Natasha’s mini-apartment in the new Avenger’s Headquarters is directly below Pepper Potts’.
“I wasn’t aware you had moved out of your own house,” she says in the elevator, and Pepper smiles cooly at her, not a hair out of place, and sips from a metal thermos. When she speaks her breath smells of expensive coffee.
“It seemed prudent, considering the circumstances.” Natasha mentally evaluates this and thinks that Tony probably threw a temper tantrum until she agreed to move under his protection.
“Hm,” she says neutrally, and the elevator dings on the main floor, revealing Tony and Bruce milling around the breakfast nook.
“Pepper!” Tony says happily, and offers her something in a wicker basket. “Nectarine?”
“I told you to stop accepting gifts from the Secretary of Defense,” Pepper says absently, adjusting the strap on her shoulder.
“But he’s so cute with his giftbaskets,” Tony says, “I’m hoping the next one will be miniature muffins.” The buckle gives way and Pepper gasps, the muscles of her neck fluttering in surprise. Natasha catches the briefcase before it hits the floor, her eyes glued to the freckles dusted across the hollow of Pepper’s throat. “Thank you,” Pepper says, and holds out her hand.
Natasha curls her fingers around the rectangular casing. It feels like a laptop, the battery pack warm under her palms, and she can hear the very gentle whirring of a fan. “I could carry it for you,” she blurts abruptly, “to the car.”
Pepper looks up, one eyebrow arched slightly in surprise. “I’m okay,” she says. “Thanks.” Her nails slip against Natasha’s skin and her heels click on their way out the door. Natasha flexes her fingers, knuckles creaking, into an empty fist and out again.
Tony offers her the basket. “Pluot?”
“Stark and Rogers are discussing operations again,” Clint reports, swinging himself up onto the ledge Natasha is slouched against. His legs dangle at chest height and the heels of his boots knock against her ribcage. She digs a knuckle into the base of his kneecap until he grunts, then drums her fingertips against his shin bone.
“Potts,” she says abruptly, and Clint makes an absent-minded humming noise. She makes an impatient gesture with one hand and he sighs.
“I don’t know,” he says. “She seems... capable.” Natasha sighs to match him and he reaches from behind her to tuck a curl behind her ear. She swats at him without aiming and misses by a mile.
“Hm,” she says.
“You wanna talk about it?”
“No,” she says, and Clint huffs out the lightest laugh.
“Good,” he says. “Want to aggravate Rogers?”
“Yes,” she says, and his boots make puffs of dust rise as his stride matches hers.
Natasha opens her door and checks the hallways. Empty, and she huffs out a quick snort of frustration, closing the door with a click. She counts the beats, one, minute, two. She opens the door and sees no one. Click, count, check, click. On the fourth repetition the elevator indicator is glowing, and the doors ding open.
“Hold please,” she calls, and locks her own door. She catches herself putting an extra swing in her hips halfways down the hallway and trips into the elevator abruptly switching to a nondescript overly militarized march.
“Are you alright?”
Natasha feels a flush rising in her cheeks and forces it away by pure will. “Yes.” She stares resolutely at the gleaming chrome of the double doors and lets her eyes slide to the distorted blur of Pepper’s reflection, her dark pantsuit and the bright orange of her hair. She clears her throat as a declaration of intent, then hesitates. Pepper shifts on her feet, her clothes rustling, and Natasha can hear the rise and fall of her chest. “How are you?” she asks, stilted. She can feel the weight of Pepper’s eyes on her.
“Very well,” Pepper says after a beat. “Thank you. And yourself?”
Natasha rolls a shoulder. “Can’t complain.” She presses a nail into the crease of her thumb and frowns. “Your coffee,” she blurts and Pepper starts. “It smells... good.”
“Would you like some?” Natasha turns and Pepper is offering her the gun-metal grey thermos. Natasha takes it, careful to make sure their fingers slide against each other, and wets her tongue with a cautious sip.
“It’s good,” she says. “Thanks.”
The opening of the elevator doors cut off Pepper’s reply, and Natasha watches her stride off for the door, looking faintly flushed.
“Hey,” Clint says from where he’s lacing his boots at the small couch shoved against a wall. “What’s that about?”
“Nothing,” Natasha says quickly, and eases herself down next to him. “What’s on?”
“News,” Clint grunts, and Natasha idly reads the scroll at the bottom of the screen, the images of city restoration muted. She pushes her shoulder against Clint’s and sighs. He nudges her. “What’s up? What’re you holding?”
Natasha looks down. “It’s hers,” she says, and rubs a thumb along the rim in its entirety, leaving a pale coral streak across her skin, Pepper’s lip colour. She rubs the pad of her index finger against the smudge until it blends into her skin. “I’m fine.”
