“Daddyyyyyyyy!” Peter cries out, running at top speed down the hall and crashing into Tony’s legs.
“Oof,” he puffs, bending over like he’s hurt for a second before he starts tickling at Peter’s sides until he’s rolling around on the floor, giggling madly. “Heya, spider monkey.”
“You’re home early,” Pepper says, a bit surprised, smiling as Peter gasps for breath and Tony hauls him upright. He goes teetering off back into the house without warning, stretching his arms wide like an airplane.
“Yeah, the design meetings got pushed until tomorrow.” The lie tastes bitter on his tongue, and he doesn’t know when that started happening. How many lies has he told to her in the span of their marriage? How many countless times has he lied straight to her face and never given it a second thought?
“I have the rest of the night off, too,” she walks up to kiss the corner of his mouth easily and then floats back into the house. The late afternoon sunlight streaming in through the windows makes her hair look like thin strands of shimmering fire. He regrets that they’ll never get the chance to try to have another kid with her gorgeous, amber hair.
He regrets a lot of things.
“We were going to go have dinner on the boardwalk,” she adds before she yells for Peter to find his shoes, and be quick about it. “Join us?”
“Sure,” he agrees weakly, feeling his heart splinter open just a bit more. He shakes his head sharply before he can give himself away, and goes to change out of his suit and find something a little more suitable for the summer weather.
He nearly breaks down in the bedroom. And then in the bathroom. And then in the closet, and oh god, the symbolism there nearly kills him. He draws about a hundred shaky, steadying breaths to calm himself, and he’s light-headed by the time he joins Pepper and Peter and they walk down to the boardwalk.
Peter wants ice cream before dinner, and he staunchly refuses with Stark-level stubbornness to acquiesce to anything but hot dogs after the ice cream. By the time they both managed to get him turned around enough to get a hot dog into him before the ice cream, it was sunset, and Peter was walking just in front of them, licking happily at his ice cream cone.
Pepper slips her hand into Tony’s and bumps shoulders with him, and Tony swallows and tries to smile. He feels sick, and he knows that Pepper knows something is wrong, because she knows him. She keeps watching him with these careful, guarded eyes, waiting for the right moment to broach the subject.
He grips her hand a little tighter and reminds himself again why he’s doing this.
Surprisingly, it has little to do with Steve. Sure, he was the entire rhyme and reason this was happening at all, but in the end, he isn’t why he’s going through with it. He has nothing to do with it.
It’s Pepper. And Peter. It’s because of them that he can’t lie anymore, even though this is going to tear them apart. It’s going to hurt.
But he loves Pepper. He loves her to the extent that it is humanly possible to love a person, and not be physically attracted to them. He wants to give her literally every happiness in life.
He wants her to get through this, move on, and find someone wonderful. Someone who will love her in all the right ways. Someone who will fix all the damage Tony is about to do.
He could speak about cliches right now, about loving someone and setting them free, but they’ve always been above that, haven’t they? Outside the bounds. Beyond fathomable to so many people, including Tony’s father, in the short time he’d known Pepper before he died. But for all his father’s hesitation, and for all his regrets in marrying Pepper despite all this just unfolding, she gave him Peter.
And he’s the real reason that he has to do this. Because staying together for the kids is a myth. It doesn’t work, and Peter doesn’t deserve that. Peter deserves the entire world wrapped up in a shiny bow and given to him under the tree, as far as Tony’s concerned. He deserves the best the world has to offer him.
And for when the world gives him its worst, he deserves a father that can teach him about strength. About being your own person. He deserves to learn about honesty from an honest man. Even if he can’t be that man—even if this costs him Peter—he can’t let Peter grow up believing in a lie. He’s not going to do that to them.
He’s done damn near enough damage, as it is.
He hugs Peter tighter than he might’ve when they get home, and he insists he be the one to tuck the kid into bed, reading story after story until his eyes droop and close, and Tony smooths down his hair and presses a careful kiss to his forehead. He spends a long time just looking, wondering how it is that such an amazing thing could’ve come from such a terrible lie, and he keeps telling himself that he has to do this. Even if it means he loses Peter, too. Even if it means he loses everything.
Steve has no idea what ‘everything’ is. He doesn’t have a kid. He doesn’t have a fucking clue just how big ‘everything’ could be, just how much losing all of it could hurt—so then why is it that Tony's the one being honest?
He clicks off everything but the night light, and then he closes the door quietly behind him. The house feels cavernous in a way it never has before, and his footfalls echo quietly off the walls and high ceilings. He finds Pepper on the loveseat by the bay windows, already changed into pajamas and reading. She looks so at ease, a stark contrast to her uptight professionalism, and Tony thinks She’s beautiful and I love her and Why can’t I love her the right way?
