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The Avengers’ Tower for the Buff, Beautiful, Brainy and Bizarre.

Chapter Text

A soft, sloppy mess of a man flicked through his fifty-eighth slide. The rest of the team had already glazed over hours ago. Steve was doodling idly in the margins of the handouts, Tony had fallen asleep behind dark sunglasses, Bucky was folding elaborate paper airplanes and Bruce had slipped deep into a meditative state. Only Clint and Natasha had made it this far. A few long nights perched on rooftops increased one’s patience dramatically. But not infinitely.

If he says ‘synergy’ one more time, I’m going to skin him alive.” She mumbled in Russian.

My eyes are drying out.” Clint replied without moving his lips.

I’m starving.” Bucky huffed.

I’ve got a granola bar.” Steve dug in his pocket, producing a sadly crumpled one.

Clint, Natasha and Bucky stared at him.

What?” He looked guilelessly back.

Since when do you speak Russian?” Bucky asked mildly.

Oh, I was just listening to you guys, really. Then I found a Russian soap opera I liked and it didn’t have subtitles, so I did some reading.” Steve shrugged. “I hope that’s alright, I didn’t want to intrude.

No. It’s fine.” Natasha said immediately, the spark of an idea taking alight. “More than fine.

“Excuse me,” the presenter frowned, “I think this is a very important point and-”

“I’m calling a lunch break.” Steve stood up. “Back in an hour, sir.”

“You can’t just leave!”

Bruce’s eyes cracked open, glittering in the dark, “All due respect, you wouldn’t like me when I’m hungry.”

Lunch stretched long into the afternoon after the presenter fled never to return. Natasha took the unexpectedly free afternoon to move forward with her plan. She went to an art store, explained what she needed and received in return several long thin planks of wood. Back at the Tower, she retreated to the roof garden and her chair among the roses.

It took her several tries to perfect the technique of whittling the wood down to the right shape and size. She held the first finished piece in the palm of her hand and admired the simple soft corners. Making always fascinated her, balanced as it was against her natural proclivities.

Weeks went by as she turned her wood planks into a series of small squares. Sometimes she didn’t have a chance to work on her project for days, others she could spend nearly entirely on the rhythmic acts of cutting and sanding. If Clint came up with her, he didn’t offer to help, but sat at her feet, hair gathering sawdust and reading to her from the newspaper.

When the velvet bag she’d bought to hold her work felt full enough, she knocked on the door of Steve and Bucky’s suite. Technically Bucky had the rooms to the right of Steve and across the wide hall from Clint, but in practice he lived with Steve. They did not share the bed. Instead Bucky kept a neat pallet on the couch. No one said anything about it. It was hardly the strangest relationship going under this roof.

“Good morning.” Steve answered the door, half-dressed in slacks and an undershirt.

“I have a job for you. Hold out your hand.”

Steve held it out without hesitation. She dropped the bag into his hand, watched him run his fingers over the velvet.

“What is this?”

“An art project.”

Even if there had been nothing on Steve’s record about his art, she would have known it from his handwriting. There was a graceful lilt to everything he wrote, even post-its left on the coffee pot scolding whoever let the milk run out without replacing it.

It pleased her to see those slanting letters turned to her project, dark brown paint gliding over the pale wood tiles. The brush he used was whisper thin and his hand stayed steady even as she leaned over his shoulder.

“What about the board?” He asked as he blew softly over the last tile.

“I’ll think of something.”

“Let me.”

A week later, he presented her with a pine wood rectangle, brass hinges unfolding into a work of art. The grid had been drawn in bold lines, the plain squares painted a brilliant blue and the special squares highlighted in a flush pink, jade green or pale purple. Her name was written in cyrillic along the bottom, each letter highlighted in gold. In the center space that was normally graced with a black star, he’d drawn a nimble spider.

“Thank you. It's perfect.” She leaned upwards to brush a kiss over the square line of his jaw. A faint flush of pleasure rose to his cheeks.

“I liked doing it.” He dropped his eyes and shoulders. “We should play.”

“Tomorrow night in the lounge. Do you mind if Bucky and Clint join us?”

“Never.”

“Good, then it’s a date.”

They gathered around the table, armed with fresh salsa and chips still warm from the oven. Natasha set down a tiny notebook with crisp white pages and a pencil sharpened to a wicked point.

“Welcome to the inaugural game of Russian Scrabble.” Clint announced, setting down a well thumbed Russian dictionary. “If it isn’t in here, it isn’t a word.”

“I will keep score.” She added and no one protested as she wrote each of their names across the top of the page.

An hour later, the room had gone utterly quiet except for the steady crunch of chips. Pepper came in, a tinny voice shouting at her through her phone. She surveyed the area, lifted an eyebrow and hung up. A few clicks later, and the phone flashed.

“What’s that for?” Bucky scowled at the board, tossing down a ten point, two letter word.

“I want to remember what you all look like before you scartched each other to pieces.” She said mildly. “And now I’m going to go warn Bruce to stay clear. There’s enough tension in this room for three Hulks and I like the walls where they are.”

The tension never bothered Natasha. She liked the thick silence, the wrinkling of brows as they jockeyed for possession in an ocean of her native tongue and the click of tiles against the board. In the hundreds of games that followed, none of them came out as a clear champion. They played for the novelty of it, for a new battlefield. They played because so much of their lives had been full of heavy, terrible work. Mostly they played for her and that was a kindness that she could accept.

Chapter Text

“I’m telling you, she was fangirling all over you.” Tony hoisted up their suitcases one last time as the Tower elevator pinged open. “I think she wanted you to sign her tits.”

“She did give me her e-mail address.” Bruce shrugged. “But I’m pretty sure that was so I could we could start a Physicist LGBTQ group. Since she kept mentioning her girlfriend, then looking pointedly at you.”

“Maybe she’s a swinger.”

The elevator deposited them into the foyer and Bruce let out a soft sigh of relief. All the smells of home rushed in: lemongrass floor cleaner, the sweet lingering strains of Pepper’s perfume and gun oil.

“Did you have a good time?” Pepper asked from the top of the stairs. Bruce and Tony watched her descend appreciatively.

“Bruce is the geek whisperer. He was hip deep in bulky glasses and lab coats the whole time.” Tony reached for her. “I was ignored. It was horrible.”

“If by ignored you mean gave the best received keynote on record.” Bruce added dryly. “How was Milan?”

“Hot.” She kissed Tony, then reeled in Bruce for a full bodied hug. “I picked up a new investor and a few new outfits.”