Natasha is running with Clint when her watch buzzes and vibrates against her wrist, the earpiece dangling in Clint’s ear beeping. “Get transpo,” Clint says, “I’ll call Stark and Rogers, coordinate.”
The alarm is for an idiot who found one of Loki’s blasting rods and ran with it straight to the bank.
“I’m going to get coffee,” Bruce announces without bothering to get out of the car. “Maybe a bookstore.”
“One guy?” Natasha asks, annoyed. Slightly insulting, but things are slow, and she is glad to have someone she’s allowed to injure. “Fine, whatever. Let’s do this fast, Rogers.”
“I can handle this,” Tony offers brightly. “I wanted to test these new miniature missiles anyway.”
“Yeah,” Steve says, “not on your life, Stark. Let me see those blueprints again.” Natasha leans over the rolls of paper, paying absentminded attention and letting Steve take the lead. After a few moments she tunes back in as he straightens.
“Hawkeye, you’re eyes. Get high and get us a count. Hostages, impediments, anything. Tony and I will go in on point, engage. Natasha, you get the hostages out.”
“Fine,” Natasha says, and rests her palm on the comforting weight of her weapon, holstered at her hip.
The bank is the gaudy kind, with fake marbled pillars and an elaborately carved counter made of dark wood varnished to a gleaming shine. Natasha is reduced to a doormat, holding one of the glass swinging doors open with one hand and half-heartedly directing the small stream of hostages with the other. From the upper level she can hear Tony’s muted booms and the hiss of the blasting stick, Steve grunts. In her ear Clint has started commentating the fight out of pure boredom, and Natasha shakes a crying woman off her arm with a last look of distaste and sighs heavily.
“Are you done yet,” she demands, “Barton, let’s go.” A black cable appears abruptly at her left shoulder, and Clint rappels down it with a high pitched whine.
“They got the thing,” he says, waving a hand dismissively. There’s another whine, and Natasha looks up, catching a glimpse of a dark shirt and jeans and ski mask she doesn’t recognize before she gives Clint a two handed shove aside, flinging herself in the other direction.
The chatter of an automatic rifle deafens her, very briefly, and she shakes the high pitched whine out of her ears as bullets scream into the plaster above her head. She looks up and sees the man turn the muzzle of the gun away from her and onto Clint, who’s shoving himself up against the opposite wall, his fingers flexing around his bow. Natasha grunts and scrambles to her feet, slipping on dust and insulation, and knows she’s too slow, knows she’ll be too late. Clint sets his jaw and shoots her a look, reaching back for an arrow as the man pulls the trigger, jerking upwards with the recoil.
Tony lands in front of Clint with a boom that shatters the floor into cracks of expensive tile, taking the hits to the back of the suit, and Natasha has to duck down behind a broken desk as the bullets come pinging back. She scuttles, on her hands on knees, around the edge of the desk and sees the man is down, hit by the ricochet, and Tony is helping Clint climb up from a pile of debris that used to be a wall. His arm is dangling at an unnatural angle.
“Nicely done,” Natasha snarks, and Tony rolls a metal shoulder at her. Clint groans, and Natasha hears the thumpthump of Steve’s boots on the stairs.
“Sorry,” he says, “he gave us the slip.”
“Come here,” Natasha says, and Clint limps over. She slides careful fingers around his collarbone, up to his throat and then around the socket, making his jaw tighten.
“Careful with that,” he says, and she smiles with her teeth showing.
“Take a deep breath,” she says, and shoves his shoulder back in the socket without counting to three.
Pepper knocks on Natasha’s door the same way she does everything, completely orderly and in perfect measured beats. She’s wearing a grey wool dress that makes her look even skinnier than she is, almost unhealthily so, and her heels are black, simple, and four and a half inches high. Natasha stares at the tips of them, spiked into the plush hallway carpet, until Pepper politely clears her throat.
“Yes?” Natasha says, and lounges against the doorframe of her apartment. Her SHIELD issue sweats are rolled to hang comfortably low, and she likes the way Pepper’s eyes flick to the points of her hipbones before refocusing on her face.
“The Sterenko contracts,” Pepper says, “I was wondering where you filed them during your time at Stark Industries.”
Natasha frowns. “I think... under E, for energy.”
“Ah,” Pepper says, “I should have thought of that.”
Natasha flushes, very slightly. “Your filing system is unnecessarily complicated.”
“It’s complicated as necessary,” Pepper corrects. Natasha waves a hand at her ensemble.
“This is what you wear at home?”
“I’m not going home,” Pepper says, “three big contract deadlines are in a week, I just came by for a shower.”
“It’s almost eleven at night,” Natasha says, and Pepper sighs, brushes a hand over the short strawberry blonde ponytail tuffed at the nape of her neck. “I could come with you,” Natasha offers, and Pepper jerks in surprise. “Sterenko and Abstergo, right? I was at Stark Industries during the negotiations, and we have the day off tomorrow.”
