She woke to the sight of Tony’s broad, scarred shoulders. In a doze, she pressed a kiss to the back of his neck and wiggled forward to hold him. He muttered something unintelligible, twitched then relaxed against her. There was a faint smell of airplane still clinging to his skin. It was possible he’d only come to bed a few minutes ago. They could afford to sleep a little longer. It wasn’t precisely a day off, but nor was it quite a working day either. One of those lull periods with enough room to breath and maybe never get fully dressed.
She reached across Tony to find an empty cool spot in the bed. With a soft sigh, she abandoned the warm comfort of the bed to find her lost partner. For propriety, she pulled on yoga pants and one of Tony’s ancient t-shirts that still smelled faintly of motor oil. When she’d drifted asleep last night there had been only two residents in the tower, but that number was prone to sudden fluctuation.
The stairs down were cold, forcing her up on her tiptoes. Had someone played with the thermostat again? Their room was always kept balmy in deference to their warm climate adjusted blood, so it was possible that it was only the contrast throwing her off. She made a note to check. If someone was overriding JARVIS, Tony would pitch a fit.
A spill of early sun striped over the living room floor. There was no evidence of overnight check in, only a bit of debris from some project on the coffee table. It could have been a disassembled crossbow or the sad remains of her old GPS unit. It seemed prudent to leave it where it lay. The kitchen produced her missing person and she paused in the doorway to signal her arrival. It was good Avengers Tower etiquette to approach from the front with accompanying noise.
“Good morning,” she said when she was sure he’d registered her presence.
Bruce sat hunched over a notebook, the steam from his tea mug rising in a lazy pattern towards the ceiling. The pen in his hand was still, caught between one marking and the next.
“Good morning,” he glanced at her, the first hint of a smile on his face, “did I wake you?”
“Just my internal alarm clock. I can’t sleep in even if I want to.”
She crossed the room intending to pour her own cup of tea. It wasn’t coffee, but she could afford to wait for caffeine this morning. Her progress was arrested at the sight of his hair, blown wild by a restless night. Moved, she sank her fingers into the locks to scratch gently at his scalp. To her surprise, he made a soft sound of pleasure, tilting his head back to rest against her stomach as she worked. His hair had a lovely texture, thick and a little rough.
“I couldn’t sleep,” his eyelids drifted shut, “had one of those nagging ideas.”
“I know the type,” releasing his curls, she dropped her hands to his shoulders. The muscles there were clenched hard, giving in only reluctantly to her persuasive kneading. “Don’t worry about waking us if you get up or come in late.”
“I wasn’t worried,” he shrugged, the movement rippling under her fingers, “I wanted to get it all down while it was quiet.”
“This place can get a little riotous.”
They stayed like that another few minutes, her hands on his shoulders and his head on her stomach. She wondered how she always managed to find touch starved men. Her therapist would have had a field day with it, if she hadn’t fired him years ago.
Somewhere upstairs there was a soft rumble as JARVIS opening the bedroom curtains and turned the shower on for Tony.
“There goes the neighborhood,” she leaned down to kiss Bruce’s forehead, “we should make a nap appointment for today.”
“You schedule naps?” He lifted his eyebrows, so she kissed them too.
“Only way to make sure they get taken. Besides, it’s more fun than falling asleep alone wherever you drop. Like your laptop.”
“Slanderous lies,” he muttered.
“You sent me an e-mail. It went aaaagtraghodifjiodj.”
“Do you want some breakfast?”
The Sunday Times was waiting at her fingertips for dissection, but instead she watched him move deliberately between cabinets, assembling his chosen ingredients before heating a cast iron pan on the stove. Somewhere in the process he’d turned on the coffee maker. Rich smells punctuated the air, spices and coffee beans mingling.
“Do you people know what time it is?” Tony leaned in the doorframe, arch reactor still glistening from the shower. An ancient pair of jeans clung valiantly to his waist.
“Six-thirty,” she reached for the paper, “of course that’s Eastern Standard Time. Considering all the flights you took this week, your body probably thinks it’s three in the afternoon.”
“I’m not jet lagged,” he snorted, then sauntered toward Bruce. With care, Tony slid his arms around him in a sideways hug, “you’re cooking.”
“You’re observant,” Bruce said blandly, then smiled as Tony nuzzled into his neck, “Pepper’s right. You should be back in bed.”
“Shut up,” Tony scolded, “you’re cooking. Concentrate.’
“It’s an omelette, it doesn’t require all that much thought.”
They looked good together in the early sun. Bruce put down the spatula to thread an arm around Tony’s waist, tugging him closer. She memorized the scene, putting it away to take out and look at again on harder days. They’d fought to get here and she doubted the war was over. For now though, they could savor their victories.
“You look smug,” Tony left Bruce to cook, pulling a chair close to hers.
“I’ve got a lot to be smug about,” she swung her feet up into his lap.
