The first thing Tony Stark said to Steve Rogers was, "Hey, you're Captain America."
The second was, "Here, hold this."
Pepper never claimed to understand Tony. Secretly, she suspected that more often than not even Tony didn't understand Tony, and if Tony didn't have a hope, the lesser geniuses of the world had to content themselves with frequent bafflement. At first she marked his relationship with Captain Rogers down as one of those Tony things. Tony drank spinach smoothies for breakfast; he thought 'decorating' was synonymous with 'hanging increasingly gauche posters of myself;' he argued about federalism with Captain America.
They didn't even have a relationship at first. They were on the same team—nominally; Captain Rogers reported to Colonel Fury, and Tony sometimes found it amusing to pretend to follow Fury's orders—they were both high-profile and in the same business, more or less, but their interaction initially consisted of Tony flirting more outrageously than Pepper had seen him flirt since he'd Come Home, and Captain Rogers looking by turns confused, disproving, and amused but startled.
(She still thought of it that way—the day that Tony Came Home. Tony was an ass, but the clockwork heart did nothing to disguise the wild, almost frightening generosity that lived beneath his monumental arrogance.)
The amused but startled look was her favorite. Tony was so deliberately and unselfconsciously provocative that few people could maintain a poker face in his presence, but Captain Rogers always seemed perplexed when Tony managed to drag a reaction out of him. It went both ways, and that was her favorite part.
"You're not much like you father," Rogers said one day, after some SHIELD meeting Pepper had roundly ignored. Tony paid her to run his company and his company only now, thank god, although she sometimes still found herself trailing him around and reminding him to eat.
That stopped Tony in his tracks. "I'm not?"
Tony had spent most of his life being compared to Howard Stark. Pepper, who hadn't met him until he was twenty-four, had even so heard it enough times to make her sick—from Obadiah, of course, and senators, and generals, and the mothers of socialites and corporate climbers, from Justin Hammer and the few good old boys who lingered on the Board of Directors, from competitors, sponsors, schoolmates, and reporters. Maria Stark might as well have been an anonymous genetic donor for all that she was mentioned to Tony.
Rogers shrugged. "You look like him, a little, and you have his facility with machines, but other than that..."
"Really," Tony said. "Huh."
They were the only three left in the briefing room. Pepper was seated and tapping at her BlackBerry, Rogers likewise, although he wasn't so much tapping as fumbling with a cheap little Nokia that lacked both a keyboard and a touchscreen. Tony was posed against the table, hands oh-so-nonchalantly shoved in his pockets in a way that drew attention to his crotch. After approximately five seconds of silent contemplation—about all the silence Tony could handle—he strolled over to Rogers and hovered by his shoulder.
"That phone's a piece of crap," he said. "Who got you that? No, don't tell me, it had to be Fury—his idea of decent tech is somewhere in line with Soviet Russia's."
Rogers scowled at the number pad. "I understand how to make calls—"
Tony scoffed. Pepper thought his reaction was involuntary, like a gag reflex in other people.
"—mostly," Rogers amended. "But Natasha said it saves phone numbers, too, and I don't understand how—"
Which was when Tony plucked the phone from Rogers's fingers and flung it over his shoulder. It hit the ground somewhere—Tony obviously didn't care where—and in a strange expression of Stark affection, Tony used both hands to do a mannish slap-squeeze on Rogers's (very broad, very defined) shoulders. He looked like he was trying to give the man an amateurish massage.
"C'mon, you're with me, we'll get you something that doesn't drop calls every time you go through a tunnel."
"What?" Rogers said, which in Pepper's experience was an almost universal response to Tony's ideas.
"You too, Pep, up up up." Tony took her phone, shoved it in her briefcase—in the wrong pocket, too—and kicked her chair. "Up. We'll get pizza."
"What?" Pepper said.
And that was how Pepper herself explaining Domino's to Captain America.
She wondered if Tony wasn't using Steve as a replacement. For Rhodey, was her first thought; their friendship still hadn't returned to an equilibrium after Rhodey had outfitted Tony's armor with Hammer ordnance. Then she wondered if Steve wasn't a substitute for Obadiah, but that seemed so outrageously untrue that Pepper wondered if Tony wasn't actually...lonely.
Obadiah was dead, and other than his current chauffeur and former personal assistant, Tony didn't have much by way of friends. He had acquaintances and connections and lovers by the handful, of course, and he had Rhodey—but even Rhodey had started as a business liaison.
He didn't act lonely, Pepper decided. Tony liked people, but he liked being able to make them go away whenever he wanted even more. She was forced to conclude that for reasons incomprehensible, Tony had chosen to make Captain America his new project. He'd figure the man out, flirt with him until Rogers either fell into Tony's bed or rejected him, and then move on to building the armor mark thirty—and name it the Capbuster, likely.