Pepper hesitates, and Natasha takes the silence as an opportunity to turn and shove her feet into her boots, grab her keys, her gun. “You really don’t have to,” Pepper starts weakly, and Natasha zips up her jacket over the thin tank she’s wearing, fleecelined and warm on her bare shoulders.
“I don’t need to dress up, right?” she asks, brushing by Pepper and pressing the button for the elevator.
“No,” Pepper says finally, and then. “Would you like to drive?”
Natasha had forgotten just how good at her job Pepper Potts was, reviewing three legal documents at once while sipping coffee with one hand and writing interdepartmental memos with the other. She slips back into Natalie, murmuring affirmatives as Pepper talks out to-do lists, types the memos as she dictates, reports where things have been filed.
“Oh,” Pepper says, a gasp of surprise, and Natalie slides away as Natasha’s palms find the grip of her guns. She springs to her feet and sweeps her gaze over the room. “I’ve been ordering you around,” Pepper continues, still turned to the side facing her laptop, and Natasha eases back into her chair silently. “I forgot you don’t work for me.”
Natasha waits until Pepper locks their gazes. “I offered. It’s fine.” Awkward silence falls, and Pepper starts typing again, flustered. Natasha frowns. “Maybe you could buy me dinner. A late dinner.”
“Very late,” Pepper says, but she smiles and reaches for her mobile. “Thai or Chinese?”
“Indian,” Natasha says, and is pleased when Pepper eats her curry as hot as Natasha does, in little neat bites that leave the tiniest spots of sauce at the corners of her lips.
Clint catches her in an armbar and Natasha pushes off the wall with her heels to flip over it, catching him across the cheek with a glancing kick. He grasps her ankle and throws her bodily off him. She hits the ground in a log roll and swings herself up to her feet, palms stinging. Clint rolls his neck until it cracks.
“I think I had a date with Pepper yesterday,” Natasha says, and dodges a backhand aimed at her temple. She kicks Clint in the calf, hard enough that he drops to one knee, but he catches her leg and punches her twice in the upper thigh at full force. Her entire leg promptly goes numb and she grunts, limping backwards.
Clint wipes sweat from his hairline. “Really?”
“Well,” she says, circling, “Natalie Rushman did.”
“You are Natalie Rushman,” he reminds her.
“Right,” she says, and wraps her legs around his neck, taking an elbow to the ribs and letting her momentum carry them both down to the mat. “Thanks.”
Natasha is running on the treadmill when she sees Pepper again, in slacks and a tailored blouse, slingback heels that make her ankle bones jut gently out in a way that Natasha finds ever so slightly distracting.
“Tony?” she asks, one hand over the headset curved along her jaw, and Natasha pulls the emergency stop cord, sidestepping the machine and landing lightly on her toes. She regulates her breathing.
“I think he went to see Steve,” she says, twisting her torso to point down the hall. When she turns back Pepper is offering her a towel. “Thanks. Is it important?”
“He’s been ducking me,” Pepper says, her eyes narrowed. “It’s getting annoying.”
Natasha falls into step with her, their strides matching down the hallway. “What do you usually do when he annoys you?”
“I text him the difference between his and Steve’s heights,” Pepper says, tapping something into her blackberry. Natasha pulls up a few paces short of Steve’s door, smiling, and waves her hand magnanimously.
“Tony,” Pepper calls, “you can run, you can hide, but I will still control your budget.”
There’s a scuffling behind the door, the sound of barefeet slapping against hardwood, and Tony swings open the door. “And you two ladies are looking simply lovely this morning.”
“Save it,” Pepper says. “Shower, shave, suit. Wear the tie I laid out for you and meet Happy in the car in fifteen minutes.”
Tony makes a face. “Or else?”
“Or else Natasha finds out about Monaco.”
Natasha smiles prettily, “And then Steve finds out about Monaco.”
“You drive a hard bargain, Potts,” Tony says, but dutifully trots towards the elevator.
Natasha watches him go. “I already know about Monaco.”
“I expected nothing less,” Pepper says. “Lunch?”
Pepper takes her to a bistro, expensive enough there are no prices on the menu and high class enough that no one approaches their table or takes pictures with their cellphones, although some patrons do a double-take at the sight of them. Natasha thinks that Clint would have preferred a bar, Tony probably would have taken her to Burger King.
“They’re looking at you,” Pepper says, flicking through the menu with manicured nails. “I’m afraid both yours and Agent Barton’s covers were blown when the cameras captured footage during the... invasion attempt.”
Natasha knew this already, but she nods, murmurs. “I’ve been meaning to ask,” she says, “are you... upset that I was undercover at Stark Industries?”
