Natasha is the one at the door, and for a moment, Tony is tempted to tell her to leave.
They don't do feelings, Hell, they're not even friends.
She made choices, choices to take Steve's side when they finally discovered her betrayal, and to leave him to deal with consequences and his broken heart.
It was years ago.
Except before that she made choices, and broke Pepper's heart.
Years, but there's a pattern, and Tony is too prudent now to let her slither back into his personal life.
She's holding a pot of tea, and doesn't comment when she stops at the tears in his eyes.
“I guess he didn't leave gracefully ?”
Tony has to chuckle at that. She wants to offer something, a hug maybe, but he's not ready to accept it, and certainly not from her.
They both sit on the floor, when she takes the box of pastries out of her tote bag.
He remembers doing it... years ago. When she was Nathalie, working as Pepper's assistant, then becoming Pepper's date. They would all sit together, the girls, Steve and him, and have a picnic of sort. It was nice, Tony remembers. It was before everything.
“How's Virginia ?” Nat tries to act like she doesn't care, but Tony knows better. He knows about the flower she sends several times a year. He knows about the letters Pep kept sending back at first, and now just throws in the garbage.
“I know better than to approach that subject with you. Pepper doesn't want me to talk about her. She probably is going to be pissed you were involved.”
“Probably.” She shakes her head, and starts to cut all the cakes in two perfectly equal pieces. “I'm sure you feel the same way.”
“I do.” Tony picks a strawberry tart. His least favorite. It's roughly the size of his thumbnail. “But I also know when to be grateful for help. And I am. You really helped me out, and I appreciate it.”
“What a pompous way to say thank you.” There's no heat, not even sarcasm in her eyes. She looks tired. Older, his mind supplies. She's not the young thing, fresh out of school, ready to climb her way to the top. Tony tries not to stares but notices. The lack of make up. The few lines, here and there. He's ready to bet there are some grey hairs under the perfect dye job. She finishes her pick, chocolate eclair, a tiny ridiculous thing, and goes for her cup. “He was out of control. You needed all the help you could get.”
“I can't contradict you on this one. Thank you. I mean it.”
“The least I could do.”
She doesn't offer more, and he doesn't ask. Years of resentment between them, but somehow they can trust each other. Work ethics, he would say. She probably would say the same. This is work, no matter what people say. Steve's reputation, Tony's reputation.
They keep the talk light, about Thor, Clint and Phil, the new studio.
The cakes and tea are gone when she grabs her shoes and stands up.
“Did you talk to Steve ? About all of this ?” Tony smiles, but doesn't answer. “I am just asking, Tony.”
“You almost sound like Pep, when you're annoyed.” It's not nice, but it's his way of telling her to back off.
They know each other well, after all.
She's almost at the door when he finally speaks.
“I'm looking at rentals. I'll be out of here at the end of the week.” She stops and looks at him. This weird communication via silence is working for them.
“I'll be in New York at the end of the month. Need me to help him move out ?”
“Yeah, and have you meet Pep totally by mistake ? Who do you take me for ?” He closes his eyes and thinks about the mess. Rhodey not even yelling at him on the phone. Pepper offering kind words. “But... if you could ask around, help him find a place ? Something nice, but just... I need him out of there.”
“Of course.” She looks like she wants to ask if he's okay, to offers something, friendship, sympathy.
Years ago, he would've said yes. But he's not stupid anymore. He's not the same man who believed Steve would love him forever, and Nathalie Rushman was his friend.
“Thank you Natasha. Steve really hired the best.”
She doesn't flinch, but everything is said, really.
He hears the door when he's in the bath. He doesn't question it, he's too tired.
It could be dangerous, his mind supplies, this exhaustion, his lack of better judgement. What if it's a journalist ? What if it's Bruce, back again with a vengeance.
It makes him giggle. Bruce doesn't care. The press couldn't care less. No, no one cares apparently, so why should he ?
He turns the water back on and lets himself drift away.
It's not Bruce, sitting on the couch, playing with the guitar. It's not room service, not the press, not even Thor.