A few weeks after Tony presented Rogers with a state-of-the-art custom phone that he'd thrown together during a bought of insomnia, Pepper found herself at a state dinner. To her left, Dr. Banner stared into his cucumber bisque as though he hoped it would swallow him; to her right, the God of Thunder was being astonishingly good-looking and muscular.
"Hi. Hello," Pepper said.
Thor put down the bottle of wine he'd been drinking and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. "Hail, mortal," he said, with apparent sincerity.
"So," Pepper said, and cast around for an appropriate topic of conversation. Business was out, and family was clearly an inappropriate subject. Travel seemed like a safe choice.
"How's Earth treating you?" she asked.
"Much better than my last visit!" Thor said lustily. (He did many things lustily. He spoke lustily; he ate lustily; he existed lustily. Pepper might have been projecting.) "And the women of Midgard are beauteous enough to make up for the rest, I think." Then he winked.
Virginia Potts did not giggle, but that night it was a near thing.
Only after Thor returned to Dr. Foster's side (brilliant woman; Pepper would have to see about recruiting her for R&D) did she think to look for Tony. He wasn't making a spectacle of himself in the middle of the room, nor was he handing out hundred-dollar tips to the bartenders. Pepper eventually abandoned her post by the buffet, and after twenty minutes of searching, found him near the coat-check playing gin rummy with Captain Rogers.
"Heya, Pep," Tony said. "Have a good time making eyes at His Royal Hammerliness? He brings up the beauty quotient in the room, give him that."
Pepper, due wholly to the wine and her pale skin, flushed. That wasn't unexpected, nor was Tony's mockery; the unexpected part came when Captain Rogers said absently, "Tony."
Tony bit down on a piece of ice with an audible crack, rolled his eyes, shuffled his cards, and said, "Yeah, yeah. Sorry, pepperpot."
If that wasn't as straightforward an apology as she'd ever heard Tony Stark utter, then she deserved every heart attack Tony gave her.
The middle and end of her relationship with Tony went something like this:
"Is it just me or is this not working?" Tony had said.
"It isn't working," Pepper answered immediately.
"The sex was good, right?"
"Yes, Tony. The sex was good."
"But the sex was good," Tony mumbled to himself. "And you don't hate me now."
"Tony! No, I don't hate you!"
"Good. Excellent." He vaulted out of bed and started looking for his pants. "Let's get donuts."
"Ugh. No. It's four in the morning."
Tony paused, balanced on one foot, the other halfway down a pantleg. "Is that a problem?"
Pepper yanked a pillow over her face. "Don't wake anyone up," she said. "And don't buy Donut Boy, you don't need another company to pawn off on me."
"Yes ma'am," Tony said, and went away humming tunelessly to himself.
After that, things went back to normal.
By the time the whole Loki ordeal had been reduced to a headline and a few clips of footage, Tony talked about Captain Rogers almost as much as he talked about aerodynamics. She no longer saw him on a daily basis, especially since Tony took up almost full-time residence on the East Coast, but they talked often and Pepper was at that point still the person best equipped to drag Tony out of his lab when he buried himself for so long that newspapers started running obituaries.
"I sold that one piece, Steve doesn't like Beardsley," he'd say, and then proceed to spout an opinion on art noveau that was three hundred percent more informed than any other artistic opinion she'd heard from him ever. Or: "Cap broke his third phone today, the knucklehead, he doesn't understand the point of texting when you can talk to someone." Or: "Steve is teaching me judo, let me throw you!" and then she had to spend ten minutes dodging Tony before he broke the heel of one of her Jimmy Choos in his enthusiasm.
In retrospect, she was disappointed that it took her so long to figure out that Tony had a crush on Captain Rogers. Tony was indiscriminate in dispensing what he considered his sexual wisdom, but she'd never seen him act like a thirteen-year-old girl before. Delightfully, he didn't even seem aware of his behavior. It wasn't hero worship, either, although she'd considered the possibility, and it wasn't quite the fawning deference he used with his few scientific idols.
"I took Steve to a mall today," he said one week (he'd probably rented the entire mall), and "Steve and I went to a ballgame" the next (he'd probably rented the entire stadium). Pepper thought it was adorable. She started asking after Captain Rogers purely because Tony was so pleased when she did.
"He's fine, we're watching Lord of the Rings this weekend. You're in town next Weeedne—Thursday? Thursday? Did I get that right?"
"From next Thursday through the twenty-seventh."
"Beautiful. How's my company?"
"I don't know what you're talking about," Pepper said. "And on a different note, my company rose three points this week."
"Still running around with Russian spies?"
"Still running around with American icons?"
"Don't be a hater, Pep," Tony said.
She flew out to New York three days later. Tony put her up in his penthouse; she should really look for a place of her own, here and maybe in D.C., she thought. Pepper hated house-hunting. Tony's current residence was big enough for five or six people anyway, especially since the master of the place spent more time in the sub-basement garage than he did in his home.