Pepper orders in perfect upper-class French, and Natasha likes that she doesn’t ask if Natasha needs help. “The same,” she says in English, and smiles plainly when the man sneers at her, shifts her leg so she can feel the pressure of the twenty two in her thigh holster.
“I could be angry,” Pepper says when they’re alone again. “Or I could accept you were in the best position to save Tony’s life. Multiple times.”
“I was going to bring that up,” Natasha says, and Pepper smiles.
“I’ve also made it clear to Director Fury that neither the press nor the legal department at Stark Industries would look kindly upon government sanctioned corporate espionage.”
“Along with a nicely padded settlement,” Natasha says.
“It was donated,” Pepper says loftily, but smirks.
Natasha slightly raises one finger and a waiter materializes at her elbow. “Champagne,” she says, in an exaggerated accent, and Pepper’s shoulders shake with a giggle. Under the table their feet brush.
Pepper throws Steve a very tasteful, very low key birthday party during which she makes no less than three overt threats to Tony regarding the presence of strippers and six calm rejections of his suggested party themes. Natasha lurks at the top of the stairs, sipping from a plastic cup with her shoulder leaned against Clint perched atop the bannister.
“Good music,” Clint notes calmly.
“Yes,” Natasha says. Clint grins at her.
“We on for tomorrow?”
“Yes,” Natasha says, and unhooks her ankle from the slat of the top step, sending her sliding down the long curving rail and landing lightly in front of Bruce, who’s fishing ice cubes out of a bucket and into his glass.
“Show off,” he says mildly.
“Hm,” Natasha says, and pauses, considers him. “I would like to ask you... for your help.”
Bruce’s eyebrows disappear into his hairline. Wordlessly, he extends the pair of small stainless steel tongs towards her, an ice cube dripping wet onto the carpet between them.
“Not that,” Natasha says, and hesitates again. Bruce takes a sip of his drink and waits her out, impossibly patient. “You... were engaged,” Natasha says. “To a woman.”
Tension appears along the underside of Bruce’s jaw, and he settles his weight back onto his heels. Natasha feels the muscles in her legs contract, like a runner at the block, and makes a conscious effort to relax her posture. Her hands feel naked without her combat gloves.
“I wouldn’t say engaged,” Bruce says finally. “Are you--asking me for dating advice?”
“No,” Natasha says, and stalks away.
Natasha breaks into the winecellar with one of SHIELD’s little flashlight gadgets and goes through the aisles, bottle by bottle, flashing the light against where the neck flares into a thick cylinder, over and over, searching for the ones with Pepper’s fingerprints smudged on the thick glass.
“Agent Romanov,” Jarvis says, and Natasha does not jump. “Might I suggest the Chateau Lafleur?”
“You might.” She clicks the light off, leaving her in total darkness, and waits for her eyes to adjust. “And where might you suggest I find it?”
“Third aisle to your left, count six down and eight across.”
Natasha hefts the bottle in one hand and brushes her thumb over the label. “Thanks.”
“My pleasure, Agent Romanov.”
Pepper answers the door in denim shorts, the kind with ragged hems that look as though they might have once been full length jeans, and button down shirt that’s faded soft by age and thin by wear.
“I stole this,” Natasha says bluntly, and spins the base of the bottle on her palm.
Pepper blinks. “I don’t think it counts as stealing if you give it back.”
“Happy Birthday,” Natasha says, and offers her the bottle.
“It’s not my birthday,” Pepper says, but steps back and lets Natasha in.
“I was under the impression you might not want to celebrate your birthday,” Natasha says. She pauses just over the threshold and toes off her boots, the laces loosened earlier, and lets Pepper take the wine from her.
Pepper walks to the kitchen, her barefeet slapping lightly on the tile, puts the bottle on the breakfast island. “Oh?”
“Yes,” Natasha says. “Tony Stark was abducted on your birthday.”
Pepper shuts the cupboard so hard the contents rattle, porcelain and glass against each other. She braces her hands on the sink and Natasha can see the curve of her spine shudder. Natasha frowns, and takes the bottle from the countertop, dragging it so the glass scrapes loudly. Pepper turns just in time to see Natasha yank the cork from the bottle with her teeth.
“I didn’t know that was possible.”
Natasha rolls a shoulder. “I’m Russian. Glasses?”
“Here,” Pepper says. Natasha pushes herself up to sit on the counter, her legs kicking, and to her surprise Pepper joins her, her feet braced on a stool and twin wineglasses dangling from her fingers. Natasha wraps her fingers around Pepper’s on the stems to steady the glass as she pours, sloppy from an awkward angle, little drops splashing up from the rims and dotting their cuffs. “Thank you,” Pepper says, and her nails scratch across the soft skin around the inside of Natasha’s wrists when she pulls away.
Natasha takes a sip. “I’m more of a vodka girl myself.”