Steve looks at him, so gentle, so ready to... to make things better it seems, and it makes Tony want to cry for a whole lot of other reasons.
“I stole Natasha's card.” Steve gently puts the guitar away. “I was worried, and I tried to respect your privacy, but everyone looked so guilty, and no one could tell me what happened. I was worried.”
“So you stole Natasha's key. Why does she have a key to my room ?”
“She lies, sometimes. You get used to it.” Tony is standing in the middle of the room, hair still wet, only wearing his sweats, when suddenly he realizes he's cold.
“Tony ?” Steve's voice is soft. He's never been that soft, Tony thinks. Or maybe he was, years ago. Hard to remember, after spending years trying to forget. “You want to sit down ?” And then, even softer. “Please, sit down.”
“Are you ok ?” Steve keeps staring, and after a minute, Tony realizes he's scanning him for bruises. He's wearing an old shirt, white and so soft after many washing it's almost transparent.
Somehow Steve looking at his body out of kindness makes him blush, and he grabs a sweater, something to hide under.
“I'm ok. Bruce had a lot to say. We're done. It's better this way.”
“I'm sorry, Tony.” Tony smiles, but keeps his eyes on the black screen of the TV. They're sitting elbow to elbow, it's easy to pretend he's ok. He is. Everything is completely fine.
“No you're not.” It's almost whispered. He didn't think he had it in him. Years of being insulted, of watching Steve trash his words, trash his songs. Years of Steve trying his best to destroy everything between them.
“No I'm not.” Steve's whisper is no better. Tony wants to get mad. Who is he, to come here and pretend to be his friend. Who is he to try and mend things between them. “Can you look at me ? Please ?”
“Why ? No cameras here, Rogers. No need to pretend anymore.”
Steve swallows. He doesn't answer. After a second, he sighs. “You want some coffee ?”
“No. I had tea all afternoon. I'm good. You saw for yourself, you can leave now.”
He's slowly pouring milk in his cup when he speaks. “What if I don't want to leave ?”
“That would be a first.”
“He doesn't love me.” Tony grabs the glass of water. He's exhausted. All of this, keeping it together, staying strong, it's taking a toll on him. Suddenly Bali makes sense. The need to just... escape. It was after a week of meetings he booked the retreat. A few fights with Bruce. Running interference for Pep. “He focused on your book, but really, he just needed a reason to be mad at me.”
“I'm sorry.” Tony chuckles. “Not about what I said. Not about the book. But... I'm sorry he hurt you. You guys... you looked happy together.”
“How would you know.”
The anger and pain in Steve's laugh is palpable. “Oh believe me, I know.”
“What do you mean ?”
They move slowly.
Steve offers to order pizza, and Tony goes to get pillows from the bed. Steve's order is still the same, and he looks a little sad when Tony takes his phone to add his own custom pizza to the order. He doesn't look like the Steve from back in the days. Too adult, Tony can't help but think. They were terribly young, or at least he felt young, with Steve. He felt like everything was possible, like they knew each other so well, their love had to be.
An eternity ago.
Steve is an open book. He's painfully honest, and even when it hurts, he powers through. He tells him about his career, about Peggy's unwillingness to pretend, about the fight they had when he turned to Sharon.
It hurts something deep in Tony's ribcage, to hear about them, the same way it hurt to see the fake kiss for the camera between Steve and Natasha, years ago.
“Why are you telling me ?” Steve tilts his head, pizza boxes in hands, so Tony finds in himself to say more. “About all of this ? Why are you telling me all of this ?”
“I never stopped loving you.” Tony almost yells. Almost. He almost burst into tears.
“Pizza, Rogers. Food is getting cold.”
“I was in love with Bruce.”
“I know.” Steve doesn't raise up to the bait. If anything, he looks... sad. Tony offers him a piece of his pizza, and tries to explain properly.
“You broke my heart. You did. And then you spent years making sure I would hate you. I did not spend years pining for you. I did not.”
