye on everyone, on Steve, like she’s making sure he’s okay.  And Steve himself.  Steve never quite relaxed at the time, Tony noticed.  Sure he smiled and joked and laughed, but it always seemed… off.  “We all need family.  The Avengers are yours, maybe more so than mine.  I’ve been my own since I was eighteen.  I never really fit in anywhere.”  Steve had more family than he realized.  This new team wasn’t ever Tony’s, not like the old one had been.  He quit and left the avenging to Steve and the others, but he never really left.  In a way, he’s always been like he is now: standing in the shadows and watching, on the outside looking in.

He sighs and shakes his head.  They’re gone now.  All of them.  Clint and Sam and Wanda.  Natasha.  Vision is still at the compound, but he wanders and drifts like walking wounded.  He seems grounded, no longer ethereal and weightless, like he thought when all of this started he was above it, floating outside of it, unable to be touched by it.  His conscience weighs heavy, and his isn’t the only one.  Rhodey is getting better and better.  He’s made remarkable strides.  Over the last few weeks Tony finally got his brain in gear and fixed the last of the issues with his new suit, so Rhodey’s walking almost unassisted now, without even a cane for support.  But the damage is there.  Sacrifices.  An empty home, filled with only the phantoms of happier times.  He looks at it now, the deep shadows and lonely furniture, and all the pain comes back so damn fast.  That’s why he doesn’t do well with quiet.  Quiet lets the awful shit out of his head.  There’s always been a lot of it.  He thinks a lot, thinks fast, seen so much and knows so much and is so smart that he can’t ever shut his brain off, so when he’s idle, it just pours out like a flood.  A quiet world makes the noise in his head that much louder and noisier.

He closes his hand tighter around the phone.  Tonight like most nights lately when the quiet is too quiet, he succumbs.  He’s pulled it out of his desk again.  He has no willpower.  He never has, never will.  No integrity.  No strength.  Night after night he takes it out, considers it, contemplates.  He squeezes it and tries not to let his thoughts get the better of him again.  It’s hard.  It’s been hard, this alone.  Pepper’s gone.  There’s no way she’ll come back after what happened, and he frankly doesn’t blame her.  Splitting the difference with the Accords?  That was a pipedream, like trying to fix something by hitting it more (which sometimes works to be fair, but not with people and relationships).  So she’s not there to help him pick up the pieces.  He’s tried inventing, tried tinkering to get his idle brain and hands busy, but he never gets far with it.  For what purpose does he design now?  To build things for the government?  Ross is calling, but Tony’s not answering.  He’s not answering because there is no purpose.  No team.  No one to protect or help with his technology.  No family.  The others…  He doesn’t know where Clint, Wanda, Sam, and Natasha are, but he’s willing to bet they wouldn’t take his calls if he manages to find them.  Steve is gone, on the run from Ross and from him in a sense.  Tony’s here by himself and it’s really starting to sink in.  The charred and scattered wreckage.  Shattered.

How the hell did it come to this?

The quiet is too much.  He wants to talk.  He wants to call.  No.  It’s petty and stupid and so damn childish, but he refuses to admit how much he’s hurting.  How lonely he is.  He refuses.  So he goes back to his desk, throws the phone in the drawer, and slams it shut again.  Then he downs the scotch he’s left on the table, swallows it in one gulp, and lets it burn him anew.  

Quiet and emptiness.

All that remains on the other side.

He looks at the shield more than he should.  Ross wants him to surrender it, but it was Steve’s shield.  Steve’s shield.  Not the government’s.  Not even Tony’s.  Maybe his father made it, but Steve was the one who turned it into something.  Something that guards and protects unwaveringly.  Something that makes the world better.  It’s Steve’s shield, and Tony’s not giving it up.