Tony's stupidly large apartment was to blame for what happened next. Tony's stupidly large apartment, and either his sick sense of humor or his complete disregard for courtesy. There was no other reason Captain America would stroll into the bathroom while she was putting on a mud mask.
Pepper shrieked. The Living Legend turned red and stammered out, "I'm sorry—sorry—can, um, that is, I'll just—" He pointed, apologized again, and backed out.
"Tony, I am going to kill you," she swore to her hairbrush.
Other than a few official functions and the time with the pizza, Pepper hadn't spent all that much time with Tony's new bosom companion. She had to spend five minutes steeling herself in the bathroom, then noticed she still had the mud mask on, scrubbed it off, and had to calm herself down all over again.
Captain Rogers was waiting for her in the kitchen. He'd made her a cup of tea.
"I—I can't apologize enough, Miss Potts. Ms. Potts!"
She couldn't help but smile in the face of his flustered earnestness. That Captain America was apparently more unnerved to talk to her than she was to him had to be the most enormous confidence boost possible.
"Please, call me Pepper. I have a feeling Tony's going to keep throwing us together."
"Steve, then." Steve pulled a face. "He does that."
"It's useless to stop him, I've been trying for years," Pepper said, and watched, fascinated, as he measured out a careful teaspoon of honey and stirred it into his tea.
"He forgot to tell me you were staying here, too."
"Or he thought it would be funny," she said darkly, accepting the mug he offered her. "I have an interviewer who wants to do a five-page article on his 'business zen,' though, that should make him think twice."
"Nobody else knows what it is, either," Pepper assured him, "and even if they did, Tony doesn't have it."
"Ah," Steve said.
After that Pepper was at a loss. She could talk shop with the best of them—literally the best of them, she played with the top executives in the world—but she had a feeling even Emily Post would be stymied over what to say at eleven at night to a man displaced seventy years in time. Someone should write a manual, she thought. Talking to Superheroes. If it abandoned sensationalist drivel in favor of practicality, it would be amazingly useful.
And then Tony wandered into the kitchen. He was either mostly asleep, drunk, or thinking intently; Steve and Pepper watched in silence as he dumped ice, yogurt, three bananas, a strawberry, and a stick of celery into the blender, ground the lot into a pulp, and licked the lid. When he left, he was cradling the pitcher in the crook of his elbow the way most people would hold an infant and the way Tony regularly held his robots.
Talk about an ice breaker. Thank you, eccentric billionaires of the world.
"Is New York very different?" Pepper asked.
"Like you wouldn't believe," Steve said fervently.
"You're probably sick of talking about that, god, I'm sorry."
His lips twitched at that; he didn't smile much, but, Pepper thought, he didn't have much to smile about. "No, it's actually nice to be asked. Most folks seem to expect me to have adapted already. People are people, you know, that doesn't change, but everything here seems so...loud."
"I can't imagine," Pepper said, and she couldn't. "I sometimes forget we didn't have the internet when I was little, and at least I grew along with the technology."
"Makes me feel ancient," Steve said.
"You don't look a day over seventy-five."
Finally, a grin flashed over his face; it made him look younger, and Pepper was startled to realize that, in years experienced, she might be older than he was.
"I like what television's turned into, though," he admitted. "MythBusters is swell."
"And on that note, let's move to the living room. I can't let you-know-how be in charge of all of your cultural experiences, or you might get the wrong impression."
"Only if you teach me how to use the remotes," Steve said. "I asked Tony, but he started talking about transistors and then wandered away."
Tony joined them for breakfast the next morning, this time in a mood that bordered on coherent. Steve was cooking omelets and quizzing Pepper about late night talk shows when the one and only Iron Man wandered in, hair standing on end and wearing one of his filthy old t-shirts with a hole cut in the chest to display the arc reactor. Pepper used to think that he mutilated his clothing out of misplaced vanity, to show off how smart and clever Tony Stark was in coming up with a piece of tech small enough to fit in the palm of a hand and powerful enough to light up a small country.
That was before she realized that he occasionally used himself as a battery.
"Sam will be impressed that I know Conan from Letterman," Steve was saying. "He listens to a lot of talk radio, too."
"Sam?" Pepper asked. From the walk-in pantry, Tony snorted.
"He's a social worker in Harlem—quiet, Tony—I was drafted, I didn't volunteer."
"Bet you've said that before."
"He pulled me off the sidewalk, I wasn't about to say no."
"Exactly," Tony said, content that he'd won his point even if nobody else understood it. Pepper, who had seen Tony both petulant and jealous, wasn't surprised that he was demonstrating signs of both. "How about you, Chief Executive Potts, any plans to save the world one impoverished orphan at a time?"
"I'm going to a spa," Pepper said (Tony grinned), "and then meeting Natasha and Carol for lunch. No business until next week."
"Posh, Potts, very posh. You three wouldn't—"
Pepper stole his toast as a preemptive measure. "Stop it, no. I don't think Natasha even swings that way."
