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Title: Losing Focus (Also on AO3)
Part of the Lonely Souls universe; can stand alone though it references "Secretly They're Saviors", which chronologically comes before this one
Author: enmuse
Fandom: MCU (discounting IM3)
Characters: Tony Stark, Pepper Potts, Clint Barton, Natasha Romanov | Tony/Pepper
Rating: Teen (minor language, mention of sex)
Words: ~2400
Summary: The break-up isn't exactly a surprise, when it happens, but it does catch Tony off-guard. He hadn't been thinking about it, and at the heart of things, wasn't that the problem all along?
Notes: Set within the months following The Avengers film events, still in the year 2012.

The break-up isn't exactly a surprise, when it happens, but it does catch Tony off-guard. He hadn't been thinking about it, and at the heart of things, wasn't that the problem all along?


Sex is easy. It's physical – hot breaths, sweat-slick skin, adrenaline and endorphins – and present, set in the here-and-now. His mind focuses and he abandons himself to sensation. He shivers in delight at the sound of Pepper's pleasure, loves how he can make her giggle if he nuzzles her stomach or behind her knees. In bed (or against the wall or on the couch) his world narrows and it's a relief.

Everything else is a mess. Tony's thoughts bounce from one thing to another or tangle together; either way, it's difficult to keep anything straight. He loses huge chunks of time, only aware of it when JARVIS alerts him to the necessity of eating an actual meal; or the AI explains in detail why Tony passed out after fifty hours without sleep; or Pepper bypasses Tony's latest PA and demands he show up for a meeting.

It wasn't too bad the first few months after the New York Incident. Tony isn't sure why, since he thinks it would make more sense to freak out in the immediate aftermath of an alien invasion and near death-by-nuke/death-by-freaky-dimensional-portal. (Don't think about it. Don't start. Great, there goes another night's sleep. Shut up, JARVIS, I'm fine. It's fine.) Maybe he was just riding the high of new projects, busy rebuilding the Tower as well as allocating resources to getting the city back on its feet. His pet project of revamping the upper floors began then, and a few weeks in, Barton showed up.

Now he often forgets there are other people living in the Tower. His time is primarily spent in the workshop, sometimes in the penthouse suite with Pepper, on rare occasion he hits the kitchen, and he loses track of anyplace else. Somehow things get done, though, because S.H.I.E.L.D. isn't quite breathing down his neck and Tony isn't aware of the Stark Industries Board issuing more threats than usual against him. Actually, they seem pretty impressed by something he introduced at the last meeting. Tony doesn't remember what it was.

Tony doesn't know when Pepper's on the West Coast at SI headquarters or when she's overseas. He's sure that she tells him, but the information doesn't register for more than a minute. He knows she's in New York only when they have sex and the rare occasion when she can convince him just to sleep with her. They don't lunch together, anymore. He doesn't drop by her office just to try and get her to play hooky. He doesn't spend evenings mocking her shows on the DVR.


He doesn't think about these things until later.


Pepper tells Tony that he has a meeting. She drags him out of the workshop and up to the penthouse on the basis that he needs to change. But when they get inside, her hand curls around his bicep and stops him from going into the bedroom.

"Weren't you the one saying I needed to change?" he asks, feeling tired and frustrated. He's in the middle of several projects, one of which is turning out to be a promising new design of the Iron Man suit.

"You don't need to," Pepper says quietly and there's something guilty in her expression. Tony feels confused and wonders if he's due for a new pot of coffee. Before he can prompt JARVIS to start a pot, Pepper says, "I needed to see you. There isn't a meeting."

Torn between amusement and frustration, Tony snarks, "A little late in the game to play sexy boss and naughty secretary." With a smirk, he adds, "Besides, I look awful in nylons and a pencil skirt."

Pepper shows no amusement. Her mouth is pinched and for what feels like the first time, Tony really looks at her. There are lines of stress he doesn't remember seeing the last time they had sex. There are dark circles under her eyes carefully covered with makeup, though he can see them from this close. Pepper's hand on his bicep tightens briefly before releasing.

"Can you please be serious for a few minutes?" she says, voice clipped.

"I think you tend to cover that for both of us," Tony replies, crossing his arms. He takes a step back from her. In her heels, Pepper could easily loom over him if she straightened just so. "Why the subterfuge?"

