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.
“Tony, this really is for the best.”
He'd heard that before. This time he just nodded numbly, wishing that he had a drink on hand. Pepper would choose to do this in the one of the few rooms in the entire tower without alcohol.
“Whatever you say,” he mumbled at that, looking down.
Pepper sighed slightly, glancing out the window, “Look, Tony... You're not losing me.”
“If you still want to be with me, why don't you want to be with me?” he asked stubbornly, crossing his arms, “I'm a big boy, Pep, you can tell me the truth.”
“Alright, then,” she said, standing up a bit straighter. She bit her lip for a moment, worried about just how much of the truth Tony actually could handle. Although there wasn't a way to break up with someone without hurting them, the idea of hurting Tony more than she needed to was just horrible. “The truth is... that I'm so tired of being the person you need, Tony, I'm tired of being the dutiful girlfriend watching on the sidelines and never knowing if today will be the day you won't come back. I kept hoping things would change...”
“Hey, I have been a lot better lately!” he insisted. There was none of Tony's usual cockiness behind the statement, it really seemed like he was grasping at straws, and she swallowed thickly to see Tony look so vulnerable and desperate. Part of her wanted to take it back, hold him close and tell him it would be okay. Then she remembered why he had been so much better lately and just smiled sadly at him.
“I know...” she looked down at her hands as if she could find some courage there. Not that she would tell this to Tony, but she'd chosen to have this conversation away from the alcohol because she was worried that she would drink too much and do something she regretted. Although she was starting to regret the decision not to have a bit of liquid courage on hand now...
Tony started shifting his weight from one leg to the other, giving her pointed looks ranging from impatient to pleading. Pepper nodded then, and looked at his face. “I don't think you need me anymore Tony, not like you used to. And... I don't want to become the person you need like that again. I can't handle it anymore.”
She watched him nervously. His expression froze for a moment and fell slowly. He opened his mouth to say something, then turned around and stalked out of the room. Pepper collapsed down into a nearby chair, face in her hands. She was fairly certain that Tony wouldn't be back any time soon, leaving her alone and free to cry.
Bruce tried not to notice that Tony didn't come to the lab that night. Well, not to the one Tony had given him, which was the one they'd been working in together most days since Tony finally convinced him to accept the space as his. It wasn't like Tony had made any promises, he told himself, he wasn't right to just expect him to come.
He took his glasses off and massaged his face. Somehow something felt wrong. Finally he pushed the chair away from the microscope he'd been looking at and looked at the ceiling. “JARVIS? How... is Tony alright?”
There was a pause and Bruce frowned. Either something was very wrong, wrong enough to put JARVIS offline, or the AI was pausing before speaking. It was eery how much talking to JARVIS was like speaking to a real person. Not that he would ever say it out loud, he wouldn't want to hurt JARVIS's feelings.
“He's been better,” was the response.
Bruce straightened up at that, “Where is he?”
“In his private lab, sir. If you aren't busy, I was considering asking you to check in on him,” JARVIS answered quietly.
“I don't have access too...”
JARVIS made a noise that sounded distinctly smug, “Sir, that is not a problem.”
When the elevator doors opened, Bruce felt as though he'd been physically smacked by a blast of rock music. The floor seemed to shake with the bass, and that was through the thick glass walls separating the hallway from the room. Bruce swallowed heavily, trying not to think about what it would sound like inside the lab. He pried himself out of the elevator and made his way over, ignoring the headache that was forming. Stepping into the lab, Bruce decided that if the lights were turned down just a bit then the illusion of the lab being a bar would be complete. The everpresent smell of motor oil was now mixed with the strong smell of alcohol.
He wasn't quite sure whether to hope that most of that smell was from it being spilled and that Tony hadn't actually drunk that much, or worry about Tony being around broken glass right now.
Tony was fiddling with something, messing with advanced machinery, any of it could kill a person if misused. And he was wobbling slightly, empty bottles surrounding him. A glance at one of the labels told Bruce that each one probably cost more than most people made in a month.
After Bruce had taken a few steps into the room, the music dropped in volume to a soft hum. Tony looked up at that, threw a wrench at a speaker- or, rather, Bruce assumed it had been aimed at the speaker. It bounced harmlessly off the wall 10 feet away. Tony just grumbled at that before returning to what he was doing.