He has it in his bedroom.  How screwed up is that?  He tells himself that it’s to keep it safe, but he can’t even tolerate his own bullshit.  He wants it close to him.  It’s better than the phone because it keeps the temptation (you’re such a goddamn coward – just call him.  Just do it!) distant.  So he stares at it, at the red and silver concentric circles, the blue center with its gleaming star.  The scratches are still there.  He thinks once or twice about buffing them out, about finally getting the soot and filth off that was caked on it from the battle, about finally washing away the little smear of blood on its edge (his or Barnes’ or Steve’s himself?  He doesn’t know.  It sickens him to wonder).  He thinks about repairing and repainting.  He thinks about that like he thinks about calling, but like calling, he can’t bring himself to do it.  Instead he sits on his empty bed, holding the shield in his hands.  It’s so light, so smooth.  Unbreakable.  Invincible.  He’s touched it before, back when Steve was his friend, but it never meant anything then.  Now it means everything.

Out come the platitudes, fresh weapons in the resistance against his ritual penance.  He forced me to fight him.  He did this.  He chose Barnes.  He chose a murderer.  He protected a murderer!  He forced me to do what I did!  He was my friend!  Mine!

But in his heart he knows they’re all excuses.  The cost for the choices he’s made, Ultron and the Accords and throwing away another thing he can’t stand to lose because he wanted goddamn vengeance more…   I hit him.  I hit him first.  Tony closes his eyes.  He can still feel it.  He can’t forget the way his bones shook every time he hit Steve, but that first backhanded strike…  That’s the one he can’t forgive.  Barnes murdered his parents, but Steve not telling him…  I can’t let that go.  Even now, months removed, the bitter taste of betrayal coats everything, hiding the simple pleasures and sweetness there once was.  Things are gray with shadows, blurry, this pall of darkness muting the colors and vastness he used to love about this life.  Quiet and emptiness.  He can’t get past it.  He wants to.  Christ, he does.  There’s so much anger and grief and regret, and he’s not any better at processing it.  It makes him sick just to think about it.  I hit Steve.  Steve hurt him, so he hurt back.  He hurt back like a petulant child or an enraged animal or a violent madman or a million other things he should have been better than.  A life for a life?  What the hell was he thinking?  In what world is that right?  And Steve tried to tell him – “this isn’t going to change what happened” – but he didn’t listen.  He threw it all away.  Something I can’t stand to lose.  Well, he’s lost it.  He hit Steve, would have killed Steve, lost himself, and that’s the sort of wound that isn’t ever going to heal.  Not like this.  That cost is right before him.

He stares at it, night after night.  Ritual penance.  Even with the scars and the grime, the vibranium is so perfect and flawless that he can see his reflection in the dim light of his room.  He never likes what he sees.  It’s all still there inside him.  The heat of his anger.  His ego.  His need to win, to be right at all costs.  His goddamn pettiness.  “That shield doesn’t belong to you.  You don’t deserve it!  My father made that shield!”

And Steve just threw it away, like it meant nothing.

He holds it and looks at it now.  If his tears wash away the dirt from the fight, then that’s something he’s doing to make it clean.

Time goes on and on.  Tony wonders a lot if Steve feels as bad as he does.

He wants to think so.  Steve’s letter certainly implies he at least feels guilty.  He’s read it more than he should have, another ritualistic attempt at understanding and closure, and all he knows for sure is it’s not enough.  “I know I hurt you, Tony.  I guess I thought by not telling you about your parents, I was sparing you but I can see now I was really sparing myself.”

That’s not enough.  And every time he reads those words, he feels so unsatisfied.  He rolls his eyes sometimes, shakes his head others, tucks the letter close sometimes and tries not to cry.  He’s angry and bitter and vindictive that Steve tried to make this better like this, with these bullshit noble statements that can’t be answered.  It’s almost like Steve got the last word, and Tony can’t stand that.  Again, petty and childish, but it’s how he feels, and nothing about it is enough.

He wants to know how sorry Steve is.  He wants to see it, feel it.  He wants to know if Steve’s not sleeping, if Steve’s so burdened by the pain that he can’t find peace.  And, in other moments where that apology is soothing rather than incendiary, he wants to know if Steve’s okay.  He wants Steve to suffer as much as he’s suffering, but then he wants Steve to be alright, too.  Life is a load of contradictions of late.  Call, don’t call.  Apologize, don’t apologize.

