There was a list of rejected incoming calls on Tony's mobile, and not a single one outgoing.
Steve—Rogers—might call him all he wanted, but he'd made his priorities damn straight in Siberia, and Tony had promised himself he wouldn't be pathetic enough to call. He'd handled himself just fine before the Avengers; he'd do it again. He would.
(He woke up at night, longing to feel Steve's body next to him again, wishing Steve was there to calm him after the nightmares. But he wasn't; he'd never be again, and Tony would deal with it, like he'd dealt with everything else his life had thrown at him. It was nothing like fucking Afghanistan; like the portal to outer space that Tony couldn't forget about.
But then, those weren't quite like a broken heart, either.)
Tony spent his days working on Rhodey's prosthetics—he was getting better, but he thought it'd be easier if Rhodey just hated him now. Tony couldn't be trusted with friendship; hadn't he proved it enough?
In the evenings, he drank. He locked the door and switched off Friday's access to his room—”Boss, which glass is that, don't bullshit me, I can count better than you, boss, I will call Rhodey”—and then, finally, he opened a glass of whiskey as he thought of the fight in Siberia, of the recording of his mum dying, of this whole bloody nightmare, again.
And of Steve, of course; Tony always thought of Steve—Steve had known and hadn't told him and didn't deserve to still waste so much time on him. Tony couldn't stop, though.
Tony drank, and sometimes the burner phone rang, and Tony was done pretending; he clicked reject again and again and again.
Maybe one day it'd feel like the right thing to do. Maybe one day it'd stop hurting. He wanted to hear Steve, dammit—but not like this. Not so soon; not after everything. He couldn't deal with that. He didn't have the arc reactor anymore to protect his heart.
Except, today was different, because today was Steve's birthday, and Tony was stone cold sober, and he thought he could do it.
(Steve had texted on Tony's birthday; Tony had deleted it without reading.)
He took a deep breath and dialled the number.
He could do it. Just a quick birthday wishes. It was the polite thing to do, right; nothing that Tony needed to do for himself.
Stupidly, he'd expected Steve to pick up immediately, but the call went on and on. Of course, Tony thought bitterly, Steve must've been off celebrating with his friends. A much better birthday party than the one a year ago that he'd shared with Tony and no one else, in their bed—
Tony had raised his thumb to kill the call when Steve finally answered, sounding out of breath and surprised. “Tony?”
“With how often you called me, I'd thought you'd answer sooner,” Tony muttered. It sounded exactly the way he didn't want it to. He regretted not drinking earlier.
“I was taking a shower, I didn't expect—you never called.” Steve sounded as if he was pouting, and suddenly, Tony wanted to see that; Steve still dripping wet, and doing his best impression of a wounded lover.
Except they weren't that. Not anymore.
“I never—are we seriously having this conversation,” Tony hesitated, “Rogers?”
He heard Steve sigh down the line. “I'm sorry,” he said, barely audible.
Tony wanted to laugh. “No you're not,” he said. “And I'm not calling for that.”
“Why are you then, Tony?” Steve sounded collected; curious. Tony knew now Steve was a great liar.
Well, that made it the two of them, Tony thought as he said, “Happy birthday.”
Steve chuckled. “That was oddly fitting when I was still America's icon.”
Tony turned sharp. “It was your choice,” he said.
“And I stand by it,” Steve replied, cutting.
Tony wasn't sure why this still hurt. He tightened his hand around the phone. He couldn't physically crack it—it looked old, but T'Challa had augmented it, and had they really thought Tony wouldn't figure that one out?—but it felt good to imagine that, just for a second; destroying the last link to Steve he had.
“You were supposed to say thank you,” Tony said after a moment, covering his eyes with his forearm. It wasn't as if Steve could see him. “It's only polite, you know. Happy birthday, Steve—Thank you, Tony.”
Steve huffed a laugh. “I'm not a very polite person.”
“Clearly, Rogers.” Polite people didn't leave their friends, lovers, like that. Didn't lie.
“Steve,” Steve said.
Tony tilted his head questioningly before remembering he only can use voice communication here. “What's that, now?”
“You called me Steve earlier,” Steve said. “And frankly, Mister Stark, we're way past the point of using surnames.”
“We were,” Tony corrected him. “You made it quite clear what our—what our relationship meant to you.”
Tony should have hung up three sentences ago. This was why he hadn't called Steve earlier. This was why he hadn't wanted to.
He missed Steve. He wasn't sure it was worth it, still.
“I miss you, Tony,” Steve muttered. “I wish you believed me, but I understand why you don't.”
Objectively, Tony realised he should be grateful to Steve. Barnes had been just a gun in Hydra's hands; killing him would achieve nothing, would have only turned Tony into a murderer—but he'd been that long before Siberia, long before the Avengers. What was one more person to the Merchant of Death?
A lot; he knew. But it hadn't been Barnes he'd wanted to hurt, not really. It had been Hydra—and Steve, for keeping it a secret.
Steve should've killed him when he'd had the chance. Would he have, had Tony begged him to? He'd wanted nothing else for a few long seconds there.
“Tony,” Steve said over the line. “I should've told you,” he said, like he had in the letter already. “But—I never lied to you. Not about what you meant to me.”
“Stop it,” Tony snapped. “You have no right—”
“It was our relationship,” Steve continued relentlessly, “and I'm not lying now either, when I say it still means a lot to me.”
“It doesn't exist!” Tony yelled.
“We're both good at rebuilding,” Steve said, infuriatingly calm. (A mask, Tony told himself, that must've been it.) “And it's my birthday, right? Let me have a wish.”
“We can't rebuild across two continents,” Tony let out, and he hated how his voice was shaking.
There was a pause, and then, “That could be fixed. Good night, Tony. Get enough sleep for once.”
Tony should still say no, but he didn't know how.
“Happy birthday again, then,” he said, and ended the call. He stared at his hands for a long time.
He wished he weren't that weak. He hoped Steve meant it.
Tony wasn't ready to forgive him or himself—and certainly not when he couldn't even see him. He sighed and poured himself one glass of whiskey, went to the lab for the night: too many projects still needed his attention.
He didn't think about the phone. But then he dozed off, days of sleep deprivation catching up with him, and when he woke up, he thought there was a silhouette in the doorway to his lab.
He guessed he should go and check if he was right.