“It looks good on you,” he grinned, “they should make that a perfume. Smug: for women who are well satisfied.”
“Sounds like they should make a men’s cologne while they’re at it.”
“How hard can perfume making be?” He asked idly.
“Little girls do it as a hobby,” the key to deterring Tony’s interest was to make something sound easy. She has learned this by trial and grievous error.
“I’m allergic to most of them,” Bruce offered and set down three plates that smelled like a Moroccan marketplace.
“I see what you both did there,” Tony pointed at them both with a menacing fork, “and I will not be manipulated.”
“Do you really want to lose a week to perfume making?” Pepper took a bite of her eggs and made a soft sound of appreciation, “Bruce, this is fantastic.”
“Thanks,” he shrugged the compliment off, stuffing a large bite into his mouth.
“Who votes that Bruce cooks from now on?” Tony asked.
“I’m not your house frau,” Bruce objected, but he couldn’t hide his laughter at Pepper and Tony’s enthusiastically raised their hands.
“I’ve got to fix the left gauntlet,” Tony declared when the food was gone.
“Dr. Foster sent me a bundle of information on the Bifrost. I promised her I’d look over her numbers.”
“I’ll be doing paperwork.”
They all wound up on the couch with Pepper resignedly opening her laptop. The mess on the table resolved itself into the fractured remains of Ironman’s left gauntlet. When Tony vowed he wouldn’t need to solder anything, he was allowed to stay while he worked. Bruce had set out Jane’s papers in two neat piles then promptly fell asleep, glasses drooping down his nose. Pepper resettled him under a blanket.
“He needs to sleep more,” Tony muttered.
“I really hope I didn’t just hear the pot critique the kettle,” she sent off a scathing email to the Director of Public Relations.
“Potts, you are a kettle,” he twisted something and the entire gauntlet tumbled together in one elegant maneuver.
“Tony. Was that supposed to make sense?”
“Yes,” he dropped the fixed gauntlet then twined himself around her like a barnacle. A minute later he was snoring in her ear.
It was the most productive morning’s work she’d had in weeks. Typing with Tony weighing down her left arm was a little difficult, but the total silence made up for it. She caught up on all her emails, read through a half dozen pdfs that needed her digital signature, checked up on their various personal investments, delegated several new projects to idle hands and wrote up her monthly update to Director Fury. Having hit the limit of what she could accomplish without going into the office, she set aside her laptop and turned the enormous television on with a mute setting. She cruised a few channels and settled on Judge Judy. It was nice to read the yellow subtitles and imagine a life where problems could be so neatly resolved. A man in a bright blue suit was complaining about his neighbor's tree when the elevator opened with the soft ding that indicated someone with a security pass.
Tony came instantly awake against her though his eyes remained firmly closed. Bruce’s soft even breaths stuttered into silence.
“Hello? Anyone home?” Steve called.
“We’re in here!” Pepper replied.
Bruce had his glasses back on and Jane’s papers back in his lap in an instant while Tony over exaggerated his relaxed posture, draping himself over her like the world’s heaviest accessory. In the thirty seconds it took Steve to arrive in the living room, the scene had altered unrecognizably.
“Hey,” Steve held out a stack of mail, “Ellen asked me to give these to you.”
“Whose Ellen?” Tony’s eyes narrowed suspiciously, “Steve. What have we told you about taking things from strangers?”
“She’s the head of the Mailroom. Thank you, Steve.” Pepper held out her hand for the bundle which Steve gave up gratefully.
“I have that prototype ready for you,” Tony bounced to his feet as if he hadn’t been the picture of leisure seconds before.
“That’s great, Tony, but um. Actually, I’m here to see Pepper.”
“What’s she have that I don’t?” Tony asked, tipping her a wink.
“Common sense... tact.... patience... ” Bruce said to the papers in his lap.
“You’re hilarious, Banner,” Tony said dryly, squaring his shoulders, “I know where I’m not wanted. I’ll be in the lab when you remember my intrinsic worth.”
“In that case, I’ll come with you now,” with deliberate slowness Bruce gathered up his papers, “there’s a computer model I want to try out anyway.”
“You only want me for my toys.” Tony slung an arm over Bruce’s shoulders, leading him away.
“Was that flirting?” Steve’s eyebrows knit together.
“Sort of.” She patted the couch cushion next to her. “So what’s up?”
“I can come back later...”
“It’s fine, Steve. You caught me on a rare break.”
“Great,” he sat down, leaving a fair few feet between them. Silence descended. She studied his profile. Steve was a good looking man, that was indisputable, but she always found something sad gathered around his mouth. Maybe it was the temporal displacement or the amount of responsibility he carried. Either way, it marred his All American looks a little.
“You know that I won’t say anything to the others, if it’s private,” she offered, looking for a way to break the quiet.
