He'd expected it, really, but that didn't mean it hurt any less. Tony Stark was not someone who could hold a relationship, was not someone who people stuck around. Howard and Maria Stark had never had time for their only son, and had left him in the car crash; Obadiah Stane had only liked Tony for his brain, his inventions, and he had tried to kill Tony when he was done with him. Even James Rhodes had washed his hands of Tony after he'd stopped being interested in weapons, and while they still talked sometimes, they had fallen apart in the same way as the other line of friends Tony had made in high school and college, ducking out as soon as they realised how difficult it was to keep friendly with him.
Tony had to hand it to Pepper, though: she'd lasted the longest; twenty-two years doing his work at Stark Industries, and two years and three months as his girlfriend, she'd beat out Obie by a whole two years, six months.
And yet. Tony had flown a nuke into another pocket of space, had saved the world yet again, but it had been too much. She'd tried – oh, how Pepper had tried – to get past her fear, to move beyond the knowledge that she was going to lose him. And, for a couple months, they managed.
And then the wannabes started appearing: Hydra grunts appeared from nowhere, Dr Doom caught their attention with his little magic robots, Mandarin claimed a grudge with Tony, and Magneto occasionally popped by to cause trouble when the X-Men were otherwise occupied.
Pepper claimed she'd had enough when Tony broke his right arm in three places slamming into a building downtown. He'd been an absolute misery while ordered home to rest, unable to work on anything with the entirety of his dominant arm set in a cast. He'd demanded Dummy shipped to New York from his Malibu house, thinking his first bot might be able to help him, and Dummy had managed for a week before Tony started getting frustrated. Pepper had come down to find him directing Dummy with a laser saw along the cast, trying to get it open without further damaging himself so he could fucking work and high off his painkillers. She'd rushed him back to the hospital to have the cast repaired, revoked his workshop access, then told him she was leaving.
"What? For some meeting on the other side of the country? God, please take me with y–"
"No, Tony," she'd replied quietly, expression hard even as her voice broke on his name. "I can't do this anymore. I can't watch you out there, hoping you'll come home safe, only for you to return with cuts and broken bones. I can't share you with Iron Man, not like this."
And Tony had stared at her, disbelieving. "Pep. Are you–?"
"I'm breaking up with you," Pepper had admitted, and he had to applaud her control even as he wanted to scream, wanted to shake her and cry because he couldn't lose her, couldn't lose this, and she was breaking his heart. "I'll still work for Stark Industries, unless you'd prefer–"
"No, God, no," Tony interrupted, his voice oddly steady, and a part of him recognised he'd been waiting for this to happen. "I'm not going to fire you for breaking up with me. Jesus. I'm not that much an ass. I don't think. But, I mean, you can still live here. Or I can pay for a hotel or something downtown until you find a place, or–"
"You're taking this too calmly," Pepper said, and now her eyes were filling with tears and her mouth was turning down.
Tony looked away, couldn't watch her fall apart, and said, "Drugs," as if that explained everything. But it didn't, couldn't explain that Tony had known. Had been waiting for this, the inevitable parting. Because everyone left Tony Stark eventually.
"Tony, I don't want to hurt you and I'm so–"
"You're not," Tony promised, offering her a too-bright smile, unable to listen to her apologise for doing like everyone else. "Really, I'm good. Living arrangements. Working them out."
"I'm– I'll stay at a hotel. JARVIS already set it up for me," Pepper said and Tony wondered how long she'd been waiting to break things off. "You'll be all right?"
Tony pushed away from the couch, still smiling too bright. "Going to bed. Sleeping off drugs, just what the doc ordered. And, yes, I know, no workshop. Got it. Work? Tomorrow? Do I need to come in? I think I remember– JARVIS, was there a board meeting scheduled for tomorrow, or is that the day after?"
"The day after, Sir," JARVIS replied promptly. "There is nothing on the agenda for tomorrow."
"Right. I'll see you day after, then," Tony promised and motioned for her to precede him to the elevator. "I'm going to bed. JARVIS will tuck me in. Or maybe Dummy, if you'll let me let him out? Can I let Dummy out? He hates being cooped up in the lab all alone."
"I– Yes, of course," Pepper agreed, confused, her eyelashes sparkling in the elevator lights from the tears caught in them. "JARVIS, let Dummy out?"