He’s willing to bet Steve is as miserable as he is.  He’s more and more sure of it as he considers it.  It makes him feel good, worth it, to believe that.  Steve’s a good man, and good men take accountability for their actions.  That’s what the damn letter is, after all.  Steve taking responsibility for his role in the fracture.  When he’s better, he has to admit that he believes that Steve was trying to protect him.  But he also knows that that sort of reasoning doesn’t ease the pain much.  So Steve’s maybe languishing wherever he is, just as lost and degraded and desperate, mulling his regrets and battling with his wounds and lamenting the damage.  That makes Tony happy which in turn makes him absolutely hate himself for thinking that which makes him hate Steve more for putting them in this position to begin with.  Circles and spirals and thinking and puttering around the compound but never getting anywhere.

Once, before Ultron but after SHIELD went down, when things were good, really good, they shared a beer one night after going over some gear upgrades Tony had planned.  They sat in the Tower, up in the penthouse at the bar, alone.  And they talked.  Not about battle strategy or about HYDRA or about the Avengers and what needed to be done in the unbeatable fight against evil.  They talked.  Laughed.  Steve’s eyes were so blue with that blue shirt he wore, and his smile was so genuine and pure.  This was different than the other times with the team, old or new.  This was the man beneath the mantle of Captain America, beneath the soldier who never shut off, beneath the hard edges of duty and honor that rubbed Tony so wrong, beneath that slight social awkwardness and that perpetual feeling of being out of place.  This was Steve, who had a wry sense of humor and a sassy side and was smart and somehow a unique mixture of charming innocence and battle-hardened wisdom.  This was Steve, who laughed at Tony’s jokes and grinned at Tony’s stories and agreed with him on so much when it really came down to it.  Strip it all away, Steve’s loneliness and inability to relax and Tony’s resentment for a lifetime of being brushed aside by his father for a better man…  Strip all that away, and they were the same.

That was when Tony realized that he wanted more.  He never let himself really admit it or accept it.  It was this soft, quiet thought in the back of his heart in which he indulged occasionally, seemingly innocuous except for the fact that it drove him into doing so many things he shouldn’t have done.  Ultron, and the image of Steve’s dead face, lax and lifeless, haunts him still.  Not retiring.  Letting go of Pepper.

Letting go of Pepper.

“And then and then and then…  I never stopped because the truth is I don’t want to stop.”  Maybe if he just said it then and there in that glass cage…  Maybe if he was braver, stronger, more confident.  More like Steve.  Steve is nothing if not direct.  He doesn’t do subtle, doesn’t pussy-foot, doesn’t say what he doesn’t mean.  Maybe if Tony could be like that…

The truth is I want you.

Maybe none of this would have ever happened.


The days slip away, fall turning into winter, and it gets harder to stop himself from doing it.

Just call him.

The phone comes in and out of the drawer.  He keeps it charged, keeps it ready.  Just in case.  He’s almost like an addict, jonesing for a fix he shouldn’t have.  His fingers are spastic as he grabs it, opens it, closes it, spins it around in his hand.  Sometimes he’s angry, so furious that he wants to call just to tear Steve down for destroying everything they had and could have maybe shared.  Sometimes he’s sad, so miserably grief-stricken that his eyes burn with tears he can barely hold back and the shadows blur and he’s drowning.  Sometimes he’s just so damn desperate to hear Steve’s voice.  It feels like a lifetime since Siberia, an eternity of empty days and lonely nights and regrets and grief and indecision, and there’s this ache inside Tony that’s never been there before.  He keeps trying to fill it with things, those platitudes and excuses and his unresolved feelings, booze (God, he thought he was better than this) and distractions, but nothing makes it better.  It’s like this gaping maw in his heart, and it’s so damn hungry, but nothing he feeds it eases the hunger.  Nothing will, other than calling.

How long can he survive like this?

Call him.

It’s another night of trying to work, this time on something for the company, with the flip phone again taunting him from the side of his desk.  He takes it out a lot now and sets it there.  It’s comforting, like a friend.  Or the promise of a friend.  How freaking sad is that?  And he talks to it.  He talks to it like he’s talking to Steve.  “You goddamn son of a bitch.  How could you walk away?  How could you choose him?  He put you in the ICU!  You bled out on the river bank!  If you don’t care about what he did to my mom, how the hell can you forgive that, Rogers?  How can you forgive that?”

