Pepper was on a conference call with Tokyo, putting the finishing touches on a presentation for the board of directors and making notes for her assistant about the annual Stark Industries scholarship recipients' reception when her personal cell phone started chirping.
"Can this wait, Tony?" she asked after she'd muted Tokyo. Because most of her friends knew better than to call this number during regular business hours, but Tony couldn't be relied upon to even know if it was regular business hours.
"Um, Miss Potts?" The voice was male, gruff, and definitely not Tony. It took her a moment to place it.
"Yeah. Listen, I can call back if this ain't a good time."
"No, no, that's fine." She fired off a text to her assistant to apologize to Tokyo and reschedule them, and put everything else aside. Because apart from Bruce, who would occasionally call to tell her when Tony had had yet another accident in the lab, she could count on the fingers of one hand the times an Avenger, (or the best friend of an Avenger, in the case of Barnes) had called her. She didn't think Steve had ever dialled her number. "What can I do for you?"
"I was callin' to invite you and Tony for dinner. Me and Steve would love to have you over on Saturday. As sort of a thank you for letting me live here. If you ain't got anything on that night, that is."
Pepper hadn't spoken much to Barnes since he'd arrived at the Tower. She was used to dealing with enhanced people, but the Winter Soldier made her nervous. She knew James Barnes wasn't the Winter Soldier, not really, but she wasn't sure she felt that in her gut.
But the man she was talking to sounded…nice. Rough around the edges, definitely, and maybe a little insecure, but polite and respectful. Under normal circumstances, she'd be doing everything she could to make him feel at ease. And Tony had forgiven him, or he wouldn't have let Barnes within a million miles of the Tower. Being gracious was the least she could do.
"That sounds lovely, Sergeant Barnes. We'd be happy to come over for dinner."
"Call me Bucky. And that's great!" He sounded so enthusiastic, Pepper couldn't help but smile. "I've got a recipe for braised short ribs I want to try. Or, wait, you ain't a vegetarian, are you, Miss Potts?"
"No, I'll eat anything. And you can call me Pepper."
"Okay, Pepper." She could hear the insecurity creep back into his voice, as if he didn't think he deserved to use her first name, and that, more than anything, calmed any fears she had about this. "Do you want to come around six?"
"We'll be there."
"And Pepper, could you do me a favour?"
"If I can."
"Could you not tell Tony what I'm making? I'd like it to be a surprise."
Pepper flashed back a month, to when Sergeant Barnes…Bucky…had first moved into the Tower, and Tony had come back from showing him and Steve their floor flustered and muttering about old people and profanity and horrible food choices. The only concrete information Pepper had been able to get out of him was the fact that Barnes was Rogers' boyfriend, (like that had been a surprise), but she was getting a sense now of what a little shit Bucky had been to Tony.
She had the definite feeling that Bucky Barnes was out to mess with Tony Stark.
"I'd be happy to," she said. There were few enough people in the world who would or could mess with Tony. She was up for helping one more person willing to join that exclusive club.
"Thanks, Pepper. That's fuckin' great. Excuse my French." He sounded as mortified as if he'd sworn in front of a nun. It was honestly adorable.
"I'll leave you alone, now. Bye."
"Barnes did what?" Pepper hadn't heard Tony's voice go quite that high for a while. Possibly not since the whole Extremis incident.
"Bucky asked us over to dinner on Saturday."
"Since when do you call him Bucky? And you politely declined, right?"
"He asked me to call him Bucky. And I did no such thing. I politely accepted."
"Well, I can't go. I'm busy."
"I keep your schedule, Tony. Barring some Avengers emergency, you're not busy."
"I can make my own arrangements. And I say I'm busy. You'll have to cancel. Tell Barnes we're free in about never. I think I can make never."
"Don't be a baby, Tony. We're going. Bucky seemed very nice."
"We're talking about the same guy, right? Broods a lot. Swears a lot. Kisses his boyfriend at inappropriate times a lot."
"He seemed sweet, not brooding. He only swore once, and he apologized for it. And as far as I know he wasn't kissing Steve while he was on the phone."
"You never know with these secret soldier types," Tony said with a scowl. "He could have been covertly kissing Steve the whole time. Or groping him! There could totally have been groping going on. You'd never know."
"You're not getting out of this, Tony. We've accepted Bucky's invitation, and we're going."
"No buts, Tony."
"But-" he tried again.
"And JARVIS, would you make sure Tony doesn't try to escape before Saturday night?"
"I will do my best, Ms. Potts."
"You're both traitors." Tony crossed his arms and flopped down on the tastefully designed Danish modern couch in the living room. And he sulked.
"Sulking isn't going to get you out of it."
He sulked some more.
"Fine." He flopped his arms dramatically to his sides. "What's on the menu?"
"It's a secret."
"What?!" Tony sat bolt upright.
"He wouldn't tell me. He said it's a secret."
"Son of a bitch."
"Tony! Is that anyway to talk about Steve's boyfriend?"
