The sounds coming from underneath Pepper’s window are relentless: Metal scraping on metal, clanging and rattling, and utterly incompatible with sleeping off the jetlag from a trip to Hong Kong.
Lord. First, she’d come home to find coffee grounds in the kitchen sink, and now the garbage cans Happy had put out for morning pick-up seem to have come to sudden, unwelcome life.
Relax, Virginia, she tells herself. It’s probably just the old homeless man who picks bottles out of the recycling bin to collect the deposit. (Tony had once offered to just write him a cheque, but Joey prefers to work for his money, thank you.) But hadn’t she issued orders to put the bottles and cans near the top, so the poor guy wouldn’t have to grub quite so deeply for his dimes?
Yes. Yes, she had. So why the racket?
The latest bang is followed by a muttered curse. Not Joey then -- he’s the gentlest of souls, which is why Happy lets him come this close to the house without advocating his immediate annihilation. Maybe a paparazzo, looking for embarrassing tidbits to turn into a story?
Pepper finds herself past the point of pulling the duvet over her head and trying to ignore the din. Maybe she should have moved back to New Haven?
She wavers between two immediate impulses, namely ‘call S.H.I.E.L.D.’, and ‘yell at Tony to do something’. But S.H.I.E.L.D. has turned out to be the intelligence agency equivalent of a Ponzi scheme, and Tony …
Well. He’s not exactly an option right now, is he? Pepper flexes her fingers. You can handle this, Virginia.
There’s another sound coming from the driveway now, the peculiar effect of large, round object rolling a ways before spiraling to a stop, in an increasingly jarring crescendo of metal vs. asphalt.
Someone having fun with a trashcan lid, in the Mansion’s driveway, in the middle of the night – why? To draw her out of the house, stage a little home invasion or kidnap her and ask for ransom? Living with Tony for as long as she has, she’s learned that a little paranoia is entirely appropriate.
And there is one thing Pepper knows with crystalline clarity: No one is going to mess with her home again.
She grits her teeth. Alright, then.
Could it be that some of the Extremis is still in her blood? Dr. Cho had smiled and said ‘no’, but the sudden surge of adrenaline in her veins seems to suggest differently. Or maybe it’s just that the readiness to smash things into a pulp becomes easier, once you’ve actually done it?
Not a thought she wants to examine too closely. Damn.
Time for whichever of the Avengers is currently in lair at the Mansion to earn their keep, and do the superhero equivalent of killing spiders and taking out the garbage. Where is Nathalie Rushman when you need her?
Since the events in Sokovia, a few of the Avengers have started hanging out at the Mansion rather than the Tower, probably because Tony is still chewing on his guilt about creating that killer robot, and hasn’t exactly been a joy to be around.
Pepper tries to remember who is in lair right now. Thor? No. Things are way too quiet. The man’s footfall alone is like the San Andreas has finally let go, even here in New York. Surely, she’d have noticed.
Steve Rogers? No. Those coffee grounds in the kitchen sink instead of in the garbage -- Captain America would never …
Coffee grounds. Right. Hawkeye.
Biding time until the return of his partner -- girlfriend? Pepper still hasn’t figured them out -- from wherever she is currently busily uprooting evil. And, like all of Tony’s avenging buddies, he and Romanoff turn up at the Mansion or the Tower as if they were magnetic ley lines where odd creatures come to roost. Like salmon, coming home to spawn, even though Barton has a perfectly serviceable pad in Brooklyn, as far as she knows.
But, whatever, his presence may yet be fortuitous. Hawkeye is not exactly super-powered -- unless you count an acid tongue, capable of melting concrete -- but a pro at extermination, if his resumé is anything to go by. In other words, he’s perfect for the job.
“Friday, could you please wake up Agent Barton and ask him to meet me in the front hall? Tell him I … I have a bit of a situation.”