The phone doesn’t answer.  It’s a piss poor substitute for the real thing, and Tony thinks he’s going a little crazy.  He’s been alone for an eternity, it seems.  Rhodey’s around to keep him company, but with his legs back he’s returned to the Air Force to ride a desk for a while to keep busy.  He doesn’t seem to mind, though that’s not much consolation.  Vision is gone more than he’s there; Tony knows better now than to attempt to force anyone to stay in the compound when that person clearly wants to leave.  Pepper calls.  She calls a lot, because even though they are taking a break rather permanently now, she still worries about him.  And Ross is constantly on his case.  The UN wants the Avengers back, the goddamn, short-sighted bastards.  They want Tony to lead a new team, since the old one is scattered and ruined and wrecked.  They want to know if Tony has heard from Steve.  They want to capture Steve, bring him in, arrest him and probably force him into servitude.  They want things from Tony.  He’s hiding just like Steve’s hiding.

So Tony keeps talking to the phone. He has nothing else.  “You should call me, you asshole.  I deserve that much, don’t I?  You should call and tell me you’re sorry.  You need to apologize.  You need to apologize!”

The phone doesn’t, can’t.  Tony doesn’t care.  It all spews out of him, venomous and frantic, and he doesn’t stop himself.  There’s no one there to hear him rail, to hear him cry, to hear him confess and demand and beg.

Quiet and emptiness.

“Please call me, Steve.  I just…”

The phone never rings.

He pictures what will happen if Steve comes back.  He pictures what he might look like.  He dreams about it, like his mind is seeking refuge in fantasy since reality is too depressing and desolate.  It’s better, sweeter, than anything else.  He dreams and imagines hearing familiar footsteps come slowly the down the hallway just outside the living room of the compound that’s become so quiet and empty.  He imagines the sound of them, of boots on the tile, the study thud thud thud of it seemingly shaking his home.  Shaking Tony’s heart.  Maybe those aren’t so separable now.  Tony will move away from the couch to stand in the faint shafts of light coming from the overheads that are always on in the kitchen.  He won’t be able to breathe when he sees the outline of a man approach.  The figure is bathed in shadow, but the lines of his shoulders and the shape of his head and the muscles of his arms and the narrowness of his waist are unmistakable.  Tony will swallow down his racing heart.  One more step, and Steve will be in the light.

He pictures this moment down to every detail.  He’s so smart, brain so full and moving so fast, that it’s painfully vivid.  He doesn’t need some stupid invention to tap into his hippocampus and amygdala and neocortex to process this.  It’s so sweet, so perfect, that he whole-heartedly clings to it.  Dreaming about Steve is almost as much of a ritual as tearing himself down has become.  It’s tightly tied to wondering continually about a chance to make amends, and he’s imagined it almost every damn second of every damn day.  This will be it.

He won’t be sure what to expect when he can finally see Steve.  He’ll be afraid of Steve’s anger, afraid of Steve’s disappointment.  Afraid Steve will be cold or unforgiving.  Afraid he himself will be the same, now that they’re face to face and all his hopeful thoughts seem insufficient.  He won’t be ready, he thinks, but it’ll be too late, because Steve will take that step toward him.

In his dreams, Steve looks… the same.  But not.  Same blond hair, mussed from its usual neatness by wearing the cap he’s holding at this side.  Longer than it was before.  Same tall stance and that way he always carries himself, smooth and graceful and full of purpose.  Same sort of plain clothes, a simple blue jacket and blue jeans and a dark gray t-shirt.  Same handsome face.  Same blue eyes.  But Tony can see it.  Same, but not.  Ever since SHIELD went down, Tony’s noticed the burdens.  Steve’s burdens.  He never talks about them, at least not in any way that’s meaningful.  He’s built to carry them, carry the weight of the world sometimes, and Tony’s always been jealous of that.  He continually feels like he’s one piece of straw away from breaking the camel’s back, and Steve makes it look effortless, just how much he can bear without missing a beat.  Maybe that’s why he didn’t need the Accords.  He can deal with his conscience.  He can pick himself up and soldier on.  When someone falls on his watch, during his fight, he can overcome the guilt.  He doesn’t close his eyes because he’s seen too much.  He doesn’t break.  Tony can’t handle it like that and never could.

