He stumbles into the shower at five in the morning. He sits fully clothed under the spray of water that is just shy of scalding. His Italian leather shoes and designer suit won’t make it out of this, he thinks, neither will he.
‘Tony?’ There’s a knock at the door. ‘Tony, is that you?’ The doorknob turns. Tony’s glad he remembered to lock it this time. He doesn’t reply. There’s a long pause, then another knock. ‘Tony, please.’ Tony shakes his head and little drops of water flick from the tips of his hair and break the mist forming on the frosted glass. He leans over, wipes away the water and breathes on the glass, but it doesn’t look the same. He draws a smiley face then leans back under the spray and stares at the ceiling.
‘Tony? Have you been drinking?’ He wishes it was that simple. That he’d been drinking and had sworn at some important senator or been caught pissing in a beer bottle again. But he can’t blame the drink for this. Won’t blame the drink for this. This was all his stupid fuck-up self, drunk or not.
He shakes his head again but this time watches the droplets dribble down the glass leaving little trails of broken steam. He tugs off his saturated shoes and socks, sets them down together and gently pushes them away with the heel of his foot. He bows his head between his knees and knots his finger between his toes. The water dripping into his eyes is tinged slightly reddish. He scraped his forehead against the brick, the water has re-opened the wound, but it doesn’t hurt. It should hurt.
‘Tony, you’re scaring me. I’m not mad, okay? Whatever this is, we can work it out. Please, talk to me? You could be drowning in there.’
It’s not fair, he thinks, on top of everything else to let her worry like this. ‘I’m fine,’ he says but it comes out hoarse and doesn’t sound sincere even to his own ears.
Nonetheless there’s a sigh of relief. ‘What’s wrong, Tony? Please, tell me what wrong?’
He closes his eyes and pictures her. Leaning again the door, concern furrowing her brow, hand still clutching the doorknob. ‘I cheated on you,’ he says.
‘I cheated on you,’ he repeats.
There’s a pause. ‘Why?’
There’s a shuffling noise, then footsteps, then the door gently closing.
Tony wakes up slumped against the bathroom door. The shower’s still running and his clothes are still slightly damp. He staggers to his feet and leans against the door as he tries to get his legs to cooperate. His muscles ache. His back and neck are stiff from his sleeping position and he tries not to think about the other aches. He turns the water off, and strips off the ruined clothes. There are bruises on his hips and arms. He puts his fingers over them and tries to remember what it felt like. Fragmented images of yes, yes, so hot. You like that don’t you, just enough to paint a picture. Just enough to make him feel sick. How could something feel so good and so wrong at the same time?
He puts on a pair of sweatpants and a long sleeve shirt to cover the bruises. Out of sight out of mind, or some shit like that, right? Shaking his head in a vain attempt to clear his thoughts, he heads for the kitchen.
Clint’s at the table and he greets Tony with a raised eyebrow and says, ‘Jesus, Stark, what happened to your face?’ The smug grin and light-hearted tone are almost more than Tony can deal with when he’s tired and sore and coffee-less so he ignores him. Tony pours himself a cup of coffee, then sits at the table and stares at his hands. Fingers tingling. Can’t control his hands. ‘Seriously though,’ Clint almost sounds concerned now, ‘what happened?’
Tony takes the first sip of coffee. It burns his tongue. It hurts. He puts the mug down, leans back in his chair and tries not to look like he isn’t looking at Clint. ‘I walked into a door.’ He can picture Clint’s raised eyebrow vividly enough that he doesn’t need to look. He takes another sip of coffee, it’s still hot. It still burns. He kind of likes it like that.
‘Fine, don’t tell me. When Steve sees you there’ll be no keeping secrets. I’ll know what happened by lunch.’ A hand tangled in his hair, pushing his face against the brick wall, scraping, cutting, bleeding. Tony throws his mug at the wall. Clint jumps to his feet. ‘What the fuck, man?’
Tony stares at the broken shards. Four pieces. Not irreparable, but it would never be the same, it’s not worth trying to salvage it. ‘That was my favourite mug,’ he says, then gets up, steps over the puddle of coffee, leaves the room and goes down to the lab.
There’s a tentative knock on the door ten minutes later. He shouldn’t be surprised really, Clint probably went running straight to the Captain after that freak out. Tony tells Jarvis to let him in, but doesn’t turn away from his work. ‘Pepper and I broke up,’ he pre-empts Steve’s question.
‘Oh.’ Steve just stands there in silence for a moment, Tony can practically feel his eyes burning into his back. ‘I’m sorry,’ he says eventually. Tony shrugs. ‘Are you okay?’ Tony shrugs again. ‘Well, um, I’ll leave you too it then.’