Choice of words is important here – conveying the urgency of the request, while not making it sound like she is deploying a code word for “the end is nigh, kill everything”. The Avengers, as far as Pepper can tell, tend to have one defensive mode, and that is full-on war – same as her in the throes of the extremis, really. It simply wouldn’t do to have one of Nick Fury’s killing machines come out with guns blazing, if the problem in the driveway is just one of Manhattan’s homeless trying to eek out a living from household waste.
Pepper casts off the duvet -- goose down, encased in six-hundred thread count Egyptian cotton; doesn’t take much to set it flying -- and puts both feet resolutely on the floor.
While she is comfortable about having summoned help rather than taking matters into her own, possibly lethal, hands, the Distressed Damsel approach doesn’t sit quite right, either.
Good thing Tony left bits of his suits lying around when he left, just in case.
Pepper reaches for the iron ring on the bedside table, carefully weighing it in her hand before slipping it over her ring finger. She gives a little, involuntary yelp when matte red-golden scales start to unravel around her hand, creep over her fingers, and click shut around her wrist.
Her palm now glows blue. Great. Just great. One of those. So much for scalable violence.
Pepper balls a metallic fist, careful not to set off any sudden thermonuclear flares in the curtains, and grimly checks her reflection in the mirror. One of Tony’s old Iron Maiden tees and flannel shorts – not exactly runway material, but it’ll do for Clint Barton and a midnight intruder. She steps into her Jimmy Choos and heads for the door.
“Agent Barton is on his way, Miss Potts,” the gentle AI’s voice confirms from somewhere in the ceiling, just as another crash reverberates through the night.
She arrives in the front hall at the same time as Barton. He’s barefoot and in rather unthreatening I’m-not-being-an-Avenger-right-now gear, consisting of a pair of purple sweatpants and a ratty t-shirt from some rock band she has never heard of: The Tragically Hip.
How oddly appropriate.
But there’s nothing soft and fuzzy about the bow Hawkeye is carrying, the arrow already nocked, or the quiver slung casually around his hips. Even if his hair confirms that he came straight from bed, he is obviously prepared for battle with the forces of evil -- or the forces of good, whatever his hostess may require.
“You called, ma’am?” he drawls, but his ears – with those hi-tech hearing aids Tony had made for him -- and every fibre of his attention are trained on the outside, where the clanging has intensified.
Pepper feels a small flush of gratitude at his presence, enough to rinse away the memory of those coffee grounds in the sink.
“That,” Pepper points towards the outside with her un-armoured hand, her gesture punctuated by the sound of another garbage can being flung to the ground. “Whatever it is. It needs to stop. Please. It’s making me nervous, and I need some sleep. I have an important board meeting tomorrow.”
Barton casts a swift glance at the other hand, the one she’s been trying to keep out of sight. He twitches a small grin, and inclines his head like a Champion.
“Ma’am, it will be my genuine pleasure.”
He operates the door handle with his elbow, the door with his shoulder and steps through the frame in one fluid motion, bow at the ready. Pepper follows him as far as the door, peeking around the corner. She keeps her gloved, almost-alien hand at the ready, fingers slightly coiled, just in case.
Barton comes to a sudden stop and freezes, bow still drawn. Over his shoulder Pepper sees a small, dark shadow heading around the garbage cans.
A small, dark, furry shadow.
“It’s a fucking raccoon,” Barton snorts. “I had no idea they had those in Manhattan. Roaches, rats and racketeers, yes. Raccoons? Nope.”
He lowers his bow, takes another couple of steps forward and barks a command.
“Hey, you! Critter! Shoo! You’re annoying the missus.”
The animal, which seems – somewhat disconcertingly – in the process of picking up another garbage can with its little paws, turns around at the sound of Barton’s voice.
“What?” it barks back. “Can’t you see I’m fuckin’ busy?”
Now, if anyone had suggested to Pepper a few years ago that she would one day be meeting a talking raccoon wearing a tatty tac suit, she would probably have turned away from the conversation and Googled a good therapist.
