"May, I'm so, so sorry," Pepper said as she rushed into the apartment, absently sitting her bag down by the door.
"Hi, Mommy," Morgan said from where she was sitting in front of a half-finished Lego spaceship that Pepper vaguely placed as something from Star Wars. Peter was kneeling beside her, and he waved.
It grounded Pepper to work. She had actually been content with their slower life, with composting and learning how to garden, and toddler soccer games on the weekends. She held onto those moments as a relief from the lives she and Tony had led before, and it wasn't until he went off to save the universe for the last time that she realized she'd been holding each and every one of them so dear because she knew it wouldn't last forever. She had not felt guilty for stepping back, for letting the company run itself, for letting herself be selfish.
Now, she felt guilty at the pleasure of going back to it all. It wasn't the kind of bliss that relaxing into a warm bath after a long day brings. It was the pleasure of popping a blister, lancing a boil--the painful relief in getting through something that hurts. Work reminded her of Tony, but it kept her away from home, which only reminded her of the changes they made and what she and Morgan had lost. But Morgan kept her from working so much that she became Tony, which was good,necessary, even.
"Don't apologize." May came out of the kitchen holding a steaming mug, and she practically thrust it--albeit carefully--into Pepper's hands. "It's chamomile and peppermint. I thought you could use it."
"Thank you." Pepper took a beat to catch her breath...to really let herself stop. "Thank you so much."
"Come sit down. I kept a plate warm for you. Don't get too excited--it's takeout."
"Thai's fine, but you really didn't have to…" Pepper let herself be led to the dining nook just off of the kitchen. "This is...wow, that smells great," she said as May put a plate in front of her and then sat in the chair across the table.
"What can I say? I'm great at ordering delivery." She grinned.
"I'm so sorry this happened again." It was the second night that week that she'd been late to pick up Morgan.
It had started as being late for kindergarten pickup, and Peter offered to get Morgan on his way home from school if she needed to. That seemed so much nicer than sending a driver. That had led to Peter picking up Morgan almost every day and taking her home. And now someone else was feeding her daughter dinner while she got stuck in another meeting.
"It's been…" Pepper shook her head and chewed a mouthful of pad thai thoughtfully. "I'm sure you and Peter have other things to do."
"It's okay, really." May laughed. "I'll keep saying that if you really need me to. We love having Morgan. She's…" May glanced to the pair in the livingroom and lowered her voice slightly, "I think it's good for him, maybe good for them both."
Pepper smiled, more to herself than May, really. She pushed her hair behind one of her ears. Tony would have wanted this; he wouldn't have said it, so she wouldn't either. But it would have made him happy. He had seen his future in Morgan, but the future of the Avengers...he'd seen that in Peter.
At some point, Morgan ended up with a pair of pajamas at the Parkers' apartment. Then a change of clothes, a toothbrush, some toys. Pepper let herself in late one night--because May had insisted on making her a key. She watched from the doorway as Peter sat on the sofa, Tony's glasses perched upon his nose. He murmured to EDITH and grasped, swiped, and expanded things in front of him that Pepper couldn't see.
It stung. The ache in her heart felt like it would grow and grow until it overwhelmed her while she watched this boy who Morgan had begun to consider a brother--and why not when her father had considered him a son--look so much like Tony when he was purely in his element. And even with that ache tearing open a little more with each heartbeat, Pepper found herself smiling.
She moved quietly to the sofa and pushed Peter's hair from his forehead. He was good to flinch in surprise, but she knew his senses had probably betrayed her approach far before he had even seen her.
"Oh, hey…" He took the glasses off and folded them almost reverently, "Hi, Pepper, um, Mrs. Stark...Potts…"
"I think at this point just 'Pepper' is fine, Peter." She sat down beside him, the dainty crystals on her gown making a faint scratching sound against the fabric of the sofa. "May isn't back yet?" Pepper had left the gala she was obligated to attend as soon as it was socially acceptable. May was hosting a charity event and probably couldn't get away as easily.
"Morgan fell asleep a while ago. If she tells you I let her have tater tots for dinner," he said, face earnest, making him look even younger than he was, "it's technically true, only she didn't know they were made out of broccoli and cauliflower."
Pepper raised her eyebrows. "That's a good one. I'll have to remember it." Without thinking much about it, she slipped her shoes off and tucked her feet underneath her on the sofa.
"Yeah, you can just get them at the grocery store now, but when I was little, my Uncle Ben, would…" the lightness in his face faded, and Peter looked at his hands. "Sorry, I just…" he shrugged.
While Pepper had no idea what the entire story was, she knew May was a widow, and she had some sense now that Peter felt some sort of guilt for such a light memory when her own tragedy--and his too, if he would admit that to her--was nearer at hand.
"It's okay." Pepper rested her elbow on the back of the sofa and leaned her head against her palm. "Tony probably would have done the same thing…" She laughed, rolling her eyes. "No, he would have tried to engineer broccoli that tasted like a chicken nugget or something equally as insane."
"Yeah." Peter swiped at his eyes with one of the sleeves of his hoodie. "You and Morgan must really miss him."
"It's okay if you miss him too, Peter." Pepper thought about reaching out, squeezing his knee or his shoulder. But it seemed inappropriate to condescend to someone who had been through as much as Peter had. He'd fought right there alongside of Tony and alongside of her. Morgan was young enough that she might come to understand her father's sacrifice as an inevitability. But Peter had been there. He might spend the rest of his life replaying every moment in his mind, wondering if he could have prevented it--just like she did every night when she closed her eyes.