“Tony,” she says pleasantly, looking up with warmth and contentment in her eyes, smiling even as she bookmarks and puts aside her book. A Tale Of Two Cities. One of Tony’s favorites.
“Hey,” he replies, aware that his voice sounds cracked and unsure. Instantly, she frowns, getting up to meet him halfway, pressing her small hand against his forehead. Since they’ve had Peter, she’s always so gentle with the both of them. It’s the mother in her, Tony knows. She’s protective of Tony in a way she never was before.
I love you.
He lets her kiss him. Or maybe he even kisses her. It doesn’t matter. It’s them. She’s Pepper; she understands. I’m sorry. He presses their foreheads together, cradling her face in his hands as if he can manage not to break her if he holds her gently enough. He wants to break the fall for her. Wants to protect her like she protects him. I love you.
He wonders again why it is he’s not trying harder to make this work. Because you’re gay, his brain supplies unhelpfully, she deserves better.
Their breathing alternates and he can feel her brows crease and her forehead wrinkle as she begins to realize that something is wrong. “Tony?” she asks softly.
“Shh,” he keeps holding them steady. His eyes are closed. He draws in breath, an even in-and-out, and lets himself pretend for just a moment that he can keep doing this. She makes it so easy to love her. She makes him want everything he doesn’t deserve. She’s the single most amazing woman he’s ever met, and he still can’t make himself love her enough.
She stills. And then she slowly draws away from him, each point of contact disconnecting all at once. He misses her warmth. I’m sorry.
He opens his eyes.
“That isn’t funny,” she says calmly, but darkly. A warning.
He shakes his head. “It’s not meant to be.”
She searches his face. He swallows and feels a heavy darkness plummeting down into his chest. His ears ring against the painful silence. She takes another step back from him. Wraps her arms around her middle. “What does this mean?”
He shakes his head. “I don’t know.”
“Why now? What changed?”
“I don’t know.”
“Do you know anything?” She snaps viciously, eyes flashing in anger; resignation; fear. “Do you even know if you’re—if you’re—” She chokes on the word.
“Yes,” he answers, final. He’s had far too long to think about it. Far too long to try to convince himself otherwise. He wishes he could give her any other answer. That there was a way out of this that didn’t hurt so damn much.
Her eyes are wide and glassy in the dim, warm evening lighting. She still looks so young, despite Peter. She still has so much of her life ahead of her. He’s not selfish enough to steal that for himself. He can’t keep her anymore. He doesn’t deserve her anymore. Maybe he never did.
“Does this mean—” she stops, pressing her lips together, trying not to shake. Or maybe it’s Tony that’s trying not to shake. “Is this it?”
Tony just stares back at her, raw, because they both know it’s her decision. Everything from here on out is her decision. Tony gave up his rights to have a say in any of this when he first cheated on her. He doesn’t deserve this much calm. He doesn’t deserve her steady, reassuring presence. She should be angry. She should be so much angrier than she already is. She should be clawing Tony’s heart out of his chest and crushing it, but she’s not, because she’s Pepper, and she was always a far better person than Tony.
“A divorce,” she says flatly, losing some of the emotion in her voice. It’s not a question. Tony winces at the word, but she doesn’t seem to care. Good. “Six years and you—” she cuts herself off again, shaking her head. Tony waits, wrapping his own arms around himself, mirroring her stance. Both trying to comfort themselves because they realize that they can’t be there to comfort one another anymore. That’s not how this works anymore.
Suddenly, she snaps to attention, the anger back in full force, and Tony can’t help but revel in the way it burns him. He’s relieved. He needs to hurt. He needs to be hurt, for this. She needs to hurt him because otherwise he’s never going to forgive himself. Even now, he probably won’t. Not for doing this to her. Not for ruining everything so spectacularly that—
“Is there someone else?” Tony closes his eyes. That’s all the answer she needs. “Who?” she asks darkly, rage seeping out from every angle, woven into the lilt of her voice. “Who is it?”
Tony shakes his head and opens his eyes again. His heart bruises itself against his ribs at the sight of her, so hurt, so betrayed.
“God damn it, Tony!” she shouts, and Tony jumps but doesn’t say anything. “I have a right to know! I’m your wife and I damn well deserve to know who I’ve been sloppy seconds to!” He jolts and opens his mouth, ready with a protest that she was never sloppy seconds, he would never demean her like that, but he did, didn’t he? He doesn’t have any right to say that when it’s nothing but the truth. Even if he’d never meant it to be. Even if he’d never thought of her that way. I love you.
