One day, Pepper quit.
He didn't really know which was worse; that he hadn't seen it coming, or that he didn't even notice for two days.
She had told him she was leaving, had handed him a letter of resignation and had left the mansion. He hadn't took it in, the letter was still unopened in his work shop when he finally asked Jarvis where the hell she was and the AI reminded him that she'd resigned.
Though, to be reminded of something meant he had to be aware of it in the first place and he didn't really know what to do. Hard to deal with a situation you didn't really know the cause of, he mused.
It was another day before he went to her apartment.
He spent that staring at the walls of his workshop, looking past his suits, his cars, convinced he could see the concrete beyond the paint, and sky beyond the wall, until he realised he was in withdrawal.
Food, caffeine, Pepper, whatever.
She seemed surprised to see him.
"What can I do for you Mr. Stark," she said, cool and calm, and just a little angry.
"Three days ago."
"I only noticed yesterday," he said.
She smiled, that angry smile, false and warning.
"That's why I quit."
He didn't know what to say to that. He hadn't been expecting that. He'd been expecting her to tell him something like he as over working her or over flirting with her, abusing her in some way or another because he did in one way or another but she'd quit because why? He'd been ignoring her, too busy himself? He wasn't too clear and he went to ask but she cut him off.
"If you don't mind, I have an appointment to get to," she said.
He looked her up and down, realising she was wearing one her best business suits, her most expensive shoes, her hair and make-up as flawless as ever.
"An interview?" he squeaked.
"No," she snapped and he didn't ask any more questions. He didn't say another word, feeling suitably castrated by Pepper's silent anger and left the building.
He had so much work to do.
Mission, modifications to the suit, Jarvis needed a tweak, one of his cars was stalling. There were meetings he needed to attend and paperwork to chase up, and sign, and the Air Force and SHIELD were both riding his ass for one thing or another.
He sat staring at the walls again. The glass ones, looking out to the stairs.
There were better views to be had from in house, from the house, but he didn't want a view. He wanted an answer. The phone had been ringing off the hook until he'd blasted it with the flight stabilizer of the suit. And his cell. And his laptop.
And a car.
Just because Pepper had an Audi and the very sight of it caused him anxiety, nausea, a headache. Though, that could've been the lack of real food and real sleep.
So he got up and went to bed. He wasn't a child, he could look after himself, he just wasn't used to mourning something without a lot of alcohol. Hell he wasn't used to mourning anything besides his parents death really, and he wasn't sure what he was mourning. The loss of the best PA on both sides of the States or the loss of one of his best friends. Or both. Or everything.
He slept though, fitfully but well enough, nine hours straight through and had a pizza for breakfast.
"You look better," Rhodes said, "I was kinda worried you'd go into overload without Pepper."
The Colonel dropped down onto the large sofa next to Tony to see the TV, and looked around for the remote, the man had an awful taste in television despite having every channel available.
"Might happened yet," Tony muttered around a sandwich. "Plus my workshop says different."
"I can see that," his friend said, picking up his battered cell phone. "What you going to do now?"
"Get a new PA, one that can decode Pepper's organisational binary."
"Or you could get Pepper back."
"I don't even know why she quit."
"I thought you went round there already?"
"It didn't really clear things up."
Tony shrugged and finished his sandwich, downed his coffee, and stretched his arms out. He did feel better, a little more relaxed than the previous days, but there was this itch in his chest that he could shake and couldn't work out the root of.
"I'll manage without her."
"Without Pepper and Stane?" Rhodes asked. "They were the business brains, you were the genius wonder-kid inventor remember?"
"I can manage my fucking business Jim," Tony snapped, more at the mention of Obadiah than the implication that he couldn't handle Stark Industries.
"Yeah, but you don't have to do it alone," Rhodes said, "I'm sure you can, but you don't have to, and you have the whole super-hero thing going on too, you got the time?"
"I'm sitting here watching day-time TV, I think I'll find the time."
Rhodes shrugged his shoulders, found the remote finally, down the back of the couch and turned over.
Another week went by and he went on a mission.
Or in Tony's own words, another week went by and he screwed up a mission.
He hated the word massacre. It usually had him in the suit before he knew if there was anything he could actually do, and more often or not he was out there even if all he could really do was help pick out a few survivors and get them to hospitals, or local authorities.
So he'd gone, hopeful that he could prevent an impending massacre, which in a way, he had, but it was a fine line between a slaughter and a massacre and he, he'd been injured so badly he couldn't fly home in the suit. He was carted out of the area on the back of a UN truck with some other injured villagers and given to the Army, then the Air Force, passed around in what was left of his suit. It was twisted and scorched, scarred and unrecognisable and he felt like a broken toy as he bled through his flight suit and the large gaps in the metal while whichever doctor he was travelling with kept him alive enough to get to the nearest SHIELD operation.
Two hours. Two hours bleeding and sweating and fucking dying in his suit and completely conscious.
No wonder he needed a damn transfusion once they finally cut the metal away and patched him up.
