"Phil?" Pepper turned in a slow circle, taking in every detail of the apartment around her. She had been gone for only three days, but it felt like longer. She could feel the stress and tension fall off of her shoulders like a piece of clothing as she breathed in the unique smell of the place and listened to the hum of the fridge in the kitchen and the soft ticking of the old clock on the wall. "Are you there?"
A muffled shout from the direction of the bathroom was her only answer, but she’d already seen the signs of Phil being home - the coffee machine was switched on, for once, his shoes were neatly lined up next to the front door, and a broken arrow had been placed on the kitchen counter. The shaft was stained red from what she didn’t want to think about too closely but what was probably blood.
She shuddered and chose to ignore it for the moment. Instead, she took off her heels, placed her own briefcase down on the table, and went to check up on Phil.
A big picture in a sleek black frame was leaning against the wall in the bedroom. The bed was perfectly made, of course, Phil’s watch and a well-thumbed paperback on one of the bedside tables.
Pepper frowned and stepped up to the picture, lifting it away from the wall and turning it around to take a look at it.
“You know,” she called out toward the bathroom, a hint of humor in her voice as she took in the heroic expression on the painted face of Captain America, “If I wanted to look at pictures of superheroes all day long, I could’ve stayed with Tony.”
A yelp was the only answer she got, and Pepper frowned and grabbed her phone from the purse she’d brought into the bedroom. Keeping her thumb on the key that would within seconds dial Tony’s number, she slowly and carefully inched closer to the bathroom.
If Phil was injured, she would call Tony and rip him a new one. Tony knew what Phil meant to her, and even if he had reacted with childish jealousy the first time they had gone out for lunch together, he had promised Pepper to keep an eye on him when she’d left for California on a business trip.
Her hand reached out and gave the door, which was almost closed, a gentle push. She tried to keep quiet, happy that she had taken off her shoes, even if she knew that any person who wanted to take her out would have done so already - she hadn’t exactly expected work to follow Phil home the way it always did with Tony, in the form of bullet holes and bent metal and blueprints.
Phil was usually pretty good in keeping his private life and his work cleanly separated, keeping the one at home and the other at the office, even if that meant that he spent days at a time away from the apartment. Pepper could relate to that. It wasn’t as if keeping Stark Industries on an even keel was all fun and games, and she had enough late nights to attest to that.
There was a reason why there wasn’t a single house plant to be found in their apartment.
With their irregular schedules, it was for the best.
She dared looking into the bathroom, and froze.
Whatever she’d expected, it was not this, she thought, not releasing her grip on her phone as she took in the scene in front of her, from the blood smeared over white porcelain, the two men with their heads bent together, or the first-aid kit open on the little and unexpectedly cheerful red-and-blue carpet on the ground.
Phil looked up and gave her a small smile. Not the bland one he’d worn the first few times they’d met, or the heartfelt one he usually gave her when she came home and he was already there. This one was somewhere in the middle.
Considering that he was wearing rubber gloves and holding needle and thread in his hands, she wasn’t surprised that his focus wasn’t entirely on her.
“Hey, Pepper,” he greeted calmly before focusing back on the task at hand.
“This is worse than Tony,” Pepper managed, her eyes drawn to the ragged edges of the wound Phil was stitching up carefully and methodically. No matter how much she wanted, she couldn’t look away from it. “Really, Phil. If I wanted blood all over the place, I could have stayed with him.” Vaguely, she was aware that she was overreacting, her voice edging toward hysteria, but there wasn’t anything she could do about it besides leave the room, sit down with her head between her knees and hope and pray that, when she came up for air again, the blood would be gone.
“Really?” Phil glanced up again. “Do I need to remind you that Tony forgets you’re allergic to strawberries? And your birthday?”
“He’s not that bad,” she automatically defended him. Tony was still her friend, after all.
Phil finished the last stitch, neatly tied off the thread, and taped gauze over the neat line he’d sewed into pale skin.
Clint spit out the belt he’d bitten down on during the procedure and looked up at her. “Yes, he is,” he said, his voice slow and his words carefully articulated.
“Pot, kettle,” Phil muttered as he stripped off his gloves and started to clean up the mess the two of them had made. Pepper had no doubt that, had she arrived half an hour later, the apartment would be in tip-top shape again, clean and organized the way she was used to, and the only sign of the little impromptu operation would be a hazy Clint Barton on their couch.
She sighed, shook her head slightly, and accepted the small kiss Phil pressed to her cheek. “Soup?” she asked, not waiting for an answer as she turned on her heel and retreated to the kitchen.
She didn’t touch the broken arrow as she started to heat up some food, before pulling out a file from her briefcase and starting to read. She didn’t need to think to reach for the painkillers Phil had stashed in one of the drawers, or to fix Clint’s coffee the way he liked it best when he wandered in, dressed in one of Phil’s old t-shirts, the bandage on his arm a stark white against the material. Clint had been here often enough for her to know what he liked, for him to know where they kept the spare pillows and blankets, for Phil not to complain when Clint was standing in front of their door with a forced grin or a sheepish expression, just letting him in and offering him a beer.
Pepper shook her head as she turned a page and scribbled down a comment in the margins.
She could work from home, too.
From the corner of her eye, she saw Clint pick up the broken arrow and making it disappear in one of his pockets, and then, he started to clean up the blood smears without having to be asked to and reached for his mug.
Pepper shook her head again.
She couldn’t believe she’d ever thought Phil could keep his work and private life separate...