“Were you going to tell me ?”
Bruce is tired. Exhausted. Delirious.
Between them both, Tony is the story teller. His songs so perfectly crafted, his novel a triumph, something unheard of for a musician, but of course, Tony will always be Tony, the talented one, the brilliant one.
But yes, Bruce is tired, tired enough to make silly lists of synonyms in his head. Tired enough to rest against the elevator panel instead of standing straight.
Tired enough to disturb the equilibrium of it all, words slurring a little.
“Tell you what ?”
Tony is not looking at him. He's hurt. Hurt because of Bruce, of course. Because where he is all bite and snark, Tony, with people he loves, is softness and open heart. Bruce had thrown a few comments during the night, always in public, knowing pretty well Tony would never start anything in front of people.
Tony respected him. Tony loved him.
“About Steve ?”
The walk in the hotel corridor makes him a little dizzy. He hates Vegas, he hates the smell of booze permeating the night, he hates the smoke in the air, he hates the sounds, and the lack of sky. Tony glances at him when he trips, and almost reaches to steady him, but Bruce jerks away, and the people they pass look at him with something like fear, or pity.
People would give his Dad the same look.
The suite is a little ridiculous. Nothing like what Tony would pick for himself, but it's probably the best Steve could find.
Tony closes the door leading to the bathroom when he sees Bruce sitting in front of the mini bar.
It's not that he wants to know.
It's not that he wasn't painfully aware.
In his pocket, his phones hasn't stopped vibrating. Natasha, maybe. He's pretty sure she knows, just by watching the way he insulted Tony all night, that he's going to make a scene.
Vodka, he decides, still sitting on the floor.
When Tony emerges from his shower, he's closed off. He doesn't look at Bruce, now sitting on the couch, shoes left with his jacket on the floor. Bruce watches him move, listens when he calls room service for a kettle, watches him while he tries to find what will hurt the most, what will finally make the mask fall.
“So what, Pepper and you, that was fake ?”
It's not his best, but it hurts Tony, he sees it, and he regrets it immediately. Tony lifts his eyesbrows, and then pointedly fixes the tiny bottles, empty on the coffee table. He goes back to his tea, and Bruce feels ashamed, but ready to hit again.
He doesn't need to.
“You sure drink a lot tonight, Doctor Banner. Care to share with the class what's going on ?”
Bruce huffs. He hates that he does. His father would do the same. God they really are the same.
“To answer your complete ludicrous question, no, my relationship with Pep was not fake. Again, care to share what's going on in your head ?”
“You lie to me.” Bruce tries to stand up, but he just plops back on the couch, arms on his knees, eyes closed to avoid the nausea. “You... you said these things but...”
“But what ?” Tony's voice is ice. Not that Bruce can blame him. He's been sober for what ? Ten years now ? And had a whole childhood of himself filled with dealing with a drunk belligerent man pretending his outbursts were out of love.
“It's all about you.”
Tony doesn't pretend he doesn't know what this is about. And maybe that's what hurts the most. Not Steve's welcome, earlier in the day. Not his voice, in the audio version of the book Bruce had purchase the week prior, trying to be a good friend. Not the way his fucking voice would turn buttery soft and honey sweet when talking about Tony.
Tony, Tony, Tony.
At every corner of Steve's tell all memoirs about his life, there was Tony.
“This fucking book, it's a love declaration for the world to see.” Tony's lips are thin, and he's holding his mug too tight. He has one leg crossed in front of him, one hand resting on the counter behind him. He's ready to fly. “All Steve can talk about. You. The years when he thought he hated you. The years spent yearning for his friend. For his best friend. All over it, his love for you is all over it.”
“His best friend, yes. We are friends, there's nothing new.”
“Look me in the eyes, and tell me you were never more.”
When Tony finally looks at him, the ice in his gaze leaves a bad taste, like dust, like ashes in his mouth.
Tony's fingers are dancing on the countertop. Bruce is drunk, it hits him suddenly, how even if he wanted to stand up and walk, he would probably need to hold the wall, or something.
Not Tony, no. His whole body language is yelling at him to keep his distances.
He doesn't want to apologize. He feels bad, bad enough he wonders if he's going to be sick on the pretty carpet, so fluffy under his bare toes.
“Again, are you going to explain why you decided to throw a tantrum ?”
Bruce wants to lash out, but he knows he's too drunk. He knows the beer, then wine he had earlier on an empty stomach are now mixed with the vodka he just downed. He knows he's about to get sick, and focuses on his breath.
“I need a shower.”
“Yeah, you're right. You need a shower.”
Tony offers him his back before he's even finished, and it takes him a few tries before he can manage to stand up.
He sits in the shower, after losing all the alcohol and the tiny bit of food he had during the party. He feels miserable, but instead of making him sad, it makes him bitter.