“I know,” he smiled at her, a quick flash of a showman’s grin, “it’s only...I’m bored.”
“I know it sounds insane, but there’s a lot of downtime between missions. Natasha and Clint have other SHIELD assignments, Tony and Bruce have their work and Thor commutes back to Asgard, but...I don’t know. Before they tapped me for the Tesseract debacle, I was still trying to piece everything back together. Now that I have, there’s all this time on my hands.”
“Would you like a job?”
“No! No. I mean, no offense, I just don’t think I have the skills for Stark Industries,” he rubbed his hands against his thighs.“That’s part of the problem. I can’t think of anything I’m qualified to do except be Captain America.”
“What did you do before you were a soldier?”
“Oh. Odd jobs mostly. I was going to go to art school, but then the war...” he sighed, “I didn’t want to tell Tony. He’d come up with some made up position or something that paid outrageously. It’s not about money. SHIELD salary is decent.”
“Why not ask to be made a full-time agent?”
“I thought about it,” he finally looked at her full on, drawing up one knee, “it’s only that I think I might need some downtime between battles. I've been reading some things... do you know about PTSD?”
“More than I ever wanted,” she’d held Tony through terrible waking nightmares long before they were romantically entangled and sometimes she still caught him staring blankly into space, rubbing at the edges of the arch reactor.
“I guess you would,” Steve looked away, “anyway. I think breaks are important.”
“What do you like doing?”
“I’ll try anything,” he said immediately then hesitated, “helping out. I like helping people.”
“Well, maybe you should volunteer.”
“Too high profile. I tried to dish out soup at the homeless shelter near my apartment and the place was swarmed with paparazzi in minutes.”
“So what you need is something where you won’t be recognized, but you can help people.”
“Pretty impossible, huh?” He rubbed at his face, “I’ve been turning it over for weeks. I asked Bruce and he said to ask you.”
“Did he?” She laughed, “Why?”
“He said you were good at tricky problems for high visibility people.”
“I guess it’s a specialized skill,” she opened her laptop, “you know, it’d be easier to keep who you are under wraps if you were meeting with people one on one. A bit of an alias and staying away from your costume colors would go far.”
“Sure. Do you know Rhodey once shaved Tony’s beard off as a prank and no one recognized him on the streets until it grew back in?”
“I don’t have a beard.”
“You could grow one,” she tapped up a site and handed it to him.
“Meals on Wheels?” He read over the front page with startling speed. It was easy to forget that Steve’s bumbling persona came more from his fish out of water syndrome than a lack of brains. “A bit ironic, isn’t it? People who are cut off from the rest of the world by age?”
“I don’t think it’s ironic at all,” she shrugged, “having things in common would only make it easier for you to help them.”
“I’ll think about it,” he handed her back the computer, “thanks, Pepper.”
“Do you think I could use the gym while I’m here?”
“You have your own room here, Steve. You don’t need to ask for permission to use the facilities.”
“Right,” he rose to his feet.
“I’d like to see some of your drawings sometime.”
“Oh, sure,” he actually blushed a little, “nothing much to see right now.”
“Well, none of us are going anywhere.”
He disappeared in a cloud of polite confusion. If she hadn’t seen it happen a hundred times, she’d have to wonder how Steve held his own against Tony. Maybe men in general were just easier for him. She opened one of the encryption programs and waded through old files until she located one of Tony’s aliases. With a few keystrokes it would fit Steve well enough. It would give him a bit of a running start, anyway. She emailed him the information.
The elevator sounded again and she realized it might be time to change into actual clothing. She took the stairs quickly, ducking into the en suite for a long shower. It was a sudsy indulgence and she emerged pink from the heat.
When she reached for her toothbrush, she found her practical electric gone. A slender pink stick with a neat compilation of bristles and an ominous red on/off button had taken its place. Settled next to it in the holder were two others, one in red and gold, the other green and purple. Rolling her eyes, she turned the pink brush on and watched the bristles move suspiciously. Once she determined that it wasn’t going to transform or start playing music, she squeezed a bit of toothpaste onto it, then put into her mouth.
The soft vibration seemed to reach every one of her teeth and the back of her throat. It was disconcerting, but when she finally spat and rinsed everything felt impeccably clean like after a dentist visit.
“JARVIS, have the patent application paperwork filled out for the toothbrushes and sent to my email, please.”
“Certainly. Shall I have Tony sign them?”
“Let me look over it first.”
Pepper had never considered herself a particularly moral person. When she’d come to work for Tony, she had been fully aware of what his company did and what kind of person he was. It hadn’t given her pause. The money had been stupefying, Tony an interesting boss and the challenges complex. Only time had worn off the gloss and made her think about consequences. There had been many speculative articles written about her softening influence on him, but she never saw it that way. They had taken the journey together. A journey that ended in patenting toothbrushes instead of bombs.