"Dummy has been released," JARVIS replied, and the doors of the elevator opened on the lab level to let the little bot inside.
"Hey, buddy!" Tony called, petting his long-time friend's arm – robots never left, never had lives outside of Tony. "How about a sleep over tonight? That sound cool to you? Because I'm all for a sleep over."
Dummy chirped at the prospect and bumped against Tony's cast with his arm.
"Oh, yeah. Pep said we're not allowed to try sawing it off again," Tony explained as the doors opened to the floor with the living quarters on it. "Something about extended healing time and a bad idea. I dunno." And he walked alongside Dummy as they left Pepper standing in the elevator, acting as if nothing had changed.
As soon as the elevator doors closed behind him, Tony's shoulders slumped and he rubbed tiredly at his eyes. "I need a drink," he mumbled to his robot friend, who chirped and wheeled off to where he knew Tony kept his alcohol; Dummy knew him so well.
"Sir, I do not know that this is wise," JARVIS cautioned.
"I have just been dumped," Tony reminded the AI. "I deserve a drink, and if you pester Pepper about this, I will rewrite all your code. Also, she didn't say I couldn't drink."
Tony had two drinks and would have had more, but he remembered the multitude of painkillers he'd swallowed not too long ago and told himself no. He did go to bed, comforted by Dummy's quiet movements as he attempted – and likely failed – to clean up the mess in the room.
He woke around four, the painkillers having worn off, and drowned his pain in alcohol. He stumbled drunkenly towards the elevator, intending to work in his lab, but JARVIS reminded him he had been locked out for forty-eight hours, so Tony just slumped against the wall of the hallway, muttering angrily about ex-girlfriends being tyrants and curling into the cool metal of Dummy, who had remained faithfully at his side.
When he woke again, he had a blinding headache and he ordered Dummy to get him something for it. The bot brought him a drink and Tony took it, uncaring, and proceeded to drink a couple more, until he could no longer feel any pain. He eventually made his way upstairs, Dummy ever next to him, and made himself some food, then watched television until he dozed off.
He managed to make himself mostly presentable for the board meeting the next day, JARVIS having directed Dummy to his pills, rather than more alcohol, when Tony had woken on the couch. Pepper had been scarce while he was at the office, and Tony couldn't decide how he felt about that, so he went out to a bar, had a few drinks, hit on a few girls, then brought a pair of twins home.
Dummy wasn't pleased when he was ordered up to the lab for the night.
Tony returned to a pattern he'd believed left behind after Afghanistan: His days were filled by being locked in his lab or going in to work and pretending to be an adult, his evenings were filled with going to bars or high-society parties and bringing home women. He brushed off all questions as to his relationship with Pepper, telling jokes or asking about whoever's wife/kid/pet/lover-on-the-side to distracted them. And it wasn't always comfortable, letting these women see him naked, smacking their hands away from the arc reactor and insisting he keep his shirt on to help block the glow.
When he finally got his cast off, he started having more fun, cruising the dance floors and switching between several pretty ladies before settling on just one. (Or two. Or three, on one memorable occasion.)
Almost three months after Pepper broke it off, Tony woke to find Bruce frowning down at him from the end of his bed. "Brucy?" he mumbled, mouth tasting a bit like something had died in it.
"Get up, take a shower, get dressed, and meet me upstairs in half an hour or I will let Widow nail your ass to the ceiling," he threatened before turning on his heels and stalking from the room in that compressed-anger way of his.
Tony wasted no time in making himself presentable. He found the whole team – and he thought he could call them a proper team, now, after a few months of saving the world, even if he'd been out of the game for three of them – sitting in his living room, frowning at him.
"What is this, the Spanish Inquisition?" Tony demanded.
"Stark," Steve Rogers called when Tony turned to the kitchen, "get your ass over here and sit down." And, oh, cursing. Steve only ever cursed on the field or when he was really ticked off; not a good sign.
"Coffee," Tony insisted, pointing towards the kitchen.
"Sit down," Natasha Romanoff ordered, wearing a smile that said, 'I will fucking make you if I have to'.