“I know.” Steve sounds like he's about to cry, breathing almost too heavily. He stops and after a second, grabs his inhaler. “That's not what I'm implying here.”
“What are you, then ?”
“I was !” There's only one tear running down his cheek, and Tony wants to scream at how perfect he is even now, red eyes and with snot on his face. “I never stopped loving you. I know I messed up but I promised myself I would not do anything. You were happy. Everyone was telling me, how happy you were with your fucking Doctor.” Even Steve seems surprised at his own outburst. But they're past pretending. He blows his nose and goes one. “You two always looked so good with each other, so happy. So I never... I never...”
“You never what ?” Steve looks like a wreck, and Tony doesn't care because his whole life is now a mess, so might as well …
“You must know. Surely, you must know.”
“Jesus bloody Christ !”
It used to make them laugh. The English accent, coming with a revenge every time he was losing control, too upset not to remember the years in boarding school.
“I wrote the book, and all I could think about was you. I changed the last chapter. Several times. I wanted the whole world to know. How in love with you I was. Am. But you were happy, and Natasha said...”
Steve buries his face in his hands.
Tony doesn't know what to do with himself, standing up, ready to what ? Fight ? Leave ? He suddenly realizes Vegas is now his least favorite city in the States. Probably in the world. And that no matter what, he's never, ever stepping foot into this hotel ever again.
“That's why she was so upset.” Tony goes to the sink, and runs a towel under cold water. Steve's eyes are red, and he looks ready to cry even more, lip shaking. It makes sense, in a twisted, soap opera way. “She told you to stay away. And last night she realized she had been wrong.”
“She's been avoiding my calls. She said something came up, but didn't say anything. Phil said something about Bruce and a hotel room.”
“Why did you listen to her ?” When Steve doesn't answer, Tony tries to go on, except his voice gives up on him. “Why... why not just telling me. Instead of letting me wonder what the PR parade was about. Reading your book and wondering what was true and what was fake ?” He's more whispering than talking, his vocals chords completely gone. It happened before, but Steve looks terrified.
“Everything was true.”
“Please. Not a word about the real reasons. Not a word about the years we were together. You're talking about a best friend. About a mentor really. Don't. Rogers, you don't dare. My relationship is not even cold, and you come here, asking for what, really ?”
“No.” It hurts to get the words out. “You don't get to come here and act like you care. You never cared before. What's wrong ? Another man you needed to hurt, so you wrote all about me ?”
“You're the only man I ever been with.” Steve is looking at him, defiant. Taking all of his anger. “The only person, man or woman, I ever been with. They were PR stunts. You were real.”
He finishes his pizza on his bed, and then apparently manages to fall asleep.
In the morning, Steve is on the other side of the bed, face to him, relaxed, almost at peace.
A message from Natasha, probably fishing for information. Pep. Rhodey. His phone stays thankfully silent press wise.
No news from Bruce.
“I took the cats.” Rhodey had written. “They're safe at my place, don't worry. I'm their favorite anyway. I told Doctor he had a month, and then I would move in. Keep me posted.”
The cats. Tony misses them. The only thing he'll miss from New York, really.
“Are you ok ?” It's still dark, thanks to the heavy curtains, and the green windows. Steve is moving, but not getting closer. It's easy to talk, in the dark.
“I never loved Bruce like I loved you. Never loved anyone like that, really. Didn't think it was possible.”
“I know.” It's small. Sad.
“But I believed we had something. I trusted him. I guess that's what hurt me the most. After you, and Nat, I promised myself never to trust anyone and I trusted him... and all this time, he was just... I don't know. Enduring ? Staying out of guilt ? For the money ?”
“I'm sure it's not ...”
“Then what ? If it's not that then what ? He suddenly realized last night he didn't love me anymore ?”
“Yeah. Me too. Sorry.”
Steve is still snoring softly after all these years. It brings back so many memories.
When he finally wakes up, Tony is showered and dressed, his laptop open in front of him.