“You have a visitor, Master Stark,” JARVIS said, sounding exhasperated.
“Tell 'em I'm out,” Tony grunted back, not even looking up.
“Believe me, he is perfectly capable of seeing that himself.”
Tony turned around at that, noticing Bruce. His face looked bad, glazed over from alcohol. He'd seen the news reports, knew this used to happen, but it hadn't in a while. Tony hadn't stopped working on whatever it was, though, and his hand slipped. He hissed, drawing his attention back, spouting obsenities. Bruce ran over, deciding not to care about what he broke for once. Tony was trying to stand up, although wobbling a bit much to manage it, by the time Bruce got over to see the cut. He winced at the sight- it would need stitches. He glanced around, trying to figure out just what Tony was working with. He could probably ask JARVIS.
Bruce looped an arm around him, helping steady him, “Come on... let's get you cleaned up.”
“'m... fine, clean enough,” he muttered, “Don't need yer help...” Bruce paused when he heard that, deep breaths. “Don't need any'un...”
Bruce smiled slightly at that, taking a moment to ask JARVIS where they had medical supplies for sutures. The answer came with an advisement for what sort of sutures to use, and fortunately they were on the same floor. Not that this was a massive surprise. He dragged Tony to a door, finding a set-up not unlike a hospital room, the most high tech hospital room anyone had ever seen. For a moment he thought of all of the good he could have done if he'd had half of this equipment over the years he was on the run. But that wasn't really important now, so he sat Tony down, poured him a glass of water and gave him strict instructions to drink it all, and JARVIS informed him where the supplies he needed were.
Once he got started, he was glad to see that the wound itself wasn't that dirty. The skin around it was smeared with grease and oil, but it didn't look like it was causing him any problems. He took a look up at Tony and shook his head, muttering to himself, “How did you get yourself into this state?”
“Pepper,” Tony replied. Bruce frowned to hear an answer, and realized that he had gotten into a bad habit of talking to himself after years of patients who didn't really understand English. Still, at least he got an answer.
“What did she do?” he asked, then warned him that the numbing shot would hurt. Tony laughed at the thought, until he felt the needle and cursed again.
“What did she do?” he repeated the question, it would take a few moments for the shot to actually start numbing the area before he could start with the stitches, and he was hoping that keeping Tony talking would help make that go easier.
“She left,” Tony muttered, “Said... said I needed her too much an'-- what, yeah, I can still feel that-- so she left and-- Ow! Warn me next time okay? --and I'm gonna prove that I don't need her.”
Bruce nodded, testing the sensitivity after the second shot, Tony insisted it was fine. He started doing the stitches properly then, while Tony started rambling on about how he was building something to do her job and end world hunger and make the best cup of coffee anyone had ever tasted. After that was finished, Bruce got an ice pack before helping him to his own bed, insisting he stay in it.
Pepper woke up the next morning with a headache and backache from drinking herself to sleep on the couch. She was glad that she'd arranged it to have the next day free, because she didn't feel like explaining why her eyes were puffy from a night spent crying. She had managed to keep the drinking to a minimum, though, so at least there wasn't much of a hangover to contend with.
She made herself breakfast, had a cup of coffee, then started checking the papers for a new apartment. Not that she was sold on moving, Stark Tower had been her home for a number of years and she couldn't deny that the amenities were quite impressive. She also wasn't foolish enough to think that she'd stop being in harm's way just because she and Tony had separated and the idea of being away JARVIS's watchful gaze made her nervous, but seeing the options made her feel a bit better somehow.
“Miss Potts?” JARVIS asked gently, “You have a visitor.”
Pepper frowned at that, “Who is it?”
She bit her lip slightly as she tried to decide what to do. She was still wearing her clothes from yesterday, but supposed he wouldn't know that. She smoothed her hair down quickly and just nodded, “Alright, let him in then, thank you.”
The elevator door opened a few moments later, and he walked in, looking incredibly nervous. “I, uh, don't mean to intrude... I've been trying to get ahold of you at your office, but your secretary said you've been out for the last few days...” he rubbed the back of his neck and smiled uncertainly, “I wanted to make sure you were alright.”
Pepper smiled at him, “Oh... thank you.” She rubbed a hand over her face, trying not to think about how much of a mess she was. “I admit, I've been better...”
