Episode Five: Tony’s No-Good-Rotten Week
On Monday, Clint told Tony that he blamed him for what happened to Natasha.
It wasn’t like Tony could deny it, although it was obvious Clint didn’t mean for it to come out quite like that. But he at least had the decency not to pretend he didn’t say it, which Tony was grateful for. If someone was going to be pissed at him, he’d prefer it to be thoroughly and obviously laid out on the table.
“It’s fine, Barton. No worries. I get it, I do. If I hadn’t rushed off on my own, she wouldn’t have followed me. Although, who was it that was here, and could have stopped her? I’m not saying it’s your fault, either, don’t get me wrong, but if we’re placing blame, you can’t put it all on me. There are tons of other things you can blame on me entirely, but this just isn’t one of them.” Tony stood abruptly from the couch in the room. The medical bay was getting stifling. Tony had never been good about standing vigil at bedsides—he was much more about trying to find solutions.
Natasha still hadn’t so much as shifted since the incident with the psychic and Pepper’s kidnapping three days ago. Tony technically shouldn’t have been allowed out of medical himself, but they were overbooked and he was heavily enough medicated that the pain he felt was inconveniencing at most. He’d railed and fought until they finally agreed to let him go, if he promised to spend his time sitting down and taking it easy.
All considered, he had kept his promise. He spent most of his time either at home in his workshop, or sitting with Natasha. Sleep was a distant memory, however, and Tony was terrified that the second he closed his eyes and let it come over him, Natasha would slip away or something would happen to one of the other team members.
But then, he supposed he wasn’t technically part of the team anymore. On probation, Steve had said, pending review of his performance and the mistakes he had made.
Dizziness came over him as he stood, but he shoved it down and offered a tight-lipped smile to Clint, who was looking at Natasha now, as if he hadn’t heard Tony or didn’t care what Tony had said; he wasn’t sure which. Sighing, he turned to head out of the room.
“Wait, Tony. I’m sorry,” Clint said suddenly, and Tony turned and stared at him, shock all over his face. Clint made a face of his own. “Don’t look at me like that. Is it really so surprising when I apologize for something?”
“Honestly? Yes. Absolutely.”
Clint laughed, but it was empty. “Yeah, guess you’re right.”
“Look, just because you’re hurting right now, doesn’t mean you have to go and change who you are. Be the ass I know you can be. It’s alright. And trust me, I can take it if you need to take it out on someone,” Tony said, shrugging and fighting a yawn that suddenly came over him.
“You look dead on your feet,” Clint said, looking him up and down with an appraising stare. “You sure you can take anything at all? Seriously, I could throw a feather at you and you’d probably bust it. When’s the last time you slept?”
“You know. Sometime,” Tony responded, shrugging.
“Go home, Stark. Get some rest.”
“Yeah, yeah.” Tony pulled the door open and made his way out, nearly colliding with Steve in the hallway. He stumbled, but Steve was quick, catching him before he could literally hit the ground. He held him up for a minute, one of his arms firmly across Tony’s chest while the other was on his back, steadying him. Slowly, Tony looked up to catch Steve’s gaze. Concern was written on every line in his face, his blue eyes practically glowing with it.
“Are you okay, Tony?”
“Shining,” Tony said, pulling out of Steve’s arms and straightening out his t-shirt. He suddenly felt very self-conscious, hyperaware of how close they were. He could literally feel Steve’s breath, brushing through his hair like immaterial fingers. It was oddly soothing, and yet, Tony was distinctly uncomfortable. “In fact, never better. Now if you’ll excuse me.”
Disentangling himself from Steve’s steady grip, Tony dodged around Steve, and tried to ignore the way he could feel Steve’s stare on his back, boring into him, probably trying to figure him out. Tony refused to give him the satisfaction of looking back.
Tuesday, Tony got food poisoning. At least, that’s what he said it was when Steve asked him why he was up at 4 AM and heaving into a toilet in his workshop bathroom.
The truth was, he had finally managed to fall asleep, and quickly had been woken up by the most horrible, vivid nightmare. It had unsettled his stomach quite a bit, and he had rushed over to the toilet promptly to empty himself of his fear and pain.
It had started out like his usual nightmares—being dunked under water, over and over, memories of the pain of electric shocks from the car battery installed in his chest forcing him to feel as if it really were all happening again. Only this time, when he was pulled up after the third time, he saw the lieutenant that had psychically attacked Natasha, and he was holding her by her throat, grinning maniacally as Bruno Horgan toted his state-of-the-art weaponry. Tony felt the agony of the melting metal once more, and that was when he had woken up.
