Less than twenty minutes later, five minutes since Tony pulled himself up off the floor and buried himself in solving the mark IX's problems with power consumption, Captain America comes barging into the lab. 'What did you say to her?' He crosses his arms and stands so close it makes Tony's skin itch. Tony rolls his seat away a few feet, but Steve just steps closer again. 'What did you do to Pepper?'
Tony rolls his eyes. 'Excuse me, Mr Springer, but I don't believe it's any of your business.'
'It is my business when you're making my friends cry.'
'You want to know why Pepper's upset? Then ask her.' Tony turns back to his work. 'Fucking sexist,' he mutters, plenty loud enough for Steve to hear.
'What's your problem?' It's just a little fun.
'Oh I've got all sorts of problems, Captain. Want to help me out with some?' He licks his lips suggestively and runs a hand down his inner thigh.
Steve closes his eyes and takes a deep breath. 'I don't get you, Stark. Why do you always have to be so difficult?'
'Because I'm an asshole. What's not to get?'
Without warning, Steve grabs him, hoists him to his feet and shakes him. 'What's the matter with you? You make your girlfriend cry and you think it's something to joke about? You're disgusting!' Tony doesn't think, he acts. He knees Steve in the groin, Steve drops him and doubles over, Tony scrambles to his feet and runs. It's not that he thinks Steve would actually hurt him, it's just a reflex. Except his heart is beating so fast he can feel it in his throat and his palms are slick with sweat. He doesn't go far, stops running when he has half the lab between him and Steve, who is still doubled over clutching his groin. Steve takes a deep breath, straightens up and looks at Tony.
Tony shrugs. 'Low blow.' That's almost like saying sorry, right?
Steve shakes his head. 'I shouldn't have done that. I lost my temper. I shouldn't have made things physical.' Steve sighs and leans his hands on Tony's worktable, he doesn't attempt to close the gap between them. 'Tony, look, Pepper's my friend, I just want to know what happened.'
'I'd rather not talk about it. It's private.'
Steve closes his eyes. 'Okay,' he says after a long pause. 'Okay. Can you two sort this out?'
Tony shakes his head. 'I don't know.'
Steve nods. 'And it's none of my business.' Suddenly, Steve chuckles. 'Pepper would kill me for this, wouldn't she?'
Tony grins. 'Probably.'
'Guess I'm still getting used to this whole,' he waves a hand around the lab, 'century.'
Steve rubs the back of his neck and smiles coyly. 'Just… try not to hurt her, okay?'
Tony nods. 'I'm trying.' He runs his hands over his face and through his hair. 'I'm trying.'
'Tony, I…' Steve pauses. 'I'm sorry.' He leaves.
The next day, he calls Pepper and asks her to come down to the lab. He figures Steve was right about him - scaring Pepper like that was disgusting and he can't just pretend like this one never happened. He sits at his workbench and stares at a blank screen while he waits for her. He's never been very good at the whole apologising thing but the least he owes her is an explanation. He's just not sure how to say it.
She gets there quicker than he expected. He rolls his chair around to face her but doesn't get up - that's probably rude or something, but Pepper's used to him being rude by now and his legs feel too shaky to guarantee steady feet.
She watches him carefully, but keeps her distance and doesn't say anything.
'Hey, um, Pepper?'
Might as well just get it over with. 'I'm sorry. For yesterday. For everything.'
'Tony, please -'
'No, hear me out. You have to stop making excuses for me, Pepper - I shouldn't have gotten angry, I shouldn't have scared you like that. I don't know why I did it. I just… I don't know. I thought - I think - you should be angry and you aren't - weren't. I don't know.' It's surprisingly difficult to explain his feelings on the matter, maybe because he's spent the better part of his life learning to avoid or side-track such discussions.
'Tony, if you had cheated on me I would be angry. I would be mad, I was mad. I was so upset, disappointed… angry. Then I found out what happened. Now I'm just frustrated. Someone attacked you, Tony, that doesn't make you a bad person or a cheater, or whatever nonsense is going on in that head of yours.'
'Pepper, I -'
Pepper puts a hand up to cut him off. 'No, Tony, I heard you out, now it's my turn.' She pauses, Tony nods. 'You've got this idea in your head, and maybe it's just easier than dealing with the truth, I don't know, but it's hurting you. You're letting yourself be eaten up by guilt that you don't deserve to be feeling. Blaming yourself for something that wasn't your fault. It's upsetting me, Tony,' her voice wobbles, 'I guess I didn't realise just how skewed things are inside that head of yours and I don't know how to help you.'