Still, those burdens…  They’re there, and some are new.  Building and building, and Steve’s eyes will seem dark and weighty and so damn tired that Tony will wonder for a second if he’s the same man.  Of course not.  None of them are the same.  Steve’s walking wounded, too.  And that’ll make him feel so much better.  He can’t look away from Steve’s eyes, exhausted and burdened and shattered, Steve who will look like he feels.  He supposes the distance between them hasn’t divided them that much after all.

And he’ll know it then, know what he owes Steve.  He’s denied it these last months, but in his dreams, the truth always comes out.  Steve fought him for the same reason he fought Barnes.  Steve did it to save him.  Steve stood between him and his nightmare.  Steve stopped him from killing Barnes, from killing Steve himself, stopped him from losing so much more than what he’s thrown away.  Being a good man.  Being a hero.

He owes Steve his soul.

And Steve’s here now. He’ll stare at Tony.  Tony will stare back.  He doesn’t know what to say, so he doesn’t say anything.  He doesn’t have to.  All those fears he has about this moment, the coldness or the anger or the apathy, won’t come true.  There was never any threat.  Tony dreams that Steve comes closer, that Steve hugs him, kisses his hair.  He dreams about Steve’s strong arms around him, about the rumble of Steve’s voice in his ear, about the comforting warmth of his body against him.  Steve speaks.  Maybe to apologize.  Maybe to profess how much he’s been hurting, how much he misses him, how much he needs him.  Maybe–

Tony wakes up.  It’s not real, and he’s still alone.

The phone still taunts him.  Call.  Call, you jackass.  He’s not sure with whom he’s angrier, himself or Steve.  The time drags on and on, day by day, night by night.  He’s a zombie.  A ghost, drifting through it all, haunting the compound as much as memories from good times past.  Walking wounded.  Call.  Call.  Say you’re sorry.  Make it better.  Fix it.

Is there anything left to fix?  He doesn’t know.

Call and find out.

But he doesn’t.  He’s so damn stubborn.  That’s why he and Steve don’t see eye to eye.  Fundamental similarities aren’t enough to overcome the equally fundamental differences.  Steve’s gone, on the other side of the world, on the other side, and there’s no coming home.

Tony lists.  He’s anchorless.  The ritual penance turns into obsession, as so many things do with him, and he lets it without a second thought because there’s nothing else.  Nothing but Steve’s letter, which he’s read so much the paper is wrinkled and the words written in blue ink and Steve’s neat penmanship are etched into his retinas.  And Steve’s shield, which he has finally rebuffed and repaired and repainted before placing it close to his bed again.  And Steve’s goddamn outdated, older than shit phone, which he carries with him now like a cross and a purpose and a plea all at once.  None of it is enough.  It’s not Steve in his life.  It’s not anything in his life but those damn words and an abandoned symbol and a promise that’s not being fulfilled.  That hole in his heart is deeper, filling with blood and misery and pain, and nothing can heal it.  He can’t heal it without Steve.

But pride…  Ego.  He can’t make himself just do it.  Before stopping himself was all but impossible, a constant battle between selfish want and more selfish obstinacy, and now the simple task of taking the phone from his pocket, opening it, finding the number and pressing “SEND”…  It’s the thing that’s impossible.  Insurmountable.  It doesn’t make sense, this barrier between him and making things right.  He knows he can’t fix this alone.  He knows that.  Just like he knows now beyond any doubt that he was wrong not to listen, wrong to go after Barnes no matter what Barnes had done.  And Steve was wrong not to tell him the truth even if he didn’t know it for sure, wrong to toss the shield, wrong to walk away.  Trust has been breached.  Faith, broken.  Even though they don’t see eye to eye, Tony’s always had faith in Steve to be that good man.  Now…

Why doesn’t he call me?