“Did I get a present?” Tony set down their bags, before casting her a hopeful look.

“There may or may not be a new suit in it for you.” She teased, kissing Bruce’s neck before disengaging. “That’ll depend if you brought anything back for me.”

“Does schwag count? I’ve got a killer new mousepad and a stressball.” Bruce offered.

“You get your present no matter what.” She patted his arm.

“That’s blatant favoritism.” Tony protested.

“You already have enough clothes for a small nation.”

“I’m going to make a sandwich.” Bruce backed away to give them their bickering space.

He had a hard time eating while in the air. Tony always packs ridiculous foods to try to trick him into it, but he could never forget that he was hurtling through space in a thin metal tube that the Hulk would use as a toothpick. When it contained someone he cared about, the terrible knots in his stomach twisted tighter.

Which meant that he was now starving and set about grilling vegetables and slicing some cheese to put between thick slice of bread and slid into the panini press. Halfway through chopping zucchini, he got the heavy sensation of being watched. He turned slowly around, clutching the knife.

Natasha and Clint were sitting at the kitchen table, a deck of cards shuffling through Clint’s hands. They regarded him with distant interest.

“Hello.” He set down the knife.

“Hey, Doc.” Clint dealt Natasha four cards which she picked up smoothly. “How was Colorado?”

“Tony got us kicked out of a restaurant, but besides that uneventful.” He surveyed the two of them, checking for cuts and bruises and something a little indefinable that he was only just starting to understand. “Thanks for the text about Dr. Doom, we were getting ready to suit up when it came in. How’d you get him into custody?”

“We used Steve as bait then tranq’d him.” Clint grinned at the fan of cards in his hand.

“That seems...too easy.”

“That’s what I said.” Natasha pulled another card, before laying one down. It was a game of their own devising, Bruce determined. They had a few of those. Apparently there weren’t many things you could do on terminally boring surveillance jobs. “I think he wanted to get trapped.”

“Probably,” Clint shrugged, “but we’ve got to at least try.”

It was all very normal and calm. As if they had simply settled into the kitchen for cards and conversation. Bruce leaned over and opened the fridge. Neat stacks of tins and boxes lined three shelves. The conference had only been a week, but Tony had insisted on flying out early to commune with nature. Nature had apparently meant the hotel room sheet, but Bruce wasn’t complaining. Two weeks in total, including travel days. Two weeks away from home and apparently no one had thought to cook.

“I’ll just make more for everyone then, shall I?”

“If you want.” Clint shrugged. “I mean, since you are already making something....”

Bruce cooked in silence, listening to the slide of cards, their voices rising and falling. He was not used to feeling...tender about people. Pepper and Tony had systematically torn down the defenses he’d carefully assembled and he loved them for it. He wanted them happy and comfortable and sometimes he worried over them. But he never felt as if he had to take care of them. Pepper was amazingly self-sufficient and the things that made Tony reckless with himself were equally triggers for Bruce. Neither of them were good at keeping track of time or their bodies if they had leads in their research. Neither of them were willing to protect themselves over others. He didn’t take care of Tony, he walked beside him.

No, what Clint and Natasha broke open in him was something entirely different. Perversely, he wanted to keep them safe as if they couldn’t both kill him with a sugar packet if need be. They looked to him at hard moments and more and more, he found himself interceding on their behalf, defending their actions or explaining them to someone, who had taken the stern, furious efficiency for something more personal.

“Thanks.” Clint looked up with a grin when Bruce set matching sandwiches down for them, pickles sliced neatly on the side.

“You lived off of take out the whole time I was away, didn’t you?”

“Well.” Clint shrugged.

“Clint made eggs on Tuesday.” Natasha put down a pair of aces.

“What would happen if I were incapacitated? Scurvy is a real thing, you know.”

“We’re capable of buying citrus.” Natasha looked up, a warning in the cant of her eyebrows.

“I’m teaching one of you how to cook.” Bruce bit into his sandwich. “This is ridiculous.”

They held one of their silent conferences, all subtle facial cues and twitching fingers.

“I’m in.” Clint picked up a pickle. “But I’m not wearing an apron.”

“Monday at 11. We can make lunch.”

The first few lessons were mostly Clint slicing while Bruce explained what he was doing. Clint never asked questions, absorbing everything with silent intensity. Once Bruce gave him more to do, the tension dissipated and Natasha started showing up, lingering at the table as they worked.

“Peel this?” Bruce asked her while they worked on the coffee flavored stew that made Steve hold out his bowl for more like a particularly well built Dickens character.

She easily caught the potato he threw at her, drew out one of her knives and started a curling peel at the very top. The potato returned to him perfectly white and the peel a gorgeous spiral.

“Crudites.” He decided and dug out the radishes. “Think you can make a flower?”

“How long do I stir this?” Clint poked at the simmering onions.

“That’s good. We’re just sweating them so no one gets heartburn. You can toss them in.”

He set Clint to browning the meat, then took up tomato chopping for himself. The kitchen smelled like onions and was almost unpleasantly warm. Natasha took to radish cutting until they blossomed under her fingers into a many petaled roses.

“Stop that.” She ordered, a small smile lingering on her lips.

“Stop what?” Bruce scraped the tomato into the pot.

“Looking fond.” She wiped her knife on a kitchen towel before taking up the carrots that he'd left on the counter. “It’s ridiculous.”

“She’s right, Doc.” Clint leaned over and pushed Bruce’s glasses back up his nose. “We’re not children.”

“How old are you?” Bruce challenged.

“Oh. Who remembers? How old am I, Nat?” Clint asked, mashing the meat around.

“Thirty?” She shrugged. “According to the records, I’m twenty-nine.”

“I’m careening towards fifty.” Bruce reminded them.

“Forty-five isn’t fifty.” Natasha tsked, the carrots slowly being added to the bouquet.

“The point is, I’m old enough to be your father. I can look however I want.”

“Only if you got started very early, Doc.” Clint laughed.

“Are we adopting assassins?” Tony asked from the doorway. He was covered in soot, except for the round space around his eyes where his goggles usually sat. “Does Pepper know?”

“What happened?” Bruce asked, less because he cared and more because he didn’t want the fragile moment ruined.

“Dummy, matches, my 3D printer and a poorly placed cup of paint thinner.”

“So you’re done working for the day? Go take a shower and tell everyone else lunch will be ready in a half-hour.” Bruce turned back to his pot. “Oh, call Pepper too would you? She said she might get home for lunch if her morning meeting didn’t run long.”

“You’re hot when you’re bossy.”