She headed into the walk in closet and made a mental note to make more space for Bruce. Her and Tony’s wardrobe dominated the generous space. Granted Bruce seemed content to own next to nothing. His battered duffel bag was still folded neatly at the foot of his section as if he could take off at any moment. She touched the sleeve of one of his worn shirts with a sigh.
“You’re getting dressed?” Bruce appeared in the doorway and she dropped her hand guiltily.
“If the whole team is here, I can’t go around in my pajamas.” She shook off her startelement with a move worthy of Tony: she dropped her towel.
“We could stay up here,” he offered, watching her carefully under dark eyelashes.
“Is that a come on or are you hiding from someone?”
“Little bit of both.”
“I’m not aiding and abetting your shyness.”
“I’m an introvert. Groups wear me out,” he rubbed a hand over his eyes.
“Being adorably rumpled is not going to sway me.” She rifled through her underwear drawer to produce a lacy blue bra and panty set.
“I’d make it worth your while?” He was too kind to wheedle properly. It came out as more of a polite request.
“Maybe Steve was right. We do need to work on your flirting skills.”
“I refuse to believe that Steve has any kind of opinion on the matter.”
“You’d be surprised.”
He watched her draw on her underwear with a soft sigh.
“Sometimes I wish I was Tony.”
She imagined that he frequently wanted to be almost anyone else. Someone who didn’t have to wage the kind of internal war that would rip a lesser man to pieces.
“Why? I much prefer you being you.”
“Because if I were Tony, we’d be in bed right now.”
“I doubt it,” she reached for a soft jersey dress, ignoring her rows of perfectly pressed suits “he’d probably have put his foot in his mouth by now. Really, you should both leave the seduction up to me.”
“Tony seduced me,” Bruce offered, half-defensively, half in jest.
“With science and The Who. I don’t think that combination would work on anyone else.”
“Well, he seduced you.”
“He really really didn’t. He sexually harassed me into Stockholm Syndrome.”
Bruce smiled crookedly at her, then frowned when she reached for a pair of heels.
“Don’t start with me,” she warned, but turned her hand to a pair of ballet flats.
“Your spine,” he complained quietly.
“I know, I know.” She slipped on the flats, then crossed the space between them.
Without heels, they were just about the same height. He could turn into a monster, Tony had a metal suit and personality with more force than most hurricanes. Sometimes, those few extra inches over both of them made all the difference between feeling powerless and powerful.
Not today though.
“I like how you look without them,” he told her with frank appreciation before leaning in for a kiss.
She very rarely had the opportunity to make out with Tony. He wasn’t the type for a long session of kisses that weren’t going anywhere. Sex with Tony was driving too fast and jumping from high places. Bruce, ever careful and simmering just beneath the surface, was swimming in the dark and making subtle promises.
They lingered together, her and Bruce. Enjoyed the subtle shifts of movement against each other and the slow burn. The air between them humid and spiced. She kissed the stubbled line of his jaw, catching the green scent of Tony’s aftershave.
“You’ve been marked,” she laughed even as he returned her attentions.
“Maybe you should let Tony make you that perfume,” he rubbed his thumb just under the line of her bra, “make the warning complete.”
“It isn’t a warning,” or at least it wasn’t just a warning “Be glad we haven’t resorted to collars.”
“Was that a real danger?”
There was a shout of some kind from downstairs, shattering the moment.
“Do you think they’ve broken something?” She pulled away reluctantly.
“Probably,” he dropped his hands, looking at her with something akin to regret.
“I’ll do damage control. But later.” She leaned in for a last kiss and poured heat into it.
“Later,” he ran two fingers up her arm, leaving goosebumps in their wake.
Upon arriving in the kitchen, she discovered the world’s premiere archer facing off against a household appliance.
“I do not toast pita,” the toaster was insisting in a voice that bore a striking resemblance to Tony doing a falsetto, “it is not bread. I only toast bread.”
“It’s a flat bread,” Clint was leaning over the counter, eyeing the toaster with a look that made grown men weep for forgiveness.
“Sliced bread and bagels are acceptable inputs.” The toaster sing songed.
Natasha was sitting at the table, chair bent improbably far back. She was stone faced, but her stomach was quaking with repressed laughter.
“Who yelled?” Pepper approached the man vs. toaster battle carefully.
“The toaster,” Clint said mildly.
“He threatened me!” The toaster shrieked.
“You threatened the toaster?” Bruce looked into the grocery bag on the table, “Oh! Red pepper hummus.”
“I just wanted to warm the pita first,” Clint folded his arms, staring into the shiny metal surface. “I think your toaster is racist.”
“It’s a communal toaster,” Pepper tapped a few settings, “and I don’t think it’s racist so much as Tony has a toaster grudge. He’s always programming them to be obnoxious.”
“He needs to get more sleep,” Bruce muttered, opening the fridge.