Steve frowned to hear that, “Is there anything I can do to help?”
“No, I'll be fine,” she sighed, and looked at the ceiling, “Tony and I... well, we broke up.”
“I'm so sorry,” he said quietly, looking down.
“Thanks,” she said, her voice sounding a bit thick. She took a sip of coffee then stood up. “Do you want me to get you anything? Coffee... tea?”
“Coffee would be fine, thank you,” he said, looking back up at her. There was worry apparent on his face and she wasn't sure she wanted it there. She shuffled over to the coffee maker and got out a mug for him.
“How do you take it?”
“Cream and sugar, please,” he replied, starting to walk a bit farther in. He walked over to where she'd been sitting at the island counters and she soon handed him the mug with a smile. He smiled back at her and thanked her. They sat in silence for a few moments before he looked down at his mug. “What happened?”
“Oh... well, some things happened while I was in Japan and...” she looked down, “I actually have been looking for a good time to do it for a while now... I just, things kept coming up. He was dying, or someone was trying to kill him, or SHIELD was breathing down his neck...” Pepper turned to face him, and smiled, “There were good times, too, of course, and I do love him, very dearly, I wasn't completely unhappy or anything like that.”
Steve nodded and placed a hand over hers, smiling back at her, “He was lucky to have you for as long as he did. I hope you can find what you want now.”
Pepper blushed slightly, gently taking her hand back and busying herself with drinking the last dregs of her coffee. Steve looked down, “I hope I didn't make you uncomfortable... I'm sorry if I did, I didn't mean to.”
“Oh, you didn't,” Pepper said with a slight laugh, playfully hitting his arm. He smiled back at her then. “It's just all a bit raw... I'm sorry, I shouldn't have reacted like that.” Steve just nodded, his smile creeping back on his face. She leaned back in her chair, “So, you said you were trying to get in touch with me- what's up?”
Steve's face turned bright red and he fidgeted slightly, “It really isn't anything important.” Pepper raised an eyebrow. “Well, you see, the thing is... I kind of have a date, and you're the only woman I really know, besides Natasha, and I haven't really dated since the '40s...” Not that he'd had many dates back then, but he didn't feel like saying that. “But since you just broke up with Tony...”
Pepper chuckled slightly, “You want my help with your date? That actually sounds like fun.”
Steve looked up at her in surprise, the blush slightly fading. Slightly. He smiled a bit at her, “You really don't mind? I don't want to bring up anything bad...”
“Don't worry about that,” she said, waving her hand, “I meant what I said, this sounds like fun.” She leaned towards him, “So, tell me about her.”
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
She was a SHIELD agent, one that Steve had been getting to know almost since he'd woken up. He'd liked her for some time but only recently got up the guts to ask her out. Pepper asked him when he did, and blushing slightly, he admitted it had been only a few days after he finally saw Peggy again, after he finally found out that she'd lived a good life and had gotten her blessing to do the same.
Pepper and Steve spent a few hours together, getting ready. Pepper made sure that his old-fashioned manners didn't delve into the territory of old-fashioned sexism, something that was unlikely to impress many 21st Century women, and was impressed that there were only a few things she had to tell him wasn't acceptable anymore. When she'd first met Tony, the list of things he did that insulted her and most of the women on his staff was longer than her leg.
It didn't take long for both of them to realize that Steve would have no idea what to do in an upscale restaurant, and decided that a more casual idea would be better, and Pepper helped tell him what sort of outfit would be best and, after asking about the woman's interests, made a few suggestions for good dates. Steve left with promises to tell her how it went, and Pepper grinned until she saw the clock and realized it was much later than she'd expected it to be. She smiled slightly to herself, realizing that she actually felt a good deal better after that.
She made herself another cup of coffee and curled up on the couch, reading over the emails she had missed.
After stitching Tony up, Bruce had asked JARVIS to let him know if Tony needed him again, and otherwise planned to avoid him completely. He couldn't help but feel like it was his fault that Pepper had ended things. If he was right then, well, that was a fine way for him to repay their hospitality- destroying their relationship. He'd seen the way they looked at each other and refused to believe that they weren't truly in love. At least, until he showed up to ruin it.