"Ha! Which means Danvers does. Rhodey owes me a new car."
Pepper said, primly, "Carol's girlfriend is very nice."
"The esteemed Colonel James Rhodes," Tony said, "doesn't like that the only major who can outfly him dumped the Air Force to play espionage." He was staring at Steve's taut shoulders over the rim of his coffee cup. They were admittedly impressive shoulders; Pepper hadn't thought men could be shaped like that outside the pages of comic books and fantasy.
"Steve, you've met Carol and Jessica, haven't you?"
Steve dropped an egg on his foot.
"Oh!" Pepper said and, startled out of her seat, reached for a towel and bent to mop the floor at the same time Steve leaned down to scrape the eggshells off the floor. Their foreheads collided with a painful and audible crack; Pepper looked up to apologize and froze, fascinated by the red flush spreading over Steve's neck and up his face.
"My god, that's it," Tony said. "You actually, honestly, inherently don't know how to talk to women, do you, Rogers?"
Steve jerked. "I can talk to people fine—" he said, and Pepper knew this moment, had in fact seen Tony work this moment to his advantage dozens of times.
But against all odds, Tony swallowed and relaxed, like he'd resolved some unseen, half-conscious struggle. "Okay, sure, fine, you can talk to women," he said, "but you can't talk to women. But hey, Cap, don't sweat it: I can help you with that."
Tony began his lessons that evening, after he'd herded Steve and Pepper into a waiting Mercedes-Benz.
"Why do we have a driver?" Steve wanted to know.
"Why do we have a car?" Pepper said.
"Shut it, this is important," Tony said, and if he was letting someone else drive, it had to be. Or so Pepper thought, until Tony poured himself a glass of Scotch and started teaching Steve how to flirt.
"Tony!" she interrupted. "Where are we even going?"
"Ballgame," Tony said. "No, Rogers, that's all wrong, you look like you're trying to dislodge a grasshopper that got stuck in your eye."
A grasshopper? Steve mouthed.
Pepper almost reached for the Scotch herself. "But Tony, you don't even—"
"What?" Tony demanded. "What, don't even go to the ballpark enough? You are absolutely right. Tilt your head down, Cap."
"I think this only works for women," Steve said, with what Pepper thought was remarkable patience.
"Hang on, just—" And now Tony was perched almost in Steve's lap, giving him a look through his eyelashes that Pepper doubted would work for women or men or anyone who wasn't Tony Stark, really. "See?"
Steve swallowed. "Yes."
"Excellent. You twinkle those baby blues in a girl's direction, she won't know what hit her." Tony blinked, and seemed to shake himself all over before retreating to his seat and pouring himself a generous second helping of liquor. The glass was halfway to his mouth before a large hand covered his own.
"You drink too much," Steve said.
"I. What?" Tony said, but he let Steve lift the glass from his loose grip anyway.
"It isn't healthy." Steve looked around for something—a sink, Pepper supposed—and, not finding one, drank all three ounces in one breath.
At Pepper's frank stare, he looked down and set the glass gingerly on the floor. "I can't get drunk," he explained.
"Oh," Pepper said. She didn't miss the glance Steve cast at Tony after his admission—clearly checking if Tony was impressed—although Tony did; he was too busy pouting at his feet.
Honestly, these two, Pepper thought. And she still had to watch Tony try to sit though a sporting event. Pepper liked baseball and football and most sports that involved both many rules and many men who were paid millions to run around in a field for her amusement. Tony, though, would get fidgety after the first inning and start trying to statistically predict the outcome of the game after the second. She was beginning to think that he and Steve deserved each other.
"Tell me you know how to unhook a bra," Tony said.
"Enough!" Pepper said. (Steve was starting to look mulish.) "No more while I'm in the car, please let's just have a normal conversation about—about—"
"The Dodgers," Pepper said, firmly.
"I still have trouble believing they moved to California. California." Steve said this with the kind of deep mournfulness Pepper usually reserved for the deaths of family members.
"We could fly out. See a game, eat a hotdog." Tony shrugged. "Start another Avengers team."
"I'll have that glass and the Scotch now," Pepper said.
The urge to pull Tony aside and explain life and the universe in her sternest teacher imitation was not new to Pepper. Tony often failed to grasp very basic, very simple concepts, like why burning out the device that kept his heart beating to power a suit of armor was a bad idea, or how to talk to people when he didn't want something from them. Pepper had long wondered if he had a personality disorder; nobody normal liked the company of their A.I. that much.
Never had she felt that urge more strongly than when she walked in on Tony teaching Steve to dance.
The whole garage was lit up with floating diagrams drawn in fine filaments of blue and green—dance steps, she realized. Tony kept peering at the holograms about Steve's shoulder, confirming her suspicion that he genuinely knew nothing about dancing other than how to embrace a partner and either sway or revolve as the tempo demanded.
They were bickering.
