It’s good, to be out of the game. It is. Even with the hearings going on, Natasha can go days at a time wandering DC without seeing anyone who thinks they know her, thinks they can tell her who she is. And when they’re finally done and neither SHIELD nor the US government has any right to demand her appearance, she decides to see if she can make those days into weeks. Maybe she can go a whole year with nobody telling her what to aim at. Or at least a month, to start small.
She’s out a job and her SHIELD pension is caught up in the snafu, but when she raids Steve’s fridge he indignantly transfers her half his backpay fortune; he sees it as a two-birds-one-stone solution to his literal-embarrassment-of-riches problem, so she takes it, and rents herself a tiny apartment in New York. She remembers liking New York, and not just because it was such an easy place to kill people.
The novelty lasts three days. Well. Two and a half. On the third day, she takes one of Steve’s recommendations out of desperation, and goes to a museum. She’s slouching inconspicuously in a Smithsonian T-shirt she thrifted just for the occasion, staring down a painting of a ballerina, when Pepper finds her.
“Degas was a creepy fucker,” she says. The ballerina can’t quite bring herself to make eye contact with the balding violinist she’s dancing for, but he keeps playing and she keeps stretching out her sturdy young arms for him.
“I could introduce you to at least three art historians who would love to agree with you at length,” Pepper replies. “Though you might have more fun with the one who would try to argue.”
“Nah,” drawls Nat, turning away from the pale pink smear of body and dress on the canvas. “Not supposed to make anyone bleed or cry for two whole months. Steve made me pinky-swear.”
She mimes the solemn oath, and Pepper’s eyes sparkle rewardingly.
“Mmm. Yes. Steve mentioned he was a little concerned about you, the last time he and Tony caused massive property damage together. Tony delegated follow-up to me.”
On the far wall beyond Pepper’s shoulder is a gray and brown pastel of fancy men making shady deals. Beyond Natasha’s own shoulder, she knows, is the entrance to a whole roomful of naked women trying to wash their feet and get on with their lives.
Crisp against Degas’ rough lines, Pepper looks more like a particularly stylish security guard than a Wednesday-morning tourist, and Natasha wonders if she chose navy for her pencil skirt on purpose. It looks fantastic against the small blue forget-me-nots of her blouse. Pepper has raised an eyebrow at Natasha’s long pause, but her eyes are still smiling.
“Well?” she says. “Delegating is a new trick for Tony, I don’t want to discourage the habit.”
“Far be it from me to get in the way, if you’re housetraining him at last,” says Natasha, dryly. “Lead on, boss.”
Pepper takes her to the only cafe on the street where Nat’s hilarious T-shirt is conspicuous, but completely ignores her glare. Natasha tries to get comfortable in one of the shiny outdoor chairs. She’s not actually hiding from anyone, after all. It doesn’t matter if people remember seeing her.
When Pepper has sent their waiter scurrying with their decadent lunch order, she leans earnestly across the table. Natasha is surprised that it wobbles even at such a classy joint, but maybe all those rickety round tables have New York sidewalks to blame for the overpriced ice water they spill in the streets.
“Natasha,” Pepper says, and Nat braces both her palms against the table to keep it still. “I think Steve and Tony both thought I’d hold your hand and undo decades of complicated trauma with my magical womanly powers of nurturing…” Pepper trails off with a breathy sound that is too professional to be a laugh, but which still gives the impression of a derisive eye-roll in the direction of men. “But you’ve worked for me. I’m going to be frank. I’m also only going to do this once, because unsolicited advice is inherently obnoxious.” Pepper leans back a bit. “You were the best PA I have ever met, let alone worked with, and being a PA wasn’t even your job,” she continues, her voice briefly taking on a tone of fond awe. “You have experienced life-changing events which very few people can even comprehend, myself not included. You are not a twenty-year-old with college debt. Just because they say they’re ‘finding themselves’ when they’re eating ramen in Brooklyn, that doesn’t mean it’s a good way to actually find yourself.” Natasha wonders if anybody Pepper works with actually knows that she has a sense of humor. Pepper leans in again, and reflexively brushes away a strand of hair that isn’t actually in her face. “You are more than capable of holding down an actual job. Find something and do it, and if after a while you don’t care about it, find something else.”
“All right,” Natasha replies, when she can’t think what else to say. “You hiring?”
Pepper was not, technically, hiring, but both Pepper and her former PA seem pathetically grateful to transfer Thérèse to a smaller department. Natasha spends Thursday morning placing orders for a professional wardrobe that will look respectable next to Pepper’s, and Thursday evening hand-tailoring the simplest of her new suits to have it done on time. She starts on Friday.
Natasha does not form a particularly high opinion of Thérèse, or of any of Natalie Rushman’s other successors, as Pepper shows her the lay of the land. She spends the weekend combing through the gigabytes of intel Pepper has given her, and decides that the least-invasive solution is a restructuring of five employees’ workflows, to place decisions with the greatest variability in outcomes closest to Pepper’s oversight, and everything else in somebody else’s inbox.