But that was before some psychopathic Norse god had opened a hole in the sky above Stark Tower and unleashed a torrent of aliens that destroyed much of Manhattan, including her favourite coffee shop. Before her own blood had been turned to lava by a madman, and a killer robot had levitated a piece of Europe…
All this to say, while a talking raccoon may be a new and surprising development, it’s not quite as debilitating as it once might have been. Welcome to Pepper Potts’ new normal. She suppresses a shudder.
To his credit Barton, too, seems to take things in stride.
“Where the fuck did you come from?” he says, the bow back in business mode. “Another one of Van Doom’s idiotic experiments, like those dinosaurs?”
“Hey, watch who you call an idiot,” the raccoon spits back. He lifts the garbage can over its head and gives it a couple of shakes to loosen stuff stuck in the bottom. The contents spread all over the driveway, causing Pepper to utter an impotent Hey!
“I’m not the one carrying a stick with a string on it, pretending it’s a weapon.”
Barton responds by loosening an arrow that hits the garbage can just by the creature’s left paw, the sudden, hard vibration causing it to lose its grip. The can flies over its head and hits one of the others that are already down, with a noise that would be bringing the neighbours to their windows if this weren’t mid-town Manhattan.
“Dumb move, mister,” the critter growls. It reaches behind its back for what looks like a strangely shaped gun, but Barton has another arrow already nocked.
“I wouldn’t,” he says, in a diamond-on-steel voice that sends chills down Pepper’s spine. Apparently, the furry little beast is not impervious to the imminent threat of death, and drops his hands.
“You humans are a real pain in the ass,” he whines, but slowly lowers his arms. (And yes, it must be a ‘he’; that voice does not come from a fluffy plush toy.) The raccoon’s eyes, slightly phosphorescent in the light from the door, are scanning the detritus at his feet for treasure. “Always getting in the way.”
Pepper gives the creature a good look. He looks tired and awfully thin. Mangy even, as if he hasn’t eaten in months. Pepper’s inner philanthropist stirs, suspicions be damned.
Who was it who had said ‘Be the change’? Besides, look where ignoring people and building weapons had gotten the great Tony Stark. No, Pepper is done with doing what he would do. Done with dealing problems by throwing things at them, be it guns, money or technology.
Charity is more than writing cheques.
“Are you hungry?” she says, in her best here-kitty-kitty voice. “You don’t have to eat garbage, you know. I could go and get you an apple if you’d like.”
The raccoon turns to look at her with calculation in his beady eyes.
“Apple?” he says. “Sure, but only if the motherboard is still in. I could use some micro-circuits to fix the transmogrifier in my shuttle. One of those wax tablet things would probably do.”
Barton may be temporarily off immediate-shoot-to-kill-mode, but his tolerance has its limits.
“Bullshit,” he says. “Transmogrifier isn’t a word. The offer is for food, not tech. Which I assume is what you been grubbing around for out here. Now step away from that garbage and keep your hands by your side. One wrong move, and you end up stuffed on a plaque over Stark’s fireplace.”
The raccoon sighs and rolls his eyes. Pepper has the feeling that he is tolerating, rather than complying with, Barton’s conditions. Maybe inviting him in wasn’t such a good idea?
“Fine,” he says. “You win, arrow boy. But I want steak, not rabbit food. And a beer. You got any beer?”
Barton glares at Pepper over his bow.
“Not sure it’s the greatest idea to give booze to random rodents, Ma’am.”
Pepper considers this. Are raccoons rodents? This one looks like a drowned rat with a stripy tail. Smells like one, too. Eau de clochard, at its rarefied finest. She is almost beginning to regret her charitable impulse already.
“I think we can spare a beer,” she says. Once you’ve offered your hospitality, you need to be consequent about it. Besides, maybe a beer will take the edge of the creature.
“You can come in and have something to eat,” she says, through tightly pinched lips. (He really does smell.) “Provided you leave your weapon in the foyer and have a shower first.”
“Shower?” The creature frowns. “What the hell is that?”