"I'm not saying, hn." Tony broke off momentarily to stare at his feet. "I'm not saying military intervention isn't sometimes necessary, but ideally—left, go left—no, winghead, your left, not my left."
"This is my left," Steve said.
"What, you're gonna argue with me about that, too?"
"Are you sure you know how to dance?"
"I'm—shut up, I'm an engineer, we excel at practical application."
"I wasn't protesting," Steve said. "Although if you didn't try to lead every time you stop looking down..."
"Slander," Tony said, but absently; he was staring at his feet again. Pepper covered her grin with one hand.
"Maybe we should start with something simpler than the Lindy Hop."
"Maybe this would be simpler if I had the internet in my head," Tony muttered. "One, two, three and—"
Steve rolled his eyes to the ceiling, but he stayed in place as Tony swiveled around him. The expression of fond tolerance on his face did everything to endear him to Pepper; not many people were fond of Tony for his own sake, rather than for what he could give them. They cut a handsome, if incongruous, couple: Steve in a dark SHIELD tee and sweatpants, Tony in one of the raggedy tank tops he wore for any labor-intensive task. He had smears of grease all up his arms; when they turned, Pepper saw Steve had a matching pair of handprints on his biceps.
Not to mention that this was possibly the most valuable blackmail material Pepper had ever collected. It was going in the file, right next to the pictures of a teenaged Tony looking ruffled and ecstatic as he met Leonard Nimoy. She'd get the footage from JARVIS later.
"I could follow," Steve suggested.
"No, don't be a moron, that defeats the whole purpose," Tony said. "Think I have—here, move your right foot back—"
Over Tony's head, Steve's eyes met hers. Exasperation chased amusement on his face; Pepper wasn't surprised that he'd seen her, even half-hidden by the door as she was. He raised his eyebrows in invitation, but Pepper shook her head, turned, and let the door fall shut behind her.
Tony could make his own mistakes.
Before Pepper started to appreciate Steve on his own merits, she learned to like him for the ways he was different from Tony. Steve thought about individuals over empires; he asked, rather than goaded; he was as disciplined and thoughtful as Tony was wild and irreverent. Her view of him rapidly grew more nuanced, but always her perspective was shaded by that first, gut-quick judgment of opposition.
When Pepper was wrong, she was wrong all the way through.
"It's nice to walk home," she said, her arm tucked companionably through Steve's. Usually after an evening show, she would hail a cab or call Happy or (once, shamefully) rent a hotel room off Times Square. She had money, but disliked spending it on frivolous things; shoes were never frivolous.
"It's only eight blocks, and the least I can do is escort you after you took me on a date," Steve teased.
"That doesn't bother you at all, does it?"
"A woman buying your ticket," Pepper said.
Steve shrugged easily and tucked his yellow program back in his coat pocket. "Lots of stuff seems strange, but next to the internet, the idea that a gal can pay for dinner is nothing."
"Captain Progressive," she said, just to see his ears turn red. "What did you think of the show?"
He took his time answering, mulling the thought over for the next block. Pepper didn't break the silence, content to watch her breath hang in the air and take in the pleasure of walking through the city unafraid at midnight. She didn't have many friends—by choice and availability, rather than social failing—and fewer still who were agreeable about musicals.
"I liked it," he finally decided, "but I don't think Tony would," and Pepper laughed.
"No, I took him to see Company one time and he fell asleep before the intermission. The paparazzi loved it, though—'Stark Snores Through Sondheim.'"
"He's rude," Steve said.
"He's awful," Pepper agreed, "so thank god I have you to drag along. Frankie Valli''s still touring, too."
"Is he?" Steve said, delighted, and Pepper had to promise to dig up a greatest hits compilation for him.
She didn't have time to be afraid at what happened next, really; the violence eclipsed a bare minimum of seconds. "Or ask JARVIS," Pepper was saying, when she abruptly became aware of the man herding them from three feet behind. Stupid—she'd let her guard down. Ahead another figure stepped out from a doorway, a dark glint in one hand. Gun, Pepper thought, and was halfway to her mace when Steve moved.
Her purse slid off her shoulder and banged against the back of her leg, drawing her attention for one long second; when she looked up again, the man with the gun was prone and bleeding from the head. "Down!" Steve barked, and she ducked, and he shot the man behind them without hesitation, without apprehension, and with great accuracy. She saw the body fall between her legs, which was the least dignified end to a mugging she could imagine.
"Oh," Pepper said. "I'll just—I should probably—"
Steve stripped the gun, sticking the magazine in his pocket with his program. "Call Colonel Fury," he said.
"Right, that's what I'll—are they dead?"
"No," Steve said, and as if on cue, the man he'd shot let out a shuddering moan. Steve was at that moment utterly foreign, his back straight but his hands loose, easy. She found herself wondering, suddenly, not if Tony was safe for Steve, but if Steve was safe for Tony. The world was tilting dangerously under her feet.
