It was far from uncommon for Pepper to have to fly out on business, even after she stopped being CEO. And as much as she liked travelling, leaving Tony behind was always nervewracking. She had to worry about the trouble he would get into, whether or not she'd come back and find out he hadn't eaten or slept in days, whether she'd hear more about him from the news than Tony himself. For someone who loved technology, he had a difficult time remembering to pick up the phone or write an email to get in touch with her when he wasn't plummetting to his death.
She closed out of the email telling her about the next trip she would have to make- a company in Japan was interested in doing business with Stark Industries, which meant she could look forward to the finest sushi and sake money could buy. Leaning back in the chair, the intercom buzzed as her assistant informed her that Captain Rogers was there to see her. She could hear Steve awkwardly insisting that he wasn't really a captain and 'Mr.' was fine when he was out of uniform, and smiled. A minute later and he was poking his head in nervously, as if she hadn't just said he could come in.
“How are things going, Captain?”
“Please, Miss Potts, you don't need to call me that. 'Steve' is fine,” he insisted, walking in properly and closing the door behind him.
Pepper wouldn't tell Steve that she knew that, that she said it just so she could see him blush. Instead she stood up and smiled at him, “Of course, as long as you call me Pepper.”
She gestured for him to sit down in front of her and he did, looking more comfortable there than he had the last few times. They'd properly met in the aftermath of the Chitauri invasion, and managed to hit it off. Since then, Pepper had been using Tony's resources to try and track down Steve's past, as well as just being there to help him get adjusted to the 21 st Century.
“I just wanted to thank you for all of your help,” Steve said, smiling at her, “I was able to find Peggy with your help...” He looked away at that point, his eyes clouding over slightly with memories.
Pepper nodded, a sad smile on her face to hear that. Anyone who heard Steve talk about Peggy knew how important she was to him, and as glad she was to help him find her- she couldn't imagine it was easy.
After letting him have a few moments with his thoughts, she gently cleared her throat. “How was she?”
Steve blinked slightly and then smiled at her, “Well, really well. She led a good life after the war. I got to meet one of her nieces, and we finally got to have that dance I promised her.”
Pepper then stood up and walked over to sit in the other chair across from her desk, realizing just how wrong it felt to have a desk between them for this visit. Steve seemed a bit surprised when she stood up, worrying that he was wasting her time, but that was replaced by gratitude when she sat down next to him.
“I'm sorry we haven't been able to make any progress on finding what had happened to Bucky...” she added gently.
Steve shook his head, “No... I appreciate everything you've done, it... being able to see Peggy, knowing she's okay,” he turned his head so he was looking her straight in the eye, “I don't think you know just how much that helped.”
Pepper blinked at him, not used to that sort of sincerity. Tony certainly didn't know how to show it, and most of the people she dealt with were businessmen with their own agendas. After a moment she smiled gently, “Well, if there's anything else I can do- you know that I will.”
Her computer made a ding! that alerted her to a new email and she sighed as she remembered that she did have things to do. She stood up and Steve followed suit. He offered her a hand uncertainly, the blush back on his face. She just grinned and spread her arms, “I think that we're past that by now, Steve.”
He paused for a moment, before grinning back and taking her offer of a hug. “I'll get out of your way, then, and thank you again,” he said as he started towards the door.
“Of course,” she replied, making her way towards her desk, “Oh- and just so you know, I have to go to Japan in a few days, I'll probably be gone for about a week, so I'm afraid I won't be able to help you then.”
“Thank you for letting me know, and I hope that you enjoy your trip,” Steve nodded.
Pepper laughed gently, “I'm sure I will- although I will a lot more if I knew someone would be keeping an eye on Tony for me.”
“I would offer to, but I think we both know how that would end...” Steve said with a chuckle, shaking his head. “He's lucky to have someone like you, if you don't mind me saying, I've always admired how good you two are together.”
He meant that, too. Although he and Tony didn't get along, Tony was still Howard's son and Steve felt a bit of protectiveness towards him for that. He knew Tony would never accept it, so he didn't try to do anything, but it was still there. Seeing the way he and Pepper were together made him happy for that reason, it helped set his mind at ease to know that Tony had someone like Pepper.
That startled Pepper slightly but she just waved it away with a soft smile as she sat down to her desk, “Thanks... and I look forward to our next conversation, Steve.”
Japan had been fine, just as expected. On the plane ride over, the translator taught Pepper enough about Japanese culture and the proper way to say a few key phrases so that she could do her job. Japan was just as expected. What happened while in Japan was not.
After the first 3 days of leaving messages and getting radio silence back from Tony, she got a call from him. As soon as she saw the caller ID she felt her heart drop to her stomach, it happened to be after she was finished for the day and had been winding down while finishing a bit of paperwork, and she was incredibly grateful that she had the night to herself to deal with the tragedy that must have befallen him. But then there was no tragedy.
She picked up the phone, said 'hello', and he just babbled for a few minutes about missing her and whatever he was working on, only stopping when she shouted over him to ask if he was alright. He reassured her that he was, asked sarcastically if he needed to be in mortal danger to call his girlfriend. She didn't bother pointing out that he did, not wanting a fight now. The call didn't last long after that, and for the first time in months she got to hear Tony tell her 'good night'. Even while at Stark Tower, he was generally too wrapped up in something or other to remember to say it. After that phone call, Pepper just placed the phone down on the table and stared at it, wondering what sort of mess Tony had made in her absence.