“Pot.” She said, embracing the deja vu, “Kettle.”
“Racist toaster,” Clint muttered and poke the thing again.
“Put the pita between two paper towels and put it in the microwave.” Natasha cut in. “It’ll taste better that way anyway. Who sticks pita in a toaster?”
“Thank you.” The toaster sassed its last as Pepper pulled the plug.
“I’ve got olives,” Bruce held out a container in triumph. “And grapes.”
“I ran twelve miles today. Olives aren’t going to cut it,” Natasha said mildly, “Clint and I came in search of protein.”
“Shakes for everyone,” Pepper declared, turning to the blender, which wisely remained silent.
There weren’t many things she did well in the kitchen, but she could make coffee and a worthy protein shake. Tony would drink just about anything if he was preoccupied, but Bruce actually had a palette and frequently required infusions of basic nutrients. She settled on strawberry and banana, liquefying enough fruit and powders to sustain the entire U.S. Olympic team. It would probably last until dinner.
“Oh! Hummus!” Steve drifted in, taking up his seat at the table.
“Where’s Tony?” She asked, settling an extra large glass in front of him.
“Workshop. He said he’d be up in a minute.”
Predictably, Tony didn’t appear through lunch. It was probably for the best. Clint was far less likely to hold a grudge if he wasn’t hungry. No one seemed inclined to leave after food was consumed. Clint produced a deck of cards and an informal game of poker with goldfish crackers began.
“I refuse to believe that just happened,” Clint stared down at the empty space where his crackers had been.
“We played a lot in the army,” Steve apologized.
“You’ve got a tell. Obviously.” Natasha’s haul was large enough for a certain amount of smugness.
“I think I just know you really well,” Steve offered, eating one of the crackers.
“You need an advisor,” Pepper grinned at Bruce, who was still going through Jane’s notes. He’d occasionally glanced at her hand and signaled under the table with a pained expression. Apparently she’d come close to ruination on several occasions. Whatever Clint’s tell was Bruce had picked up on it.
“I need to beat something up,” Clint set down his cards carefully. “Steve?”
“We can work on your left hook,” Steve poured the rest of his bounty into a plastic bag.
“There is nothing wrong with my left hook,” the chair squeaked irritably as Clint pushed away from the table.
“Can you check on Tony?” Pepper asked Bruce quietly under the banter.
“Mmm, could use his advice anyway,” Bruce kissed her cheek absently and exited still reading.
“That just leaves us,” Natasha eyed Pepper speculatively, “so what? Nail polish, boy talk? Ice cream?”
“Hilarious. We have a fight to settle.”
“On your head be it.”
Mario Kart could be played in steely silence. Occasionally Natasha would ground out a Russian swear between gritted teeth. When Princess Peach sailed serenely over the finish line, Pepper spiked the controller on the couch in triumph.
“If you do a victory dance, I’m entitled to hit you with a pillow,” Natasha set her own wheel aside in disgust.
“We can do a round of Call of Duty if you need to restore your honor.”
“Tony is rubbing off on you. It isn’t flattering,” but a smile finally made an appearance.
“It’s a new perfume he’s working on,” she turned off the television, “so how are you?”
“No small talk, Potts.” Natasha swung her feet up onto the coffee table.
“It’s this or the nail polish.”
“I could still join the boys in the gym.”
“You could,” Pepper crossed her legs and waited.
“What do you want me to say?” Natasha sighed. “Most of my life is confidential. The rest is sleep, eat, exercise.”
“You play video games.”
“Here and there,” she shrugged. “It’s a good life. Simple.”
“You’re a superspy, who moonlights with superheros. How is that simple?”
“The same way your life is simple, I think.”
Pepper couldn’t imagine anyone else in the world that would define her life with that term. But she knew what Natasha meant anyway. You fought hard, did what was needed, caught joy where you could and kept moving. Simple.
“You should move in.”
“I have a room here,” Natasha reminded her, “it even contains some of my clothing.”
“But you still live mostly with SHIELD. Bring Clint with you. Everyone needs a retreat.”
“Clint isn’t a piece of luggage.”
“No, but so you go, so goes his nation.”
“Are you fishing?”
“Just an observation.”
“It’s not what you think.”
“I really have no thoughts on the matter.”
“Liar,” Natasha snorted, “I thought we weren’t going to do girl talk.”
“You’re the only woman in my life that doesn’t work for me,” she admitted with a little pain. Sometimes you had to give up information to get information. Even in friendship. Maybe especially then. “Sometimes, I miss a little girl talk.”
“You’re in dire straits then,” the offering seemed to appease her a little, “there’s nothing to say, really. We have a history in common. A few traits. We respect each other. He’s a friend.”
“A good friend.”
“The best,” she smiled thinly. “We’re not having sex.”
“I wasn’t asking.”
“Yes, you were. Sex is...complicated for me. It’s a weapon.”