On Monday, she gives Pepper her list of the tasks that are now delegated to other parties, subject to monitoring by Natasha.
“I’ve told JARVIS too, so don’t think you can get out of it,” she says, when Pepper sputters only halfway through reading it.
She adds the much smaller list of tasks which now involve Pepper’s direct involvement; she suspects many of them are the kinds of rewarding tasks which made Pepper become a CEO in the first place, but which got crowded out of her schedule by less-important but more-urgent details.
“Natasha, I— I’m…” Pepper reads the list again, and actually smiles.
“So happy you could kiss me?” Natasha finishes for her, with a deadpan eyebrow-waggle, and Pepper turns beautifully red.
“Not without first forwarding you Stark Industries’ official policies on fraternization and sexual harassment, and talking to Tony, no, but how about a weekend spa day?”
Natasha makes some kind of joke— maybe just says, “It’s a date,” maybe calls her “sugar” or “honey” or some other condiment, hopefully a sweet one— and then she hurries out, but later she does add a spa day to both their calendars. It’s a good test of the new workflow.
Massages remind Natasha of training; like dancers and athletes, she has had a lot of brisk and utilitarian muscle-beatings. So she schedules herself and Pepper for everything else the spa has, soaks and facials and the most luxurious possible pedicures.
When they first change, Pepper manages to look prim and professional even in the big puffy robe— until she sees Natasha settle into the posture of the world’s most spoiled heiress.
“Can you even see where you’re going, with your nose that far in the air?” she asks, grinning, and Natasha puts on her best entitled-Russian-princess voice to reply, “In Russia, it is the job of others to see me.”
Any lingering remains of Pepper’s professional shell dissolve with their first luxuriant soak, and for the whole afternoon Pepper moves from room to room like an increasingly satisfied cat. The scent of mango makes her close her eyes and hum happily every time. Natasha wonders, if she could touch Pepper’s chest, whether she could feel that hum rumbling through her like a full-body purr. She looks away from Pepper’s chest, only to get caught again on her neck: flushed with the warmth of the room, it seems made for Natasha’s face to nestle against it, for that hum to spread from its source to Natasha’s throat as well, audible only to the two of them.
Pepper notices Natasha’s scars, of course. She doesn’t ask about them. The other nice thing about skipping the massages is that Natasha only has to listen to worried clucking about the little nicks on her hands and feet, and doesn’t have to explain where it still hurts to be touched.
Stark Industries’ fraternization policies are clearly written from the central premise that Pepper and Tony are doin’ it and Pepper’s not a hypocrite. Natasha dutifully reads page after page after page of information on how to recognize and report an abuse of seniority, how to avoid common pitfalls when navigating personal complications at work, how to approach HR if a relationship has made a workplace environment untenable. The document ends with a list of people to contact for support. At the bottom, Pepper has handwritten all of Tony’s phone numbers. One of them is labeled “JARVIS— most direct line— contact for coffee date to discuss boundaries, if desired.”
Tony turns out to be way less weird about it than Natasha had expected. He doesn’t even suggest a threesome.
As Pepper’s PA, she actually already knew the calendar annotations used to distinguish relationship-critical recurring events from those that are movable or even cancelable, but it’s still a bit of a thrill when she adds a new calendar for herself. She schedules herself and Pepper for an hour and a half lunch every Wednesday into perpetuity.
She settles in to the job. She gets good at it. She gets even better at it. Nat has never been sure why so many people treat her basic competence like some kind of miracle. She doesn’t even have to make any of the complicated decisions. Pepper is the perfect boss, professionally thorough so Nat never has to waste time redoing her work, but emotionally an open book. Nat’s never left guessing what she needs, or how she wants Nat to do things. All she has to do is not get bored by other people’s bullshit, and read faces at the most basic level. Predict outcomes, plan ahead to take advantage of all the possibilities, put in the time on prep work. Make the right things happen at the right moments, to the right people. There are covers Nat couldn’t maintain for a long con, but this isn’t one of them.
“Natalie?” Pepper calls, and Nat’s at her side with her tablet ready to take notes. Pepper looks flustered. Nat tilts her head to the side encouragingly, waiting. She can’t read Pepper’s expression; she looks too worried for it to be anything on the company’s docket for the next week and a half, which is all pretty routine, but she’s not upset enough for Tony to have done anything reckless.
“I called your name three times,” Pepper says, softly. “Your name is Natasha.” Natasha turns the tablet off. She memorizes Pepper’s face for future reference: this is her worried-about-Natasha face. “Natalie Rushman was very nice, but I hired Natasha,” Pepper says, kindly but firmly. This face is a kind-but-firm face, more cautious than any of her Tony faces but with that same edge of panic. “Please go home for today, and come back tomorrow morning whenever you’re ready.”
“Understood,” says Natasha, and then, desperate for Pepper to stop looking so terribly wounded, she adds, “I’m so sorry, Pepper, I don’t know what got into me! I’ll have my head on straight for tomorrow.”
The Natasha face is a lot easier to fix than the Tony faces, she notes with relief.
