In her line of work, Pepper Potts had to deal with a remarkable amount of... well, let's just say it: bullshit.
Between Tony Stark and his carousing, Tony Stark and his drinking, Tony Stark suddenly deciding to become a superhero, Tony Stark suddenly deciding to become her boyfriend (and didn't that sound silly, calling him something that banal), Tony Stark suddenly deciding to not only join but actively collect and house a ragtag team of superheroes in his Manhattan tower, and Tony Stark just generally existing, there was a lot of bullshit in Pepper Potts's life. She had learned, largely through trial and error and repeated exposure, not to let it throw her.
Throwing out whatever random floozy Tony had brought home this week? No sweat.
Watching aliens come out of the sky over Manhattan? Horrifying, yes, but she could deal.
Suddenly getting superpowers of her own thanks to an old acquaintance with a psychotic grudge? Hey, there could be actual up-sides to this.
Steve Rogers calling her in L.A. at nine p.m. California time asking to borrow the jet so that he could escort Darcy Lewis - whom everyone thought he hated - home to Texas for her grandmother's funeral? It would absolutely not be an understatement to say that Pepper Potts was, for the first time in a very long time, utterly flabbergasted.
Of course she gave him the jet immediately - it was for Darcy, for pete's sake, and everyone (except Steve) absolutely loved Darcy. Pepper especially loved Darcy because Darcy, upon moving into the tower as part of Thor's entourage, had taken one look at the team of rampant destruction that was Tony and Bruce, immediately dubbed them Science Bros, and then taken their entire department in hand. Within a week, she was riding herd over not just Jane but also both Bruce and Tony, and Pepper's life had suddenly become exponentially easier. There was absolutely no question about it: aside from Tony, Darcy was definitely Pepper's favorite. (Pepper would never admit it in front of Tony, but there were some days when she liked Darcy better.)
But after she gave Steve the jet, she had to talk to someone about the fact that she'd just given the jet to Steve, so that he could escort Darcy - whom he hated! - back home to her grandmother's funeral. So she picked up the phone and called the first person she could think of.
“He's doing what?” Natasha asked when Pepper finished explaining.
“I know!” Pepper exclaimed.
“But he hates her,” Natasha asserted.
“I know.” Pepper repeated.
“What is he doing?” Natasha muttered, possibly to herself.
“I don't know,” Pepper moaned, flopping backward on her bed and feeling a little bit like she was back in high school.
After that, it was just a matter of hurry-up-and-wait. She went back and forth about whether to tell Tony - it was even odds whether he'd find it sweet or amusing, and if he'd try to interfere - but in the end she decided to tell him simply to keep him from blundering into something and making things worse. So she waited until she had his complete and undivided attention - which is to say, when he came up to bed, she knocked him onto the mattress, straddled him and sat on his stomach. “Tony,” she said. “I have to talk to you about something important.”
His eyes got huge and worried. “Uh?”
“Before I tell you anything, I need to explain to you that there are consequences involved in what I'm about to say.”
He blinked. “Uh.”
“And when I say consequences, I mean that if you screw this up for me, I swear to God, Tony, I will make you wish you hadn't.” She ran a hand through his hair. “Do I make myself extremely clear?”
He swallowed hard. “Uh-huh.”
“Good. I think Steve is finally getting his head out of his ass where Darcy is concerned.”
Tony stared up at her. “Uh... what?”
She sighed. “Do you pay attention to anything around you at all, or is it all just sort of like the adults speaking in a Charlie Brown special?”
“Mostly the latter,” he admitted. “Back up and start from the beginning, because Steve hates Darcy.”
“Well, I thought so, too.” She shifted off him and settled onto the mattress, her legs crossing in front of her as she leaned forward, resting her elbows on her knees. She picked up Tony's hand, idly playing with his fingers as she spoke. “But I'm starting to think it might actually be the opposite reaction. I'm starting to think she gets on his nerves because he likes her too much, and after everything that's happened to him, he's afraid.”
Tony considered this statement. Pepper had found that Tony was actually not completely incompetent with regard to humans; it was just that he didn't care. He'd been hurt so badly, for so long, by so many people, that he had forcibly shut down. If his interest could be caught, though, he could be convinced to care - and that was how he had managed to start collecting superheroes and dating Pepper Potts. “You might actually be right,” he murmured thoughtfully. “I noticed - and by noticed, of course, I mean Jane pointed it out and I double checked her data - that he's the nastiest to her when she does anything for him that could be remotely construed as romantic in nature. But she's quit doing that. In fact, it occurs to me now that she's quit doing a lot of things, and we might need to have a little house meeting about exactly why Darcy Lewis isn't making food things any more.”
“Darcy isn't making food any more because Steve gets nasty with her every time she does,” Pepper pointed out reasonably.