At Steve, handsome and generous Steve, who keeps writing and telling journalists about how Tony was his friend, was his world, and he was the one messing it up.
At Tony, for not joking. For coming here, really. For being so gracious about Steve love letter, the book filled with memories only them two can understand.
At the journalists, who had not played coy and had asked Steve if he had been in love with Tony, and how Peggy and Sharon were taking the fact all these years, his feud with his friend and mentor was the only thing in his mind.
At himself for, years after, still being jealous, still feeling possessive and acting like an asshole over a book.
He had known, Hell, the whole profession was talking about Steve, the golden boy, still in the closet, singing ballads and pretending to date anyone willing to pretend with him. And everyone knew about the feud, not a friend's fight, but very much a break up. He had known, way before being introduced to them, because everyone knew.
Tony, ready to marry him and be out. Proud.
Steve, too scared, too insecure, ready to pretend, pretend nothing was happening between them.
But it hurt the same.
Was Tony still in love ?
Was Steve trying to win him over ? Well, this one was easy. He had to chuckled. The way Steve held Tony against him, the way he would sing his praise, the way he flooded the press with stories depicting himself as the villain, and Tony as the true hero, magnanimous, benevolent and ready to bear the blame all these years.
No Steve didn't need to come out for him to sound completely devoted, in love, ready to do or say anything that could make Tony smile.
“If this man was able to forgive me and be here tonight, the rest of the world has to. He's the one I dirtied in the press. He's the one I started rumors about. All along, he gave me nothing but compassion and love. Tony Stark, ladies and gentlemen.”
The crowd had roared, and Tony had smiled, a tiny, shy smile and had blushed. Nothing like his boisterous laugh when he would get rewards, nothing like the way he would interact with Thor's praise, or Rhodes' proud speeches.
Was Tony still in love with Steve ? Probably, his mind supplied. The same way Bruce was still in love with Betty, the same way he would care for Pepper, for Warren...
The smell of coffee was the first thing hitting him, when he opened the bathroom door.
Then it was seeing Natasha, sitting at the table with a book in her hands, and that was enough to make him stop, why carry a book in a Vegas hotel room ? Then he saw Phil, and Clint. Thor was sitting on the couch, folding the jacket left on the floor earlier.
“Wow... we're having a party ?”
Thor was the only one who pretended to smile, looking almost in pain.
“Tony called. He's making arrangements.” Natasha was still ignoring him, eyes on her book.
She was upset, he suddenly realized. She wasn't just disappointed. She has been scared. Scared of him. Scared for Tony's safety.
“Arrangements ?” Not knowing where to go, he went to the counter, where Clint was trying to use the small Keurig. He tried to smile, and thank him, but Clint's face was completely closed off.
Just like Tony's, his mind supplies. Just like any kid who had to grow up with a father with heavy first when he was drunk. Just like you.
“I'm the one who asked the boys to follow.” Natasha was still sitting at the table, back straight, not looking at him. “Tony asked me to help him find you a room for tonight. I saw the way you were today. Tonight.”
“We all saw.” Phil was drinking a cup of his own, tie in his pocket.
Suddenly, Bruce wondered where Toy was.
“He's packing your things.” Natasha's hand was brushing invisible lint away from her skirt. “You'll come with us. I'll room with the boys, you can take my room.”
“No. No, I mean...” he tried to turn, to explain how ridiculous it was. He tried, but most of his coffee splashed his hand, the robe he was wearing, his legs.
“Careful ! Careful...”
In a distant corner of his memory, he remembered morning at the house. His father clumsily trying to get around, and the very people he had hurt having to help him.
It was not the same, he was not his father but...
“I need to talk to Tony.” Phil was still trying to get most of the coffee out of the way, but Bruce didn't care. “This is ridiculous, he's overreacting and...”
“And even if he is, I am too. You're drunk. You made a scene at Steve's party. We were all waiting for Tony to come down and get coffee with us. So when he called...” Thor shrugged. “It's fine. Come to our hotel. Sleep it off. You will talk tomorrow.”
“You should listen to our Viking God, Banner.” The Tony in front of him was not his Tony. Wearing jeans, and a sweater, dragging Bruce's carry on behind him. Cold. Almost looking detached. Or maybe he was.
Fuck I am drunk.
“Come on !” Clint's exclamation made him jump. How long had he been staring, hoping Tony would stop this, would... “The three of us, we hate drunk people, you know it ! Don't be a dick, he asks for space, give him space ! Don't be a dick !”
“I need to change...”
The bathroom was still full of steam, mirrors all foggy. Bruce had to sit in the toilet, and after a few seconds, he realized it was not steam, but tears.
“Come on. Come on.” Phil was there. Cool, efficient hands helping him with his shoes, his glasses.