“Well,” Pepper says, and when she smiles enough lipstick had come off on the glass that Natasha can see the real colour of her lips underneath, “you are Russian.”
Natasha and Clint have a standing date, every week. They use Clint’s room because it’s up high with big windows and it’s where he feels safest. Natasha is generally used to feeling unsafe, but they’ve got good security and her and Clint can handle just about anything.
“Don’t you have labs full of people salivating to do that for you?” Natasha asks, methodically dismantling the twin pistols she wears on her hips.
Clint makes a small precise movement with an industrial scalpel and adjusts the fins on an arrow before setting it aside. “Some things a man’s gotta do himself,” he says, and Natasha rolls her eyes at him.
“How’s Operation Seasoning?” he asks, and Natasha cracks the rag at him, a welt smelling of gun oil forming on his collarbone when he doesn’t make a single move to defend himself. He smirks, running sure fingers down the shaft of his quiver, and is opening his mouth to respond when their phones come to life at the same instant on the tabletop, skittering across the laminate in short sharp buzzes.
“Got it,” Clint says quickly, and Natasha starts slotting her guns together, hands blurring. Her best time is under fifteen seconds, and she counts in her head, one, two, three, four--”don’t look,” Clint says quickly, and Natasha has the guns holstered and her gloves on in under ten seconds. “Stark Industries,” Clint says, “I’ll get transpo if you find--.”
“Negative,” Natasha says, very calm. “I’ll get transpo, meet me at the dock in three minutes.”
She leaves at a dead run.
Natasha jogs to the base of the building and cranes her neck to look up it. “Top floor hasn’t collapsed,” Clint says.
“Steve’s taken over organizing the evac,” Natasha says. “Stark flew up to work his way down from the top, we’re to go up and clear it floor by floor. He’ll warn us if a collapse becomes imminent.”
Clint holds the door for her. “No word on Potts.”
“I didn’t ask about her,” Natasha says waspishly. “You go left?”
“Just saying,” Clint says, and his fingertips skate over her back, very lightly as he turns, the slightest gesture of comfort.
Natasha makes it to the fused debris on the top floor, proof that Tony had secured the area, and turns back to the stairwell.
“This wing is secure,” she says, and Clint’s voice comes through, a harsh grunt and the squeak of his shoes on the lineleom.
“Stark’s on this side, at the top. It’s sealed off, we can’t get to the conference rooms. I’m going to get Steve.”
“Roger that,” Natasha says, and drives her elbow into glass window of the metal tin box painted a dull dark red. She pulls out the cheap fire axe and hefts it experimentally in her hand. “I’m coming.”
Natasha hears Tony before she sees him, the high pitched whine of the little laser in his arm. He’s crouched near a crumbled mess of debris, one arm extended to control the laser and his other hand gripped about his elbow to steady the cutting, a glowing red-hot curve stretching from the ground up above her head.
“I’m making a door,” he says in that metal tinged voice of the suit, “infrared says there’s at least fifteen people trapped in the corridor behind this.” He cuts through a twisted metal beam and the pile shudders as the wall groans.
“It’s gonna come down,” Natasha says, and Tony grunts in acknowledgement.
“Find something to brace it. We don’t need a lot, I can hold one side.”
Natasha finds an empty office and sweeps the clutter of pens and office supplies onto the floor, tosses the computer monitor to the side. She drags the small filing hutch out from underneath the desk and tilts her head at it. It’s a long desk, with a sloping curve to wrap slightly around the chair in an L-shape. She drives the blade of the axe into the slight groove where the two pieces of wood meet and drives them apart, little wooden pegs shattering. She tosses the axe aside and hooks her fingers under one side of the longer piece.
“I got it,” Clint says, appearing at the other end, “let’s go, Tony’s about to lose it. Steve’s talking him down.”
“Of course he is,” Natasha grunts, hefting her side up and walking Clint backwards towards the doorframe. “The only two people with super strength are having a meeting about feelings in the hallway.”
“Bitch bitch bitch,” Clint says, and she shoves forward with the desk hard enough that he stumbles back, his shoulder jarring painfully into the wall. He pulls a face at her, and they turn the corner to see Steve and Tony, still as a picture, Tony’s arm smoking very slightly at the outside of the wrist and Steve bent low to him, his hand braced on the red-gold swirl of Tony’s shoulder.
“Got it,” Natasha calls, and Tony’s laser snaps back to life, Steve stepping forward to wedge the desk lengthwise between the floor and the top of the hole Tony’s methodically carving into the debris.
“Triangle,” Tony grunts, “desk there, me here, like an arch.”