Natasha keeps going to work. She and Pepper start doing dumb New York tourism on Saturdays. Pepper tries to take her back to the Met, but Natasha always gets stuck in front of paintings of saints, or Judith beheading Holofernes, and it’s not quite funny yet. So they try the Museum of Natural History, and after cracking Pepper up with harebrained schemes to steal everything in the Hall of Gems, Natasha agrees to check out the butterfly room. She raises aggrieved eyebrows at Pepper in the little pre-butterfly airlock when it turns out to be sweltering and full of children, but the kids settle down once they’re let inside and instructed to be gentle, and Natasha does have to admit that the butterflies are pretty.
Pepper brushes past Natasha to look more closely at a zebra-striped butterfly hanging upside-down from a bobbing leaf; her neck stretches out invitingly in front of Natasha’s mouth. Pepper’s in flats, so today she’s only an inch or two taller than Natasha, who took the opportunity to wear some killer boots that her cover would never have picked, plus some unprofessionally tight jeans. It’s her way of following Pepper’s advice to relax when they’re away from the office, though of course Pepper’s idea of ‘relaxed’ still means a sheath dress with little cap sleeves. The bright blue cotton looks touchably soft, at least, but a matching blue butterfly beats Natasha to the punch, fluttering around Pepper’s shoulder. It lands, and Pepper turns, eyes darting immediately to Natasha’s; “You’ve made a friend,” Natasha informs her, and delight spreads from Pepper’s eyes through her whole face as she notices the butterfly darting around her collarbone, landing and taking off again with her suppressed laughs. The wall of flowers framing Pepper’s smiling face look like every tropical ecosystem in the world jumbled together. More butterflies launch from within its leafy depths, and soon Pepper is swarmed with sapphire butterflies adorning her dress. “Shoulda brought a camera,” Natasha observes, and she can feel herself starting to smile too, as Pepper tries to stay as still as possible.
But Natasha can hear an earnest twenty-something docent of some kind, urgently making his way toward them. Pepper turns stiff and professional in the face of his concern; Natasha tries to shoo him away with reassurance that they’re fine, they know not to touch the butterflies’ wings, but he interrupts her.
“They’re attacking you,” he says, and she glances at the cloud of flimsy kamikaze insects to re-evaluate with new data.
“I can take ’em,” she says, and Pepper lets out the most beautiful peal of laughter; unlike the flustered butterfly-guardian, she can tell that Natasha only started joking midway through the sentence. The docent cracks a customer-service smile and immediately launches into an explanation — apparently blue morpho butterflies can be territorial and also extremely stupid — but Natasha’s ears are too red for her to fully hear him.
“They can do real damage to themselves,” the docent explains anxiously as he shuffles them toward the exit. “If you have a jacket or something, to cover up the blue, you could go outside and come back in? I’m so sorry,” he adds, completely insincere, his eyes desperately tracking each of the butterflies flinging themselves against Pepper’s dress. Now that Pepper has started to move, it’s even more obvious that they’ve targeted her specifically— she’s like a comet, new butterflies appearing in front of her in a fluttering corona, and a long blue tail behind her.
“I completely understand,” Pepper tells him, and submits to a farcically long butterfly-removal process in the exit-airlock. Natasha can’t blame all of them, really; she’s wanted to fling herself against Pepper’s body since she saw her that morning.
She offers Pepper her leather jacket as a butterfly-shield for a second attempt, but Pepper demurs.
“Take me home, my gallant rescuer,” she says, and Natasha can’t argue with that.
Natasha keeps going to work. It’s fine. Natasha is very good at what she does.
Natasha gets a new apartment, conveniently located between Tony’s absurd monument to himself and Pepper’s actual office. She discovers that if she shows up at Pepper’s desk with take-out at the start of their Wednesday lunch, they can spend almost an hour at Natasha’s apartment, “napping.”
Dangerously close to actually napping, Natasha curls up against the heat of Pepper’s body; Pepper is stretched out on her back, one arm pillowing her head, the other draped lazily over Natasha’s shoulders. They’ll shower and zip each other back into uniform soon enough, but for now Natasha is enjoying the chill of the room as their sweat dries sticky on her skin.
She stretches, and catches sight of the clock: a little past two-thirty. At some point during their “long lunch,” they’d passed the exact three-month-mark since Natasha had asked to work for Stark Industries.
Natasha curls back in against Pepper. “You told me to do something, and if I didn’t care about it, to do something else,” she tells Pepper’s beautiful freckled ribs.
“I did,” Pepper agrees, and Natasha reaches across her body to trace circles on her hip.
“I don’t care about this job,” Natasha says. “I want to do something different,” she tells Pepper’s beautiful hipbone.
“Oh,” says Pepper, and her chest rises and falls, lifting Natasha’s body the tiniest amount and then falling beneath its weight. “Yes, that makes sense, we’re not really challenging you. I’ll serve as a reference, of course."
“I care about you, though,” Natasha says, and then she says, “I want to keep doing you.” She follows this up with a noisy kiss on Pepper’s stomach, which shakes under her lips as Pepper starts to laugh.
“Well, if you put it like that,” she says, and kisses Natasha silly.