The second time it happened, again in the evening when she was free- not during some meeting that she had to excuse herself from- she didn't panic the way she had the first time. The conversation went very much the same, Tony tripping over himself as he tried to figure out how to talk to Pepper over the phone and Pepper too stunned to say much. It happened every day until she got back, and she even got a short email while on the plane hoping she was well.
Pepper returned to the tower feeling completely lost. She was torn between expecting to find that Tony had somehow leveled New York in her absence, or perhaps had just gotten a concussion without telling her. When she got back to the tower, JARVIS greeted her as usual. She smiled, glad to know that nothing too catastrophic could have happened, then took a deep breath.
“How was Tony while I was gone?”
There was a pause and Pepper frowned, before the voice started, “Perhaps, Miss Potts, it would be wise to get settled in somewhat before I answer that... You just had a very long flight.”
“What...” she muttered, walking towards the private elevator, brain running over what that had meant. “he didn't stop eating again, did he?”
There was another pause. “No... He has been doing rather well, in your absence, thanks to the help of Dr. Banner.”
Suddenly Pepper wished that she had taken JARVIS's advise to wait until she had gotten settled in, or at least somewhere that she could sit down. “Bruce... has been getting him to take care of himself...”
“Yes,” JARVIS answered, sounding more uncomfortable than most people would expect an AI to be capable of. “I was not sure how you would handle this information.”
Pepper nodded, thanking JARVIS and asking if the AI could start running a hot bath for her. She smiled slightly to hear that one was already waiting for her.
Pepper rearranged a few meetings and spent as much of the next few days thinking about the situation, wondering when this had happened. With their schedules, she and Tony had never gotten all that much time together. There were plenty of nights that she went to bed alone because Tony was up late working in the lab, and that never really bothered her. Now that she was thinking about it, since the Chitauri he'd been coming to bed earlier, actually keeping dates with her. At first she thought it was just because he'd almost died, but now she wasn't so sure.
Her first day back, she spent a good amount of time with Tony. They'd quickly learned that she needed her first evening back to be spent alone to unwind and relax, something that was difficult to achieve around Tony. But she mostly just watched him, noticing that he had fewer circles under his eyes, noticing that while he talked about his work the same way- now talking about work meant talking about how Dr. Banner was helping him. No, how Bruce was helping him. For all the nicknames he gave him, none of them involved his last name, or his 'codename'. She tried to remember times he'd spoken of other Avengers, but it was a rare thing lately and they were always 'Romanoff' or 'Hawkeye' or, in Steve's case, whatever insulting nickname he could think of. All of Dr. Banner's nicknames seemed to be affectionate.
At some point, Tony realized that Pepper had started staring off into space and started apologizing for going off about work again. She just smiled and asked him to continue. Tony stared at her for a moment, frowning. Usually she laughed and told him not to worry about it before directing the conversation to something she could actually keep up with him on.
The next day she walked into the kitchen to find Dr. Banner there. He was making some tea or another, hunched into himself as always. It was hard to believe that he and Tony were about the same size. Tony took up an entire room, Bruce tried not to take up any space at all. He spilled something at some point, just a bit of water. Tony regularly knocked over entire cartons of milk and left them for someone else to clean up. Bruce just sighed heavily, using his shirt sleeve to dry it up.
Pepper smiled slightly at that, walking into the room properly and clearing her throat gently. Bruce jumped at the sound, turning to look at her and quickly grabbing his cup. “I'm sorry, I was just about to leave...”
“Don't,” she said, and he stopped and looked at her curiously. “I want to talk to you about something.”
Bruce nodded, fidgeting slightly. Pepper couldn't help but be reminded of a child called to the principal's office, and she smiled a bit wider. She walked over to start making herself a cup of coffee.
“You've been having quite an effect on Tony,” she said quietly.
He frowned at that, “I didn't mean to cause any trouble...”
“You haven't,” she said, reaching over and placing her hand gently on his shoulder. “Were you the one who had him call me while I was gone?”
Bruce's brow furrowed as he tried to figure out what was going on, if he was being praised or scolded. “He doesn't usually...? Did... you didn't want him to?”
Pepper chuckled, taking her arm back as she finished preparing her coffee, “I think everyone would like their boyfriend to want to talk to them while they're away...” she took a sip of the coffee and sighed, “I just don't know if Tony ever really did want to.”
“I didn't... I didn't really do anything to make him,” Bruce said a bit too quickly, “I just... he gets wrapped up in his work, I just tried to remind him to, I thought he'd want to...”
“One thing I've learned about Tony,” Pepper said quietly, looking down at her cup, “is that if he really wants to do something, then he'll do it and nothing in the world can stop him. I've just never really been that high a priority for him.”
They sat in silence for a few moments, the only sounds were from Bruce as he fidgeted nervously, trying to come up with a response. Pepper took a sip of coffee again before smiling at him.
“Please don't worry, I really have always known that. Some days I'd fool myself into thinking things would change, some days he'd convince me they would...” she shook her head slightly.
“I'm sorry,” Bruce said weakly, wringing his hands together. “He... he really does love you.”
Pepper smiled up at him, touching his cheek gently. He winced at the touch, and she briefly wondered how long it had been since someone was comfortable enough around him to do that. After the initial shock he seemed to relax into the touch ever so slightly, so she didn't move her hand. “I know that, and I really do love him. I'd never have been able to put up with him if I'd thought otherwise for even a second.”
Bruce looked down and she drew her hand back. She filled her cup again and smiled at him, “Don't look so nervous, you really have been a great help to me.” Neither of them said anything for a moment, so she walked out of the room quietly, needing some time alone with her thoughts.