“I'm leaving tomorrow. Thailand. Another retreat. Can't wait for the fruits, and the food. Ever been to Thailand ?”
“No... No, never.” When Tony doesn't offer more, Steve frowns. “You're leaving ?”
“For a while. I can write over there too. Thor can work from wherever he is. I just need time.”
“You're running away.” There's a tiny bit of reproach in Steve's voice, but mostly there's fear. Tony sees it, the way his mind is reeling, trying to find a way to make him stay. “You're not the kind who runs, Tony.”
“You don't know me well, do you ? I changed, Steve. You don't know me anymore. Believe me, ask anyone, I am a master at running away from my problems. My albums were all written that way. My book too.”
“You can't do that.”
“Oh believe me I can.”
“Don't.” Steve comes after his shower, and Tony doesn't want to feel comfortable sharing his space with him, but he does, it feels normal to have Steve only wearing a robe sitting next to him and sharing breakfast. “Don't leave. We're talking. Don't leave now.”
“I have to. I know you guys keep thinking I am immortal, but I am tired.” Again, his voice disappears on him, and he starts to laugh because how pitiful can he be, really. “I am so fucking tired of everything, Natasha, and Pep, and you, and Bruce and even Thor. Everything is a fucking mess, and all I wanted was a fucking weekend in Vegas with my fucking boyfriend.”
“I know.” Steve doesn't hesitate. He just grabs him and hugs him, one hand at the back of his head, lips on his temple. “I know, I'm so sorry, baby. So sorry.”
They don't kiss. They don't exchange weak promises.
Steve hugs him again, and promises to keep in touch.
They don't talk about the pet name, about what this is going to be.
Tony packs his bags, and mentally prepare himself for the inevitable stop in New York.
“You should be careful.”
Pepper sits on his bed, crossed legs, wearing blue jeans and a white turtleneck. She looks completely calm, but Tony knows hearing about Natasha rattled her nerves (Nathalie, she would correct him. She never called her Natasha, even after everything). Still, she got Bruce out of the way, pretexting a need to pack for Tony.
“I'm trying.” Tony closes another box, and pushes it closer to the door. Funny, how his sudden passion for minimalism turned out to be useful. Finally the hours spent emptying his life felt useful. Bruce had called it childish, and had rolled his eyes, donating one small garbage bag, next to Tony's dozen.
“I understand, you know. The need to be away from all of this.” She finishes her drink, and goes back to the kitchen, when she's emptying cupboards, probably out of spite. Tony sure doesn't need the juicer she's packing away. Still, it's a nice juicer, and he's always on a health kick, coming back from a trip. She knows him well.
“But...?” When she doesn't add anything, he grabs the box and walks to the couch, putting it neatly next to the others. His whole life. In boxes. How depressing.
“No but. I get it. You need time for yourself. Better a retreat with a chef and yoga class than the party scene in Cancun.”
“I'm glad you agree.” He must look a little shocked, because she smiles and shakes her head at him.
“I'm sorry, Tony. I know you kept her away all these years, and I am thankful. Really. I know I asked a lot from you, and you never asked for anything in exchange. I appreciate it.”
“You feed the cats. When I'm away.”
He doesn't know what to do with this. Pepper is one of his best friends, yes, but she's never... apologetic and soft. No, Pep is usually too busy to stop. Not that he ever minded. But it's nice. This change of pace.
She smiles when he tells her.
“Yeah... yeah. I listened to Steve's book, you know ?”
“Are you guys all allergic to paper suddenly ?”
“Don't be silly. I wanted to listen to his voice. Hear what he had to say, you know.” Tony busies himself with the few things left. Papers, keys. Things he'll definitely need at one point. “And I guess I realized I never took your grieving into account.”
The keys make an horrible noise, crashing on the glass coffee table.
“Let me finish, please ?” She's looking at him across the kitchen bar, and Tony doesn't know what to do, how to react. So he nods. “I was dealing with Nathalie's lies. How she cheated on me, how she messed with us all. I was so focused on my pain, I never really took care of yours.”