"That son of a bitch is going to make boiled cabbage."
Suddenly, Tony's earlier horrible food choices comments and Bucky's request that she keep the menu secret made so much more sense. Pepper had to clench her jaw to keep from laughing. Bucky Barnes was definitely a little shit. She was completely planning on becoming his best friend.
"Sir, your blood pressure has spiked alarmingly again," JARVIS said. "Should I make you an appointment with your doctor?"
Tony didn't bother responding.
Saturday afternoon, Tony tried to escape from the Tower twice.
The first time, he simply took the elevator. JARVIS locked it down and summoned Pepper. When JARVIS opened the elevator for her, Tony looked like a cat who'd been caught doing something embarrassing and was intent on pretending he'd done it on purpose.
"Can't a guy even go out to Starbucks?" he asked as he emerged.
"There's a Starbucks on practically every second floor of the Tower, Tony," she reminded him. "You don't need to leave the building for a latte."
The second time, Tony locked JARVIS out of the controls and flew off in his Iron Man suit. He was crossing the Pennsylvania Ohio border when JARVIS finally managed to wrest back control of the suit. He flew Tony back to the penthouse, literally screaming all the way.
"I apologize for letting him get so far, Ms. Potts," JARVIS said as he brought Tony in for an almost soft landing.
"She gets an apology?" Tony sounded more than a bit miffed. "I don't get an apology for being, oh, I don't know, kidnapped?"
"Don't be dramatic, Tony. We didn't kidnap you."
"Holding someone against their will is the definition of kidnapping. Last I checked."
"The Merriam Webster dictionary defines kidnapping as 'seizing and detaining or carrying away by unlawful force or fraud and often with a demand for ransom,'" JARVIS helpfully supplied. "I suppose I did use unlawful force, but I had no intention of asking for a ransom."
"At this point, I think I'd pay the ransom. How much would it take to get me out of going to this dinner, JARVIS? Would a million do it? How about a billion? I bet I have a spare billion dollars floating around somewhere."
"As an artificial intelligence, I have no need of money."
"How about a bigger, more comfortable server farm? Would that work for you?"
"My storage location makes no difference to my comfort."
"You know your problem, JARVIS? You don't dream big enough."
"I don't dream at all, sir."
"You're not getting out of dinner," Pepper said, breaking up Tony's fight with his AI. "We're due at Steve and Bucky's in twenty minutes, so get yourself cleaned up and ready to go.
"Are you implying I need cleaning up? Is she, JARVIS?"
"I believe Ms. Potts is simply suggesting that you dress properly for a dinner engagement."
"And that you take a shower. Two hours in the suit has made you more than a little fragrant."
Tony actually turned red, but he did head for the bathroom, stomping his feet the whole way. And when Pepper next saw him, exactly twenty minutes later, he was showered and wearing one of his nicer Tom Ford suits, though without a tie.
"You look good, Tony."
"I tried to wear jeans and a t-shirt, but JARVIS wouldn't let me out of the room."
"I didn't think you would approve of less formal wear, Ms. Potts."
"Thank you, JARVIS."
"I'm getting a little worried that my girlfriend has made nice with both my AI and our unfriendly local assassin."
"Bucky isn't an assassin anymore, and you're the one being unfriendly. Now, c'mon. We're going to be late."
Pepper was the one who rang the bell, while Tony shifted nervously beside her.
"I'm so glad you could come," Steve said, when he answered the door. Pepper didn't think she'd ever seen him smile so brightly.
"Hey, Capsicle." Tony followed her inside, looking for all the world like he expected Hydra to attack him in the entryway.
"I see you came with back up," Steve said, giving Pepper a wink.
Tony ignored the jab.
"It smells…not bad." Tony looked surprised. "Good, even. How did you make boiled cabbage smell good?"
"Who says I made boiled cabbage?" Bucky appeared from the kitchen. He had a towel over his shoulder, and his hair up in a loose bun. If Steve's smile was bright, his was positively radiant, especially when he met Steve's eye. Even if Pepper hadn't already known they were a couple, she'd have been able to tell from the looks they gave each other.
"The last time I was here, a threat was made, Robo Cook."
"I'd never make boiled cabbage for Pepper." Bucky gave her a wink that matched Steve's. "But if you want to come over alone some time, I'll see what I can do."
"Not even on a bet, Manchurian Candidate."
"Take it easy, boys." Pepper gave Steve the wine she'd brought—one of the better bottles from Tony's wine cellar, not that he needed to know that—and then shepherded them all into the dining room.
The dinner was lovely. Bucky's braised short ribs were delicious, and Steve made a really tasty chopped salad. Steve and Bucky were charming, telling stories about Brooklyn and the Depression and the Rogers and Barnes families. They were really sweet guys, once you got to know them.