He really needed to have something put in place in case it happened again, but his thoughts were distracted by pain and that itch in his chest and the fact that his perfect assistant Pepper hadn't even fucking called to check he was okay.
Oh, except she wasn't his assistant any more, or even his friend, and the itch started to burn a little before he realised someone had given him a sedative and he was falling asleep.
He came around in another country, Germany again, and he still had that toy-like feeling because no one had told him that they would be moving him, let alone to another fucking continent and he was starting to get really pissed off. He was telling the doctor this much, a nice enough Air Force guy, when he was cut off by the doctor telling him he had a visitor. Tony grunted, telling the man to let him in, and expected Rhodes finely trimmed black hair to pop through the open door, but instead, a few feet lower, saw the the most recognisable legs in Stark Industries. Formally.
He was pretty banged up, and lying flat on his back, but wriggled in the bed, trying to sit up as much as he could, with as much dignity as he could retain. He knew he looked like he'd done a few rounds with tank, which wasn't too far off the mark, but Pepper had seen it before. And while he'd seen Pepper in some poor states, right now she looked perfect.
She nodded, and closed the door behind her. No red eyes, so no tears, he deduced, but she was solemn, sad even. The itch burned again for a moment and died down when she sat down next to him.
"Rhodes asked me to come," she explained. "Said you'd screwed up and I needed to sort you out."
"I don't need sorting out."
"That's what I said."
"Oh." He wasn't sure if it was a good thing that she agreed. "But you came anyway," he added.
"I heard you were badly injured, I was worried."
That was a good thing and Tony smiled at her. She didn't smile back.
"I'll be okay."
"The doctor said as much."
They didn't speak for moment, because Tony didn't know what to say, and Pepper didn't look like she had anything to say.
"I better be on my way."
"You came all the way to Germany to see me for five minutes."
"I promised," she said. "Take care Mr. Stark."
"You can call me Tony all the damn time now you don't work for me," he said, trying to sit up a little more.
"Sorry, force of habit," she muttered, standing up.
He tried to reach out for her but she was quick on her feet and he almost fell out of bed trying to grab her arm and stop her. She was back by his side then, helping him balance himself as he groaned, the itch becoming a burn, though he suspected that was more about the broken ribs than anything else.
"Okay?" she asked. He nodded, wincing against the stabbing sensation that was shooting from one side of his rib cage to the other. "I'll get a doctor."
"No," he said, panicked. "No, it'll pass."
She waited, watching him as he took some deep breaths, and took his hand so he had something to ground himself with until it lessened.
"Damn," he hissed.
"Better?" she asked, sitting back down, taking her hand back.
She looked almost angry now, and he didn't really know what he'd done to deserve that particular emotion, almost falling out of bed and pressing down on his broken ribs wasn't his fault.
"Yeah," he said, taking a deep a breath as he'd dare.
"Good," she said.
He closed his eyes, just for a moment.
He wasn't sure if he'd fallen to sleep or passed out. He'd passed out so many times over his life that unconsciousness was pretty much the same however it came to him. He'd expected to see Pepper gone when he came round again, or woke up, but was still disappointed when the chair next to him was empty.
He didn't feel much better, and it didn't help his mood to discover that the doctors didn't want to transport him back to the US while his injuries were still so severe and he was just starting to heal. It was okay to move him around the globe while he was bleeding, but now he was actually getting better, he couldn't go home.
And he was pretty sure he was in the same damn room they'd put him in when he'd been here after his kidnapping in Afghanistan the year before. Bad memories of the same stains on the ceiling, though the increase in dirt or damp meant that Jesus now looked like Elvis.
Rhodes didn't come and see him. Nick Fury did, with Coulson in tow and he drowned out their annoyance by trying to create optical illusions with the stains on the ceiling.
"Are you even listening?"
Somewhere, during the evolution of man, that phrase had become something that people could always hear, especially when they weren't listening. Tony turned his head to look at Fury and smiled.
"Of course not."
"This is fucking important Stark."
"Just get me home Fury, then I'll listen to every word you have to say while kissing your ass if you want."
"We usually get along," he muttered. "More or less."
"I'm not usually in hospital, in Europe."
Fury seemed to need to think about this so Tony went back to his friends on the ceiling, realising that if he was in here any longer he'd need psychiatric help. Not that he didn't need it anyway. Pepper and Rhodes had told him that often enough, sometimes more seriously that others, but any longer in here and he was going to have psychiatric help foisted on him. And a strait jacket.
"I'll get you home Stark. Then you're going to tell me exactly how much of a fuck up you are."
"Yes Sir," he saluted, giving him the finger at the same time and Fury huffed and left the room, Coulson on his heels.
He didn't regret the way he'd spoken to Nick. He'd found out early on that it was easier to get things done in SHEILD if the man was pissed off, and a few days later he was in his limo, drinking whiskey and pulling at the itchy bandages around his chest.
Assuming it was the bandages and not that weird feeling he got when he thought about Pepper.
