The deterioration of Tony and Pepper's relationship had become the elephant in the room.
It was uncomfortable for everyone, but mostly for Bruce. Most days he just didn't know where to look. If it wasn't barbs traded across the table it was screaming rows long into the night, it was Tony staying out late and coming home drunk, it was Pepper banging books and files and laptops, seething in her swallowed rage.
Stark Towers held an atmosphere that was awful to live in and to be honest, Bruce was itching to leave. But the worse things got between Pepper and Tony, the more Bruce felt the pressure to stay.
It was a pressure he resented; he'd been responsible only for himself for longer than he could remember and to have the stakes changed so suddenly, he felt nervous and on edge.
He liked Tony, he really did. He had more time for Tony than anyone he could think of but he just wasn't ok with Tony's whole self-destruction thing. He had enough of his own mortality issues to deal with never mind having to look after a drunken Tony who came stumbling into his room late into the night stinking of scotch and self-loathing.
On the day when it all came to a head, Bruce was situated in the main living quarters with music playing full volume on headphones and reading the first line of page 76 of his book over and over as he focused on ignoring yet another of Tony and Pepper's infamous fights.
Tony had been working downstairs in his personal tech room. He'd been there for the better part of the morning and afternoon nursing a hangover and perfecting the energy reserves on his latest suit design.
The elevator chimed and Bruce glanced up to see Pepper step into the room dressed in her usual haberdashery of skirt suit, lipstick, and high heels. Her face was like thunder as she stormed past. She gave Bruce a polite, if strained, nod which Bruce returned even as he felt his insides clench.
JARVIS had already informed Bruce that the two of them had been up half the night arguing until Tony had stormed out in search of the nearest booze hut. Now it seemed Pepper was ready for round two.
Pepper swiped her ID through the card reader and the light flashed red. No entry. Pepper tried it again, same result.
"I'm sorry Ms. Potts, your access to the tech room has been temporarily—"
"Bruce! Give me your ID." She took a steadying breath, willing softness into her voice. "Please."
Bruce figured he had two options here, hand it over and receive Tony's ire, or refuse Pepper and face his demise right then and there. He concluded that at that moment Tony was the lesser of two evils and he tossed her his personal StarkTech ID which Pepper caught and thrust savagely through the reader.
The light shone green and the doors opened. Pepper threw Bruce his ID and then she made her descent into the tech room, the click-click of her heels echoing behind her.
Bruce watched her go warily; he thumbed the volume higher on his headphones and hid behind his book, weathering out the storm. Even with the blaring music, he could still hear the echoes of the savage fight below.
Pepper had to have been down there for an hour, two tops, when she stormed back up the steps. She shouted something at Tony over her shoulder which was either telling him to screw himself or that she was going to sue him. Either was plausible. Something clattered up the stairs after her, a screwdriver thrown by Tony.
Pepper slammed the tech room door so hard the glass shuddered and likely would have broken if it weren't reinforced. She closed her eyes and let out a strangled shout, practically seething in fury as her fists shook by her sides.
She breathed in, then out again, calming herself, and then her heels clicked primly as she walked back across the room. Bruce glanced up at her from beneath worried brows, his book sinking down into his lap. In almost every way, Pepper was her usual immaculate self, suit pristine, flawless strawberry blonde hair pulled into a loose bun, but the bloodshot eyes glassy with unshed tears were a dead giveaway.
She glanced briefly at him as she stormed past. No her eyes said. I'm not ok. I don't want to talk about it. Just don't.
She gathered herself while she waited for the elevator and Bruce watched her posture change. She rolled her shoulders back, sniffed once, carefully, and lifted her head high.
"Good luck, Bruce," she said over her shoulder and it sounded more like a warning than anything ever could have. Bruce tried to ignore the dread curdling in his stomach.
The elevator doors chimed and Pepper stepped in. She turned around and tears threatened to brim over, she bit her lip hard, white dotting over the pink flesh. The doors closed and with them, Pepper was gone.
Bruce sat in the resulting silence, he could hear the electric thrum of music still playing through his headphones around his neck but he left them where they rested, waiting.
Silence down below, he imagined Tony to be hunched over his desk, locked arms propping him up and head hanging down, just breathing. Breathing and sulking and festering.
Bruce sighed and dropped his head back against the couch, counting. He counted to ten, and then he kept going. Tony appeared in the mid hundreds.
He jogged up the steps and burst through the door, raking a hand over his face and shaking his head like he'd just completed a hundred metre sprint and was coming down from a burst of intense adrenaline.
Tony nodded his head at Bruce. "We're going out." It wasn't a question.
Bruce set his book aside, spine cracked to save his spot. He went to grab his coat and resolved himself to playing sympathetic shoulder for the night.
Five whiskey sours and a blur of obnoxious coloured shots later, and the only real sign that Tony was any kind of drunk was a slight slurring of words and a loosening of lips.
They sat in the corner booth of a dingy American-Irish bar that Clint had introduced them to a few months back. It was poorly lit with threats scrawled on the bathroom walls (that had since been contributed by members of the Avengers with such beauties as 'Put a Cap in that ass call 1800-captain-my-captain) and a sticky film over the table tops, but it was quiet and no one really cared who they were or why they were there. Of course Tony did garner a few curious looks, but usually he was just dismissed as 'some guy who looks like that billionaire super hero', because why would the real Tony Stark, the billionaire playboy philanthropist, be frequenting a dive like this?
Bruce nursed the same beer he'd been drinking all night. He wasn't much of a drinker, and not just because of the Other Guy. In his eyes drinking changed people, and he wasn't a fan of that, ever. Tony however had insisted Bruce match him with at least half of the shots that night, because it was just rude to make a man drink shots alone. So Bruce was feeling at least some of the effects and the world had taken a hazy glow, his limbs feeling heavy and tired.
Tony slumped beside him, toying with his glass of whiskey. They'd reached a natural lull in conversation, one of those melancholy periods when words had run out and they were content to sit together and just be for a while. Only this lull was flavoured with the unpleasant bite of Tony's raw nerves.
"It was never going to last," Tony said finally. "What did she expect? I'm just not the kind of guy that can make it work. Ever. I can't even commit to an eighteen month phone plan, how the hell am I supposed to commit to another person?"
Bruce's mind wondered to contracts and people and how odd it would be for every person that came into your life to sign an agreement stating the period and conditions of their role in your life. He wondered if it would be easier knowing the length of love, knowing that it wasn't forever.
"There aren't contracts with people, you stay as long as it works, and when it doesn't…" Bruce swallowed a mouthful of his room temperature beer. It probably wouldn't be easier, he decided.
Tony didn't seem to have heard him. "I just can't do all that. It was exhausting you know? Listening to shit I don't care about, second guessing everything. When she was mad she'd never bother telling me why, she was just all 'well if you don't know by now you'll never know'. What the hell is that? Seriously… and who the hell is even allergic to strawberries?"
Tony shook his head, downing his drink.
"You know what, Bruce? I'm glad she's gone. Good riddance."
Bruce knew that wasn't true. He knew that with the same conviction he knew his own name. Tony was a wreck without Pepper and it was only going to get worse. But he also knew not to call Tony on it, not tonight.
"Why don't we finish up here and get back home? We can do more work on your suit tomorrow."
"No… no, what we need is to get the hell out of bedlam and get ourselves where the beautiful people are." Tony gave Bruce a salacious wink. "We need to get laid."
"No, I'm pretty sure neither of us needs to get laid."
But Tony was already up and dragging Bruce with him. He threw a handful of notes that amounted to way over their actual tab on the bar and then dragged a reluctant Bruce into what was the start of a number of wild nights on the town.