Steve had come in not too long after, claiming that he had left one of his sketch books down here and he had needed it.
“Food poisoning?” Steve asked following Tony’s explanation, slowly creeping further into the workshop and placing a hand on the frame of the bathroom door, which stood open where Tony had flung it moments before. “What have you been eating down here?”
Tony shot him a nasty glare before the heaves started again and he was forced to turn back towards the toilet. Steve sighed, gracefully kneeling down and reaching a tentative hand out to rub Tony’s back. Tony tensed up, but the motion of Steve’s fingers gently relaxed him without his wanting it to, and slowly, he laid his head on the seat of the toilet, breathing as deeply as he dared without the stench of the vomit in the toilet making him sick again.
As Tony’s heaves had subsided completely, Steve pulled him to his feet, propping him against his shoulder as he reached out and flushed the toilet. He then made his way to one of the more comfortable couches in the workshop, easing Tony onto it.
The smaller man immediately placed his face in his hands, resting his elbows on both his knees. Steve just continued running those soothing fingers on his back.
“What do you think, Steve?” Tony groaned, running his hands through his hair.
“I think,” Steve began hesitantly, “That you need to give yourself a break. You need sleep, Tony.”
“Sleep is half the problem here!” Tony snapped. “I can’t fucking sleep without—“
“Without what?” Steve responded, his voice irritatingly calm.
Tony realized he had been about to tell Steve about his nightmares and stopped himself abruptly. Then he would really seem like a wuss. Tony wasn’t sure when it happened, but he actually cared about what Steve thought of him. And especially now, he didn’t want Steve thinking he was a liability to the team, and being afraid of a few nightmares was definitely a liability. He would never get back to full-Avenger status if they didn’t think he was completely invulnerable.
“Nothing, Steve. You’re right. Sleep sounds great.”
As Tony stormed towards the elevator, he ignored Steve’s shouts after him. He wasn’t sure where he was going, but he obviously couldn’t stay here after he told Steve sleep sounded great. Looked like he was off to spend the next few hours staring at his ceiling.
Wednesday came much too soon, and Tony was definitely not prepared for it. He had drifted off, and, blessedly, this time, either the nightmares didn’t plague him or his body refused to allow a repeat performance due to its desperate exhaustion. But he was awakened by the sound of rummaging in the room just a few short hours later.
He blearily peaked out from underneath heavy eyelids, staring at the indistinct shape as it flitted about the room, taking things out of drawers. He blinked to clear his vision so that he could see who the hell it was.
Pepper jumped, dropping several pairs of lacey panties on the floor. “Jesus, Tony!” she exhaled, kneeling to pick everything up as swiftly as she could.
Tony slowly sat up, suddenly very much alert as he caught a look at her face. “You’ve been crying.” It wasn’t a question. He was reminded, somewhat painfully, of his return from his captivity, when he had seen her, red-eyed and puffy-faced, at the airport waiting for him. Pepper, always waiting for him. One day, he would repay her for that. He really would. In any case, he was very much aware that he’d said the same thing then. Only this time, he had no idea what she had been crying about. “What’s happened? Did someone die?”
“Yeah, actually,” Pepper said, trying to smile and failing miserably.
“No,” Pepper cut in quickly. “Natasha is still in the same condition as she has been. It was my grandma.”
“You have a grandma?” Tony sighed, trying to hide the relief he felt at the news. Thank God…
“I do—well—I did. She’s gone now.” She laughed, a watery sound that made Tony wince. “That’s the thing about death. They take people away from us.”
“I thought you’d said I was all you had,” Tony said, trying for a smile. “And here I find you’ve been holding out on me.”
“I’m not the only one,” Pepper said, and Tony felt a distinct discomfort settle in the pit of his stomach.
They stared at each other for a second, and then she sat down and scooted close to him on the bed. She took one of his hands in her own. They felt cold and small against his skin—not at all like the Pepper he was used to. She always felt warmer to the touch. Everything she did exuded warmth.
“We need to talk.”
“Uh-oh.” Those words never, ever ended well. Those were the very same words that his mother had used when she told him he was going to boarding school; the same words that Obadiah had used when he told him that his parents were dead. Those words were the enemy, and he suddenly felt very hollow inside, like everything had suddenly been sucked right out of him, leaving nothing but an empty shell behind. He felt like he knew exactly where this was going.
“And it isn’t going to be very pleasant for either of us,” she continued briskly, turning away from him for a second as she tried to collect herself. She tucked an errant red bang out of her eyes before looking at him once more.