“That is nauseating.” Clint stabbed at the meat with his spoon.

“Go away, Tony.” Bruce said with a hidden grin. Tony sniffed loudly, but obediently left.

“Having him as a father would border on nightmarish.” Clint declared.

“Oh, I don’t know.” Natasha sliced carefully, a translucent layer of green falling away. “Chrismas would have been spectacular.”

“Pepper and Tony don’t want kids.” Bruce said idly as he stirred. They’d talked about it early on.

“What about you, Doc?”

“Oh, you know. Toxic bodily fluids and truly awful genes are barriers.” He wiped his forehead on the back of his hand. “And my life is complicated enough.”

“Doesn’t really answer the question, does it?” Natasha speared a cherry tomato and ate it off the tip of her knife.

“I have everything I need and more than I could want. That’s enough.”

Neither of them said anything after that, but the cooking lessons became more frequent after that until any time he headed towards the kitchen, one or both of them were on his heels. When he went away, they texted him with questions and took photos of what they’d made. If he saved them all to a deeply buried folder titled ‘The Kids’, then that was his secret to keep.

Chapter Text

It started as a sort of joke.

“Fancy meeting you here.” Bruce mumbled into a mug that read ‘Beware Quantum Ducks. Quark, Quark, Quark’.

“Can’t sleep?” It came out as half-statement, half-question. Steve rubbed a hand over his face and poured himself a glass of water.

Bruce shrugged and fiddled with the papers in front of him. Steve slumped into a kitchen chair. Awkward silence descended thickening the air.

“Read any good books lately?” Bruce finally asked, picking idly at some dried bit of food on the table.

“I don’t know where to start.” Steve admitted. “I bought a few of my old favorites.”

“I never went in much for stuff from that era. Steinbeck, Fitzgerald, Hemingway. Always struck me as too macho.”

“I liked Steinbeck ok, but I liked fantastic stuff better. The Hobbit, Brave New World, pretty much everything Wells and Verne.” Steve laughed. “I brought a suitcase full of books to basic.”

“Huh.” Bruce got up. “Stay there a second, ok?”

“Ok?”

Steve waited in the hushed dark of the kitchen. He hadn’t thought about those battered books in a long time. He could imagine them now, how they’d filled his hands and mind and made an unkind world melt away.

“Here.” Bruce returned, settling a paperback into Steve’s broad hands. “It’s a favorite of mine. We can do an exchange. You know. So we have something to talk about instead of staring blankly at each other in the wee hours of the morning.”

“Contact?” Steve touched the raised silver letters, the sensible stamp of the author’s name ‘Carl Sagan’ on the bottom.

“It’s probably a little more ironic what with Thor.” Bruce shrugged loosely. “But I read it a lot while I was traveling. It’s about faith, more than anything.”

“Did you ever read Journey to the Center of the Earth?” Steve offered, drawing the book closer to him, the first page falling open before him.

“No,” Bruce picked up his mug, “but I’m willing to try it.”

The next time they collided in the dark silent hours, they talked about aliens and the issues with Hollow Earth theorists. Bruce drew with a sharpie on paper towels, explaining gravity and heat in cramped lettering.

“How about the Hobbit?” Steve asked.

“American Gods.” Bruce replied and they were off.

It was impossible to keep it wholly quiet from the others, but no one else seemed inclined to participate. They were left to their own devices, passing a love for tangled plots back and forth across the table until their discussion ran together in one long debate of philosophy, religion and magic.

Chapter Text

Tony emerged from the lab, wiping his hands on a rag and blinking against the last of the fading light. He’d reached a natural stopping point far earlier than he normally would and had been left staring down his plans, caught off guard.

“JARVIS, who’s home?”

“Mr. Rogers and Mr. Barnes are in the gym. Ms. Potts is in the living room and Dr. Banner remains in his lab.”

“Really.” He rolled his shoulders. “Is Ms. Potts working?”

“No, sir.”

“JARVIS, Playlist 6.”

The beat started as he reached the top step, emerging out into the living room. Pepper looked up immediately, finding him in an instant. He liked that. She was still attuned to him, tracking him. She’d taken off her shoes, bare feet tucked neatly under her. Her work clothes had been abandoned too in favor of a floaty shift of a dress. Perfect.

“Ms. Potts.”

She smiled slow and real. “Mr. Stark. Is that a tango beat following you?”

“Well. I was wondering,” he approached her in a rolling saunter and grinned as she gave him an accessing once over, “if you would give me the pleasure of a dance.”

“Right now?”

“Music is playing, the sun is setting over Manhattan and I have it on good word that dancing is a way to get in good with the misses.” He extended his hand down. “Come on, Pep.”

“I’m not your misses.” But she slipped his hand in hers and let herself be drawn up against him, one of her hands stroking down his spine. “Do you even remember how to tango?”

“How could I forget when you taught me?” He guided her around the coffee table before spinning her outward.

“Tony, you’ve forgotten everything I’ve taught you.” She laughed, coming back to him, hands sliding back together.

“Have not.” He sashayed to left and watched her reply with an eyebrow waggle. “Go on, test me.”

“Fine.” She looked out to her left and he could easily see the scarf she’d worn around her neck the first time they’d done this together. “How much should you tip a cab driver?”

“Twenty percent, fifty if I did something inappropriate. Seventy if I break anything.” He stepped forward letting her step back. “Don’t spoon feed me. Give me something hard.”

“What are the names of all the Trustees on the company’s board?” She moved forward, forcing him into a quick step back.

“Clive Meens, with the terrible toupee, George Wilkinson, who offers hard candy to everyone, Trudie McIntyre, who once stabbed me with a coffee stirrer,” with each name he slid his hand further down her back, leaning her into a deep dip, “Allison Towards, a Carnige on her mother’s side and a bitch everywhere else, Jacob Marley, who looks old enough to have inspired the Dickens character, Bernard Alvin, who burps constantly. Then the ones with no distinguishable personality, Rene Tannenbaum, Salvador Marco, Felix Axelrod and Maurice Pinto.”

By now he was suspending her mere inches from the floor, his lips brushing against hers.

“I’m impressed.” She allowed and he swept her back up.

“So am I.”

They both jumped, turning guiltily to find Bruce leaning against the wall.

“Don’t stop on account of me.” He walked over to the armchair, sitting down with a warm smile. “I like to watch.”

“We know.” Tony turned back to Pepper. “What do you think? Should we show him what we’re made of?”

“Put on your cha-cha heels.” Her eyes flashed, lust and pride rising to the surface. One of Tony’s favorite combination.