Pepper, who'd flown to Germany to check he was okay, before leaving him unconscious. Pepper never left him unconscious. At least, not when he'd passed out, or been knocked out. He scratched his chest again, at least, she didn't go far if she did. It had been her job to be where he was, and she always was, and more and more little clauses had been added to the unspoken job requirements.
Like her chicken soup, and the ability to get decent painkillers for a notorious playboy with addiction problems.
Though, right now he'd settle for the soup and her company. The limo always seemed to big when it was just him in it.
"Hogan," he said, tapping the glass of his window in an uneven rhythm. "Let's go to Pepper's apartment."
The driver nodded, and made a quick turn, which sent Tony across the seat of the limo a little fast, knocking the wind out of him a little. He took deep breaths, as deep as he could manage and rode the pain out, so that, by time they arrived at Pepper's place, it was back to the dull throb of before. Hogan apologised but Tony waved it off, he was pretty sure he got the man's unspoken message but was going to ignore it.
She opened the door, and the anger from the hospital flared up, but she let him in, so he could sit down instead of lean pathetically in her doorway, he assumed.
"Welcome home," she muttered.
He fell back on her sofa, sighing in relief because the stairs had taken out too much of him. Pepper stayed on her feet, which were bare, toes poking out from beneath the smart trousers. She was either on her way to work, or had just come home. He couldn't be sure which because he had no idea what time it was, or what day it was. The fact that she was was dressed for work made the itch in his chest burn again.
"Thanks. Did you get another job already?" he asked, gesturing to her suit.
"So what's with the suit?"
"I've had meetings to set up a new charitable foundation."
"What are you doing here Tony? Or did you just want to question my current employment status."
"Why did you come and see me?"
"I promised Rhodey."
"Why did you leave?"
"Because I saw you were okay, so I had no reason to stay."
"Why did you leave?" he asked again.
"I just said."
"I didn't leave you, Tony, I left my position."
"Fucking semantics," he spat. "Why did you leave?" He repeated the question and was willing to do so until she answered or knocked him out. "And I want the truth this time."
"I told you the truth last time," she said.
"I hadn't noticed you'd gone?" he said. "What, you left to see if I'd notice. What would've happened if I'd noticed immediately? You'd change your mind, come back?"
"Then it's not really an answer."
She sat down on the armchair opposite him, perched on the end, and looked at him. She looked angry again, the same look she wore in the hospital, and he realised he knew that look. She was angry with herself, not him. Or, not just him.
"You've been so busy. The busiest ever, and we barely spoke, we stopped even saying good morning and good night, hello and goodbye. You barely noticed that I'd even been in the mansion, let alone in the workshop, and it shouldn't matter, but it did, and it was hurting me. It meant, it meant-"
She stopped talking and Tony was vaguely aware of what she was talking about, the last couple of months he'd barely had time to look at himself in the mirror long enough to brush his teeth, let alone chat with Pepper. He hadn't realised how important it was to her.
"It meant what?" he coaxed.
"It meant that it was more than a job, to me, you were more than my job, and when I realised that, I realised things weren't really going to change, so I had to go."
"Because it was hurting too much, like a burn in my chest that I couldn't shift."
He rubbed his own chest at her words, and she watched the motion on his hand with a smile. A sad smile. She wasn't crying, she was still looking a little angry, and Tony wasn't sure what to do.
"I needed you, in the end, too much, and there are a lot of people who need you too, that are much more important," she said, rambling a little.
"Fucking ridiculous," he said.
"I hate it when you swear," she muttered, making them both smile.
"You haven't been around much to stop me."
"You can look after yourself Tony."
"Oh, I've managed to, just about, aside from screwing the mission up. But a few things I did for you, if you're not there, then there's no fucking point."
"Don't push it Stark," she growled.
She really hated him swearing.
"Did it get any better?" he asked.
"The burn," he told her, "in your chest."
"No, worse," she said, with a bubble of hysterical laughter.
"I can't get any peace with these ribs. Cause if they don't hurt, then my heart does, or what ever symbolic metaphor you want to use."
"Very romantic," she said quietly.
"I'm out of practise."
"I dread to think what that means."
"I meant, I don't know what I meant," he said, blushing a little and she smiled, nodding. "We need to fix this."
That took the wind out of him a little, cause he'd expected Pepper to jump at the chance to fix things between them, to go back to the old ways.
"You think it's going to get any better?" he asked, annoyed.
"I don't want it to get better, I mean, not that way, the without you way."
"Things won't change."
"I'm not saying, come back to work, lets try and make my schedule a little less hectic, I'm just saying, let's do something," he said. He wanted to lean forward and take her hand but her sofa was all soft cushion and no support and he wasn't about to ask her for help. She didn't need to be asked though, and moved to sit next to him.
"Are you going to stay for dinner?" she asked.
"It's dinner time?"
"Almost," she laughed. "Still a few hours ahead?"
"Or behind. I'm not even sure what day it is."
"Right. Thursday. Great day."
"So, are you going to stay for dinner?"
"Are you cooking?"
The question confused her a little and he laughed.
"I'd love to stay for dinner."