“Tony, I love you,” she said.
“I love you, too. But I sense a ‘but’ here. What’s the ‘but,’ Pep?”
“But,” she said, confirming his suspicions, “I’m not all you have anymore, Tony. You have the Avengers. You have the Initiative. You’ve got this whole dangerous life, and I can tell that you love it. But you see, for ten years, you have been everything to me. My whole life was built around you. Around Tony Stark, to be more specific, and I was okay with that. But Iron Man and the Avengers were never a part of that equation. You’ve got someone, several other someone’s, and I’ve got…nothing. Nothing but a broken relationship and your dangerous life. I need my own life now, Tony. I need my own ‘something else.’ I don’t want to be a danger to you, or to your career, or a target for your enemies. I deserve to be someone’s everything. Don’t you think so?”
Her eyes pleaded with him to understand, to let her go, and of course, Tony would. He’d always figured this would happen. Pepper would leave him just like everyone did. That was just how his life went.
“Yeah, Pep,” he said, and he smiled, though it was obvious that his entire internal infrastructure was collapsing under the weight of this bomb. He was crashing and burning, and this wasn’t something he could blast his way out of. “You’re right—of course you’re right. You deserve something…better. Someone better. I get it. I was never built for relationships anyway—it was only a matter of time before I screwed you over completely, and then we’d be leaving on even more bitter terms.”
He had been willing to try the relationship thing with Pepper because she was Pepper, she was the exception to every rule he had ever had. But he knew it wouldn’t end in a happily ever after. He just wasn’t relationship material, and his life…well, his life was dangerous. Even if he got kicked out of the Avengers, even if he was downgraded to consultant status again, it would always be a part of him. Pepper was right—he did have something else. And she deserved to have her own life.
But that didn’t make it hurt any less. “So what are we gonna do?” he asked after a moment of silence. “You being CEO of my company…well, we’re going to have to interact. I can’t be out of your life. Unless you’re giving that up too…?”
“Goodness, no! Tony, I don’t want you out of my life. Quite frankly, I need you in my life, even if you can’t be my whole life anymore. I will always love you, Tony. Always. You just can’t be all I have anymore. It isn’t healthy.”
Tony let out the breath he hadn’t known he was holding. The idea of a life entirely without Pepper…well, let’s just say he couldn’t even begin to fathom it. He needed her in his life more than he needed her as his girlfriend, and he was at least happy that she wasn’t going to be gone forever.
“Right,” he said, standing and reaching out a hand to help her up. He winced at the twinge of pain that resulted—he still had to take his medication for the day—but otherwise showed no sign of any discomfort. “So, how long will you be gone?” He motioned at the suitcase that still stood open on the floor, several of her clothing packed in it already.
“I…I’m not sure. I just need some time to sort of sort out where I need to go from here. Get my head back together, all of that. I’ll be seeing my family in Miami for the funeral—we’ve never been close, but maybe that might change. You never know.”
He reached out a calloused hand and ran his fingers across one of her cheeks. She exhaled sharply, leaning into the touch and her blue eyes folding closed. He brought up the other hand, framing her face in his hands and placing a long, sweet kiss on her lips. When they parted, his forehead was still resting against hers, his own eyes closed as much as hers. “I was willing to try anything for you, Pep. Anything.”
“I know,” she said, and her voice was unbelievably sad as another tear rolled down her cheek. She placed a kiss on his cheek and then separated from him, moving to stuff her panties in the suitcase and jamming it closed.
“See you around,” Tony said, and she smiled at him once more before placing a hand over her mouth and exiting the room quickly.
Tony waited for the door to close all the way and her footsteps to recede before he folded down onto the bed and burying his face in the pillows, curling in on himself as if that would keep the rush of emotions from exploding out of him.
He didn’t cry, though. Just laid there, wondering if there had been anything, anything in the world, that could have saved this relationship, but never once did he believe this to be anyone’s fault but his own.
Thursday and Friday blurred together in a haze of alcohol and bar brawls, all of which he had to be bailed out of by Steve, because Bruce had gone with Carmen to Cambodia to look for a plant that may or may not help Natasha’s recovery, Clint had enough to deal with and was spending every waking hour next to Natasha’s bedside, and Thor was dealing with Asgardian business.
The second time it happened, Friday night, Steve had to stop Tony from letting go of his waist on the motorcycle as they were heading back, nearly causing them both to crash. Steve pulled to the side of the road and turned, hauling Tony off the bike and grabbing him by his shoulders, staring into his eyes.