That was easier than he thought it would be.
After that, the team leaves him alone. He works for two days straight without interruption. On the third day, Pepper phones. He doesn’t answer. ‘We need to talk.’ See if we can’t use that mouth for more than talking. ‘Call me back,’ is all she says. He doesn’t call her back, he knows he should, but he can’t bear to talk to her, and what’s one more thing to feel guilty about when he already feels like the shit on Pepper’s shoe.
The second time she rings, he almost answers. Not for any magnanimous reason, he’s just knee deep in car part and hears Jarvis say her name. It’s a reflex. He stops himself just in time and listens as Jarvis plays her message. ‘Tony, please, I know you’ve got the message by now. Please pick up,’ her voice sounds hoarse, like she’s been crying. He can’t take that, knowing he’s made Pepper cry. Pepper, the strongest, smartest, calmest woman he’s even known and he’s hurt her enough to make her cry. He mutes the rest of the message. She doesn’t call again.
The next day Bruce comes down to the lab with a mug of coffee and a plate of sandwiches. ‘Hey,’ he says. Tony grunts. Bruce clears a space on Tony’s worktable and sets the coffee and food down. ‘Thought you could use some fuel.’
There’s an awkward silence for a long moment. Tony can tell what Bruce is thinking, knows he wants to ask about Pepper. Eventually, Bruce clears his throat, shuffles his weight and says, ‘So, what are you working on?’
Tony leans back in his chair, smiles and reaches for a sandwich.
With Bruce, it’s easy to pretend everything’s fine. It scares him a little, how easy it is to slip back into things, to forget that he’s done the one thing he promised himself he never would - hurt Pepper. Bruce is telling him a story, something about Mexico and a banjo playing dog, and it feels so wrong. This feels wrong. ‘I fucked up, Bruce,’ he interrupts the story. ‘Major.’
Bruce looks surprised for a moment. He pauses then takes his glasses off. ‘How so?’
‘I cheated on Pepper.’
Bruce frowns. Some part of Tony is expecting condemnation, knows he deserves it. He doesn’t know why he’s telling Bruce this. Maybe some masochistic streak that’s telling him he doesn’t deserve friends, not after what he’s done. But all Bruce says is, ‘Why?’
Tony laughs. ‘I don’t know. God, I don’t even know.’
Bruce smiles weakly. ‘I don’t know what to tell you, Tony. I’m not really the kind of guy you should be asking for advice here. My track record with women isn’t exactly comprehensive or successful. Have you tried just saying you’re sorry?’
‘Huh. No, I haven’t.’
‘Well maybe you should try that?’
It turns out that’s not as easy as it sounds. When Pepper phones again the next day, he means to answer, to apologise, to tell her how sorry he is and beg her forgiveness. Or just to ask her over to talk about it in person. He doesn’t though. He chickens out and leaves the phone to ring out.
‘Pick up your damn phone, Tony,’ she sounds angry this time. He doesn’t blame her. ‘I know you’re there.’ There’s a pause then a sigh. ‘Fine, be that way.’ Click.
She phones again an hour later. He doesn’t answer. ‘This is ridiculous, Tony,’ she says. ‘I should be the one ignoring you, not the other way around. For once in your life can’t you just stop acting so childish?’ A pause. ‘We need to talk and you can’t keep putting this off. I’m coming over. Don’t ignore me; you owe me this much. I’ll be there in an hour.’
Okay. He can do this. She’s right of course - Pepper’s always right - he owes it to her and he’s acting like a selfish kid, making this about him, when it should be about her. He’s doing the guilty, self-pity thing, when he should be letting her call the cards. He closes his eyes, takes a deep breath and goes back to work.
Forty-seven minutes later he hears the lab door open and close. He doesn’t turn away from his work. ‘Pepper,’ he says.
‘Tony,’ she says. ‘We need to talk.’
He continues typing and doesn’t look at her. He can’t look at her, can’t bear to see the anger or sadness or disappointment or whatever the hell she’s feeling. ‘I guess we do,’ he says.
He hears her step closer. ‘Why did you do it?’
Tony shrugs. ‘Come on, Pepper. Are you really surprised?’ He rapidly flicks through a series of diagrams on the screen, he barely looks at them; he can’t focus, just needs to look - to feel - like he’s doing something. ‘You’re that naive? I’m a well-known playboy for god sake. You should have seen this coming.’ He should have seen this coming.