Pepper had learned to tango in a late night gym class long before whatever burned between them had even started to smoke. When she’d taught him, it had been for a charity function in the first early frightening days of their new raw intimacy. It had been intensive foreplay, teaching him where to hold her and how she liked to move. They had ended each lesson in a messy heap on the floor, her hair spilling around her in a burnished halo and her laughter in his ears.

“You taught me everything I know.” He told her when the tempo increased and they refound their rhythm, heated by Bruce’s eyes and the promise warming in their depths.

“Kick, turn.” She whispered, teeth a hair's width from his ear.

“Kick, turn.” And he obliged.

The tango was sharp and sensual, everything they could have wanted to keep them on their toes and ready for anything. Wholly their kind of music. When they finished, it was with clear reluctance. Her back pressed to his chest and as one they turned to look right at Bruce who stared steadily back.

“That.” Bruce ran a hand through his hair. “My God.”

“Come here.” Pepper crooked a finger and Bruce all but vaulted across the room. He reached for her, but she took his hands and put one to her hip. “The first thing is to feel the rhythm. JARVIS, start at the beginning.”

“Pepper.” Bruce protested. Tony shook his head over her shoulder.

“This is a three person dance now.” She leaned her head back to take a kiss from Tony.

“Let’s see what you’re made of, Dr. Banner.” Tony challenged, all teeth and desire.

"Gamma, teabags and equations." He muttered, but he watched carefully as Pepper took him through the first steps.

When it was clear he had some idea of what he was doing, Tony cut in and they started a war of partner switching, all reaching and spinning and wandering hands.

They wound up in a pile on the floor. Pepper's trilling laugh twined around Bruce's husky chuckles.

“JARVIS." Tony rolled onto his back. "Make a note. Tango lessons every afternoon until we get it right.”

Pepper crawled up and over Tony, straddling him for a long kiss until Bruce got on his knees and started doing wicked things to her neck.

“Every afternoon, sir? I estimate that delay in your vibranium testing by several weeks.”

“Fuck it.” Tony let his head fall back against the floor, dazed and unspeakably pleased. “Totally worth it.”

Chapter Text

Over the years, Clint estimated that he had left behind a dozen suitcases, two dufflebags and once, painfully, a bow, when he had to cut his losses and run. He couldn’t depend on any kind of regular supplies.

His job required him to sit still and watch for hours on end. There was a place he could go in his head where the world drained away and he became something base and simple. And then had to snap out of it in a microsecond, ready to shoot

He had the kind of patience that some yogis would kill for and a steadiness of hand that could be maintained in the shakiest of transportation.

Finding the fine motor coordination nightmare that was complicated origami filled a simple need in him to use his skills for something pleasurable. To have a hobby like a normal person.

He could almost always find some kind of paper and a flat surface. Whatever he created could be tucked in one of his many pockets and took up little space in whatever semi-permanent residence SHIELD had set up for him that month. He didn’t care if he made mistake after mistake. It was just like the range where he let loose arrow after arrow until he knew that he could replicate what he needed to on the field without thought.

When he settled into the Tower, there had been so much else going on that he hadn’t thought about it for months. There was always a movie to watch, a card game to be played, someone to shoot the shit with or the many new facets of Natasha to explore.

Then one rainy day in October when they had finished crushing a mutant snake into the ground and were milling around discussing its potential origins, he caught sight the window display of an art supply store.

“I’ll just be a second.” He murmured to Natasha.

The thick stack of paper was nestled in among Avengers coloring books and Avengers paint by numbers. The top sheet had a tiny rainfall of Captain America’s shields. The shopkeeper practically threw herself at him, thanking him and the others almost incoherently through her tears. She gave him the paper gratis and he was hardly going to argue her out of it. Clint had never claimed to be altruistic.

It took him a few hours to remember the way of the shapes and sharp creasing. He practiced alone first, when he knew Natasha was otherwise distracted. The Black Widow paper was predictably covered in spiders, but he resisted the urge to make her a tiny eight-legged paper army. When he got a papercut, he ran the edges through the blood. Someone else would be disgusted, but he knew Natasha would like the small sacrifice. They both approved of the kind of effort that hurt.

When he presented her with the dragon, she brushed a kiss over it’s paper head to leave behind gleaming red lipstick.

“You used to do this all time.” She said, nearly wistful. “I always thought they were beautiful.”

Later, he would buy better paper, matte black and heavy. He folded her everything he knew to get back in practice until she could line her previously empty knick-knack shelf with them. Frogs, swans, cranes and flowers in inky black hues stood sentinel over her room. She accepted each one with a smile and a kiss.

But that was later. He went through the Avengers paper first.

The Hulk’s pattern was an unnatural shade of green, shot through with bright purple declarations of ‘Smash!’. With a bit of care, he made a series of butterflies and strung them together on fishing line. It wasn’t hard to get into the lab while Bruce was away and hang the mobile above his computer.

JARVIS let him watch the surveillance tape when Bruce discovered them. The laughter Clint off had expected, but the reverent soft touch that sent the butterflies spinning merrily took him off guard. At first Clint assumed that Bruce didn’t know who had set them there and enjoyed them mostly because they might have come from Pepper. But when one of Tony’s explosion sent the mobile into a fast spin, Bruce approached him with an injured specimen.

“Could you fix it?” He’d asked, hands that could destroy city blocks cupping the torn paper delicately.

“Uh.” Clint picked it up, surveying the ruined wing, “No...but I could make another?”

“Thanks.” Bruce grinned. “They’re kind of soothing, you know?”

The Iron Man paper was in a horrible eye searing red with gilt edges that didn't properly bend, so Clint didn’t bother making anything for Tony. Paper wasn’t really the right medium for someone that was so often on fire anyway. If Tony ever sensed his exclusion, he never said a word. Maybe because Clint gave him other things that no one else got. Tony had held Clint’s bows in his hand and made adjustments without courting death. Not even Natasha got that.

For Steve, Clint amused himself by trying a motorcycle. Without a guide, it came out lopsided a few times and hopelessly messy even more. He left the ruined attempts everywhere, watching in amusement as Steve would go to tidy up and find mangled Captain America paper. When he finally got one just as he liked it, he left it inside the red and white “I’m not old, I’m vintage” mug.

“Clint.” Bucky came out of nowhere the next morning, all intense dark eyes and hedgehog bedhead.

“Jesus, Buck.” Clint eased his hand away from the knife at his belt and went back to inspecting new arrows for imperfections. “You know better.”