“What the hell was that, Tony?”
“I don’t know, Cap,” Tony slurred. “It just felt like too much trouble to hold on.”
Steve shook him, not enough to do any real damage but enough to make Tony wince as it jostled old injuries and reminded him of newer ones. “Don’t you dare say that! Don’t you ever—“ Steve looked broken, and Tony arched an eyebrow at him. He sounded like he was going to cry.
“Did I ever tell you about my friend Bucky?” Steve said, suddenly altering the subject, and Tony’s face clouded with confusion as he shook his head no.
“Well, one time, he wasn’t able to hold on. He slipped right through my fingers and fell to his death. I lost my best friend that day, Tony. Because he couldn’t hold on. Because I wasn’t fast enough. Because a whole hell of a lot of things that added up to me losing him. I don’t want to lose you, too.”
“You heard me. I don’t know what you’re going through. If you wanna talk about, you know where to find me. But regardless, it is always worth it to hold on. And if you keep on acting like this, I’m going to lose you, not just as a teammate, but as a friend. And I don’t want that to happen. Now clean up your act, Stark,” Steve said, and suddenly his voice was back to that of Captain America, ordering him about.
Tony thought about telling him to fuck off, thought about telling him that he’d act however he wanted, because he was a grown-ass man and he wasn’t on the Avengers anymore to be told what to do. But he didn’t say any of that. He simply nodded his head wordlessly, and the two of them climbed onto the bike and headed back to Avengers Tower.
Steve found Tony in his workshop on Saturday morning. It was obvious he still hadn’t slept and he had a bottle of liquor still in his hand. Dummy was whirring around him in concern, nudging and poking him, but Tony remained unresponsive.
Steve opened his mouth to speak, but Tony beat him to the punch. “I really fucked it up this time, didn’t I?”
“Which time would that be?” Steve asked, hesitantly moving to sit next to him on the floor of the workshop, his back pressed to the sofa.
“With Natasha. With Pepper. With the team in general. Every time. I don’t fucking know. But I fucked it up.”
Steve bit his lip, his eyebrow creasing in concern. “What happened?”
Tony laughed, short and bitter, taking a swig of whatever was in his bottle. “You know most of it. But Pepper left me.”
“73 hours, 47 minutes and about 18 seconds ago,” Tony said in a monotone.
“Don’t say it. Don’t you dare say you’re sorry, Steve. It has nothing to do with you, so don’t apologize for it.”
“Nevertheless, I’m going to say it—Tony, I’m sorry. That’s real awful.”
Tony ‘tsked’ and looked away, drinking at the last dregs of his alcohol and then tossing the bottle at the wall. It shattered, and Dummy rushed over and began trying to clean everything up. His claw was too big and clumsy to be really effective, but it gave the robot something to do, so neither Steve nor Tony bothered to try and stop him.
“I can’t say I’m a stranger to heartbreak,” Steve said, “So I know a bit of what you’re going through. Do you want to talk about it?”
“No,” Tony said, short and to the point. Steve nodded.
“Then how about we just sit here? Maybe Jarvis can put on a movie…”
“Of course, sir, which movie would you prefer?” The AI’s voice said, nearly making Steve jump before he regained control of himself.
“Something funny,” Steve said, “I think we could both use a laugh. What about some Charlie Chaplin? He was a bit before my time, but I found his films hysterical growing up.” The black and white movie began playing immediately. Steve turned back to Tony. “How about I get us a couple of beers?”
“I thought you couldn’t get drunk?” Tony said, eyeing him.
“I can’t,” Steve confirmed, “But there’s no reason I can’t enjoy the taste, is there?”
“Well, there’s no accounting for poor taste in beverages,” Tony said, a flicker of his old humor coming back, “But sure. I could use a beer.”
The week came to a close the next night, Steve and Tony still in the workshop. They had ordered in Chinese, empty boxes of it splayed around them on the floor. Tony was curled into Steve’s side, his mouth hanging slightly open in sleep.
He had begun crying somewhere around the 9th beer, muttering about being a fuck up with relationships and wanting Pepper to see how hard he was trying and forgive him, but he’d quit pretty quickly as his exhaustion and the alcohol caught up with him and sent him into a deep slumber.
Steve, smiling slightly at his friend, brushed a bit of his dark hair off his forehead and then sighed, leaning his head back against the sofa.
Tony had not had the best week. But hopefully, next week would be better. Even so, Steve thought Tony would be okay eventually. After all, he was a Stark. They bounced back from everything.
Even no-good-rotten weeks.