'I don't need help, Pepper.'
'You do, Tony. You really do.'
Tony throws his hands up. 'Do I look like I need help to you?' Except here he is, still sitting because he doesn't know if he can stand, trying to convince Pepper she should hate him and trying to convince himself he shouldn't.
'He raped you, Tony, and you can't even see it.'
'Stop, Pepper, please.'
'It wasn't your fault, Tony.'
'I know, Pepper. I know, okay.' He can't look at her. He leans back in his chair and stares at the repulsor burns that stain the ceiling. 'I know. I know. Okay? I do know.' He can't stop saying it. He's acknowledged it now, is that supposed to make him feel better? Because it doesn't. The guilt still lies heavy in his chest. 'I know,' he says again, because he does know. Logically, the rational, scientific part of his brain is telling him it's not his fault, it's not his fault, it's not his fault. His drink was spiked, he wasn't in control, he couldn't have stopped it even if he'd tried. Except he didn't try, or at least, he doesn't remember trying. He remembers saying no, but he remembers saying yes too and how is he supposed to know what he wanted when he can't even remember what happened.
Pepper puts a hand on his shoulder. 'Tony…'
He forces himself to look at her. He takes a deep, slow breath. 'I know.' Because even if he doesn't, not really, it's what Pepper wants to hear and he doesn't have the will to fight her anymore.
She pulls him into an awkward hug. He lets her - doesn't push her away, but doesn't hug back either. 'We'll be okay, won't we?' she whispers in his ear.
Tony shakes his head. 'I don't think so.'
Pepper pulls back to look at him. 'Why not?'
Tony looks away, at the wall, at Dummy, at the half assembled Iron Man gauntlet sitting on his worktable, at anything but Pepper. 'I can't do this,' he says. He picks up the gauntlet and fiddles with the loose wires - he needs something to do with his hands, they feel fidgety just sitting at his sides, they feel useless. 'I don't like this.' He gestures to her and then himself. 'I need you to back off.'
'I…' Pepper hesitates. 'Okay. If that's what you need.'
Tony doesn't look up from tinkering with the gauntlet. He nods. 'Good. See you tomorrow, Ms Potts.'
There's a long pause, and Tony can't help gazing subtly upward to check what's wrong. Pepper's arms are folded over her stomach and she's watching him carefully. She clears her throat slightly then takes a slow step back and turns to leave. 'See you tomorrow, Mr Stark,' she says, but it's subdued, lacking the usual bite of friendly humour. Tony goes back to working on the gauntlet. Pepper leaves.
That night, Tony empties the entire contents of his private bar down the sink. If he hadn't been drinking it never would have happened. It all comes down to a simple problem with a simple solution. No one could say Tony Stark doesn't try to fix his mistakes. It won't be easy or fun but neither was giving up making weapons for the military, he figures it's some sort of cosmic justice, that he should suffer to make his mistakes right.
He doesn't tell anyone. Everyone knows about it by the next day, of course, it'd be difficult to hide from a group with two espionage experts, a genius and a military tactician. They don't ask him about it though, they make assumption, he's sure, but they never ask and he never tells. They think Pepper broke up with him over the drinking, he's sure of it. In a way, he supposes they'd be right.
They don't bother him about it, so he lets them think what they like. Pepper's the only one who looks at him funny when they're at some charity gala and he's drinking sparkling water from a glass that never leaves his hand.
Pepper's also the only one who notices when Tony spots a face amid the crowd. A shock of brown curls, fashionable glasses balanced on a slightly crooked nose, slim and gawky but fitted with a suit that does its best to make him look elegant. Tony freezes and stares and the man stares back. Tony doesn't know. He doesn't really remember. But the face flicks a switch in his mind that skeeves him out and makes his skin crawl in the same way it does when he thinks about Obie.
Tony tries to avoid him and at first it's not that difficult. At dos like this there are always a lot of people who want to talk to Tony Stark and avoiding one specific guy shouldn't be an issue. Except he's incredibly persistent. He follows Tony everywhere he goes, stands back and watches, never butts in, just waits patiently.
And eventually he finds his opening. Tony's chatting to some congressman when he excuses himself for the bathroom and before Tony can start a conversation with someone else, the man who's been his shadow all night steps forward.