Half an hour later, a sweet-smelling, fluffed up raccoon turns up in the kitchen where Pepper has put three steaks on her favourite Le Creuset griddle. Barton’s face when she’d pulled only one out of the freezer had been a study in want, and her own body clock is so messed up she may as well eat too. Three steaks it is.
“Never seen so much water just coming out of a ceiling and falling on the floor,” the creature announces. “What a total waste of H2O.”
Barton sniffs the air.
“In your case, I’d say not. That’s a huge improvement, man. Wilson’s shampoo suits you. Although you might have washed that suit, too, while you were in there. Bet you that thing crawls away on its own when you stick it in a corner.”
He tops a beer and hands it to the raccoon.
“You got a name?”
The raccoon gulps down the content of the bottle, belches, and holds his hand out for another. Barton, impressed, obliges.
“I’m Clint, and our hostess tonight is Virgina Potts. That’ll be Miss Potts to you.”
Barton takes a draught of his own beer, settles on one of the stools around the island, his bow on the table in front of him, and gets to the point.
“So. Did you say shuttle? You from space?"
Pepper walks over to the island with two plates, each containing a steak and some leftover salad from the evening’s dinner. Rocket sweeps the greens aside with undisguised contempt and punches a fork into his steak. He takes the entire slab up to his mouth and starts chewing off the overhang -- before giving up on the fork altogether and grabbing the meat with both paws. Pepper tries her best not to shudder.
“Yeah, sure,” Rocket says around a hunk of half-chewed steak. “Thing’s been hiccupping, and Quill told me this dude Stark he met a while ago might have some parts he don’t need. Thought I’d try the garbage first. Shit, you folks throw out a lot of stuff. Groot’d go nuts for the coffee grounds. Great fertilizer, that stuff. Hard to come by out there.”
Pepper and Barton are reacting at the same time. Barton, who can be surprisingly civilized when least expected, motions Pepper to go first. Or maybe the deference is just because he wants to shovel some of his steak into his mouth; you’d think he, too, hasn’t eaten in weeks.
“So. Are you a friend of that strange man Tony and Natasha met in that bar in Colorado?”
Barton perks up when she says Natasha. He nods knowingly – she must have told him the story of the Double Deuce tavern and its very odd patrons -- but he keeps quiet, waiting and watching.
Rocket takes another enormous bite before answering. Little bits of juice dribble down his furry chin when he finally does; Pepper pushes a napkin stand in his direction, in a gesture she suspects to be futile.
“Bar? Yeah, that sounds like Quill. We’re buddies. Sort of. His Starlordship sent me down here to get parts for one of our shuttles. Says he needed a break from my presence. Can't imagine what he meant by that.”
By now, Pepper can imagine it rather well, actually. But she keeps her counsel, nodding to Barton to take his turn. He does so, in prime S.H.I.E.L.D. mode.
“First, Quill, in the bar where Stark landed. Then that blue dude I ran into at the Tower. Now, you’re here at the Mansion. How many of you lot are there, exactly, and why do you keep popping up around places connected to Stark? And when can we expect that Groot fellow to come barging in? Who or what is he, anyway?”
Rocket sighs, and for a moment he looks … not human, of course, but sad. Yes, that’s it. Sad.
He recovers quickly, though.
“There’s five of us,” he says, pulling himself up to his full three feet and with a little pride tingeing his voice. “Or there’s supposed to be. And we’re the freakin’ Guardians of the Galaxy.”
‘Guardians of the Galaxy?’ Barton mouths at Pepper, who just shrugs. Avengers, Guardians – what’s the difference, really? She’s stopped calling bullshit on people claiming to be in the world saving business a long time ago.
Rocket continues, blissfully unaware that his credentials have just been been under review, and found wanting by at least one party.
“Although we ain’t got no blue dudes. Green, yes. Red paisley, yes. The blue dude is an acquaintance we generally try to forget.”
He grabs another bear, caps and drains it.
“But Groot? He ain’t goin’ nowhere for a while. He’ll be stuck in his pot for at least another turn.”