Avoiding Tony was a lot easier than he had expected it to be, a thought that made him nervous on more levels than he'd care to think about. He tried to soothe his nerves by insisting that if Tony wanted nothing to do with him, then it was for the best for everyone involved. Somehow he still couldn't bring himself to leave, to disappear to some third world country without a word like he'd gotten to be so good at over the years. He tried not to think about that too much.
The time she had taken off took her toll, and Pepper found herself swamped as she caught up. It was a relief, somehow nothing needed Tony's signature or even for him to look over, she was able to fully give herself more space than she'd dreamed possible while making herself busy and useful instead of sitting at home feeling sorry for herself.
In retrospect, she was actually incredibly grateful to Steve for saving her from moping by seeing how she was. Helping him prepare for his first date in decades, quite literally, had made her feel a lot better than she'd expected. Between Tony and her job, she really hadn't had much time for socializing and now realized that she'd missed it greatly.
She smiled slightly, hoping that the date had gone well. She wondered briefly if Steve had tried to tell her how it had gone, but she'd been busy enough that it was impossible for her to schedule time for anything that wasn't vitally important to the company. Pepper made a mental note to get in touch with Steve to see how things went, maybe invite him out for coffee rather than meeting in her office.
While letting her mind wander to what Steve would be like on a date, she made her way down to the kitchen to make herself something quick to eat. Whenever things get that busy, Pepper ends up falling into the same bad habit Tony does and ends up skipping meals. Her stomach had started grumbling, reminding her that it had been about 12 hours since she'd last eaten.
As she walked into the kitchen, she noticed that it smelled like home-made cooking, which normally made her smile but now made her hesitate. It had started happening after Dr. Banner had moved in, and she didn't want to find out that he and Tony were there. She wasn't really sure how things would be with Tony now, and she glanced in nervously and smiled when she saw Dr. Banner there alone, reading over some papers- on actual paper, not a transparent tablet- and eating quietly.
“Smells good,” she said gently, trying not to look too hopeful that there was some more left.
Bruce looked startled, then looked her over uncertainly for a moment, “Um... Thank you, there's more on the stove if you want any.”
Her smile broadened slightly as she walked over to see what it was until she was distracted by the noise of shuffling papers.
“I'll clean up later, don't worry about that,” he told her quietly, standing up hurriedly. His papers were folded under his arm, half-finished plate in hand with a mug balanced on it.
“Oh, you don't have to leave...” she said uncertainly, biting her lip as she watched him.
“I really don't want to be a bother,” he insisted, not meeting her gaze.
“You wouldn't be, I promise,” Pepper replied, smiling as reassuringly as she could manage before grabbing herself a plate and busying herself with food. When she turned around, she noticed that the doctor was still there and smiled slightly. He was shrinking into himself more, though, and she frowned. “Is something wrong?”
Bruce placed his fork down at that and shrugged, running a hand through his hair. He looked up at her after a few moments, “Was... was I the reason that you broke up with Tony?”
Pepper froze slightly at that, then shook her head, “Not exactly.” Bruce nodded, standing up and she grimaced, “No, wait, that isn't what I meant. Please, sit back down.”
“You don't have to say anything to make me feel better, Miss Potts, I'm happy to get out of your way...”
“Please. Sit back down,” she said more slowly, not sure how to feel when he finally did. She sat back to take a deep breath, realizing just how out of her element she was when it came to dealing with Dr. Banner. “I just got really sick of being the one that Tony needed... and with you around, he has someone else he can need.”
“But he does still need you,” he insisted weakly, “He's been a complete mess.”
Pepper looked down at her hands, poking at her food so she had something to do with them. She knew that would happen, but she had to believe that it would be for the best. For both of them. After a few moments she asked quietly, “How bad has it been?”
Bruce fidgeted, “I, er, I had to give him stitches. I think it might have been the first day after the breakup, I haven't seen him since...”
Pepper smiled sadly to hear that Bruce had been able to stitch him up. She remembered the first time Tony had to change out the arc reactor, that she'd had to do it- how terrifying it was to have her hand in Tony's chest, to see him going into cardiac arrest because of something she'd done. She really had never wanted to do it again, but he had told her, quite honestly, that she was all he had. The smile turned into a frown when she realized that he hadn't seen him since, she looked over at him, “Why haven't you seen him?”
Bruce looked down, “Because it's my fault that you broke up with him, and I didn't want to make things worse. I asked JARVIS to tell me if he needed me again, but he hasn't.”