“It can’t be anything else?”
“Not yet. I’ve been recently convinced not to rule out the possibility.”
“Yes,” she picked up the controller again. “Rematch time Potts.”
“You can’t stop there.”
“Sharing time is over for today. We’ll just have to talk again sometime.”
A half hour later, Clint and Steve re-emerged from the gym jostling each other and laughing about something before ducking into their rooms to shower. Clint re-emerged first, taking the patch of floor at Natasha’s feet. He had a stack of magazines in his hands, half of which were delivered into Natasha’s lap.
“You brought the stash?”
“Day off, we’re going to catch up.” He insisted.
It looked like the Russian version of Guns and Ammo. Both of them were absorbed instantly. Pepper switched off the game and contemplated retrieving the rest of the the abandoned Sunday Times.
“Is the game on?” Steve still had a towel around his neck, but he was otherwise perfectly crisply dressed.
“Which one?” Pepper tossed him the remote.
“Yankees,” Steve sighed, “I miss the Dodgers.”
“I don’t watch that much baseball,” she admitted. “It’s a bit slow.”
“Baseball is not slow,” Steve’s jaw squared like he was going to take out a killer robot, “I’ll explain.”
He did and it wasn’t nearly as boring as she feared. Mostly because Steve was so earnest about it and wasn’t afraid to use remotes, discarded Russian magazines and the gauntlet to illustrate his points.
“Of course, it’s been mostly ruined by the designated hitter rule,” Steve mourned.
“It’s necessary,” Natasha cut in. Pepper hadn’t thought she’d been listening, but then again, Natasha was always listening. “The gradual increase in the size of the fields, more powerful pitchers...it was the only way to bring balance back to the game.”
“But it takes away from the real spirit,” Steve fussed with the gauntlet. It was currently third base. “You know, a group of guys who have to switch back and forth because you could only get nine together for each side.”
“They can’t play professionally as if it were a pickup game.”
Sensing that this argument might go on for a while, Pepper took that as her cue to slip away. The Times was where she’d left it, but the stairs beckoned. Without a second thought, she headed towards the workroom. When the space had been exclusively Tony’s, she had prepared for such visits like a valkyrie headed for battle. Bruce’s presence had civilized the place. Music rarely blared anymore. At most it hummed quietly in the background.
“I can’t hear him talk over the music. ” Tony had offered in explanation for that particular miracle, “Bruce is constitutionally against yelling.”
They were both staring at a blown apart diagram when she came in. Tony reached out to adjust something, but Bruce put a hand on his wrist and said something too soft to hear. Tony snorted, reached again, fixing on a different point and pulling it slightly.
“See?” Bruce nudged Tony with an elbow.
“Moderation.” Tony’s voice dripped with disgust.
“The doesn’t look like the Bifrost,” she strode across the floor. They exchanged a guilty look at the diagram disappeared.
“Pepper! Is it dinner already?” Tony looked at his wrist, when it proved empty of a watch, he grabbed Bruce’s wrist. Which also contained no watch. “JARVIS! Time check!”
“It’s six-thirty pm, sir.”
“JARVIS,” she crossed her arms over her chest, pinning them with a stare, “what project did that diagram belong too?”
“The Mach VIII, m’am.”
“Then why do you both look so guilty?”
“You didn’t exactly like the template for the Mach VII,” Tony shifted uneasily, “harsh words were said. Reckless came up. Over my dead body was a phrase uttered.”
“And then it saved your life. I was wrong.” She watched Tony’s face which went through several strange twitches.
“I told you,” Bruce rolled his eyes, then smiled at her. “I did tell him.”
“Then why did you look guilty too?”
She narrowed her eyes at Bruce. He looked serenely back at her. She turned the stare on Tony.
“I am not a six year old boy, Potts. That won’t work.” Tony turned his attention to another table, “It’s rude to barge in, by the way. You’re supposed to knock. Social contract.”
“I refuse to believe you have ever signed a social contract of any kind.”
“Speaking of signing things,” Tony sorted through the parts on the table, “what’s this about patenting my toothbrush?”
“It’s amazing and you know it. It’ll make us a mint.”
“We already have a mint.”
“Tony! The Mach VIII. What’s wrong with it?”
“Nothing’s wrong! It’s genius! Are you implying that Bruce and I are anything less than geniuses?” He spun on her, hand to heart, “You wound me.”
“I’m seriously considering wounding you if you don’t confess.”
“Its internal,” Bruce cut in, “and highly theoretical. It’ll take years to implement.”
“Internal,” she repeated quietly.
“It’s not like it sounds,” Tony held up a hand.
“Really because it sounds like you want to implant the amor under your skin. Are you both out of your minds?”
“It’s just an experiment,” Bruce said softly, “really. I wouldn’t let him do it if I thought it was dangerous.”