"Because I can't talk to you!"

Pepper looks startled by her own outburst. Tony sighs quietly and rubs a hand over his eyes. "I'm sorry, Pep. There's a lot of things going on, I need to get these things—"

"You won't even try anymore, will you." It isn't a question and Tony feels wrong-footed when he looks up. Pepper's face is pale and there's anger and hurt in her eyes. It takes willpower to hold her stare and not flinch away. "You don't even have a clue what's wrong."

Tony can't say she's incorrect. He hesitantly shakes his head. "I know I'm losing track of time," he starts.

"Losing track of time is losing a meal here and there! It's your assistant or JARVIS reminding you about appointments you'd prefer to avoid. It's you focused on a project for a week before coming up for air. What's going on now is not 'losing track of time', Tony. This is you losing reality!"

Tony bristles at that. "Hey, just because—"

"How long have I been in New York this time, Tony?" she cuts in. Her eyes dare him to answer. It's long, tense moments before Tony averts his gaze. The sound Pepper makes is half-sob, half-laugh. Tony flinches. "Do you know how long it's been since Clint and Natasha showed up? Do you even remember they're here? God, Tony, I don't think they've seen you in a month and Barton is here constantly."

"We're all busy people. Christ, what do you want? I'm not some camp counselor assigned to watch the kids." He doesn't tell her that his mind's frantically trying to figure out the date and calculate the passage of time. It's dark beyond the windows and he can't determine the weather. Is it fall? Has winter come? He can't remember the last time he was outside.

"I wanted you to be with me!" There are tears shining in Pepper's bright eyes this time when Tony stares at her. His mind catches on the past tense. He feels empty. Pepper raises her arms, then drops them against her sides again, shaking her head. She closes her eyes and sniffs loudly. "God damn it," she murmurs, voice thick. "I needed you. I wanted you with me. I wanted you trying to drag me out of the office or halfway around the world on a whim. I wanted to be able to distract you from the workshop. I wanted your embrace when I wake up from nightmares. I wanted—" She cuts off abruptly, lips pressing tight into a line.

They stare at one another, Pepper's eyes shiny but cheeks tear-free. Tony thinks his own vision is a little blurry. Voice rough, he says, "You always acted frustrated when I tried to get you to let go for a while. You're rarely around the workshop, how are you going to pull me away? And the... You know I can't sleep, honey."

"And you won't seek help for that," she says sadly.

A spike of fear flares briefly, strong and intense, and Tony shoves it back with a wash of anger. " Who the hell's supposed to help? I'm handling it!"

"You're not," Pepper argues. "You're not handling it and while god knows I tried to understand, I can't. I cannot keep beating my head on your impenetrable walls. I thought you were over your attempts to isolate yourself."

"How is living with my girlfriend and having two permanent houseguests being isolated?"

Pepper shook her head. "You're smart, Tony, you figure it out."

"Is this you breaking up with me?" Tony asks, the words flying out before he thinks them through.

Pepper just stares at him sadly for a long moment. Tony hates the pity he sees lurking behind the unshed tears in her eyes.

"Did you just realize that now?" she asks quietly.

"You knew what you were getting into," Tony accuses. His chest feels tight and it's like his throat is closing up.

"This isn't what I was getting into," Pepper says. "You've changed, Tony." Her eyes close as she lets out a shuddery sigh. "I tried to see if we could make this work. But you're not here, you're not with me and I can't salvage a relationship alone." She opens her eyes and finally the tears fall; Tony wants to wipe them away before they drown him in guilt. He was never going to be good enough for her. He fucked up and now he's losing one of the best people he's ever known.

"No, Tony." Pepper hastily wipes the tears off her cheeks and reaches out to grasp his shoulder. She shakes him a little. "It also took two people to break this. I can't tell you I'm not hurt and angry, but I'm angry with myself, too. I know you're trying to process, but I haven't been able to help. I'm not around enough, either, and no matter how hard I try, I'm not going to understand what you went through."

Tony laughs suddenly, but he doesn't think it sounds entirely sane. "Are you seriously taking on blame here?"

Pepper squeezes his shoulder hard, almost painfully so. Her eyes hold a storm of emotion when Tony meets her stare. He doesn't hold back a flinch this time. "This isn't working and I needed you to acknowledge it," she says. "I'm staying out of New York for the winter," she tells him.