“It really wasn't your fault,” she said somewhat sternly, “Stop telling yourself that.”
“You two were perfect for each other,” he said quietly, seeming to shrink into himself further.
Pepper frowned and stood up, walking over to him and placing a hand softly onto his shoulder. “We weren't, Bruce. We never were. We were just all each other had, we were never perfect.”
Bruce looked up at her uncertainly, “But... things were never bad, were they?”
“Of course they were!” she said, chuckling slightly. The laugh faded quickly, though, replaced with a sad look, “They were good, too, but this was never what I wanted for my life, and I don't think it was what Tony truly wanted, either. Even if things aren't awful, if they aren't good enough then there's no point in settling, is there?”
“Yeah...” he said quietly, looking down, “I just can't help but notice that they were worth 'settling' for before I showed up.”
“Things got a lot better when you came along,” Pepper said, moving her hand so that she had an arm wrapped around his shoulder, “You didn't ruin things- you made it so that Tony was doing well enough that I didn't think he needed me anymore. You gave me the ability to end it.” She moved so she could see his face, and he glanced over at her nervously, “Thank you.”
“What happens to him when I have to leave?” he asked quietly.
Pepper frowned at that. Looking at him now, it was easy to forget that he'd spent so many years on the run, but it had only been a few months since then. She smiled at him again, “You won't need to. Tony won't let that happen- and neither will I.” She wanted to say that none of the Avengers would, and was quite certain that Steve wouldn't, but she didn't know Clint or Natasha well enough to say.
Bruce nodded quietly, looking thoroughly unconvinced. Pepper sighed gently, going back to her meal and smiling slightly at him, “This is very good, by the way, thank you. It's been too long since I had a home cooked meal.”
“I don't feel comfortable ordering from any of the expensive places Tony likes, so I try to cook whenever I can,” he replied softly, offering a smile back to her.
Before Bruce could decide if it was a good idea to actually try to be in Tony's life, or how to, he went down to his lab and found Tony there. He paused slightly in the doorway, knocking on it with a half smile before asking, “Hey, is it alright for me to be here?”
Tony just gave him an incredulous look and rolled his eyes, “I gave you this lab, Bruce, if anyone should be asking permission to be here, it's me.” He returned to what he was doing, “But I never ask permission if I can avoid it.”
Bruce's smiled widened and he walked over, quickly falling back into the rhythm they'd already established.
I went back through the toher chapters/works and fixed some formatting problems I only just realized happened, and also made a few edits to change things that were confusing. Hopefully nothing too big was changed.
“Come on, you can't honestly tell me that the idea of being in the news and NOT because of the other guy doesn't appeal to you,” Tony insisted, smirking at Bruce over the lab table. Bruce simply stared at him for a few moments, waiting for him to start laughing, and then shook his head.
“Yes, I honestly can,” he muttered, shaking his head as he leaned down to look into the microscope.
Tony frowned, “Really? Huh. You know, I could have people lining up for a chance to show up with me in the tabloids and you're turning me down.”
“I'm flattered at the offer, really,” he replied sarcastically, leaning back in his chair.
This was not a conversation he had wanted to have, or ever considered a possibility. Admittedly, the idea that Tony and Pepper would have to plan out how to announce their breakout to the press was a downside of celebrity that Bruce had never really considered. It had been over a week since they'd broken up, and they would have to decide whether to publically break up, publically pretend to still be dating, or let the press have a field day with why they were never seen together at events anymore. Bruce hadn't ever properly been through a break up, he doubted that what happened between himself and Betty were not normal circumstances, but they seemed difficult enough without involving the paparazzi. He probably should have been flattered that Tony trusted him enough to be involved in the ploy, too. But the idea of being revealed as Tony's secret gay lover to justify the break up and paint Pepper as the sympathetic party, well, it was a ludicrous idea.
After a few more attempts on Tony's part to suggest this, Bruce sat back and took a deep breath, “Do you honestly think that would work?”
Tony paused and frowned again before shrugging slightly, “Not really, but the press will say whatever it wants anyways- they've probably been waiting to leap on proof that I've been cheating on her since we got together, why not give them what they want?”
“Because I really doubt that this- specifically my part in it- is the sort of publicity that the gay community needs,” Bruce pointed out, taking off his glasses and massaging the bridge of his nose.