“Right,” Steve says, and puts his back into it as Tony finishes the last sweeping cut, sliding in to form the other side of the arch as a little black cannister spits from the arm of his suit and rolls on the ground, knocking against the heel of Natasha’s boot. Clint shoves at the crumbling dust and wood and fiberglass and bits of glass loosely sandwiched between the desk and Tony’s body, pushing through.
“It’s clear,” he says, and Natasha follows him into a dark hallway, the lights sparking and flickering, casting long shadows on the walls. “Hello,” Clint calls out. “Hey!”
“Agent Barton,” Pepper says crisply, stepping into the hallway. “It is... very nice to see you.”
“Our pleasure,” Clint says, as Natasha pushes up past his shoulder and casts her little flashlight up and down Pepper’s face. “We found Ms. Potts,” he says into his earpiece.
“You’re injured,” she says crisply. Pepper’s bangs are matted black with blood, it’s dripped down one side of her face like an odd curtained mask.
“There are fifteen people in there,” Pepper says, after blinking the light spots from her eyes. She gestures at a half cracked door behind her and Clint moves to it quickly. Natasha catches Pepper’s jaw in her hand and Pepper sucks in a breath, holds it. Her blood is sticky and slightly warm against Natasha’s fingers. She flashes the light in one eye, then the other. Pepper exhales, her chest shuddering. Her breath huffs warm against Natasha’s wrist.
“You have a concussion,” Natasha says, dodging Pepper’s halfhearted attempts at shooing her away. Behind them, Clint starts to usher people down the hall towards the sounds of Tony and Steve snarking.
“I’m fine,” she says, “is the evacuation of the building complete?”
“Yes,” Clint says, closing the door behind him. “Everyone’s out.”
“Good,” she says as Natasha makes death eyes at Clint and he rolls his eyes at her. She pulls her phone from a pocket and squints at it. “Still no service. I need to speak to news outlets.”
“No,” Natasha says and Pepper stares at her.
“No,” Natasha agrees and reaches out with two fingers to shove Pepper, just below her breastbone, just enough to knock her off balance. Pepper jerks and then gasps, staggering as her fingers go to her temple and she hisses in pain. Natasha catches her around the waist, slinging Pepper’s arm around her shoulders and starting down the corridor.
“That’s not playing fair,” Pepper murmurs, and Natasha realizes abruptly that Pepper’s barefoot, abruptly closer to Natasha’s height than she’s ever been before.
Natasha trips over something on the ground and grimaces. “Is there a gun in your waistband?”
“Oh,” Pepper says, “yes. One of the board members panicked unnecessarily.”
“And he just gave it to you?”
“I was very persuasive,” Pepper says dryly, “I had to rip the seams in my skirt,” she says mournfully.
“Inescapable tragedy,” Natasha says, and thinks about Pepper’s clean nails against a trigger, her soft hands smelling like gunsmoke. It’s distracting, and she doesn’t realize how far they’ve gone until Pepper huffs out a laugh as they pass under Steve propping up the desk, Tony’s outstretched hands.
“Pepper,” Tony says, sounding half-broken, and he steps forward, letting the opening close as he removes the support, and Pepper pulls away from Natasha to wrap her arms around Tony. “Next leave, Potts, Jesus.”
“Someone has to be responsible,” Pepper says. “It’s clearly not going to be you.”
Natasha’s side feels colder without Pepper leaned against it. “We should go,” she says pointedly, and Pepper walks out of the building with Tony’s arm around her waist.
“I have it on good authority he’s hung up on Rogers,” Clint murmurs in her ear as they watch the paramedics flutter around Pepper’s face as she argues with Tony about something or other.
Natasha doesn’t even spare him a glance. “Of course he is, don’t be ridiculous.”
“She’s going to Mercy General,” Clint says, “you want to swing by?”
“No,” Natasha says, and leaves.
She makes it nearly twenty four hours and one shower before she’s pulling out a garment bag, left over from when she was Natalie Rushman, a pantsuit in colours that make her hair seem brighter, her eyes pop. She curls her hair while the paint on her nails dry, coiled spring ringlets that fall hot from the iron onto her face. She takes an even breath and tilts her head to look at herself in the mirror.
Clint sticks his head through her door. “You want a ride?”
Natasha raps on the door to the private hospital room with the tips of her knuckles. Steve turns from Pepper’s bed, startled, and Tony smirks at her from where he’s lounging against the wall, fussing with Pepper’s blackberry. Natasha smoothes the front of her clothing, watching the fluorescent lighting glint off her nails. Steve is smiling at her, a bit knowing, and Natasha glares at him in response.
“Oh please,” Tony says rapturously, “let me stay and watch.” Natasha fights down a nervous fidget out of pure force of will.
“Get out, Tony,” Pepper says, flushing, and Natasha is marginally aware of Tony and Steve talking at each other as they shuffle towards the door, her attention taken up by the scoop neck of Pepper’s hospital gown, the knowledge that her flush extends down her chest. Natasha wonders how far down the flush goes, if the smattering of freckles across her collarbone extends to dust over her ribcage, across her navel.