“He’s not out!” Tony finally breaks, speaking louder than he’d intended to, shocking Pepper enough that the anger briefly disappears from her features. “No one knows he’s gay. He left when I told him I didn’t want to pretend anymore.”
He deserves the vindictive satisfaction that flashes over Pepper’s features, but he can’t stand the sadness that follows it like a tidal wave follows an earthquake. She doesn’t even seem angry, just resigned; broken. I’m sorry. He never meant for this to happen. I love you.
She takes a moment to pull herself together, her arms wrapping tighter and tighter around herself, so tight that Tony fears she might break herself. He wants to fix it, wants to wash away her fears and hold her close, keep her safe, but that’s not his place anymore. He has no right.
“What about Peter?”
Tony’s resolve finally cracks. “Please,” he begs, desperate, his emotions running wild over his face, ravaging him and leaving a smoldering husk in its wake. “Please, Pepper, god, I can’t—Fuck, I can’t lose him, I’ll do anything, just don’t take him from me, please, I can’t—”
“Tony,” she says gently, surprisingly so, and Tony crumbles. In seconds, there are gentle arms around him, guiding him towards the couch, rubbing hesitant but soothing circles over his back while he buries his head in his lap and tries to stop the sobbing. This is a mess. How the fuck did he do this to himself? How the hell did he let things get this far?
God, how could he do this when he has Peter? How could he do anything that would risk this, risk his family? He can’t forgive himself. Fuck, Pepper would be entirely within her rights to take Peter away from him. Maybe she should. Maybe Peter shouldn’t even be around him, not when Tony’s gone and fucked things up this badly, not when he’s been stupid enough to share as much as he has with someone that has an extremely good reason to hate him. Steve wouldn’t—he’s too damn honorable to dare touch Peter, even if he’s not so honorable as to lie to his long-time girlfriend, his family, his coworkers, his friends. But he could.
Tony has never fucked up this badly in his entire life. Are you happy now, Dad? he thinks bitterly, choking on a laugh that doesn’t quite distinguish itself from the sobs, Are you up there saying ‘I told you so’?
Pepper is making cooing noises next to him, and Tony’s chest caves in again at how much he doesn’t deserve her. Tony ruined absolutely everything, split apart their family, disrespected their marriage and her, and hurt her in ways he can’t even begin to imagine, and she’s comforting him.
He sits up and wipes violently at his eyes, disgusted with himself. It’s not a new feeling. In fact, by now, it’s quite a familiar feeling, so he lets it envelop him, using it like a shield.
Pepper’s voice is quiet and steady. “I won’t take Peter away from you.”
Tony lets out a shaky breath.
“You have to understand, I’m angry. All my instincts are telling me to take Peter and run, but I can’t do that to you. I won’t. I promise. I just need…time. So that I don’t do something rash. Okay?”
Tony nods mutely, relief rushing through him, filling him up. He hadn’t expected this much kindness, on her part. This level of understanding. Even if it’s minimal, it’s so much more than he could’ve asked for. Her word that she won’t take Peter away from him is as good as gold. He thinks, for the first time in a long time, that things might actually be okay.
She sighs softly. “How the hell did we wind up here?”
Tony shakes his head. He’s been asking himself that question for years, and he still doesn’t know. He doesn’t think anyone does.
Pepper and him both shift, in tandem, neither one of them particularly conscious of moving. But they drift toward each other, until Tony is leaning back against the couch with his arm around Pepper, and she’s leaning her head against his shoulder, curled into him. It’s familiar enough that they both ignore the fact that it’s not right anymore; it’s not the way things are supposed to be, and in the morning, it won’t be any longer. But for now, it’s what they have, and they both take it.
“Thank you for telling me,” Pepper says, barely audible, like she isn’t sure if she wants Tony to hear or not. Tony doesn’t respond. He still hadn’t been sure, if he was really doing the right thing, until that moment. Until just now. He could’ve kept lying, kept pretending, kept things exactly the way they were and forced denial down his own throat until he choked on it, but he didn’t. It wouldn’t be right. It wouldn’t be real, and he couldn’t live haunted with that knowledge. He wouldn’t have been able to stand it.
His breath comes a little easier. He closes his eyes, breathing in Pepper’s scent for the last time, trying to burn everything about her into his memory before it’s gone, because he still loves her. Even if it doesn’t make sense, and even if he can never love her enough, and never in the way she deserves to be loved, he loves her. He made the right choice.
It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; he thinks, and waits as time slips away from them, leaving them to mourn alone, but together, for the last time.