“Bruce says you made that little paper bike for Steve.”

“Oh, yeah. Did he like it?” The fletchings looked uneven and he turned it in the light with a frown.

“Like it? I think he cooed at it like it was his real precious baby.” Bucky titled his head. “Fletchings are uneven.”

“Damnit.” Clint picked up a wickedly sharp pair of scissors and began to carefully trim.

“Look, you have to show me how to do that.”

“Trim a fletching?”

“I know how to trim a fucking feather. I mean to do that paper folding thing.”

“Buy a book.” Clint sighted down the shaft. Better.

“I’m not much of a student.” Bucky huffed a sigh. “Look, I know you pretty much hate me, but...Steve liked that thing. And I’m trying to figure out how to make him happy. Or at least not look so fucking miserable every time he looks at me.”

“I don’t hate you.” Clint frowned and finally turned to look at the man. Bucky looked right back at him, gaze even and unafraid. “We hang out all the time.”

“Sure,” Bucky laughed, “we’re buds, except that line between your eyes and the tension in your shoulders every time I get up to get a drink. You’re a friendly guy, I appreciate that, but I know when someone’s waiting for me to throw a punch or trying to figure out how best to screw in the knife if I make a false move.”

“I can like you and not trust you.”

“Yeah, well. Maybe you should try for both.” Bucky shoved his hands into his pockets. “I’ve had enough enemies for eight lifetimes and not nearly enough friends.”

“I’m not your enemy.”

“But you’re not my friend either.” Bucky shrugged. "Forget it."

Watching him leave, Clint reached for the next arrow and the silent place in his head where nothing else mattered. He stayed there until Natasha drew him away from the range to bathe his hands in antiseptic cream.

“Do you think I hate Bucky?” He asked her when she pressed her thumbs into his palms.

“I think that you handle him with caution which is wise. And that you think he could take something from you which is stupid.” She leaned forward to kiss him harshly, a scolding. “I’m not a thing that can be stolen. I have to want to go.”

“Does that make me jealous?” He had never been jealous over a woman before.

“It makes you someone who can bleed. A human.” She shrugged. “But you should get over it.”

“Alright.”

At the next terminally boring debriefing, Clint drew out the hideous Iron Man paper and shuffled his chair closer to where Bucky was doodling increasingly larger guns in the margins of his paper.

“You start with a square.” Clint whispered, sliding a piece to him.

“Show me.” Bucky replied, a brilliant smile appearing only in the creases of his eyes.

Chapter Text

Birthdays were a tricky thing. They meant more to people than they let on and came with heavy baggage. Thanks to SHIELD’s draconian redaction policies, Natasha and Clint didn’t even seem to have birthdays. Holidays were worse. The first Christmas with everyone moved in was little more than an intense bender littered with blinking lights and the smell of pine. Even Steve had dipped heavily into the egg nog, staring into the yellow depths as if it might relieve him of hard memories simply by existing.

That was all understandable. Pepper respected that collectively her housemates had more issues than National Geographic. But she loved them and though she hated to think that Tony had that much influence on her, she had become someone who expressed love through gifts. She had more money than she could ever spend on herself and she had a good eye for things that would be wanted.

“Just do it, Pep.” Tony had said after she had outlined the issue. He nuzzled her cheek, pulling her closer. “People like presents.”

“You like presents. Some people don’t appreciate randoms acts of lavish spending.”

“Every one of them accepted an apartment here.” He pointed out, breath warm against her skin. “No one’s paid a grocery bill that I know of, I think they’ll be alright with it. Especially from you. You’ve got the soft touch.”

And he wasn’t wrong.

Still, there had to be a rhyme or reason to these things. She went back through her schedule for the past year, looking for the personal notes she sometimes made. Bruce was the easiest and she had a personal bias, so she planned his first.

“What’s this?” He asked with the faint nervous grin he reserved for anything unexpected. She put the box in his hands.

“A gift.” She reached up to sweep a curl away from his face.

“What for?” He picked at the tape on the edges of the wrapping paper.

“Two years ago today, you said yes to us. I thought that deserved an acknowledgement.”

“Oh, I didn’t- I thought you and Tony didn’t do anniversaries.”

“We don’t not do them.” She shrugged. “We don’t really have any specific dates to work with.”

“We should have one.” Bruce finally peeled back the paper. “I like them.”

“You could have said.”

“Could I?”

“Well, you could have told me. Tony might get weird about it.”

“Hm.” He stared at the plain white box under the paper. “I used to take Betty out on our anniversary. Always to this little French place that she liked. ”

He never mentioned her if he could help it. Pepper wondered about it sometimes. It was as if all the years with Betty were sealed away, protected from decay in the same mental box as so many of his Before Hulk memories.

“I’m free tonight.” She tapped at her phone, moving things around. “But I’d prefer a home cooked meal.”

“I’ll see what I can do.” His smile finally turned real and solid.

“Open your gift.” She scolded. “I’ve got a meeting in twenty minutes.”

“Yes m’am.” He opened the box with care.

The jacket was made with supple chocolate brown leather, artfully weathered and thickly lined. She had seen it a year ago in a shop window and it had reminded her so sharply of him that she’d bought it immediately. At the time, he had still been silently protesting their attempts to overhaul his wardrobe, so she’d hidden it away. He’d spent the winter wearing a shabby corduroy jacket or borrowing from Tony’s array of coats that never fit him right.

“Wow.” He ran his hands over the sleeve.

“Put it on. If it doesn’t fit, I’ll get another.”

She knew it would fit. His measurements were imprinted on her mind, right next to Tony’s and her own. When he zipped it halfway up, it settled perfectly around him. She slid her hands around his waist, the leather begging to be touched.

“Somehow, I get the feeling that this present is not just for me.” He laughed, returning the hug.

“It’s an anniversary present.” She inhaled, the smell of leather mixing with his woody aftershave and chemical tang. “It’s for everyone.”

“Even Tony?”

“You smell like a new car. He’ll probably rub himself against you until you pry him off with a crowbar.”

“So a regular Tuesday morning then.”

Tony did in fact like the jacket. It even photographed beautifully. Pepper shamelessly printed out the paparazzi snaps of him and Tony walking to get bagels while a few Autumn leaves danced under their feet. They looked so comfortable together, holding hands unselfconsciously and the sun picking out the grey in their hair. She was a pro at ignoring nasty headlines, but she could take a small bit of satisfaction in violating the photo’s copyright by removing the watermark and blowing it up to hang in her office.

