Having spent three months in captivity had taught Tony an important lesson: always be prepared for the worst. But lately, the thought had never even crossed his mind, because for once, his life seemed to run smoothly. He was healthy, thank God, because Palladium in your blood sucks; he had a great girl, whom he loved deeply and he was a world known hero. Take that, Rogers.
But ever since Manhattan, nothing was quite the same.
He'd had trouble sleeping before, months after returning from Afghanistan. The nightmares usually were hot and vivid and he'd often wake up drenched in sweat, with tears streaming down his cheeks and with his throat dried out from screaming. After the Loki incident, the nightmares came back. It no longer mattered that Pepper was there, next to him, sleeping peacefully. She'd always wake up, alarmed by his muffled screams.
Most of the time, after the nightmares, they'd stay awake, watching the ceiling wordlessly, until morning came.
He hadn't noticed before, but ever since the Chitauri attack, he started to drive her away from him. He would spend more time down in the lab, working on his suits. He'd remodeled his workshop and managed to build fifty armors in less than seven months. Pepper had been busy running the company. She hadn't had much time for him, either, because she was always flying between LA and different cities around the globe, to promote the company.
But somehow, despite the growing love between them, he managed to screw up.
Four days after the Mandarin was defeated, Tony grabbed a change of clothes, took a shower at Rhodey's place, where he had crashed after returning from the hospital, and headed for SI's headquarters, knowing that he'd probably find Pepper there.
As predicted, when he opened the large doors, he found her leaning against the glass panels of the window, looking deep in thought. She didn't hear him come in and as a result, she jumped at the sound of his voice.
Her wide blue eyes stared at him for a few long moments before she looked away, clearly disturbed by his presence. Tony swallowed hard, mentally pushing aside all the negative thoughts and tried to think of a proper sentence.
"Look, there is no easy way for me to say this, Tony, but…" She cut him off, pulling away from the window and staring at him, lower lip trembling slightly. Tony's breath caught in his throat and he shook his head slightly, begging her to stop.
"No, I'm not here to make excuses, Pepper. I screwed up. You have every right to be upset, but please let me say something first."
The redhead unconsciously touched the necklace that was lying in the back pocket of her jeans and sighed deeply. Tony stepped in front of her and checked out her appearance, her slightly smeared make-up, her bruised jaw and trembling lip. His whole body ached to envelope her in a hard embrace, but her rigid posture told him to stay away.
"Look, I'm an asshole, ok? I don't think. Declaring war to the Mandarin in front of ten news channels wasn't exactly my best moment." Tony said, voice trembling over the first words. "I wanted revenge. I was upset that Happy got hurt because of me and I didn't realize that it would put you and everyone else that I know in danger."
Pepper looked at him, eyes watering slightly.
"I didn't think, Pepper. That's the worst thing about me. I did it when I outed myself as Iron Man. I did it at the Expo and I did it now." He stared at her hard. "I'm broken, Pepper. I can't breathe knowing that you got hurt because of my selfishness."
"I don't blame you, Tony." Pepper's voice cut through his head. "I knew what I was getting myself into when I chose to stay by your side even after revealing your identity. It's my fault. I shouldn't have stayed."
She pulled away from him and reached over for something in her desk before handing a letter to him. His heart stopped in his chest when he realized it was a resignation letter.
"So that's it?" He whispered coldly, crumpling the paper in his hand. The realization dawned on him. She was finally leaving him after all the shit he'd put her through. That was it. He'd destroyed the only thing he couldn't live without.
Pepper simply nodded her head and watched him as he struggled for words.
"I told you I couldn't live without you, Pepper. I'm a wreck. I can't breathe without you. Please."
"Shh…" She hushed him and cupped his cheeks. "Tony, please listen to me."
Tony's chest heaved and his hands began shaking.
"I've realized that it was me all along. It was me that screwed this up by accepting things as they were. I don't regret having spent these two years with you, Tony, I really don't. But I regret it being this way. Accepting to stay by your side after everything that's happened was my biggest mistake."
Tony reached out his hands and pulled her to him, breathing heavily. Pepper slid her hands into his hair and closed her eyes tightly.
"I'm sorry. I loved you. I really did. And I don't regret us. I don't regret what we've shared, Tony."
Tony's breath hitched in his throat because they'd never said this to one another out loud. They didn't have to. He knew that Pepper needed assurance and that he was assuring her by showing her his love through his actions.
"I'm sorry, too, Pep." He whispered in her ear, his embrace hard and bitter.
Pulling away slowly, Pepper pressed a gentle kiss to his lips and walked away, leaving the pieces of his broken heart lying on the floor of her office.