‘I know you, Tony. Or, I thought I did. Maybe I was naive, but I never thought you could do this to me. I thought you were better than this.’ Pepper moves into his line of vision, he turns away. ‘Look at me, goddammit it, Tony, you selfish bastard.’ She grabs his shoulder and forcibly turns him around, he doesn’t resist. ‘Tell me why you did it.’
He stands up, crosses the room and leans against a worktable. It’s easier to do this with physical distance between them. Easier to pretend he doesn’t care about her, that it won’t hurt when she walks away. But she follows him. She stands just inside his personal space and crosses her arms. She’s daring him to walk away again. He doesn’t. ‘Tell me why you did it,’ she repeats more calmly this time.
He doesn’t know how to explain without sounding like he’s making excuses. It feels strange, struggling for words like this, normally they come to him with ease in even the most awkward situations. ‘It’s just…’ he starts then stops. ‘There was this guy.’
Pepper’s eyebrows shoot up, she leans closer and huffs an apathetic laugh. ‘Is that it? God, Tony, you could have said something. If you were so desperate for a guy, we could have worked something out.’
Tony freezes. He opens and closes his mouth a couple of times while he tries to remember how to talk again. ‘We could have?’ It comes out way more high pitched than it sounded in his head.
Pepper tilts her head and raises an eyebrow. ‘Tony, come on,’ she shakes her head, ‘it’s not exactly a big secret.’
Tony swallows heavily and tries very carefully not to think about it. ‘We’re getting off track here. I didn’t do it because he was a guy.’
‘Then why did you do it?’
‘We were just supposed to talk.’
Pepper scowls and takes a step back. ‘We are talking, Tony. I’m not here to argue with you. I just want to understand.’
‘No, no. Jesus. Fuck! This is all coming out wrong. He was just supposed to talk.’ Mr Stark, it’s so good to meet you.
‘What do you mean?’
‘I mean, he wanted to talk business. You know, all that crap you’re always getting at me about listening to potential investors.’ Pepper nods slowly but doesn’t interrupt. ‘So I’m there stuck with this guy talking my ear off about stock prices or whatever, I wasn’t really listening. Cap’s on the other side of the room schmoozing with some pretty ladies and I’m stuck with this windbag. Anyway, long and short of it, guy grabs my ass. I guess I told him to back off, I don’t know, it’s kind of hazy. I think I kicked off or something, I remember Cap came over and said it was time to leave. I guess I blew him off because next thing I remember is pukeing my guts up in an alley outside. I guess the guy followed me. I guess he came onto me again. I guess… I guess I didn’t say no.’
Pepper just stares. She doesn’t say anything. Tony can’t get a read on her and the silence feels heavy and awkward. ‘What do you mean, “you guess”?’ she says eventually.
It’s not the reaction Tony was expecting. It startles him and he answers before he even thinks about it. ‘I mean, I don’t really remember much. It’s kind of,’ he motions to his head, ‘fuzzy.’ She’s frowning, but not at him, she seems kind of distant, thoughtful and it bothers him that he can’t figure out what’s going on in her head. He shuffles from foot to foot, crosses and uncrosses his arms. She watches him, but he still can’t get a read on her. He would almost say she looks worried, but that doesn’t make any sort of sense.
‘Were you drunk?’
‘No.’ He pauses. ‘I don’t know. Maybe. Probably.’ It’s all so surreal - she’s suddenly so subdued, unsettlingly calm. She should be angry. This isn’t going anything like he had expected.
‘How much did you have?’ she asks.
Tony shakes his head. ‘I don’t know. What the hell does it matter? I was drunk. I fucked up. I’m sorry.’
She steps closer. ‘Tony, how much?’
‘We’re getting way off track again. This isn’t the issue.’
‘Please, Tony,’ she grabs his arms, ‘just tell me how much.’
Tony shakes her off and takes a step back. It doesn’t make any sense. He can’t figure out what’s getting her so agitated, but he supposes the least he can do is answer her question. He closes his eyes, rubs his forehead and tries to remember. ‘I thought it was just two glasses.’ Just one, Mr Stark? But I already got you another. ‘But I guess… I don’t know, I’d barely be tipsy on two. I felt pretty out of it.’
Pepper’s face falls, she slowly steps back, and watches him. ‘God, Tony. That sounds really wrong.’
Tony raises his eyebrows. It’s not like he doesn’t know he made a mistake, but Pepper sounds… disturbed, upset, not angry. He’s well acquainted with Pepper lecturing him on stupid behaviour but this doesn’t feel like that at all. This sounds like Pepper worried about him, scared and upset and he doesn’t know what to make of that. ‘What the fuck is that supposed to mean?’