"...too well armed to be robbers, but Hill will be able to confirm it. Pepper?"
"Sorry," she said. "Let me find my phone."
Tony took her down to his workshop and fed her three Irish coffees in a row until Pepper felt very alert and the world seemed very fuzzy. She waved off a fourth and curled deeper into the oversized Virginia Tech sweatshirt that had been a gag gift from him years before.
"Sometimes I forget you're a civilian, Potts," Tony said.
"Sometimes you forget you're a civilian," she countered. "Tony, please, you're no more a soldier than I am."
"No? Maybe not." He was banging around, working on nothing in particular; Pepper thought that if she asked him, he'd tell her he was cleaning. He had an appreciation for the minimalist aesthetic, did Tony, but in practice he was moved too fast to make that sort of clean, ordered lifestyle work.
"Tony," she said, and when he kept shoving a pile of wrenches under a workbench, she said again, "Tony."
"Tony, he's dangerous."
He peered at her, honestly confused—she thought; it could be difficult to tell when he was playacting. "Well," he said. "Yeah. More dangerous than me."
"Is that why you keep him so close?"
Tony came over to her and took her playbill out of her hands—she'd been twisting it without noticing—and squeezed her shoulders. She must look awful, for Tony to offer more than a pat on the arm in comfort.
"At first it was," he muttered into her hair, like he didn't want to admit it. "But he kind of grows on you, you know. I think he really appeals to the earnest do-gooder in me."
Pepper sniffled. "And here I thought you just liked him for his face."
"Are you maligning my honor?"
"Did you get that from your word-of-the-day calendar?"
"That's it, no more Irish coffees for you."
"I never should have let you buy that espresso machine."
"Bite your tongue," Tony said, and then, "Hey, I thought my macchiatos were getting better. No need to cry."
Later, she had occasion to say: "I don't think he is."
"What?" Tony said, tugging distractedly at a piece of the armor's exo-frame that had fused shut over his wrist. Behind him, the TV played a continuous loop of the footage from uptown; the military unit was setting up a perimeter around Dr. Banner's limp body.
"More dangerous than you," she said. "Steve, I mean."
Although his attention was clearly elsewhere, Tony had the temerity to wink.
And we're back! Previous chapters have been edited slightly to allow for the movie, although a couple of things may still be out of sync with the events of the film. Oops. I imagine I will someday again write a story with a plot, but for now I'm afraid it's all robots and shenanigans.
The second thing Pepper learned to like about Steve: He appreciated Tony.
From comments they'd both made, she'd gathered that they'd...clashed at their first meeting, but by the time she was properly introduced to Steve he was completely taken with Tony—and in a way that had nothing to do with Tony's practiced showmanship and everything to do with the way Tony built Steve a computer (and a cell phone, and a new helmet, and a—). Why Steve found this charming was one of the mysteries of the modern age, but his face lit up in delight when Tony handed over a custom tablet tricked out with every application an artist could need.
"Hang on, greatest generation, let me show you how it—huh. Okay," Tony said. Steve, who despite some early and spectacular mishaps with counter-top appliances was far from naive or stupid, was already flicking through screens almost faster than Pepper could follow.
"This is...it's amazing. Thanks, Tony." Steve shot Tony a look of such affection that Pepper choked; Tony frowned at her, but she waved him off and went back to painting her toenails. Pedicures were something she did for herself during the colder months, at least when she had the time. Her manicures were professional, of course, but sometimes it was nice to revisit the girl who lived in an attic apartment with no dishwasher yet still managed to turn herself out like Hillary Clinton each and every day of her many internships.
"Should pick up a wireless signal just about anywhere, too. Well, maybe not in space, but I'm working on that. Possibly with Bruce's help."
That was news to Pepper; before he'd left on one of his sabbaticals, Bruce had told her that they'd been collaborating on some kind of surgical nanotech. (As if either of them needed further encouragement to experiment on themselves.)
"Do you really think it's a good idea to shoot the Hulk into space?" Steve asked.
That was what killed her about Steve. Tony had a tendency to roll straight over other people's objections and do whatever he wanted; even Pepper herself often found herself floundering in the wake of Tony's sheer force of personality. Rhodey couldn't hold his ground against Tony, and Pepper had once seen Jim dress down the Secretary of Defense without a single manifestation of disrespect.
When Steve spoke, Tony listened. He wouldn't necessarily agree; they still had plenty of arguments, and more than once she'd seen Tony talk Steve around with a particularly persuasive argument, but on the whole Steve Rogers managed the superhuman feat of balancing his adoration for Tony with a complete unwillingness to take Tony's bullshit.
"It doesn't have to be a good idea," Tony said. "A repulsor cannon, now that's a good idea. Capitalism. Glass and elevators—sheer genius. But," he added, "out of deference to your delicate sensitivities, Cap, we'll defer the project for the time being."
"Good," Steve said.
"Worked out how I'm going to repay you for the abacus."