“Which is exactly why I think we need a house meeting. If Mr. Stars and Stripes is developing an ego and thinks he can get between me and whatever that pasta thing was she made that time, he's got another thought coming.”
Pepper sighed, shifted, and straddled his stomach again, giving his earlobe a sharp tug. “Focus.”
“I am focused. He's depriving us all of delicious things to put in our food holes.”
“Darcy's grandmother died today, Tony, and Steve called to ask if he could borrow the jet to take her home for the funeral.”
She watched the gears shift inside Tony's head. “Does he have a license to fly that thing?”
“No,” Pepper replied, drawing the word out long past its expiration. “He's not flying her. He's escorting her.”
Tony's brow furrowed. “Why the hell would he do that?”
“That's what I'm saying!” Pepper exclaimed, exasperated. “I think he's getting his head out of his ass.”
There was a very long silence. Then Tony said, “We should start a pool on whether they come back engaged or he comes back in traction.”
Tony froze in the act of reaching for his cell phone. There was no other reaction he could have when Pepper used that tone. Slowly, he retracted his hand, placing it flat on the mattress, and he raised his eyes back up to her face. “Yes, Pepper,” he said quietly.
“Thank you. Please pay attention. Do you recall what I said at the beginning of this conversation about how if you screw this up, there will be consequences?” When he nodded, she continued. “Good. So don't screw this up.”
“No pool, then.”
“Fair enough.” He raised his hands, resting them on her thighs. “But if he makes her cry, I'm going to beat his star-spangled ass.”
Natasha left her apartment the next morning just in time to see Steve disappear into the elevator with Darcy, saying something incomprehensible about someone's Aunt Nora as he did so. She shook her head, making her way down the hall. She was glad that Pepper had changed Tony's mind about the design of the Avengers' residential areas; he'd planned to give each team member their own floor, but that would have been entirely too much space for any one person, and Pepper had seen that and nixed the entire plan. She'd convinced Tony, instead, to develop apartments for each of them, centered around a large common space.
The Avengers' floors - eighty-five through ninety of the ninety-one-floor tower - were now organized in a roughly circular fashion, with four-bedroom, two-story apartments for each of them arranged on the outer walls, while the inner areas were given over to common space. One floor was an entertainment area, containing a huge television and every video game system known to mankind - including a Sega Dreamcast, which Clint apparently found hilarious for some reason. One was an actual game room, with a pool table and ping pong and foosball and even, to Steve's delight, three different pinball machines. Two floors were given over to library space, because an enjoyment of reading was the singular interest that every single one of the Avengers and their support staff had in common. One floor contained a state-of-the-art gymnasium and a swimming pool. And one floor - Natasha's favorite - held the kitchen.
Everyone's apartment had its own fully functional kitchen, and people were always “having everyone over for dinner” - it was kind of a running joke, at this point - but the communal kitchen was where the action was. If someone wanted a snack during the day, they didn't go to their apartment to get it (unless it was something they didn't want to share, which occasionally happened). They went to the communal kitchen on the eighty-seventh floor. If someone decided to randomly make an Avengers-sized batch of chocolate-chip cookies at four in the morning (which also occasionally happened), they went to the communal kitchen. When Darcy had been making food for everyone in an attempt to help develop team camaraderie (which had been shut down in spectacular fashion by the sudden and unexpected appearance of Bastard!Steve Rogers), that had also occurred in the communal kitchen.
And it was a virtual guarantee that if she wanted Clint Barton's attention before noon, she'd find him in the communal kitchen, shunning Tony's very fancy, voice-activated coffee machine in favor of the old drip machine that nobody used except him because he'd been caught drinking straight from the pot one too many times.
And sure enough, as soon as she walked in, there he was, slouched against the counter with the coffeepot in his hands. “You're disgusting,” she commented as she passed him. She stopped in front of the very fancy coffee maker and addressed it. “I would like a large medium-roast with vanilla creamer, please.”
The coffee machine beeped in acknowledgement and went to work, and Natasha turned to face Clint, who smirked at her over the top of the pot. “What's with the breaking news announcement?”
“I felt like you needed a reminder.”
“Thanks for stayin' on top of me,” he drawled.
She narrowed her eyes. “For that, I think I will not share the actual news with you.”
“Aw, Nat,” he whined. “Come on. You've got that look on your face. There really is news, isn't there? Come on.”
She rolled her eyes, turning back to the coffee machine when it whistled. “Thank you,” she said to the machine. She wasn't entirely sure that it was necessary, but with the number of things in Tony Stark's tower that shouldn't have personalities but did, she felt like it was a safer bet to be polite to the machinery. She'd seen The Matrix and all the Terminator movies, after all - including the third one, which was objectively terrible even by Russian standards - and she knew that when the time came that JARVIS decided to take over the world, she wanted to be on the AI's good list.