“You mean a straight guy pretending to be in a relationship with a man?” Tony asked.
Bruce sighed, “Well, Tony, if you'd just be pretending you aren't straight then that's not a very nice thing to do but I was really thinking more that no one will be lining up to replace the unicorn with a giant green rage monster. Don't you think they have enough problems without adding me to the list?”
Tony grinned slightly at that for a moment, before replacing it with a more serious expression, “I'd already told you, the other guy isn't just a mindless monster- so, hey, if we got a chance to show people that then all the more reason to try it.”
“You still haven't shown ME that,” Bruce pointed out, crossing his arms. He shook his head again, “Tony- this is the most ridiculous idea I've ever heard, and I am NOT helping you with it.” He paused, “Does Pepper even know about this idea?”
“Well, really, I wanted to see if I could get you behind it before suggesting it to her...” Tony admitted with another shrug, crossing his arms over his chest. “But, you know, if you're going to be my friend then you really need to get used to being in the press.”
“I am used to it, Tony,” he reminded him quietly, “I have a worse reputation than you.”
“And I want to fix that.”
Bruce looked at Tony for a long moment, before shaking his head and going back to work, “Well, then you'll have to come up with a better way of doing that.”
Before Tony could get the chance to come up with any more schemes, or Pepper had a chance to come up with a proper plan, the press had its own ideas. The next day in the lab, JARVIS quietly interrupted them, saying there was something in the news they would want to see. Tony shrugged and asked him to put it on the nearest monitor, not paying attention until the sound switched on.
“Has Captain America Stolen Ironman's Girl?” an overly cheerful woman with a plastered on smile and perfect hair was asking the camera. Tony's head shot up to see a poor quality video of Steve and Pepper together at a cafe. Bruce took off his glasses slowly, trying to decide how to react. Mostly that just meant determining how Tony would react if he started laughing.
They both watched in silence for the several moments of the report. It referenced that Tony and Pepper hadn't been seen together very much, and some suggestions that Pepper had a thing for famous guys, the co-host suggesting that she might be setting her sights on Spider Man next. JARVIS shut the scene off at the end of that segment, leaving the two men in silence.
Tony sat back for a moment, running a hand through his hair. Bruce offered a nervous smile, “That's a bunch of bullshit, you know?”
“What?” he asked, glancing over then shaking his head, “I don't care if it's true or not- hell, after putting up with me, Pep deserves Mr. Perfect- I'm just worried about what this is going to do to her.” He shut off the machine he'd been working on and grabbed the least grimey rag to start cleaning his hands, “Hey- JARVIS? Does Pepper know about this yet?”
“Miss Potts is in a meeting right now, sir.”
“Good,” he said, sitting down, “Do you think she'll be able to avoid finding out until she gets out of work?”
“Would it be better for her to hear it from you?” Bruce asked gently, “She may not be able to avoid hearing about it.”
Tony glanced over at him and shrugged, “We haven't spoken much, since...”
Bruce nodded, going back to work. Tony frowned for a moment and asked JARVIS to tell him when Pepper got out of the meeting.
Today it was Bruce's turn to walk in on Pepper. He went into the kitchen to start making a late dinner, and noticed that she was already there, sitting at the table with a wine glass in one hand and a newspaper in another.
“Um?” he said uncomfortably, not sure whether his presence would be wanted or not. Pepper glanced over at him and smiled, though, so he started walking into the kitchen. “I was going to make dinner... is there anything you'd like?”
“Hmm, maybe something simple... spaghetti? I think we have sauce in the fridge” she asked, placing the paper down with a sigh.
Bruce nodded and smiled slightly, “Any good news today?”
Pepper raised an eyebrow at him, “Do you know already?”
“Yeah... I was in the lab with Tony when the broadcast came on,” he said, getting the water ready to boil.
“I shouldn't be surprised...” she sighed, “We'd only just started talking about how to break it to the press, and now if we admit to separating they'll think it's because I cheated on him.” Pepper shook her head, "I'll sort it out, this is still easier to deal with than the press nightmare he'd become when he thought he was dying..." She frowned, realizing that she didn't know if Bruce had been told about that. They managed to keep that particular detail out of the press, although it was in SHIELD's files. If Bruce decided to look at those, she could hardly blame him.