“I messed up the robe.” Bruce felt like an idiot. He felt drunk, so drunk. Almost numb to what was happening. The shower was dripping, the bathtub still full, making an even bigger mess of the robe he had tried to put on the shower door.
“Yes.” Phil was smiling, patient. It made him mad. Who was he, all cool and composed, Clint loving only him. “Yes you did.”
Chapter 3: New Day
He wakes up a few times, during the night.
Natasha, efficient, cold and visibly upset finds him a room at their floor, and handles everything before slamming her own door at their faces.
It's small, and impersonal, but it fits well with his hangover, he supposes.
The Keurig splutters and makes a mess over the tiny counter, and Bruce can't even find in himself to care. He manages a cup of disgusting sludge, and gets sick a few times before then managing to shower and get into his sweats.
Phil knocks at around nine, with a plastic bag and a cup of coffee in hands.
Water, painkillers, dry food.
He feels like Hell, but the shame, the shame is burning him from inside.
“I'm sorry.” Bruce is too ashamed to face him, so he busies himself with his coffee, adding sugar, and milk, things he doesn't indulge in, usually, but today is a big mess as it is, his blood sugar the last thing on his mind.
“I know.” Phil is staring, but his voice is kind. Gentle. “I'm guessing you're not feeling too great ?”
He tries to smile, but the tension in his neck makes him want to cry. “I hate that part.”
“Who doesn't ?” Phil sits on the chair, facing him. Bruce could turn on the TV, but he doesn't. Might as well facing the music.
Better Phil than Natasha.
He doesn't let himself think about Tony.
“Do you remember last night ?”
That's an easy one.
“I do. At least part of it. No black outs. I do remember, at least until I crashed here.”
Phil sips at his cup, waiting. He hates it, that good old way of his to make people talk, fill the silence with truths.
“Where are the others ?”
Phil is looking at him like he's disappointed. Almost annoyed. Which is puzzling, since last night would've been the best moment to react, in Bruce's humble opinion.
“Clint is still sleeping. Thor asked me not to wake him up. Natasha is already gone.”
“Probably to be with Tony.” Bruce grimaces when finishing the coffee, the bottom of the cup mostly sugar. “Funny, how these two work. Only trusting each other with the bad stuff.”
“Don't you think you should stay away from judging anyone's relationship right now ?”
Phil's voice is so smooth, so nice, the blow doesn't land like expected.
It burns. He can feel his cheeks getting red, his neck. He wants to react, really wants to but...
“Yeah.” His voice cracks a little. “You're probably right.”
He tries to call, several times. He knows he should not get his temper get the best of him. Tony is not ignoring him, and even if he is, he has every right to.
They never got that part of the relationship, the solving problems together.
When Bruce had finally stopped running away, Tony had learned from the master, and become an escape artist, two.
Right now he could be on his way to record in Japan, or to a retreat in Bali.
Another thing they never addressed, their way of avoiding each other, and then pretend nothing was wrong in the first place.
He rents a car, and drives away from the strip, from all these people, from this park theme for adults.
He stops for some groceries, grabs some fake girls scout cookies, and a bottle of water.
Tony loved grocery shopping.
“That's the only thing I miss from before.” he had said, wearing old jeans and flip flops, delightfully happy in the French supermarket they had stopped to on their way to an event. “When people think about retail therapy, they think clothes or shoes. No. Give me snacks. Give me all the weird tasting sparkling water. This is my happy place.”
Bruce had started to fight, lately.
Not letting things go.
Attacking as soon as Tony looked safe and comfortable.
People were starting to comment.
Tiny things, Steve opening Tony's jacket before a hug.
Tiny things, but the way Tony wouldn't flinch, wouldn't keep Steve away, the way he would everyone else...
In their world, Bruce was the only one allowed to do this. Help with buttons, touch his fingers while grabbing his keys.
Sure, Pepper sometimes would, but they were done, Tony loved her a lot, but he wasn't in love with her.
Bruce eats the cookies, one after the other, driving around town.
Tony texts him in the late afternoon.
Bruce tries not to think about the fact he's technically still in the hotel, so probably thinking about staying.
He knows, because Tony is nothing but brilliant, that he didn't forget about Bruce's own obligations, having to be back in New York in three days.
They were supposed to take a day off, to sleep it off and enjoy themselves. Maybe go for lunch in the tiny Irish Pub Tony had managed to find. A walk close to the water, playing tourists in the city.
“I'm staying, yes.” Tony is keeping his distances. He's not sitting down, fidgeting a little. There's pens a papers on the table, close to a guitar and his laptop. When he catches Bruce's glance, he almost smiles. “I started to write, yes. It's good, or at least Thor thinks it is. He's staying up in the mountains, found some kind of retreat with magical healing water. He'll drive two or three times a week to work with me.”