“His pot?” Pepper is intrigued. “What is he -- a plant?”
“Of course he’s a freakin’ plant,” Rocket huffs, as if she should have known this interesting fact all along. “Except right now he’s just a cutting, ‘coz he almost died saving my life and everybody else’s.”
He must be one of those people (people?) who get emotional with alcohol; he sniffs loudly, and a tear forms at the corner of one of his eyes.
“He needs to grow. With the right kind of fertilizer, he’ll branch out eventually.”
“And start barking, and getting ready to leaf the pot?”
Pepper is mortified by Barton’s insensitivity, but Rocket, who has gotten over his maudlin moment already, points his beer at him and guffaws. (It’s not a pretty sight, what with half a steak and some beer still in his mouth.)
“I like you,” he says. “You’re a right proper a-hole. Funny.”
He gets up and wipes his paws on the yellow parts of his tac suit, leaving a greasy streak.
“Thanks for supper, Miss Potts. But now I need to get what I came for. According to Quill, your Mr. Stark is the most likely source of usable spare parts this side of Knowhere. So, where does he keep all his stuff?”
“What exactly do you need?” Pepper surprises herself with asking. “And what for?”
Barton raises his hand, in a gesture that reminds Pepper of the Ghost Of Christmas Yet To Come.
“Whoa, wait a minute,” he says, addressing himself directly to her. “So this guy tells us his best buddy is a potted plant, and we suddenly trust him enough to hand him stuff he could turn into weapons of mass destruction?”
Of course, he’s not wrong. It’s one thing feeding what she’d thought of as a starving, sad little beast, and quite another handing an alien space traveller the kinds of things Tony keeps lying around in his workshop.
“What makes you think he wants a weapon of mass destruction?” Pepper asks. “He said something about parts for a shuttle.”
Barton looks at her with something close to pity.
“No disrespect to your boyfriend, Ma’am. But everything Stark’s ever built somehow ends up as a weapon of mass destruction.”
He’s not my boyfriend, Pepper wants to say, but the words stick in her throat; if Barton notices, he gives no outward sign. Luckily, there’s a talking raccoon to dispel the awkward moment.
“I don’t need no weapons,” Rocket scoffs. “We got tons of those already . What I need is a plasma converter.”
He starts to enumerate on the nails of a slightly greasy paw.
“And a thermal coil inductor. A minimum of 10 grams of palladium. And your t-shirt, Clown, or whatever your name is.”
“Clint,” Barton says reaching for his bow. “Name’s Clint, fuzz ball.”
He nods in Pepper’s direction.
“Answer Miss Potts’ other question. What are you going to use the stuff for? For all I know, you Guardians of the Galaxy just use your moral compass to find magic mushrooms.”
“I like you, human,” he huffs. “You are funny. Although I bet you couldn’t communicate worth shit with my friend Drax.”
He hesitates for a moment, then makes a decision.
“You people ever hear of infinity stones?”
Pepper knows her face gives the truth away far faster than a simple yes could have.
“I see’s you have. Well, me and Quilt and Groot and Drax and Gamora, we stopped the world ending from one of those suckers, the purple one. Ask the Nova High Whatsit on Xandar. And,” he continues, sounding a little aggrieved, “we didn’t even make a single unit off that. All out of the goodness of our hearts.”
Barton’s hand makes an involuntary movement, as if he wanted to clutch his chest, but stops himself.
“Where’s that infinity stone now?”
“None of your beeswax,” Rocket says, surprisingly sharply. “How’s I supposed to know you won’t go try and steal it ‘n try to use it yourselves? And then Groot would have died for nuthin’.”
Pepper waits for the sense of loss in the creature’s words to echo in her own mind, and makes an executive decision.
“I think we can trust him, Clint,” she says resolutely.
“Not with my t-shirt, you don’t,” Barton slings back, although some of his earlier hard edge is gone. “The Hip aren’t gonna tour again, like, ever.”