Tony passes her and Natasha drives a knuckle into his bicep, making him yelp and his fingers release on reflex. The phone drops from his numb fingers and Natasha snatches it out of the air neatly, stepping forward to the bed. She spins the mobile on her palm and offers it to Pepper like her hand is a silver tray.
“Thank you,” Pepper says, smiling softly, and takes it from her with her good hand.
“I didn’t know you’d hurt your arm,” Natasha says.
“My wrist,” Pepper says, distracted. She frowns at the small screen, tapping away with two long fingers.
“Don’t work too hard,” Natasha says. “You’re supposed to be resting.”
“I haven’t rested since the late eighties,” Pepper says, but her attention shifts off of her phone and onto Natasha.
“A tough time for everyone,” Natasha agrees, and Pepper’s smile widens. Her eyes are very blue, Natasha thinks.
“Thanks for coming to get me,” Pepper says, and Natasha slips their hands together. Pepper’s breath catches, and Natasha slides her gaze up the column of Peppers throat until she finds the fluttering thump of her pulse. She slides her thumb up the baby smooth expanse of Pepper’s wrist, over the scratchy medical tape holding the IV in and onto the soft soft skin of her hands. Peppers pulse comes faster, and Natasha smiles.
“Anytime,” she says quietly, and Pepper meets her eyes, matches her smile. Then she frowns.
“Why’re you dressed like that?”
“I--” Natasha drops Pepper’s hand, slightly flustered, “you don’t like it?” She coughs, cursing her moment of weakness, and schools her face.
“You look better dressed like you,” Pepper says, and braids their fingers back together. “How long can you stay?”
“A bit,” Natasha says, and squeezes Pepper’s hand to the beep beep beep of the machines until Pepper’s lashes rest against her cheeks and her breathing goes sleep even.
Natasha waits for the elevator and Pepper’s smiling face is the first thing she sees when the door opens, holding two thermoses.
“It’s Tony’s,” Pepper says, “very expensive, very caffeinated.” She offers Natasha one of the thermoses and Natasha makes a decision they way she knows how, real quick and with one hundred percent follow through.
She presses her hands to the twin points of Pepper’s hips, backing her up against the chrome shined wall and rocking up on her toes to catch Pepper’s mouth against hers. Pepper tastes like coffee and lingering mint, and she’s passive only for a split second before she presses back against Natasha, her mouth opening and her hands settling on Natasha’s ribcage, wrapped around her waist. The coffee falls from her hands, bouncing on the ground and splattering liquid against their legs.
The elevator dings, one floor above the lobby, and Pepper starts, pulls away. She stares at Natasha, her eyes huge, and then smiles. “Hi,” she says.
The doors open and Bruce makes to enter the elvator.
“Get the next one,” Natasha says without looking at him, and presses the ‘close doors’ button. Pepper’s lips twitch.
“That wasn’t very nice.”
“Hey,” Natasha says, and hits the emergency stop. “I--” she says. Her throat works, and she frowns.
“We should have dinner,” Pepper says. She swipes a thumb around the shape of her lips, collecting smudged colour, and Natasha watches the movement of it, slightly mesmerized. “Tonight?”
Natasha pulls her eyes away from Pepper’s lips. “You’ve got coffee on your legs,” she says, and kneels. She pulls the sleeve of her uniform over her hand and wipes at the dark brown spots on Pepper’s bare legs, down around her calves and dotted on her toes. Her fingers circle loosely around Pepper’s ankle and when she looks up Pepper’s eyes are dilated, her breath coming fast.
“Thanks,” Pepper says hoarsely, and Natasha stands, undoes the emergency stop and whistles a little as the elevator dings its arrival at the lobby.
“Tonight,” she agrees.
Tony goes missing three hours before their date. Natasha knows because Bruce pulls her aside to get Pepper’s contact information. Pepper arrives less than half an hour later, her face pinched, and half drags Bruce into an empty office.
Natasha lets Clint pull her away for a training run, thinking there’s not much she can do anyway, and by the time she’s settled and back to her room for a shower it’s lateish. She goes looking for Pepper and finds her in Steve’s room, talking quietly. She comes out with tears threatening and Natasha offers her a tissue.
“Thanks,” she says, fighting for control, and Natasha looks up and down the hallway before taking her hand. “I need to--” she says, and Natasha cuts her off.
“I’ll see you when it settles,” she says, and Pepper smiles at her.
“Thanks,” she says, and Natasha doesn’t see her again for almost a week.
The night before Tony comes back Natasha knocks on Pepper’s door until she answers. She grabs Pepper’s hand before she can say anything, squeezes until something in Pepper’s expression shifts and she squeezes back.