The phone’s beyond taunting him.  It tortures him, night after night.  Why doesn’t he call?  Why doesn’t he care?  Do I mean so little?  Doesn’t he have faith in me?  Why why why

Once or twice he considers smashing it just for the cathartic drama of it all, but he never does.  It would be freedom, but what price will he pay for that?  And if he did it he would sever the last link he has with Steve, and that can never happen.  Never.  So instead he waits and lets himself be tormented and wonders with a pounding headache and a broken heart just how much more he can take before he cracks and shatters and fractures, too.

Not much longer, as it turns out.

It’s December 16th, 2016.  Despite how much Tony’s been thinking about his mom and dad, their lives and their deaths and how much he wanted to have more with them, the anniversary of their murders creeps up on him.  It’s like the snow creeping up to the windows and doors of the compound, the compound that feels more and more like a mausoleum.  A tomb buried in white and neglect.  It’s fitting, in a way.  He’s languishing there, alone and lingering.  Time has gone on and on, an endless parade of minutes and hours and days and weeks, all quiet and empty.  The world has gone on, but he can’t let go.  Can’t move on.  Can’t forget and can’t forgive.  He’s stuck in a prison that he knows is of his own making, but the pain and his pride don’t let him escape.  All that time amounts to six months of grieving, mourning, struggling to make sense of the wreckage and struggling to come to terms with his loss.  He never meant to lose this, what means the most to him.  Family.  Steve.  He never meant to lose it all.

But even still the date takes him by surprise.  That day he muddles through human interaction, Pepper and Rhodey and people from Stark Industries.  He’s on automatic pilot because he’s whittled his soul away so much that it’s all he can manage.  He keeps the hell at bay thanks to that, though, so it’s not until he’s alone that he falls apart.  He’s alone in the compound, sitting at his desk where six months ago the Fedex package arrived with the letter and the phone.  He’s alone with the weight of the past and the discomfort of an uncertain, bleak future.  He’s alone, and he starts crying.

He can’t stop.  It starts as a soft sob and a few tears.  Weeping, really.  But there’s nothing to distract him from it all, from the regret his father’s eyes always wrought in him and the pain he always feels when he thinks of his mother singing, from the weight of Steve’s hand on his shoulder and the bright light of his smile.  From how much harder his bones shook when Steve hit him back.  From the defeated look in Barnes’ eyes and the desperation in Steve’s.  Don’t do this, Tony.  Please don’t do this.  There’s nothing.  No work.  No Avengers.  No friends or family.  Nobody.

The cost. They’re gone.  They’re all gone

The dam breaks, and out comes the flood.  Great, heaving sobs that shake him to his core.  He’s loud and wet and pathetic, and he doesn’t care.  No one can hear him or deride him.  And he just can’t take it anymore.  His glass of scotch tonight sits untouched, and he can’t loosen his throat enough to drink.  The tears burn his eyes, roll down his cheeks, drip and drip onto Steve’s letter where it’s been opened and read again.  The last words.  “So no matter what, I promise you if you need us – if you need me – I’ll be there.”

No one’s there.

His damaged heart aches in his chest, shuddering through every difficult beat, and breathing is too difficult.  This is it.  He can’t do this anymore.  He can’t hold himself back.  He can’t deny fault or rationalize blame or sacrifice sanity for vengeance.  He can’t.

He picks up the phone from beside him.  He opens it.  Finds the number.  Breathes.  Shivers.  Sobs.

Shuts it.

He can’t.

But it rings in his hands anyway.  Vibrates.  Rings and rings.  He startles, shock stopping his heart and excitement making him gasp.  It’s shrill, this sound he’s imagined for so long, that he’s longed for for forever.  Shrill and loud and he’s shaking and he can’t catch his breath and fumbling to open the phone and hitting “SEND” to answer and holding it to his ear and–


“Tony?”  Steve’s voice is hoarse, twisted with pain and regret and so much love.  “Tony…  I – I’m sorry.  I’m so sorry.”

Tony closes his eyes and smiles.  “So am I.”