He loses his smile when he comes back to Bruce.
“I'm going to do the same, I think. Not the retreat, but the keeping away from everything. Phil offered his guest room. Natasha is leaving soon, I might stay at hers in the meantime, maybe not. I need to focus on this, until it's ready.”
“I see.” Bruce nods a few times. It's not ideal, no, but it's not bad. Tony is hurt, yes, but not... acting out, drinking or trying to hurt him in return. It's not ideal, but they can make things work. “You know when you'll be back in New York ? An approximation ?”
“That's the thing...” Tony smiles again. A small, pained smile. He grabs the teapot, and pours himself another cup.
Tea. Bruce's notices. No coffee. Tony is not a huge tea drinker. Unless he's with Natasha. Suddenly the guitar makes sense. The room, still available. Natasha is nothing but the best at what she does. That's why Steve hired her, Bruce can't help but think.
“You're breaking up with me.” He feels stupid for not noticing. Tony's careful choice of words, his sentences short. The room, empty of anything personal.
He's wearing shoes, hie suddenly notices. He's not dressed casually, or resting. This is a meeting.
He can almost see it, Natasha's helping him fill his schedule, providing the guitar, and probably a studio if Tony really needs it. He feels so stupid, dear God, it was in front of him, all along.
“I am not coming back. Not for a while. I hate New York. I hate living in New York. I want to see the sun. I want to breathe.” He shakes his head, and Bruce remembers the few talks they had, or the few times Tony would rant about New York killing his creativity, about his need to leave, to feel inspired again. Maybe he should've paid attention, back then.
“You're moving here ? To a Vegas hotel suite ?” It sounds condescending, even to his own ears.
“No.” Tony sobers up, and sips at his tea. “I don't know yet, where. I'll stay in the country, I think, at least for now. But I don't want to go back. I can't go back.”
“Is it New York or is it me ?” He starts to think about apartments, and solutions. He can't afford their place alone, but he can certainly find himself something... he hopes. It's been a while, but he can certainly...
“I think you know the answer to that question.” Tony looks a little upset, but it's always hard to say. “I am not telling you to move out right now. You have a few months. A year, if you need it. Find yourself something good, don't rush.”
“How generous of you.” Bruce doesn't try to hide his anger. He knows, a tiny part of his brain knows he should apologize. Try to make it better. But mostly, he just wants to pick up the fight from where they left it. He just wants Tony to react, finally.
Tony notices immediately, because it's like facing a stranger. He smiles and grabs his phone, starts to type away, and moves through the room, away from him.
“So that's it ?” Bruce stands up too, and realizes too late how it translates. Tony's looking at him like he's expecting him to walk and grab him.
The things is, he thinks maybe he was going to.
“We don't talk, Dr Banner. You always did your best to reaffirm this constant in our relationship. You're not interested. Well I'm taking a page from your book, now. After last night, and seeing you today, I'm not sure we have a lot to say to each other.”
“Who's coming ?” Bruce nods at the phone in Tony's hand. “Is lover boy coming over, now that you've ditched the older model ?”
Tony looks ready to pounce too. Bruce takes a few seconds to breathe, remembering the hours Tony spends at the dojo. He's a musician, sure, but also a really good fighter.
“Thor is coming over. Thought you might need someone to show you the door. I didn't want to believe him but I guess I was wrong.”
“I guess you were.” Bruce wishes he could stop, wishes he could shut up and find in himself to be kind. To be understanding. To care about their relationship and less about winning here. “I won't be there when Steve leaves you again. When he sees what all of us see.”
Tony looks hurt. Really hurt. He opens his mouth and closes it.
Bruce doesn't want to care.
“I was going to ask you to marry me, you know.” His voice breaks but he keeps going, smiling through what Bruce realize are tears clouding his eyes. He's still smiling, though. Stupid man, always kind, even when Bruce isn't. “Not in Vegas, obviously, but I had this dream, when I was in Bali, and it never left me, really, about you and I, moving somewhere nice, Colorado, maybe. Oregon. You still working with you A-List patients, me writing music. It kept me going, when things were not easy, because I knew we wanted to same things, but you don't, do you ?”
Bruce doesn't dare to open his mouth, because he knows he's not able to be gentle right now, he's not in his right mind, he's not...
“Natasha was right. You don't care. You don't love me.”
“We can't all write books about you, Tony. Grow up.”
He regrets the words in the cab, on his way to the airport.
He regrets them in the plane.
He regrets them when he opens the door and the cats are nowhere to be found.
There's a note on the table, from Jim. He's not as nice as Tony was, and Bruce knows calling a real estate agent is now top of his list. The cats are gone, most of Tony's important things are gone.
He regrets the words.
Still he doesn't apologize.