After that, she started thinking about Steve. Of all the people that lived with them and didn’t share her bed, Steve was easily her favorite. She had no guilt over it. Bruce had a fierce streak a mile wide for Clint and Natasha while Tony took Bucky’s introduction to the house with the kind of glee he usually reserved for animated objects. She blamed the bionic arm. It made Bucky almost like a robot and no one loved robots like Tony.

Steve was unfailingly kind, polite and mildly baffled when out of his element. He asked sheepishly for help with updating his wardrobe and treated Tony with the kind of gingerness no one else seemed to realize he needed.

She called him on a rainy afternoon. His phone always rang too long. It took her months to realize it had nothing to do with technological incompetence and everything to do with him proving a point. Steve preferred to see people’s faces.

“Hello?” She could hear chatter in the background.

“It’s Pepper. How are you?”

“Just fine, thanks. You?”

“Good. I’ve got a clear afternoon and no one to spend it with. Come gallery hopping with me?”

“I...yeah. Yeah, that’d be great.”

She changed in her office, slipping on more comfortable shoes with Bruce’s approval lingering in the back of her mind. Steve came up promptly and admired her view while she cleared off the last of her docket.

“Oh, you kept it.” He picked up the framed drawing from her desk.

“Of course, I kept it.” She shut down her computer and turned to him with a smile. “Ready?”

“Yes.” He set the frame back down with a pleased pat. “Where did you want to start?”

They gravitated toward Chelsea, winding through likely streets and chatting about composition. She took note of what he paid special attention too and spoke discretely to a few of the owners as they went along. When they finally stopped for dinner, he gave her a quick hug. It was the most physical contact she could remember having with him.

“I needed...” He started then shrugged with a sheepish laugh. “Bucky says I think too much.”

“No such thing.” She ordered a pitcher of sangria. Steve couldn’t get drunk, but he liked the luxury of fresh fruit and the subtle flavors in wine. “Maybe what he means is that you’re thinking about the wrong things. Dwelling.”

“Maybe.” He crunched ice between her teeth. She wondered if he’d always done it or picked it up from Clint, who sometimes watched movies with a bowl of ice cubes instead of popcorn. “Can I ask you something personal?”

“Yes, but I can’t promise to answer.”

“Do you sometimes wish that Tony and Bruce were less...” He searched the air for the word. “Complex?”

“You mean damaged?” She interpreted.

“Well...”

“It’s fine.” She smiled grimly. “They’re not exactly hiding the scars well. I suppose the correct answer is no that I love them just the way they are, but that’d be a lie. We’re battered and bruised and I love them too much to think it’s better that way. If I could take the Hulk away from Bruce, I’d do it in a second.”

“Really?” Steve blinked at her. “I thought you kind of liked the Other Guy.”

“It’s a facet of Bruce, so I love him, but that doesn’t mean I want him around. There’s no good spin to put on something that’s a manifestation of near psychotic rage. I would feel the same way if Tony had anger blackouts.” She shrugged. “As for Tony’s particular strain of madness...it’s exhausting and confusing.”

“But you read him so well.”

“We’ve been together a long time and I still miss things. And I shouldn’t have too. That’s what kills me. I shouldn’t have to be a Tony Whisperer.” The sangria arrived and she poured a glass with a generous helping of oranges. “No one needs to play 20 Questions every time their lover sulks.”

“That sounds...harsh.”

“Steve, just because you love someone doesn’t mean you don’t want to shake them until their teeth rattle out of their skull.” She thought about that a second longer, than added, “actually I think loving someone means you want to do it more frequently.”

“Thank God.” He rubbed his hands over his eyes. “Because I think if I started shaking Bucky right now, I wouldn’t stop.”

“What’s he done?”

“Nothing.” Steve poured himself a glass of mostly fruit and started picking it out with a fork. “Nothing different, anyway. He’s a bundle of nerves, bored, but won’t take suggestions for things to do because he’s afraid of himself. l can’t be angry at him for it and I would never tell him, but this selfish part of me wants him to just be him again. Just for a little while. He was always...he took care of me for so long and I always wanted to prove to him that I could look out for us if it came to that. Now that I’ve got my chance...”

“You’re doing fine.” She reached over and covered his hand with her own. “He’s even doing better. It’s hard to see when you’re so close, but it’s happening little by little.”

“I want him never to have gone through it.” He told their joined hands. She squeezed his fingers. “I would have lived in a hundred times if it meant it wouldn’t happen to him.”

“Ah, true love.” She sighed. “Makes you feel like someone ripped out you heart and let it walk around unprotected.”

“That doesn’t come up in the songs.”

“No, well it wouldn’t would it?” She patted his hand. “You know, I was going to wait until it came to the house and give it to you on some appropriate occasion, but I think you need a pick me up now.”

“What’s that?”

“Hold on.” She thumbed through her phone and found the crisp image that had pinged into her inbox only a half hour before. It wasn’t a famous picture by any means, done by a lesser 18th century portrait artist, but it captured a certain Botticelli sweetness of young man bathing in the river. His hair shone gold and his armor lay on the shore. She handed him the phone “I thought you might like this.”

“It’s lovely.”

“It’s yours.” She smiled as his face registered shock. “It wasn’t really that expensive. It’s not as if he were a big name or the subject well known. It’s meant to be Lancelot.”

“Just before he met the Lady of Shallot?”

“Maybe?” She shrugged. “I don’t know much about the story.”

“Oh, it’s a sad one.”

He told her anyway over chicken and more sangria. He was right, it was sad, but also very beautiful. She knew the painting, but waited while he pulled it up carefully on her phone anyway. When they’d finished, she put her arm through his and they walked quietly together on the bright New York night.

The painting took a place of honor over Steve’s bed. Pepper kept on buying him art when she saw something he’d like and soon it spilled out into the hallway. Natasha stole one black and red splashed canvas, hanging it like a bloody trophy over her door.

Then there were the challenges. Pepper turned to Clint next with a squaring of her chin. Clint lived lightly, keeping the things that mattered on his body. She had thought Bruce was the most ready to run, but Clint brought it to an artform. He also defied any deep knowledge, deflecting with a smile, a joke or the intense gaze that could peel paint.

Pepper did the only sensible thing she could.

She asked Natasha.

“That is a difficult question. Why do you want to give him anything?”

“It’s a challenge. A project.” Pepper tilted her head up to watch the sunset.

“You run a Fortune 500 and date two of the most difficult men in the state if not the country. Try again.”

“I like to show people I care about them.” Pepper shrugged and passed Natasha the bottle of champagne they were splitting.