“Come on,” Natasha says, and takes Pepper to her room, her fingers going numb from the grip Pepper’s got on her hand.
Natasha’s quarters are military neat, with a few concessions--well loved books on the walls, art on the walls. Natasha deposits Pepper on her bed and goes into the small kitchen area.
“I don’t have a kettle,” she says, adjusting a mug in the microwave. “I hope you’re not attached to the rolling boil.” She brings Pepper the tea, some fruity stuff she’d nicked from the mess, but it’s hot, and she presses it between Pepper’s palms before kneeling before her, tracing her nails across the tops of Pepper’s feet as she unbuckles those long thin heels and places them neatly aside. She stands. “I also have vodka,” she offers, and Pepper laughs, just a little. She flops onto her back, tea held carefully level, and heaves a sigh.
“I’ve got wrinkles in my wrinkles,” she bemoans, and Natasha takes the tea from her, walking it over to the table and digging out a stack of paper pamphlets from a drawer. She settles next to Pepper’s hip, her legs tucked up under her, and drums her fingers on the tautness of Pepper’s stomach.
“Chinese,” she says, stacking the menus on Pepper’s chest, “Indian, Italian, Sushi--”
“Thai?” Pepper interrupts, her voice hopeful, and Natasha murmurs her assent, dialing quickly on her phone. Pepper dozes, her face twisted into frown lines even in sleep, until the food comes and Natasha leaves to get it. When she comes back Pepper has dug out paper plates and plastic forks.
“You have a dishwasher, you know,” she says, faintly amused, and Natasha shrugs. She finds something trashy and mindnumbing on television, an action movie with more explosions than plot points, and Pepper leans against her on the couch while they eat, until the plates are stacked messily to the side and her head is lolling on Natasha’s shoulder. Natasha eases them back until they’re mostly all the way reclined on the small sofa. She twines the ends of Pepper’s hair around her fingers, over and over.
Pepper starts awake, gasping, and her fingers spasm from where they’re clenched in Natasha’s shirt. “Can’t sleep,” she mutters, and sits up, stretching until her spine cracks.
“I have an idea,” Natasha says.
“I actually know how to do this,” Pepper tells her, holding a nine millimeter pointed at the ground.
“Good,” Natasha says, “I don’t like slow studies.” She presses the button to bring the paper target up and gestures impatiently at Pepper while bringing up her ear protection. Pepper gives her a look that clearly says she is obliging Natasha’s weirdness, her eyes slightly magnified by the goggles, but steps up and brings the gun up with the ease of someone who knows their way around a firearm. She fires until it clicks empty, smooth moments instead of jerking, no flinch at the echo of the shot. When Natasha pulls the target in the cluster is respectable.
“I’m from the midwest,” Pepper says, her voice muffled, and then she’s pulled off her goggles and she’s kissing Natasha, the gun lying on the counter behind her. There’s a clatter as their ear protectors fall off, and Natasha breaks away from Pepper only long enough to yank off her own goggles and toss them aside. Pepper crowds her against the long table set up against the wall of the shooting alley, her hands on the backs of Natasha’s thighs to help her hop up onto the table. “I’m so glad no one else likes to shoot at two in the morning,” she says when Natasha starts to pay attention to the places under her jaw, behind her ear.
“Yeah,” Natasha says, breathless, and then she bites at the soft part of Pepper’s throat and Pepper makes a noise that she really really needs to make happen again, her legs wrapped around Pepper’s waist and their hips grinding.
Tony tracks Natasha down in her quarters two days after he appears in Bruce’s lab, tightlipped about whatever the fuck he was doing for a week while Pepper nearly lost her mind.
“I think she yelled at Fury for you,” she says and Tony shrugs, tossing a rubber ball from hand to hand.
“She meets with Fury all the damn time,” he says, “they bond over frightening people into doing their will. I think they’re very nearly friendly.”
“Hm,” Natasha says, and starts to unlace her boots.When she looks up Tony is not looking at where Pepper’s emergency bag is propped against her closet wall. “Can I help you?”
“Pepper will always be a priority for me,” he says, suddenly serious. He coughs, shaking off the solemn mood, and tosses up the ball again. Natasha takes it out of the air and whips it against Tony’s forehead, catching it again when it bounces back.
“Noted,” she says.
“She likes sushi but she won’t ask for it,” Tony blurts.
“Leave,” Natasha says pointedly, and Tony moans and groans his way out the door about how she’s rejected his blessings. Natasha takes a deep breath after he’s left and likes the way her room smells very faintly of Pepper’s perfume, likes how Pepper’s got a toothbrush in her bathroom. She crosses into the kitchen and opens the cabinet to see the porcelain plates, shiny forks and knives.
She pulls out a Japanese takeout menu and thinks about sushi.