Bruce just nodded, leaning against the counter, “He brought up a plan to me about that... I don't know if he ever told you.” Pepper looked over at him with a raised eyebrow, so he continued, “He wanted to convince the press that he was cheating on you...”
Pepper stared at him for a few moments then started laughing, “You know, the press has been suspecting that he's been cheating on me since day one, sometimes I thought he really had,” Bruce looked down at that but she waved her hand, “Don't look so upset, there were a few rough spots at first, Tony wasn't used to monogamy- I'm not sure if he ever will be- but I knew what I was getting into.” She glanced down at the wine glass for a moment, finishing off what was left while Bruce put the pasta into the boiling water. “Sometimes I wish he had... It would have been a good reason to end things. I really just couldn't handle Tony being Ironman, couldn't handle never knowing if today would be the day he'd die... and I still feel sick with myself for that.”
“I understand,” Bruce said gently, sitting down at the table a few chairs away from her. She looked at him uncertainly for a moment and he shrugged, “Well, maybe I don't exactly. But part of me was happy to find out that Betty had found someone she could live a stable life with, as much as I love her I couldn't put her through this. It still hurts to know I can't be with her, though.”
“Who's Betty?” Pepper asked gently.
Bruce laughed slightly, “General Ross's daughter.”
Pepper stared at him for a moment, “You aren't serious.”
“Completely,” he replied, leaning back in his chair, “Let's just say her father didn't really approve of me being with his daughter- especially after, well, the accident.”
“So many men talk about wanting to kill their daughter's boyfriend, but only you lived the reality,” Pepper said as Bruce got up to check on the spaghetti, shaking her head. She fell silent after she realized what she had said, watching Bruce closely to determine if an apology would be needed.
“Is there anything you're allergic to?” Bruce called over while looking at the spice rack.
Pepper smiled to herself, “Just to strawberries, but I don't think you can use those in spaghetti sauce.”
“I could try, but I don't think it would turn out well,” he replied with a laugh, mentally filing that away. He pulled out a few spices as well as the spaghetti sauce, draining the pasta and then fixing it up. He spread it over two plates and brought it over to the table.
They ate mostly in silence for a few moments, beyond Pepper's appreciative comments about how much better the spices he'd added made the sauce taste. At some point, Bruce asked to look over the newspaper, just to see what the article said. He frowned when he looked at it and noticed the date, but shoved that thought to the back of his mind.
Pepper somehow managed not to frown when she walked into Steve's apartment. Although she was disappointed that SHIELD had set up a national treasure in such meager accomodations, she was mostly sad to see how sparse everything was. It barely looked lived in, aside from a few of Steve's belongings here and there. It wasn't her place to comment on that, though, not right now at least.
Steve had been a bit surprised to see her, but greeted her warmly and invited her in. She did and shifted slightly where she stood, “Have you seen the news at all?”
“No...” he admitted quietly, looking down, “I keep meaning to, but it's harder to find newspapers nowadays and most of it just reminds me how out of place I am here.”
Pepper smiled at him, “I understand.” She pulled the newspaper out of her purse, still open to the right page, and handed it to him.
His eyes widened as he read it and his brows furrowed. “Do people really think that's true?”
“I'm not really sure anymore, mostly I think they just like the idea- they don't care if the reality matches up or not,” she admitted with a nervous chuckle. She had no idea how much experience Steve had with paparazzi or this sort of celebrity. Things were fairly different in the '40s.
“Tony doesn't think...” he started quietly, trailing off.
Pepper placed a hand on his arm, smiling at him, “He definitely knows that I never cheated on him, and he knows how much the press blows these things out of proportion. He doesn't believe in anything that tabloids say, he was just worried about how it would effect us.”
Steve sighed slightly, handing the paper back to her, “I should probably get in touch with Vicki about this...”
“I'm sure she'll understand,” Pepper assured him, “And you can keep the paper if you want.”
There was a pause as Steve frowned at the offending article. After a few moments he turned the page and nodded, “I will, thank you.” He smiled slightly at her, “Although, after this, I may want to ask you what I can actually believe in these things...”
Pepper chuckled at that, then winked at him, “That you realize that means you're actually ahead of 95% of the people you'll meet nowadays.”
I know this said it was completed, I'd intended for chapter 4 to be a different work but realized it worked better here.