‘Do you even know what that sounds like?’
He feels like he’s missing half the conversation here. ‘You better goddamn tell me because I am really fucking confused right now.’
‘It sounds like he spiked your drink.’
Tony blinks then bursts out laughing. ‘Jesus, Pepper, that’s where you were going with this?’ He takes a long breath and calms himself down. It’s really not funny, he’s not sure why he’s laughing, it’s just so absurd. ‘What the fuck difference does it make?’
‘I cheated on you. Right? Right.’ He crosses his arms. ‘What the fuck difference does it make whether I was high as kite, I still did it.’
‘So he drugged you?’
Tony shrugs. ‘Sure. I guess. Makes sense. So what?’
‘It changes everything, Tony.’
‘Uh, no. It doesn’t.’
Pepper opens her mouth, pauses, closes it and pause again. ‘How can you say that? How can you think this doesn’t change things? God, Tony, you didn’t cheat on me.’
Tony shakes his head. It’s like he’s fallen into The Negative Zone or something. Did Pepper really just say that? ‘What the fuck is wrong with you? I had sex with someone else while we were together. That’s the fucking definition of cheating!’
‘You were raped, Tony.’ They both freeze. Pepper’s mouth moves silently, like she’s trying to think of a follow up. But what do you say after that?
They stand still and silent for a minute, neither willing to break the awkward silence. In the end it’s broken by Jarvis letting Tony know the render for the mark IX suit is complete. Tony turns to the projection - turns away from Pepper. ‘I’m a guy,’ he says quietly as he examines the render, ‘I know when I enjoyed something.’ Pepper is silent. With one hand still examining the model, he uses his free hand to gesture to his groin. ‘It’s kind of hard to miss.’
‘Tony.’ Pepper moves, stands at his side, so he can see her from the corner of his eye. ‘You know that doesn’t mean anything.’ Look at that. You love this.
Tony whips around to face her, he throws his hands up in frustration. ‘What do you want me to say? You want me to tell you some dumb kid hopped up on steroids jumped me in an alleyway and had his way with me while I screamed and cried? Because it wasn’t fucking like that. You want me to convince you it’s okay I fucked another guy? Because you’re doing a good job of convincing yourself already. You want me to beg your forgiveness and tell you it’ll never happen again? Because I don’t know that, I thought…’ He pauses, his hand is clasped around a wrench and he realises he was on the verge of throwing it. He takes a deep breath, closes his eyes and puts the wrench down. ‘I thought I’d never do this to you. I thought I could do right by you. I thought I could love you without hurting you.’
‘You have done right by me, Tony. You haven’t hurt me. I just… don’t know what you want me to do - to say.’
‘I want you to hate me, goddamn it. I fucked up. Simple as. I fucked up, just like I always do. There’s nothing else to it. Guy cheats on you, you don’t just let him say he’s sorry and take him back. You’re better than that. You should hate me. Blame me, goddamn it, chew me out, call it like it is.’
‘I can’t blame you for something that wasn’t your fault, Tony.’
‘It was my fault!’ He slams a fist on his worktable. ‘I let some guy fuck me and I fucking loved it. And you know what? He was better than you too. I haven’t come so hard since we started dating.’
‘No,’ he realises he’s shouting now, but he’s so angry he can’t help himself, ‘I won’t stop. I won’t fucking stop!’ Stop. He’s holding the wrench again, he throws it this time. Not at Pepper, never at Pepper, he’s not that far gone. It hits a picture frame, shatters it, Tony screams.
‘Tony,’ her voice breaks into a sob. ‘Tony, please.’ He looks at her and she’s crying.
He sinks to the floor, leans against his worktable and covers his face with his hands. ‘Why won’t you just leave me the fuck alone?’ His voice is shaking so bad but his hands are shaking even worse. He’s crying, he realises. Why is he crying?
‘Go. Just go.’ He lifts his head and looks her in the eyes. He can’t hold it together anymore. All this guilt is making him lose it. Breakdown, midlife crisis, whatever the fuck it is, he just wants to spend the rest of his life locked up in the lab - where he can’t hurt anyone anymore. After everything he’s done with his life, he thinks, he should have built up some sort of guilt-tolerance, but apparently it doesn’t work like that. Apparently, having twice as many things to feel guilty about makes you feel twice as bad, who’d have thought it. ‘Please,’ he begs, because he’s fallen too far to care about his pride anymore, ‘please, just go.’
Silence. Then, ‘Okay.’ He buries his head in his hands again and listens to the clip-clop of her heels fade into the distance.