“You feel left out of the madness?” Natasha drank a heavy slug and in a singularly un-Natasha move, wiped her lips off on her sleeve.

“Sometimes.” The pink and orange light spilled over the roof, warming her feet. “You do amazing things and that’s something I can’t be a part of.”

“Greedy, Virginia.”

“A bit, Natalie.”

“There’s something you can do.”

Pepper had to ask Tony, who had to think about it carefully, before returning to her with a strangled yes and a deep need for TLC.

“This is not the zoo.” Clint said flatly when the car stopped in front of the Maria Stark Clinic for Veterans.

“As if we could go to the zoo without bringing along the rest of the children.”

He trailed reluctantly along after her, casing the place with obvious concern. She led the way through the hallways, stopping only to exchange brief pleasantries with the duty nurse.

“You come here often?” Clint asked with a raised eyebrow.

“Once a month. Twice times if Tony needs company.”

“What are we doing here, Pepper?” Something raw and broken cutting through his usually even voice.

“Not what you might hope. I’m sorry, but I think you’ll be happy anyway. He’s having a good day, he might remember you. Don’t be hurt if he doesn’t though he sometimes can’t recognize Tony.”

She pushed open the door before Clint could ask.

“Ms. Potts!” An ancient man, strength long shriveled to frailty looked up away from the window, a smile causing an avalanche of wrinkles on his face.

“Hello, Mr. Jarvis.” She leaned down and kissed his cheek. “How are you?”

“Quite well, of course. How is Young Master Stark?”

“He’s in Tibet with Dr. Banner. He’s sorry he couldn’t make it today.”

“He is a busy man.”

“There’s someone I brought with me. You met him a long time ago.”

Clint was frozen in the doorway, one hand still on the doorknob.

“Hello, young man.” Jarvis blinked a few times, “I’m afraid my eyesight isn’t what it used to be.”

Clint closed the door decisively behind him and strode across the floor.

“I’ve wanted to say thank you for a long time, sir.”

“Oh now the voice I remember. Mr. Barton.” Jarvis held out a hand and Clint took it immediately, shaking it firmly. “I had wondered what became of you after that night.”

“You cleared my name with Fury. It started my entire career, sir.”

“You saved my life, it was really the least I could do.” Jarvis smiled at him. “Nick and I go back. It was no hardship calling him.”

Pepper pulled out the visitor’s chair and pushed it toward Clint. He sat down with a new expression on his face. She could imagine it on a much younger man, still capable of being wounded or saved.

“I am glad to hear that. Do you live with Young Master Stark? He has started quite a dormitory.”

“I do. I’m an Avenger.”

Pepper backed out the door, the pride in his voice ringing in her ears. Natasha was waiting outside. Pepper didn’t bother asking how she’d got in or why she was there. Instead she leaned up against the counter next to her.

“I never knew they’d met.” Pepper admitted. “He was already unwell when he hired me and he taught me everything he knew in a matter of weeks. I never understood the rush until he handed in his resignation.”

“I read his file. He’s an impressive man.” Natasha smiled faintly. “You don’t have to get me anything. This. This is good for me.”

“I did anyway. Though it was a bit selfish. We’re beta testing the Wii U next week”

“There is no system that I will not take you down in, Virginia.”

“Put your money where your mouth is, Natalie.”

By the time Clint emerged blinking, they were deep into trash talk while the nurses shot Pepper disbelieving looks.

“Pepper.” Clint started, then stopped and pulled her into a hard hug. It reminded her of Tony’s attempts at affection while in the suit. “Thanks.”

“Thank your girlfriend, she suggested it.”

“Girlfriend?” He snorted and glanced at Natasha, who grinned like a shark. “Partner.”

“Mm.” Natasha reached for him and their hands joined together.

It was hard to top that and Pepper wasn’t sure she wanted to try. Instead, she turned her attentions to other things for awhile. Acquiring companies with verve and wooing new talent to her side with excellent wine and juicy contracts. She was in London, celebrating the winning over of the lead researcher into nanotechnology with a cup of tea and her boys on Skype, when Nick Fury slid into a seat across from her.

“Ms. Potts, I have a proposition for you.”

“It’s ok to kick him in the nuts if he’s harassing you, sweetheart.” Tony reminded her, Bruce’s laughter rumbling through the speakers. “No court would convict you.”

“I’ll get back to you in an hour.” She disconnected the call over their protests.

“I’m sorry to interrupt you on your trip.”

“No, you aren’t, but thank you for saying so. And thank you for making it clear you don’t plan on abducting me.” She crossed her legs and leaned back, projecting calm. “What can I do for you, sir?”

“I need you to loosen the Captain’s grip on James Barnes. You all did a good thing with him, but a man has to have a purpose in life. He’s wasted cooped up in that Tower like a lap dog.”

“And you want me to shake him loose into your hands?”

“I want the most dangerous man in your home to have something to do before he does serious damage.”

“If you think James is the most dangerous man I live with, you are most certainly confused, sir.” She couldn’t quite do Natasha’s predator smile, but she had something approaching the same effect. The Tony Stark Shit Eating Grin, Patent Pending. “And you only borrow them from me.”

“Stark and Banner-”

“All of them, sir.”

“Does Ms. Romanov know you refer to her as a boy?”

“Do you believe that she would allow anyone to own her, but herself?”

“Keep him busy, Ms. Potts.” Fury got back to his feet. “Or you’ll regret it.”

The words lingered with her, though she tried to banish them. Nick Fury was a good man and a great leader. He knew soldiers and Pepper, try though she might, didn’t really. She mulled the entire flight home.

“You’re scheming.” Tony accused, head resting on her thigh after a rough and tumble reunion. Bruce had puttered out, robe loosely closed and the manic gleam in his eye that suggested a breakthrough. She made a mental note to rescue him from himself in eight hours or so.

“I am.” She ran her hand through Tony’s hair. “Problem?”

“It’s incredibly sexy.”

“If you were a ruthless killer with a heart of gold, what kind of job would you like?”

“Is this leading to roleplaying?”

“Only if you answer the question.”

“Well can we drop the clever hypothesis and talk about your domestication of the Buckster?” Tony rolled over to look up at her. “Because he’s down in the lab with us so much, Bruce taught him how to make coffee.”

“You can’t have the Winter Soldier as you’re new P.A.”

“Just imagine the resume. Would it be written in bullet holes, you think?”

“You have an idea, don’t you?”

“You’ll love it.”

He told her and she did.