Pepper beat her bottle of Perish-Me-Pink against her palm. Steve was sitting in the middle of the leather sofa, tablet balanced on his knees, head turned to the side; Tony was perched on the back of the sofa, his feet on the cushions (Pepper winced) and elbows on his knees. They were close enough that Tony had to be feeling Steve's breath against the side of his neck.
"No," Tony said.
Steve raised his eyebrows.
"No. No no no. That is not appropriate thanks. In fact, I'm taking the tablet back."
"Not an option."
"You skipped out on me last week. It isn't unreasonable for you to learn some basic self-defense moves."
"If you're implying I can't hold my own against, wait, who was it that took out the Hulk after that brush with Killgrave? Sorry, was that—oh, right, that was me, in my fantastically futuristic and formidable battlesuit."
Steve, brilliant tactician that he was, leapt straight over trying to reason with Tony. He crossed his arms, dug his shoulders into the sofa, and waited. His face said that he was prepared to wait all day to get what he wanted, that he would, if necessary, sit there and sulk until the heat-death of the universe.
Never let it be said that Tony Stark had the corner on childishness in that relationship, Pepper thought. She bit her tongue and reached for the topcoat.
"Fine," Tony said. "Fine. I was going to teach you about eHarmony, but I guess that can wait." He paused, considered that last statement, and brightened considerably. "Yep. Krav Maga it is."
"I don't know what that is."
"And yet, according to Natasha, you can do it anyway. Now that's talent. C'mon, tinker toy, let's get this over with."
There was a long moment during which nobody moved.
"Your feet," Steve said. "They're sort of in my lap."
"Huh," Tony said. "How'd that happen?"
Pepper rolled her eyes.
She shared the situation on Thursday, over lunch with Carol.
"Well, I've only met Captain Rogers a couple of times," Carol said, "but he doesn't seem like the smoothest when it comes to that kind of thing. Not that I have room to talk." Carol did have one of the most tangled romantic histories of anyone in Pepper's acquaintance; her ability to choose the worst possible partner exceeded even Tony's. That she spent the entire meal covertly texting her girlfriend under the table lent her opinion some authority, but then, Carol had known Pepper for years and Tony even longer and she'd never introduced either of them to a woman before. There had been a few one-night stands, according to Tony, but Carol's father had been notoriously old-fashioned, and Pepper wondered if—
She caught herself before she could speculate further on Carol's love life. It was uncharitable, certainly nothing Carol would appreciate, and Pepper held herself to higher standards than that.
But—speaking of repression.
"I thought he was bad with Bruce. I thought he was bad with Jim—"
"He does have a lot of homoerotic friendships," Carol said. "I mean that in the best way."
"—but this. It's ridiculous, they're, they're welded together. Someone's going to get hurt," Pepper said. "And I just spent the past half-hour talking about it."
"Yeah," Carol said, and then barked, "Excuse me!" at a passing waiter. The server—Brandon; Pepper made a mental note to leave a very generous tip—unconsciously fell into a stance resembling parade rest under Carol's scrutiny, although he couldn't have been a day over seventeen. "Yes, ma'am?" he said.
"I'd like a refill, please. Dr. Pepper."
"Oh, nothing for me," Pepper said quickly, covering her glass with one hand. It was more ice than water; one more refill and her teeth would freeze. "Thank you, Brandon."
Brandon flushed; Carol shot her a look, and Pepper dropped the smile.
"Quiet," she said, and Carol grinned. "Let's talk about you. Still thinking of resigning?"
Carol looked down at her hands. "I do miss flying. SHIELD is an experience, but...Fury thinks I should transfer to the World Observation and Response Department."
"What about the..." Pepper said, and made a swooping motion with her hand.
"That's a work in progress."
"Tony would love to have you on the team," she said, which made Carol smile again.
"What about you? You've been spending a lot of time in New York lately."
"I travel enough that it doesn't really matter if I make my home base here or California. And Tony's here," she confessed, well aware that it didn't become a woman of her standing to trail around after her ex-boyfriend. She didn't think of Tony that way, at least; he was her friend, had been her funny, difficult, driven friend long before he'd been her significant other and long after he'd been her employer.
"You know," Carol said, "you have people other than Tony."
"Which is why I'm here," Pepper answered. "Everybody lives in New York, haven't you noticed?"
That evening, she walked in on Steve dabbing at a cut on Tony's forehead. It wasn't half as bad as the dancing in that sense, but blood or bruises would never top her list of favorite surprises.
"Boys," she said.
"Hey, Potts," Tony said, and then batted at Steve's hand. "Seriously, mother hen, knock it off. What, you think I'm going to keel over at the sight of blood like you?"
"I was six, and now I regret ever telling you that," Steve retorted. He was stripped to his waist, but his pants were blue and his boots were red; they'd been out in uniform, and not just for a press conference.
"Is there any reason I didn't hear about this?" she said.