'So nice to see you again, Mr Stark.' He proffers a hand, Tony looks at it for a moment then grits his teeth and shakes it.
'And you are?'
The false smile flickers briefly, but Tony doesn't have a chance to place the expression before it's firmly fixed in place once more. 'You're a busy man, of course, I suppose all us society men blend into one after a while. Jonathan Richardson.'
'Have we met? I don't remember.'
The guy smiles. 'That's a shame,' it sounds like he means just the opposite, 'you seemed to enjoy yourself.'
Tony smiles and nods and desperately fights the urge to be sick. 'You'll have to excuse me, Mr Richardson, like you said, I'm a busy man.' That was way too polite but it was that or punch the fucker.
Tony moves to walk away but Richardson stops him with a hand on his shoulder. 'At least let me get you a drink, Tony. And call me Jon, I believe we're past formalities,' he says and runs his thumb along the base of Tony's neck with a smirk.
Before Tony even has a chance to react, Pepper is there next to him. She grabs his arm and tugs him away from Richardson. 'Excuse me,' she says. 'I'm sorry,' she doesn't sound the least bit apologetic, 'but I need to borrow Mr Stark for a moment.'
For just a second Richardson looks pissed, but he's soon smiling again. 'Of course,' he says. 'Tell Tony it was nice seeing him again.' Pepper glares but wraps her arm around Tony's and walks away without further comment.
'Can I to speak to you outside for a minute?' she asks Tony when they're out of Richardson's hearing distance. Tony's too grateful for the distraction to wonder why, and he feels a little shaken, so he just nods and lets her lead him away.
She waits until they get outside then turns to look at him. 'That was him, wasn't it?'
Tony shakes his head, trying to clear the haze that's suddenly overtaken him. 'I don't know what you're talking about.' He leans against the wall, closes his eyes and focuses on breathing. The fresh air helps, but it's dark and cold and familiar and his tie feels suddenly choking, he pulls it lose and undoes his top button.
'That was the man who drugged you.'
'I don't know.' And he really means it. He thinks, maybe, but he's not sure. Everything about that night is so distant that he can't say with any certainty. Maybe he was just projecting, maybe the smarmy tone and the lecherous smirk were enough for him to read something between the lines that was never supposed to be there.
Tony punches the wall. 'I don't know, okay. I think so, but I don't know.'
'Are you okay?'
Tony laughs. 'Am I okay? Fuck, Pepper, aren't you even pissed?'
'Of course I am! I would have stabbed that smarmy bastard with my heels if it wouldn't do more harm than good.'
'One each right?'
'Seriously, Pepper, that's probably the guy I fucked in there and instead of throwing champagne in my face and telling me where to get off, you're, what? Bringing me out here for a stiff talking to?'
'What? God, Tony, we talked about this. I'm not mad at you. That man belongs in jail, or at the very least somewhere you never have to see him again. I'm getting you away from him, not getting you in private.'
There's a long silence.
'Please tell me you don't still feel that way, Tony?'
Another long silence.
'Let's go inside.' He doesn't wait, but he knows Pepper's following him.
They goes back inside and he spends an hour standing between a clueless Captain America and an overprotective Pepper, then makes his excuses and has Happy meet him outside and drive him home.
From then on he checks the guest list for every party, gala and charity do he goes to and strikes Richardson's name off or makes some excuse for why he can't attend. Pepper knows, of course, but she never questions it, she comes down to the lab, gives him the guest lists, asks him to sign forms and reminds him of his appointments for the day. He signs the forms, hands them back to her and she stands in silence and watches him. 'Will that be all, Ms Potts?' he asks her
'Yes,' she says, 'that will be all, Mr Stark.'
And that's how it goes.
Sometimes she leaves cards for psychiatrists on his worktable or hidden amongst his paperwork. He keeps them in a drawer in the lab, locked both manually and electronically. He wants to throw them away, but in a twisted sort of way, just knowing they're there makes him feel better, reminds him that Pepper doesn't blame him. Reminds him that he shouldn't blame himself.
Notes: This is intended to be the end of the story and although an epilogue or another chapter is a possibility in the somewhat distant future (weeks, months…), this is for all intents and purposes, the end.
I know it's quite open ended and not particularly happy, and I apologise for that. We know how Tony deals with the things he feels guilty about and I couldn't see him getting help for this or fully accepting that he shouldn't feel guilty about it.