“James,” she said crisply the next morning. He looked up from his checkers game with Steve with a flinch. “You’re coming with me today.”

“Uh...” He glanced at Steve, who gave a clear ‘No idea’ look back. “Why?”

“Your choices are come with me or sit around here all day.”

He came with her. Trailed her like a perfect shadow from her early morning latte to late dinner meeting. Whenever she approached a door, he opened it and cased the area the same way Natasha did. Subtle and silent. When he was noticed it was with frank visual appreciation and a wink to her that she ignored.

“You’re hired.” She told him when they got back in the car to home.

“Excuse me?”

“My security detail has been SHIELD provided for years. I’d prefer to privatize, but it's difficult to find people willing to go against supervillains.” She handed him the contract. “You need some breathing room, I need someone who can take being bored without falling asleep and willing to shoot Ultron until he stops moving. And who isn’t contractually obligated to say yes to Fury.”

“I can do that.” He frowned down at the contract, dark hair spilling into his face. “But there’s things you should know first.”

“I’ve talked with your therapist. Who told me nothing, so don’t panic. I only asked if they thought you were ready for regular work. They agreed that you were as long as you take the medication prescribed and continue your sessions.” She handed him a pen. “You can quit if you don’t like it, but I require four weeks’ notice.”

“Is this pity?” He asked flatly.

“James. Have you met me?” She shook her head. “Pity isn’t in my emotional palette. I like when things were in order. In my home and in my office.”

“And I’m out of order.”

“I prefer temporarily decommissioned.”

“You’re a lot better looking than a lot of my previous bosses.” He finally looked up and she caught the edge of smile that might once have devastated women everywhere. “And you have a nicer way of jerking on my leash.”

“I don’t own you.” She said carefully. “Read the contract. Get back to me.”

The next morning, he was waiting by the front door, talking in hushed whispers with her latest PA, a minute slip of man with slicing wit and the ninja like filing skills named Rodney. The contract was clutched in Rodney’s hand and a look of fascinated admiration in his eyes.

“Ms. Potts.” Rodney handed her a coffee. “As always, may I compliment you on your fantastic taste.”

“He’s a guard, not eye candy.” She tsked. “Off we go now.”

James saved her life three times by the New Year and Steve bought her a bouquet of tiger lilies so thick and sweet that they had to be kept in lobby or overwhelm her with pollen. So really, it was a toss up who that gift had been had actually been for in the end.

That left one name on her list for the year. She’d known it was coming and knew from the start what she’d wanted to do. Maybe both she and Natasha had been wrong about her motives. Maybe this was what she’d been wanting to do all along.

“Yeah,” Bruce had kissed her when she told him, “I think it needs to be done.”

She waited for a quiet night. They were all in bed, lights off and shades pulled. The only light pulsed from Tony’s chest, spilling blue over their skin.

“I’ve got a gift for you.” She whispered in Tony’s ear.

“I don’t think I can go again without chemical assistance. Bruce, I’m tapping you in.”

“Can’t talk.” Bruce said into the pillow. “Dead of sexual gratification. Don’t let them put it on my death certificate.”

“It’s not sex.” She reached over the both of them to fumble in Bruce’s bedside drawer. It was a foolproof hiding place. Bruce only left things there that he was willing to let Tony rifle through, ensuring a loss of interest months ago. The box weighed heavily in her hand.

“That is not sex.” Tony agreed, sitting up a little. Bruce rolled up on his elbow.

“No. It’s not.” She got up enough to get her knees under her and wondered if she should have put on a robe first. Nudity created a sense of vulnerable discomfort. It occurred to her for the first time that he might say no. “I have a question for you. And I need a real answer. Got it?”

Tony nodded mutely, eyeing the small box in her hand.

“Will you marry me, Tony?” The ring was a clear concession to his taste, a thick yellow gold band and a red emerald. He stared at her then at her and then with something like fear at Bruce.

“Well, and me too, but maybe something a little less public for that.” Bruce shrugged. “You guys deserve your day without bigamy charges.”

“I’ve got some ideas about the contract you mentioned.” Pepper added. “We can do something that’ll work, I think.”

“You don’t want to get married.” Tony said slowly. “You gave me a speech. There were bullet points and articles.”

“Listen very closely to me because you may never hear this again,” she took in a deep breath, “I was wrong. I love you. I’ve loved you since you fell asleep on me for the first time. I loved you when you were a bastard and I love you now when you’re the good man that I knew was underneath that. I loved you when you brought Bruce into our bed because you knew that we would get along. I could love you and never marry you, that’s true. It won’t change how we live or who we are. It won’t change popular opinion or anyone’s mind. But I want to mark you as mine and tell the world that I’ve got you, so yes. I want a wedding, I want a ring in return and I want the party to be so big that they see that lights on the International Space Station.”

She waited for Tony to make a joke, but he only took the ring from the box and slid it onto his left index finger. He eyed it for a second.

“I never wanted to get married,” he watched the red gem glitter in the light, “until I imagined a life without you in it. You change me in the strangest ways, Pep.”

“So that’s a yes?” Bruce prompted.

“Duh.” Tony poked him. “Don’t get snarky cause you didn’t get something shiny.”

“Actually, I got him a matching one. It’s in the drawer on a long chain. It’ll survive the transformation better that way.”

“Really?” Bruce dug around in the night stand and came out with the promised second box. It did contain a matching ring with the sapphire swapped out for a more traditional diamond. “Thanks, Pepper.”

“We’ve been tagged and bagged.” Tony put his arm around Bruce and drew him in. “Property of Pepper Potts.”

“Potts-Stark.” She corrected.

“Only if I get to change my name too. And the company.” He grinned. “Potts-Stark Industry. It’s got a ring to it.”

“It does, doesn’t it?” She laughed and kissed him, the familiar scratch of his beard against her cheek.

“Who should we announce it too?” Tony turned to Bruce, eyes wide in mock sincerity. “Do you think we could get Barbara Walters?”

“No,” Bruce drew the chain of his neck, fussing with the fall of the ring against his chest. “that weedy looking photographer that keeps backing off when the others get vicious. I like him.”

“He’s not even a proper reporter.”

“That’s why he’s perfect.” Pepper declared. “He’s usually with that group that follows us to Sunday Brunch. We can isolate him from the pack then.”

“The huntress has smelled the blood of the weak and zeros in for the kill.” Tony mocked.

It turned out the weedy looking photographer’s name was Peter. He took their photo and he accepted the prepared article with his name on the byline with admirable aplomb and minimal changes. That wasn’t the last they saw of him, but that was another story for another time.