"Uh, yeah, you were in a meeting all day with the head of Roxxon—"
"Actually, it was Worthington Industries—"
"Those aren't the same?" Tony said, and waggled his eyebrows at her.
"It was nothing serious, Pepper," Steve interrupted. "We think Killgrave is responsible for a kidnapping, and we got an anonymous tip—"
"That turned out to be completely wrong," Tony adds. "See, Cap, this is why we need to turn on filters or hire a PR rep or, here's an idea, let JARVIS go through our emails."
Steve, who Pepper had more than once observed typing out painstaking individual replies to every message sent to the team account, swatted Tony's hands away and went back to wiping the cut with iodine. "The only problem," he said, "is that we have a joint address, and that certain people take liberties with their teammates' goodwill."
"I only impersonated you once—"
"That I know about," Steve said. "Hold still. Aw, hell, it keeps bleeding."
Pepper tossed her briefcase on the table and took off her heels standing, first one foot, then the other. "Do either of you actually know anything about first aid?"
"Yes," Tony said, at the same time that Steve said, "No."
"What, the super soldier doesn't—"
"I clot faster than this," Steve said, frustrated. "I know enough to tell that you aren't concussed, but field first aid is a little different from..."
"What?" Tony said.
Pepper huffed, pulled out her earrings, and padded across the floor. Tony hadn't completely remodeled this floor of Stark Tower when he rebuilt it, which meant that the workshop still shared space with the living room. Pepper had thought it ridiculous, but Tony had argued that having at least a basic bench—and drafting equipment, and his computer array, and a tool cabinet—was the next logical step in streamlining his living space for efficiency. She'd bullied him until he remembered to sweep up the metal shards every morning, at least.
"Let me see," she said, and took the cotton swab from Steve. He made a noise of protest, but she knew that if he didn't want to surrender the job he wouldn't have. Probably literally; he was as stubborn as Tony and physically immoveable when he wanted to be.
Pepper hadn't patched Tony up like this since—since before their ill-advised attempt at dating. It was nice; not something she wanted to do every day, which was why he'd taken to downplaying minor injuries during the dating fiasco, but taking care of Tony was familiar. Comforting, even, especially since it was no longer her obligation.
She patted Tony's temple until the three-inch gash was bleeding only sluggishly, swiped it again with iodine, held a fresh cotton patch in place with her thumb, and taped it into place. He wouldn't remember to change it on his own, but at least it wouldn't fall off it he decided to jump straight back into the armor.
"Done," she said.
"Thanks, pepperspray," Tony said. "Gonna kiss it better?"
"'I'll leave that job to someone else," Pepper said, primly. Steve, she noticed, was concentrated on packing up his first aid kit far more intently than the job required. "Carol says hi, by the way."
"Yeah? How is Major Cheeseburger?"
"She's fine, she's on leave and staying with the Parkers."
"Tony, it is way, way too soon for either of them to consider living together."
"Carol Danvers?" Steve said.
"The one and—" Tony started to say, but at that moment JARVIS chimed and a display lit up in the middle of the air.
"Incoming call, sir," JARVIS said. "Should I answer? It's the party line."
'The party line' was JARVIS's colloquialism for the number—rather, set of numbers—reserved for private Avengers use; Pepper suspected not even Fury had access. "Is it Bruce?" she asked.
"Nah, looks like it's Barton. Maybe Romanoff, if she's with him."
"She's in Nova Scotia right now, remember?" Steve said.
Tony pulled a face. "What is she—no, don't answer that. Patch it through, JARVIS."
"Sir," JARVIS said, and then Clint Barton's dulcet tones rang out.
"Hey, Clinton," Tony said easily. "If you caught the news, rumors of my death were greatly exaggerated."
There was a pause, and then Clint said, "What, you think I'd call to check on you? No, man, it's so boring out here I'm about to start using my own eyelashes for target practice. I thought Cap could mail me his box set of Grey's Anatomy to pass the time."
"No," Steve said.
"I'm still not straight on why you'd call at all." Tony reached up and started to pick at the medical tape preventing him from bleeding all over his face. "Potts here got kind of hot when she thought you were Banner, but now we're all drowning our sorrows and disappointment."
"Then tip a glass for me, 'cause I'm the most disappointed of all," Clint said. "Gotta cut this short, but I'll be back in the country soon."
"We'll update you on the Killgrave situation when you're home. Until then, stay safe," Steve said.
"Roger that, Cap, Tony. Catch you stateside." The line crackled and then cut away.
"JARVIS, are his tracks sufficiently covered?" Tony asked.
"They are, but I've taken extra precautions as well. Will there be anything else, sir?"
"Get back to haunting the forums," Tony said, and waved a hand. "Oh, and Potts?"
Pepper lifted an eyebrow and sipped at her sparkling mineral water—how far she'd fallen.
"Rhodey's coming to town!" he said.
Behind him, Steve made a face that Pepper would best describe as 'constipated.'