But he doesn’t disagree, which Pepper finds oddly comforting. Natasha had told her that her partner was slow to trust, but when he did, his sense was pretty solid.
“As for the other stuff, you could just hand him that glove you were wearing. Believe that’s got repulsor tech, and I remember Banner saying that was plasma based.”
Rocket gets a glint in his eye that’s somewhere on the spectrum between greedy and triumphant.
“What about the Palladium?” he asks.
Barton seems almost to regret the decision to cooperate.
“Give that critter an inch, and he’ll chew off your arm all the way to the pit! Seriously.”
Pepper considers for a moment. But …
Groot would have died for nothin’. The words echo in her mind, and her … heart.
“Wait here,” she says. “Both of you.”
It’s not hard to find. She’s kept the relic on her desk, complete with its new glass housing. A souvenir, she’s been telling herself these last couple of weeks, although of what, she hasn’t been that keen on examining.
But if a hard-drinking, mechanically inclined, smartass raccoon from outer space can show himself to have a heart, surely he’s an appropriate recipient for a piece of Tony Stark’s?
Pepper picks up a paperweight, weighs it in her hand for a second, and gives the glass case a short, sharp rap. Watching the case shatter into a thousand shards provides a certain grim satisfaction; would Tony even notice?
She lifts the small arc reactor out gingerly, and manages to remove the thin, bracelet-sized palladium ring without breaking a nail.
When she gets back to the kitchen, another couple of beers have bitten the dust, and Barton is shirtless. For a moment, Pepper is taken aback by the different constellations that reveal themselves on Barton’s back, one scar at a time – a whole universe of service and pain and eventual healing she has never thought of belonging to him. (Maybe she should have?)
“Give him back his shirt, Rocket,” she commands. “Right now. Or no palladium for you.”
The raccoon glares at her for a moment, but then breaks into a cackling laugh.
“Didn’t really need the thing anyway,” he wheezes. “Just trying to win a bet with Quill. Told him could talk people out of the shirt on their back. Didn’t believe me, he did. You can be my witness. I made it work.”
Rocket holds out his paw, Barton’s shirt in the other hand, and waggles his eyebrows (or what passes as such). Pepper has been in enough deals to understand how this is expected to work. She makes the swap, flinging the shirt towards Barton as soon as she has a hold of it.
Barton just shakes his head.
“Just do me a favour, Ma'am,” he says. “Do not tell Natasha about this, ‘mkay? I’ll never live that one down.”
He turns to Rocket.
“And you, get the hell back to whatever galaxy you came from before we change our minds.”
There really isn’t much left to say after that. Rocket’s beady eyes glint at the treasures in his paws.
“Well, Quill will be happy, even if it means I’m back to piss him off,” he says, and turns to leave.
The door closes behind him. Pepper sighs, and is just starting to load the dishwasher when the clanging starts up again outside.
Barton heads for the door, his t-shirt slung over his shoulder, bow in hand, and peeks out through the glass. For a moment, he just stands there, giving Pepper another view of the map of a less-than-easy life he carries on his back.
“You’re not gonna believe this,” he says, and Pepper can almost hear a smile in his voice. “The furry little shit is cleaning up the driveway.”
“Are you sure?”
She is not convinced, and joins him by the door window. Sure enough, there is Rocket Raccoon, righting the upturned garbage cans one at a time and tossing the contents back in, bit by disgusting bit.
Barton clears his throat.
“Just thinking,” he asks, a little sheepishly. “You got any Tupperware you can spare?”
Repulsor tech. Palladium. Tupperware? One thing here is not like the others...
“So he can take some of that garbage back into outer space with him?”
It’s been a long night, and a long few years, and Pepper is really kind of done for today with odd people, strange demands, loud noises and always just one more thing. All she really wants is sleep, and time to think a few things over.
But then Barton shrugs, and maybe he has a point. One that he seems to think Pepper might want to consider, too, if the intense look in his eyes is any indication.
“Not the garbage,” he says, putting his t-shirt back on. “Coffee grounds. To help stuff grow.”