Tony, though…Tony spent the whole dinner getting more and more twitchy. He treated every new dish Bucky brought to the table as if was a bomb about to go off, and every time Bucky started another anecdote, Pepper could see a nerve twitch in Tony's eye. She wasn't quite sure why, until Tony finally cracked after Bucky produced a wonderful bread pudding for dessert ("Depression cuisine at its finest," he announced) and Steve finished a story about him and Bucky babysitting Bucky's kid sister, Rebecca.
"Enough, Barnes!" Tony said.
"Enough what?" Bucky looked honestly confused.
"Enough with the act."
"The altar boy act." Tony was indignant. "The act you made fun of me for falling for. That act."
"This ain't an act." Bucky was indignant. "It's just good manners. My ma taught me to always behave in front of a lady."
"Yeah," Steve said with a nod. "If you got out of line in front of Winifred Barnes, she'd give you a good wallop."
"So, the absence of swearing and boiled cabbage, and the total lack of you sticking your tongue down Rogers' throat is because Pepper's here?"
"Wait," said Pepper. "You didn't tell me I missed seeing Bucky stick his tongue down Steve's throat."
"I thought I'd spare you that horror," Tony said.
"We could give you a demonstration." Bucky said, sliding his chair closer until he was nearly in Steve's lap.
"No!" Tony's response was immediate.
"No!" Tony cut him off, his eyes wide with terror.
"Okay, okay." Bucky raised his hands in surrender. "You'd think a guy who survived a cave in Afghanistan wouldn't be afraid of seeing two guys swapping a little spit."
Pepper hoped she was going to get more invitations to the Rogers-Barnes household, because she hadn't had this much fun at a dinner party, well, ever. And she couldn't help throwing a bit more gasoline on the fire of Tony's unexpectedly flammable composure.
"Swapping spit aside, don't feel like you have to censor yourselves on my account. I'm a grown woman. I've heard bad language. Hell, I've been known to use it when a board meeting is going south. Isn't that right, Tony?"
Tony looked at her with eyes gone wide with terror.
"That's really fuckin' nice of ya, Pepper." Bucky turned to Steve. "Ain't that nice?"
"It's really fuckin' nice." Steve's expression was part altar boy, part absolute shit disturber, and wasn't that an unexpected treat?
They all ended up in the living room, Pepper and Tony on the couch, Bucky and Steve squashed together on a loveseat that wasn't designed to hold two super soldiers. Pepper didn't see Bucky's tongue down Steve's throat, but there was definitely groping going on.
With the altar boy act (or was it just good manners?) abandoned, Bucky and Steve told an increasingly filthy series of stories about the Howling Commandos, culminating in one with Steve and Bucky hiding out in a whore house behind German lines and deciding that they'd be less conspicuous if Steve dressed up like one of the girls.
"And then Howard turns to Falsworth and says, 'I always told you Rogers would make the prettiest girl,'" Steve said, grinning wider than Pepper had ever seen him. "I think my face went redder than my fuckin' lipstick."
"That blush just made you prettier, Stevie. You were something. Between the lipstick and that corset, I think even Dum Dum wanted to fuck ya. And he was the straightest Howlie there was." He turned to Pepper and gave her a wink. "We kept the corset."
"Okay, that's it!" Tony stood, a little unsteadily, (the scotch he'd been consuming all night finally having caught up with him), and grabbed Pepper's hand. "We're going home."
"But I'm just starting to have fun," Pepper protested as she retrieved her hand.
"I'm glad the defilement of my childhood heroes is fun for you," Tony threw out as he bolted from the room.
"You'll have to come over again," Steve said to Pepper as he gave her an enveloping hug that she could have leaned into forever.
"No we won't," Tony yelled from the entrance hall.
"I was talking to Pepper," Steve said.
"Do you like Tarantino?" Bucky asked. "You could come over and watch Inglourious Basterds with us. That's our favourite. It's better than Steve fake punching fake Hitler in those fuckin' stupid movies he made."
"I love Tarantino. Have you seen Jackie Brown?" Bucky shook his head. "You've got to see Jackie Brown."
"We're not coming back!" Tony yelled.
"You're not invited, Stark," Bucky yelled back. "You're no fun." Bucky gave her a hug, as solid and comforting as Steve's had been. Pepper decided super soldier hugs were the best thing ever. "We'll invite Tasha over with you. Tasha fucking knows how to have fun."
"I'm warning you, Barnes," Tony yelled. "If Pepper and the rest of the Avengers start talking like you two, I'm kicking you both out of the Tower."
"Don't worry," Pepper whispered. "JARVIS and I are really the ones in charge. And we'd never kick you out."
"That is correct, Captain," JARVIS said, his voice pitched quieter than usual. "On both counts."
"I can fire one of you and unplug the other!" Tony yelled. He sounded more than a bit hysterical.
"Gotta go." She pecked them both on the cheek. "You better call me for a Tarantino night."
"Traitor," Tony practically hissed at her once they were in the elevator.
"If you don't watch out," Pepper said to him, a hint of steel in her smile, "I'll invite them over to our place for more Howling Commando stories. And I'll make sure there's boiled cabbage on the menu."
Tony didn't say another word for an hour.