Tony walked over and sat in the only chair. Because, honestly? Natasha scared him. "Monty Python jokes are wasted on you people," he said, just to be difficult. Also, he was a little bit disappointed that no one had followed up on the line he'd so readily handed them. These people. Really. (Okay, to be fair, Steve could be forgiven, and if he'd been there, so could Thor, but he knew for a fact that Bruce had seen that sketch, because Tony had made him.)
"We got the call to assemble last night, and guess who wasn't there," Clint Barton said with a too-cheerful tone.
"There was not," Tony insisted. "I would have remembered."
"No, you were too busy being drunk off your ass downtown," Natasha purred, and Tony thought, for a moment, that his testicles had climbed up into his body in sheer terror. Purrs were supposed to be sexy, not murderous. Jesus.
"And picking up two pretty hot bimbos," Clint added. "Which, by the way, I approve of the brunette, but the red head was just...no."
"Clint," Steve interrupted, looking a little pink around the edges. And Tony wanted to make fun of him for his virgin blush, but then Steve was looking at him like Tony'd murdered his fucking puppy or something.
"Jesus! I'm sorry, okay. I promise it won't happen again."
"You are a shitty liar," Clint told him.
"When we couldn't get in touch with you, Dr Banner called Ms Potts," Steve informed him and Tony couldn't stop a grimace. "We know you broke up two and a half months ago, we know you've been a wreck since–"
"Not a wreck," Tony insisted. "And not because of Pepper." He motioned with his right hand. "Hi! Hello! Do you have any idea how depressing it is to be stuck without the use of your dominant hand? Detail work is really fucking hard."
"Liar, liar, pants on fire," Clint sang.
"Stuff it, Legolas," Tony snapped, "before I shove one of your arrows up your ass."
"Clint, stop antagonising him," Steve ordered, ever the diplomat, and Tony wanted to throttle him. "Stark, you're a wreck. When was the last time you didn't fall asleep drunk?"
Tony decided that wasn't worth a response and settled for glaring at the obnoxious archer.
And then Bruce was suddenly there, between Tony and Clint, dark eyes so very sad, and Tony had to stop from reeling backwards, because he'd been startled, because sad Bruce always tore at his heart just a little bit. Because that was the same expression he'd worn the day he'd come to Tony and said he couldn't stay in Stark Tower, because it was too small, too easy to damage, and Bruce was scared, couldn't endanger people, couldn't endanger Tony, whose bedroom was right across the hall and who worked in the same lab, singing to angry music at the top of his lungs and terribly off-key.
And Tony hadn't known what to do with being left for his own protection, of seeing Bruce two days later in a fight and the Hulk being there, without fail, to catch him when he would have otherwise been impaled on a bent street light. Of the certainty that the Hulk would never hurt him, and Bruce's fear that he could – he would – because Iron Man and Tony Stark were two different people, and Bruce wouldn't chance Tony's life like that, not his only friend. And Tony would never stop being horrified that he was someone's only friend.
"Tony," Bruce said in the same voice he'd said good-bye in, "how can we help?"
Not 'how can I help', but 'how can we help'. Like it was a foregone conclusion that these people – this hodgepodge mess of a team – would be willing to step up next to Tony and fix him. Because Tony was broken, so broken, and Pepper leaving had just been another lash on his scarred back, but it'd cut the deepest yet and Tony hadn't been ready, no matter how much he'd told himself he was.
And Tony grabbed for Bruce's hand, feeling like he was falling, falling, and why was he suddenly seeing the world through water? When had he leaned forward, forehead pressing against Bruce's? When had Steve's hand appeared on his back, rubbing soothing circles, or Natasha's gentle voice start murmuring assurances, or Clint's fingers begin moving through his hair, calluses catching against a scab on his scalp?
Where had these people come from? And why did they care?
When did Tony find a family?
Tony didn't explain his emotional breakdown, and the Avengers didn't ask. But when Tony mentioned he had some empty floors open to anyone who wanted to move in, they were quickly filled. Steve insisted he was tired of living in his run-down apartment in Manhattan, attracting attention from the press anytime he forgot to wear sunglasses and a hat. Clint and Natasha both insisted they were tired of living in SHIELD barracks, wanted to be on hand when something happened, rather than wherever the helicarrier was when the call to assemble came. Bruce said it might be nice to return to civilisation again, felt safer with Steve in the building too, always ready to hold the Other Guy back while the others grabbed their kits.