“No one lets me do anything. Please don’t make me point out to both my lovers in one day that I’m a fucking adult.”
The three of them went quiet, surveying each other.
“I like you the way you are,” Pepper said finally. “Please don’t give more of yourself over to Ironman.”
“There’ll always be enough for you, Pep.”
“Why start now?” She turned on her heel, wishing for a good pair of stilettos. “I’m going to go organize dinner.”
By the time she was halfway up the stairs, she regretted her words, but the thought of going back down and apologizing turned her stomach. Maybe she had been cruel, but he had been thoughtless. That was the line they walked together. Still, she wished it hadn’t happened today. She wished it hadn’t been in front of Bruce. Not that he was any less a part of them, but this was something he didn’t share with them. The part of their history that stayed wholly theirs, poisonous and ugly.
“Who wants pizza?” She called brightly as she reached the top of the stairs.
There was a general chorus of agreement. She didn’t bother taking requests, sending out an order for ten pies of various configurations. Leftovers wouldn’t have long to live anyway. Recovering her paper, she fled to the balcony. The last rays of the sun retreated, leaving behind the halo of artificial light generated by the massive city grid.
“Pizza’s here,” Clint ducked his head around the door. She nodded, listening to his footsteps approach. He set a plate next to her. A single slice loaded with vegetables.
“No problem,” he followed her gaze out over the buildings. “Deep thoughts?”
“It’s hard, isn’t it?” He said quietly.
“Being invested in dangerous people.”
“I think it’s gone beyond investment,” she wondered what he knew. The lab was soundproof, but maybe her false cheer and subsequent flight said it all.
“Tash likes you.”
“I’m glad. I like her too.”
“So do I.” There was a preternatural stillness to Clint. She noticed it at odd moments. He didn’t know how to fidget, to be restless. “You don’t have to take care of us.”
“But we all appreciate it,” he smiled fractionally. “It’s uncomfortable and a little weird, but it’s good. I guess everyone wants to be fussed over sometimes.”
“I don’t want to be the den mother or the mascot. And I’m not trying to replace Phil,” she swallowed hard.
“You couldn’t, even if you wanted too. But the thought is appreciated.”
The memory of that singular man lingered between them, thickening the air with loss.
“Why won’t you and Natasha live here?” She asked when the moment had passed.
“We do live here,” Clint raised an eyebrow, “maybe we don’t stay here often. But this is home.”
“Pepper?” Tony called from the porch door.
And between Tony’s call and her response, Clint disappeared into the twilight. That would never stop being disconcerting.
“Hey,” Tony dropped into the chair next to hers.
“Hi.” She crossed the void between them to capture his hand. His fingers tightened gratefully around hers.
“I’m not sorry,” he said and she nodded, “I’m always going to do what I can to make Ironman better and faster. But you have to know that I’m giving you everything I can. If that’s not enough-”
“It is. It’s always been. You just...god. No one makes me angry like you do.”
“You’re gorgeous when you’re angry. Have I told you that?”
“A time or two, yes. Is Bruce alright?”
“He beat a retreat after you left. Needed to do some yoga or something.” Tony snorted.
“What’s he going to do when we have a real fight?”
“That wasn’t a real fight?”
“You know what I mean. Like in Dubai.”
Two years ago, standing across from each other in an impossibly large hotel bedroom throwing accusations meant to fatally wound. Pepper had thought that she really could walk away from Tony and never look back. She had even gone so far as to book the flight, but when the digital confirmation came through, her stomach had twisted painfully. Leaving him behind would be like removing a vital organ.
“We haven’t had a fight like Dubai since Dubai,” he reminded her, “and Bruce is a big boy. If we’re getting him riled, he can leave the room.”
“What happens when we fight with him like that?” She hadn’t found a single thing about Bruce that would cause that kind of fight. Yet.
“Bruce doesn't fight like that. He’s all about the quiet rational argument.” Tony pointed out as if he'd had several opportunities to test that theory already.
“That sounds...not at all cathartic.”
“I think he gets his catharsis leveling small cities."
“You know that I didn’t suggest getting together with Bruce because you were somehow lacking, right?” She asked because she’s asked something like that before, but maybe it hadn't been the right words.
“And I didn't agree to it because you were,” he leaned closer, lips brushing against her ear, “you are a singular phenomena.”
Above them the clouds rolled in and JARVIS interrupted with a discrete cough.
“The Bifrost has opened. Shall I clear the landing pad, sir?”
“God of Terrible Timing,” Tony grumbled. “Clear it.”
A massive rumble of thunder cracked over the city, a streak of lightning illuminating the sky. Then the storm dissipated as quickly as it came.
“We’re going to have the meteorological societies calling again,” Pepper rose with a sigh.
They didn’t bother going up to the roof. Thor knew his way down by now and was soon settled in among the group, taking about half a pizza and most of a love seat for himself. Tony claimed an empty armchair, tugging Pepper into his lap against her laughing protests.