“Fine,” she said, turning back to Clint. “I suppose I can tell you, just so that you don't go blundering in and ruining things. Darcy has gone home to Texas for her grandmother's funeral, and Steve is escorting her.”
Clint nearly dropped the coffee pot. “What? But Steve hates Darcy!”
“Apparently not enough to rejoice in her absence from the Tower,” Natasha replied.
“Are you sure about this?”
“Completely,” she assured him. She filled him in on her call from Pepper the previous night, as well as the fact that she'd seen the two of them leaving together this morning. “So, you see.”
“Does Tony know about this yet?” Clint asked, digging into his pocket for his cell phone. “I want to know what the over-under is on Steve coming back with a cast.”
Clint froze, which was the only rational response when Natasha used that tone. “Yes, Nat.”
“You recall what I said just a moment ago about not blundering in and ruining things. I will make your life misery.”
He withdrew his hand slowly from his pocket, leaving the cell phone behind. “So, no pool.”
“No pool, Clint.”
Clint kept his word to Natasha about not starting a pool with Tony. However, he did take a moment once he was clear of Natasha to send a preemptive text to Steve, letting his friend and team leader know just exactly how put out Clint would be if Steve were to do anything stupid like, say, make Darcy cry. The response that he got was not terribly promising, but at least Steve was warned.
That accomplished, Clint wandered down to Bruce Banner's lab on the seventy-ninth floor. The doctor was in, but he was doing something that looked dangerous with chemicals, so Clint made just enough noise to announce his presence without causing startlement, and then perched himself on top of the filing cabinets nearest the north windows to wait.
When Banner finished whatever it was he was doing - or at least reached a place where it was safe to converse - he greeted Clint, and Clint shared the news.
Banner blinked. “You're kidding. Steve hates Darcy.”
“Yeah, that's pretty much what I said,” Clint replied. “When you get some free time, could you make up some more of whatever it was that you and Tony put in those tranq arrows? I could use some more of those.”
“Sure.” Banner made a note on one of the white boards.
“Thanks.” Clint shifted off the top of the filing cabinets, knocking over a potted cactus in the process. The plant was probably already dead, but Clint sighed down at the mess of dirt and broken pot anyway. “Aw, cactus.”
On Wednesday, Pepper and Tony came back from L.A. And Thor and Jane returned from Asgard. Thor was cautiously optimistic about the way things had gone; he'd managed to convince his father to at least discuss a trade treaty, which was better than nothing, and Jane reported that at least she had not been compared to livestock this time around, which might have been an improvement but seriously that guy was a douchebag, okay?
She left Thor talking treaties and trade and politics (things Darcy would understand and probably want to be neck-deep in, but for which Jane had little patience) with Pepper, and wandered down to the labs to see what kind of trouble she could get into with Tony and Bruce. She found them throwing Silly Putty at the walls in Tony's lab on seventy-six, because Darcy had somehow managed to convince JARVIS that it was a bad idea to allow the Science Bros to play together unsupervised, and they were locked out of the computers until Bruce went back to his own lab to play quietly alone. Jane considered briefly that it probably hadn't been much of a stretch to convince JARVIS; in fact, the AI had probably been less “convinced” and more “co-conspirator” in the matter.
“But why are you unsupervised?” she asked, looking around. “Where's Darcy?”
“Oh, right, you haven't heard,” Tony said, sitting up straight. “She had to go home to Texas. Her grandmother died.”
“Oh, no.” The reaction slipped from Jane's lips in a tone of sympathy, but the next thought she had was more worrisome. “Oh. Oh, no.”
Bruce blinked. “What?”
“If her granny's dead, that means she's going to be there with Nora.”
“And who is Nora?” Tony inquired.
Jane explained what she knew about Nora - that was, what Darcy had told her, which was little enough. “I know they have a really adversarial relationship; Darcy's adopted, and Nora hasn't ever really accepted her as part of the family. Plus, even if she did, Darcy's still sort of the black sheep as far as Nora is concerned.” She bit her lip, considering how much to reveal. “She went home to visit once from New Mexico, and when she came back, she was seriously depressed,” Jane admitted. “Being around Nora really does a number on Darcy's self-esteem.”
Both men looked sympathetic; Jane had a feeling, without knowing much about either of them, that they could both relate. “Well,” Bruce said, “at least she isn't there by herself.”
“She's not?” Jane asked, surprised. “Who's with her?”
Tony looked positively gleeful. “Nobody much. Just a certain Star Spangled Man with a Plan.”
Jane blinked. “What? But Steve hates Darcy!”
“We know!” the two men chorused.