“What she did to you was worse, Pep.” Tony goes to her, and they hug, easy as usual between them. She still smells like the same fragrance. Nina Ricci, he remembers. Her grandmother's gift for her graduation, years ago.
“But what Steve did to you sucked. And she hurt you, too. You had to deal with everything, and keeping her away from me, and you never complained.”
“Well of course I never complained. I mean, we're friends, we don't keep tabs. You needed me, I was there. And if you still need me to run interference I will. Pep, seriously, stop it okay ? It sucked, now it's done and over with, I'm going to Thailand, you're going to wherever your parents decided to gather the whole clan, it's going to be fine, ok ?”
“You want to see Steve again ?”
She closes the garage door. So funny, to imagine Pep in such a quaint little house, but in a way it suits her style. Her real style. All his boxes are neatly arranged, close to the pristine shelves. A perfect house for a perfect girl.
“I don't know. It's just...” He sits on the porch, next to her, and accepts the cold tea she offers. It feels surreal to be surrounded by the birds, after the city and the long drive. It feels refreshing. “It's like when Rhodey comes over, or when we do something. I'm comfortable with you guys. I don't feel like I have to protect myself.”
“You should protect yourself from these people.”
“I know.” Pepper looks like a commercial, long hair in a high ponytail, fluffy bangs and a ribbon matching her sweater. She's stabbing her lemon with her straw, obviously upset at his answer. “I'm not saying it's logical. But sharing pizza with him, even fighting, I felt like I could be myself.”
“Bruce really hurt you, did he ?”
“I don't know.” Pepper made them cheese cookies. Of course she did. And they taste buttery and soft. Perfect. “I'm not sure it's all his fault. Vegas ? Yeah, sure, that's on him. But... I don't know. He treated me that way because I let him, you know ? I knew he would leave if I did anything wrong, so I learned to just play the part. I was dumb. He was dumb.”
“I'm sorry. I wish I could've seen something was wrong.”
He sleeps as soon as the plane takes off, and doesn't wake up until the pilot starts to recite his spiel about finally reaching their destination.
He's familiar enough to know where to go to grab his next flight, then a boat, then another boat.
He feels like he can breathe, finally.
His villa is simple, but private, and that's exactly what he wanted. Wifi, because of work, but after a few seconds, he puts his laptop away, and after a second, his phone too. He takes a long shower and after a small hesitation, decides against the beach and goes to his small private pool.
He doesn't think, really. It hits him at breakfast, between two polite smiles and plates of watermelon and pineapple. He should be thinking, he supposes, but really, just existing seems good, at the moment.
A cat comes and naps on his feet, and he spends the rest of his meal with a huge grin on his face.
“You have to be kidding me.”
He has to do a double take, because it's not possible, not even remotely probable. But yes, Steve is the one handing him the lemon shake he accepts. Steve, who sits on the chair next to his and doesn't even look guilty.
“My laptop.” Tony is shaking his head, wanting to be mad, but mostly impressed. “You saw the name of the retreat, their page was on my fucking laptop.”
“I told you. Years with Nat. You start to learn a thing or two.”
Steve sighs, and Tony sees through the bravado. This was rehearsed. The shake, the meeting. Now, now it's the real Steve.
“I couldn't let you run away. I'm sorry. I get that it's violation of trust and I'm sorry about that but I...”
“You're the first who try to catch me.” Tony feels almost... happy. Content. They're missing the beautiful sunset in front of them, and Steve's shoulders are definitely red. His own shirt is a mess of fruit juice, salt water and sand, and he's pretty sure he forgot to bring conditioner.
But still, Steve is looking at him like he matters, like he cared enough to jump in a plane and get to him.
“I know you're still... we're not...”
“But it's a start.”
“Yes.” Steve nods, smiling, eyes almost closed, looking so happy. “Yes, it's a start. We can go to the village after, and have grilled shrimp ? You still like them, do you ?”
It should not mean so much, but it does, and a small, closed off part of his heart unfurls slowly.
“Yeah. Yes, I do.”