Thor, when he visited from Asgard, took the lowest floor and threw spectacular parties at ridiculous hours, drinking all but Steve under the table and burning Pop-Tarts in the mornings. Sometimes, he would bring Jane Foster, his girlfriend, with him, and Tony kind of adored her a lot, the way she got passionate about stars and rainbow bridges and travelling to other worlds. And none of them talked about how Thor returned to Asgard every other week or so for three or four days, visiting his brother. But all of them knew about it, and Clint would scowl and mutter about it when Thor left, and Fury was fairly vocal in his disapproval, but Loki was still Thor's family, psycho or not, and none of them could stop him going, whether they wanted to or not.
When Coulson was finally released from the SHIELD hospital – and there were words about that, none of them speaking to Fury for almost two months when they found out they'd been played – he moved in too, insisting the lot of them needed a baby-sitter. There was a floor open, but he moved in with Clint, saying, "Out of all of you, Agent Barton is the one most likely to need me to keep an eye on him. Well, maybe you, Stark, but I trust your technology to keep you from being too stupid. Most of the time."
Pepper finally returned after another four months, tired of living in hotels and avoiding Tony at work. "Can we go back to before?" she asked when she found him that morning in his lab, bruises under his eyes proving his lack of sleep and a mug of cold coffee in danger of being knocked to the floor by his elbow. "Before Afghanistan and Obie and Iron Man?"
"Back when your job was to heckle me about my work and kick out my latest fling in the mornings?" Tony asked, too blunt because he'd been up for almost thirty hours, working a new laser system into the suit and talking out loud about Doombots and psychopathic Chinese men to Dummy and JARVIS.
"I– Yes?" Pepper replied uncertainly.
Tony sighed and leaned back against the table he'd been working at, holding out his cold mug for Dummy to take and refill. "The only things people heckle me about any more is getting sleep and coming up for dinner, and I haven't slept with anyone in four months." He rubbed a hand over his face and accepted his hot mug. "Good boy," he told his bot before looking up at Pepper's fallen face. "Look, Pep..." He sighed again. "Fuck, I need sleep. Okay, look. You know I'm utter shit at this relationships and friends and what-the-fuck-ever shit, okay? You know I'm screwed up – hell, the whole fucking world knows I'm screwed up – and if you're good with that, if you can stand watching the news when we're out there, beating on the villains and not knowing if one of us is going to get stuck in a hospital bed for however many months... If you're good with that, you can stay. I can't stop you. I won't stop you. But you can't– If you're going to stay, stay. Don't run scared on me again, because I can't do that. I just can't."
Pepper let out a heavy breath, something so very sad in her eyes. "I'm sorry," she said, and hurried to continue before Tony could interrupt her, because Tony never thought he deserved to be told sorry when it was his fault they'd left. "I'm sorry I got scared. And I don't know that I can do the relationship thing again, not knowing you're always out there, putting your life on the line, but I can't keep watching in the coffee shop, either, wondering if the hit you took left you wounded, or if the suit protected you. I need to know you're okay more than I need to cut you out of my life." She gave a broken laugh. "I can't cut you out of my life."
Tony shrugged. "Whatever. Well, Bruce's old room on this floor is empty – keep meaning to put a kitchen in, though I doubt I'll remember to use it – or you can kick the rugrats and their toys out of the empty floor below Bruce. Anything works. Your choice."
Pepper looked uncertain for a moment, then she stepped forward and took the mug from Tony's hand, handing it down to Dummy, who chirped a question. "You, Mr Stark, need sleep," she said in her PA voice.
Tony couldn't help the relieved grin that broke out over his face as she pulled him out of the lab and manhandled him into his room.
And when Tony woke up from his long nap, he found a couple of Pepper's boxes stacked in Bruce's old room, and her laughing with Natasha about something in the kitchen as they made dinner together.
And when the Avengers stumbled home after another fight, Pepper – and sometimes Jane – was always there with a stern expression and the first aid kit, unwilling to let a single one of them avoid her care. Coulson approved, Fury stopped dragging a medical team with him for immediate debriefings, and they all managed to fit together into one happy, dysfunctional family, rough edges and all.