It was funny when Jane found Tony and Bruce locked out of their computers. When Jane found herself locked out, however, it was less amusing. JARVIS had been appropriately regretful, but stated that he was under orders from Darcy not to allow Jane access to her work until she'd had a full twenty-four hours to recover from her travels, and since he was under orders from Pepper to do what Darcy told him, and under orders from Tony to do whatever Pepper told him, there really wasn't any way for him to get around that, not even a little bit, and would she like for him to queue up a movie for her in the media center?
She sighed, thanked JARVIS politely, and went in search of Thor. She found him in the communal kitchen, doing something arcane to several racks of ribs. “Making dinner?” she asked.
“Hello, Jane!” He gave her a broad grin. “I am indeed preparing food; it was my thought that our comrades might enjoy the opportunity to taste an Asgardian meal.” He gestured toward a box that sat on the counter.
It was quite large, made of wood, and inlaid with Celtic-style knotwork in something that looked like mother-of-pearl but probably wasn't. She moved to his side and ran her hand across the lid. “This is lovely,” she murmured. “You brought this from home?” He'd brought a lot of things; she hadn't really paid a whole lot of attention to the details.
“I did. It was a gift from Andhrímnir, who is the chief cook in my father's palace. Open it.”
She did, and found that it was packed full of small paper packets, each one labeled neatly in a Nordic-looking runic script. She squinted at it. The runes seemed to... writhe, almost, on the paper. Or maybe that was just her eyes crossing? No. She squinted again, and they did it again, but they never quite formed anything she could understand. “What is this?” she asks.
He glanced at the packet. “That is coarse-ground correnda,” he said.
“No, I mean the writing. It's like it keeps trying to change or something.”
“Oh! That is because it is written in the Allspeak, the Aesir tongue.” He paused, considering. “I cannot explain the mechanism by which it functions, for I have not been trained in mystical linguistics. I can tell you only that it is a combination of an innate ability within the Aesir and a function of the language itself. When I speak, you hear not my words, but my meaning, expressed to you in the tongue you are most comfortable with. When you speak, I hear your meaning spoken in my tongue.” He pointed at the paper. “However, according to my understanding, because it is not solely a function of the language but also part of an innate Aesir ability, it... well, it apparently does not work with writing.”
Jane considered this, running her fingers across the paper and studying the runes as they struggled and failed to form themselves into something she would understand. “Is it that it doesn't work with any writing, or is it because we don't have a word for correnda?”
Thor thought about that for a moment. “I do not know,” he admitted. “Perhaps we should find out.” He looked down at his hands, which were covered in the dry rub he'd been using on the meat. “Only not just now; I think it would not be a good thing if I were too distracted from my chosen task.”
Jane laughed, tucking the herb packet back into the box. “Good point.” She hopped up onto one of the barstools at the counter to watch him work. “I did not know you could cook.”
“Oh, yes,” he replied. “There has been many a time when I have been required to feed myself and my companions while on journeys. We often take turns. Volstagg is much better at campfire cooking than I am, I confess, but he also considers himself quite a gourmand, so I suppose it is only natural.” He rinsed his hands and dug into the cabinet, pulling out a roll of aluminum foil. He lined the bottom of the oven with the foil, then turned the dials to set the heat. “And Darcy taught me how to use the oven, since it is very different from the kind we use in Asgard.”
“Oh! Speaking of Darcy.” Jane sat up straight. “I almost forgot to tell you.” She shared the news about Darcy's grandmother, and then about Steve accompanying Darcy home. “What do you think about that?”
Thor grinned broadly. “I think it is very fine indeed! Steven is an honorable warrior, and I am proud to call him my shield-brother; he will make an excellent suitor for Darcy, and she would make him a fine wife.”
Jane blinked. “Did you say wife?”
“Oh, yes. I have little doubt that Darcy and Steven will do very well together once he has gotten over his unfortunate shyness around her.”
“But... we all thought he hated her.”
Thor scoffed, waving a hand as he began placing the ribs into the oven, laying them directly on the cooking racks. “Ridiculous. Anyone could see that it is quite the opposite. Her ways are unfamiliar to him, and this causes him some disquiet, but he is captivated by her all the same. I was sure that he would come around to her soon enough.”
Jane stared at him. “How?” she asked simply.
He grinned at her, closing the oven. “My Jane. I have my faults, and I am well aware of these. I am often too quick to anger, and my lust for battle is perhaps stronger than it should be. But I am also heir to the throne of Asgard and the Nine Realms, and a great deal of my training has involved learning to understand people. In order to effectively rule people, one must understand their wants and needs, emotions and desires. And one must learn to hear not only what they say, but what they most emphatically do not say. And Steven most emphatically does not say that he dislikes Darcy, does he? In fact, he most emphatically says absolutely nothing at all about her. But when she is in sight, he watches her. Knowing what you know about Steven, what does that tell you?”
Jane took a deep breath, thinking about that. And then, very softly, she said, “Oh.”