“It is good to find you well, my friends.” Thor beamed on the gathering, “I think of you often when I am away. And of course, of my fair Jane.”
“Did you want to call her?” Pepper offered, “Let her know you’re in the area?”
“She is expecting me. I will stay only a short time in the House of Stark before setting off. I had hoped only to sup and rest here tonight. But I will return before I go back to Asgard.” He drank deeply from his glass and Pepper made a note to restock the bar. “It is a pleasure to be among friends without the pending weight of battle.”
“Don’t jinx us.” Clint said quickly. “The minute you say that, all hell breaks loose.”
“That smacks of superstition, my friend.”
“I think we’re all entitled to a little superstition on occasion,” Bruce said as he wandered in.
He didn’t look any worse for the wear though his body language was tighter than it had been this morning.
“It is good to see you, friend Bruce!” Thor boomed, rising to throw a companionable arm around his shoulders. “You must come home with me to Asgard soon. The Warriors Three are most eager to meet the man that can best me in combat.”
“I think the green guy is better off staying earthly bound,” Bruce smiled up at him, “but I appreciate the invitation. Did I hear you were going to go visit Jane? I have something for you to bring to her.”
“I will deliver thy package,” Thor said agreeably, relinquishing his hold.
“We should watch a movie,” Tony declared. “We’re all in one place for once. It’d be a bonding thing.”
“Sitting quietly in the dark is a bonding thing?” Steve challenged.
“You have clearly never watched a movie with Tony.” Natasha muttered. “There is nothing quiet about it.”
An argument arose over what to watch, but Pepper stopped paying attention after the first few volleys. Bruce had walked over to the chair that she was sharing with Tony and hovered for an indecisive second. Then after a soft, almost annoyed huff of air, he’d sunk to the floor in front of them. He fidgeted a little until he was comfortably settled between Tony’s legs. Then he looked up at her with a warm smile. The last of the fight’s tension drained from her and a return of the early morning contentment washed over her in a wave.
“I love you,” she mouthed to him as the rest of the team fought. With deep pleasure, she watched the skin over his cheeks flush like a school boy’s. He didn’t answer her, but she didn’t expect him to.
“Hey, what about me?” Tony grumbled directly into her ear. “Don’t think I didn’t catch that.”
“What about you?” She brushed a kiss over cheek.
“I’m feeling distinctly under appreciated.”
“I’ll appreciate you if you let Steve put on Indiana Jones already,” Clint sniped.
“Was that an offer?” Tony challenged.
“Oh, Fellowship of the Ring!” Natasha produced the DVD from the shelf.
“No.” Clint said firmly. “No way.”
Pepper never had much interest in fantasy, but listening to the other explain the particulars of Tolkien to Thor added a distinctly hilarious spin to things. Eventually though, she must have dozed off.
“This is much more awkward out of the suit,” Tony’s voice stirred her. He had stood up with her in his arms and leaving her limbs to dangle at odd angles.
“You should have woken me.” She mumbled, still half-asleep.
“Where’s the fun in that?”
The room had gone dark, the movie faded to credits. All the other occupants of the tower had gone. It was peaceful again though she could swear that she sensed them all through the walls. She felt an odd satisfaction in the knowledge like a herding dog with all its sheep in the paddock.
“We should have everyone home more often. It's nice.” She muttered into Tony’s neck. Somewhere in the dark, Bruce laughed husky and sweet.
With some minor stumbles, Tony managed to deliver her to their bed and strip her off her dress and bra. Then he tumbled in beside her, burrowing against her back. She held her arms open in a silent demand. A moment later, Bruce was there, curls brushing her nose. With a soft noise of contentment, she allowed sleep to claim her.
The next morning life returned to normal. She woke up early to the impossible business of running Stark Industries and Tony Stark. The Avengers were called in to tackle a mutated moose rampaging through downtown Montreal. She kept the news on low as she plowed through phone call after phone call.
“This was in your inbox this morning, m’am,” an obsequious secretary dropped a handwritten envelope onto her desk. “It was marked personal.”
“Thank you, Tracey.”
Cautiously, Pepper opened the envelope and pried out a thick piece of paper folded into quarters. In the top left corner in neat handwriting were the words: ‘To Pepper, Thanks for the advice. Regards, Steve.”
The rest of the sheet was filled with a soft pencil sketch. It was her in Tony’s lap, eyes closed in sleep. Tony’s face was half-hidden in her hair, but she could see the pleased smile there and the possessive hold of his hands around her waist. Bruce had apparently moved from the floor to the right arm of the chair, leaning into Tony as if to whisper something in his ear.
“Can you get me an eight by eleven frame?”
“Right away, m’am.”
The sketch won a place of honor next to her monitor after that. If she ever needed a break from the breakneck pace of their lives, she only had to look at it and remember.