"I'm sorry," Tony whispers. He feels so drained. The flash of anger he sees rush across Pepper's face startles him.

Pepper drops her hand and looks away. "Then I wish we'd had this conversation ages ago." She visibly swallows and her voice comes out sounding choked; "I'm sorry too."

Tony nods and stays silent this time.

Quietly, Pepper says, "You can get back to your work. I'm packing a few things but I'll leave a list with JARVIS for someone to get later. I'll be out in a few hours."

Tony takes the exit while he has the chance and turns for the door. "Take however long you need," he says briefly. "I'll be in the workshop." He pretends her muttered Where else would you be? doesn't unsettle him.


Tony surfaces from the workshop when his desire for drunken oblivion outweighs the need to finish his latest batch of S.H.I.E.L.D. projects.

It says something about his priorities when the second thing he notices is Clint sitting cross-legged on the bar countertop. The first thing he notices is the disturbing disappearance of every bottle of alcohol he knows should be there.

"What the fuck?" he hisses between his teeth.

"Tasha was around the last time you tried to drink a store's worth of liquor." Clint's voice is what leads Tony to realize someone else is in the room. Tony just stares at the archer blankly, too baffled by his empty bar to parse the words. Clint leans forward, elbows on his knees, and fixes Tony with a piercing stare. "You've cut back a lot on the drinking since then. We're not letting you backslide just because life is shit right now."

Tony feels too drained to do more than scowl. "We?" he snaps, certain Clint's the only other person in the room.

"Natasha's gathering junk food in the lounge. And a restricted amount of alcohol." Clint slides off the counter and stretches before placing his hands on his hips. Fixing Tony with a stern look, Clint explains, "We are going down to join her and we're going to watch all of the classic 'Trek movies. All of them. You can bitch about the science, Tasha will point out all the strategy flaws, and I'm going to mock you both for taking this shit seriously. During Wrath of Khan, you and I will pretend Tasha doesn't get teary-eyed at the end."

"This is stupid," Tony mutters.

"Natasha says the whales are stupid," Clint says.

Tony narrows his eyes as he studies the archer. Clint looks determined; there's no pity in his expression and no sign that he expects anything other than Tony capitulating.

Tony doesn't want to go back to the workshop empty-handed. He still wants his alcohol. Mostly, he suddenly doesn't want to be alone.

He says, "The whales are awesome."

A slow grin spreads across Clint's lips. "I know. She needs to see the error of her ways."

Tony turns toward the door. "We should skip The Motion Picture."

"Nope," Clint replies, popping the P. "All of 'em."

"Why?" Tony groans.

"Don't ask questions, Grasshopper. Accept it as your penance for making us worry."

Tony doesn't want to wander into the realm of serious conversation. He lets the comment go and falls into step with the archer as they head to the longue.

Natasha barely acknowledges their arrival, simply tossing a bottle of beer to Clint and setting another on the coffee table with a pointed look at Tony. He'd prefer scotch, maybe whiskey, but he'll take what he can for now.

"Start 'er up, Jarv," Clint says as he vaults over the back of the couch and slouches into one corner.

"As you wish, Agent Barton."

Natasha settles cross-legged on the floor in front of Clint after stealing a pillow from behind his back. Tony stays standing for a few minutes as Paramount's logo appears on screen.

"I thought you were over trying to isolate yourself."

He thinks of the long days spent locked away in his lab with no human contact except for the occasional phone call. Pepper's gone, he's too late there. But maybe he can find something here. Maybe he won't fuck this up beyond repair.

Clint flings a marshmallow at Tony's ear. "Stop looming, you're making me edgy."

"Hand over the marshmallows and no one will get hurt," Tony says as he settles onto the couch in the corner opposite Clint.

"Take a drink," Natasha announces.

"Cheers!" Clint holds up his beer for a moment before taking a drink.

Tony grabs his beer and follows suit. He tells himself he can do this.


Notes: Title inspired by NIN's "Only."
I was taking a shower when whole sentences of this story came to me. I went straight to my computer when I got out and started typing. Neither party should come out looking like a bad guy, here, so if you get that impression, please drop me a comment and let me know why.