Pepper didn't set out to fall asleep. She remembered getting drowsy as she and Peter lapsed into a silence that she found companionable enough, though it was hard to say what he thought. And then, she found herself curled up on the sofa covered in a blanket as May was carefully closing the apartment door, her heels and a clutch in one hand.
"Hey," May whispered as she quietly set her things down and began to tiptoe over. She caught herself on the hem of one of the gauzy legs of her jumpsuit and wobbled a moment before righting herself. Pepper couldn't help but smile.
"I'm sorry. I must have dozed off."
"Don't apologize." May flopped down on the sofa next to her and let out an exaggerated sigh. "It's nice to be home. I felt like I was in a receiving line at someone else's wedding the entire night. I didn't mean to wake you."
"It's okay." Pepper sat up and stifled a yawn behind the blanket."I should go."
"Don't. It's so late. It would be a shame to wake Morgan. Let's have a glass of wine."
Pepper should have deferred, but there was a mischievous glint in May's eyes that made her want to stay, not just out of politeness. She was warm, still a bit sleepy, and it was nice to be in the company of an adult who didn't work for her. She stretched as May came back from the kitchen carrying two glasses and a box.
"Don't judge my taste," she said, laughing lightly.
"Are you kidding?" Pepper took the box and poured both glasses. "I don't think I've had this since college."
Boxed wines had come a long way since then, Pepper had to admit after taking her first taste. She and May fell into conversation easily as the contents of the box dwindled, and by the time they poured the last of it into their glasses, Pepper had no idea what time it was.
"Ho! Ho! Ho! To the bottle I go," May said as she raised her glass and took a long drink.
Pepper smirked as she swallowed her sip ."I was a math major." She could feel her cheeks flushed with the pleasant warmth of alcohol.
"Really?" May squinted. She pushed her glasses back up onto the bridge of her nose. "Dated a math major once who was no fun, but I married my English professor."
"Ben?" Pepper failed to stifle a laugh as May mouthed oh yeah. "I guess I can't talk. I married my boss."
"Weren't you technically his boss at the time?"
"That's an excellent question." pepper finished her glass and put it on the table. It seemed like a long time ago that she was getting Tony's dry cleaning and routing his calls, dealing with his bullshit while he flailed along trying to reconcile his conscience with his massive ego.
"The irony is that I might not have ever been able to start my press without the insurance money after Ben's death. It was our dream…" She trailed off, smiling sadly.
"How did you do it?" Pepper asked quietly. "How do you do it?"
"Are we getting sad now?" May leaned her head back, her long hair splaying against the couch cushions. "Shit." She laughed up at the ceiling. "I just do it. One day I'm studying feminist writers in the Lost Generation and then I'm marrying my Chaucer professor and then he's getting off the phone and telling me his brother and sister-in-law are gone and have left behind their only child and then before we could really get settled, I'm a single parent. It's not like I had time to stop and think."
"I'm sorry," Pepper said quietly. May's energy was as chaotic as Tony's but lighter, somehow. Pepper knew Morgan was just as drawn to it as she was to Peter, and she had to admit to herself that that was part of what made her say yes to letting Morgan stay here so often. Pepper was drawn to it too.
"Don't be." May, head still leaning back, turned to look at her. "Shit happens. Shit like husbands dying untimely deaths and your nephew becoming superhuman." This time her laugh was slightly unhinged. "Really I should be asking how you do...did it."
"Therapy." Pepper chuckled, more to herself than anything. "Therapy and medication...and understanding that Iron Man had always been in Tony's nature even though no one realized that. Mostly therapy."
May raised her empty glass. "Cheers to that."
Snow had started to fall in those big, fluffy flakes that made everything seem quiet and picturesque while they piled higher and higher until they created drifts that turned to dirty ice piles within four days. Even so, it was still magical, and Pepper reached out a gloved hand, letting flakes stick there. May came out of the Thai restaurant a minute later, having retrieved her forgotten purse. She stopped beside Pepper and turned her face up to the sky, sticking her tongue out, letting the snow fall on it.
"Don't spoil it by telling me how much air pollution that has in," she said when she turned back to Pepper, who laughed.
A car pulled up, and they slid into the back seat after the driver got out to open the door. Pepper pulled her hat and gloves off and held her fingers over one of the heating vents as they got underway.
"It was sweet of Peter and his friends to take Morgan ice skating," May said.
"Oh, he's using her as an excuse to hang out with MJ without seeming weird." Pepper smirked.
"What? He told you that?"
"If he asked MJ to take Morgan ice skating with him and she rejected him, it would be easier to take than rejection after asking her on a real date." Pepper cocked her head. "I think that's the gist of his reasoning. Either way, Morgan is happy to go skating."
"I can't believe you let him do that."
Pepper was laughing, genuinely laughing, and she wasn't sure if it was at how genuine May's shock was or that Peter hadn't told her. "It's sweet." It didn't strike Pepper as odd that he would tell her instead of May. She wouldn't have wanted to tell her parents about anyone she had a crush on. And it felt nice to have his trust.
"I certainly hope Morgan is a good chaperone. Here…" May took Pepper's hands into her own, which were surprisingly warm. She hadn't even been wearing gloves when they were out. She folded her fingers over Pepper's hands and began to rub them, generating much welcomed heat. "Cold hands, warm heart."
"Thank you," Pepper murmured. The touch was soothing. She had never realized how delicate May's hands were. In fact, she never thought of May as a small woman at all. It wasn't just the chunky heels she sometimes wore. It was that her personality was so bright and rambunctious where Pepper sometimes still felt like a shadow even though time was making Tony's death more distant. She flexed her fingers and smiled. "Much better."
Morgan was shrieking with laughter as she and Peter came into the apartment. He had her thrown over his shoulder and was pretending to be some sort of monster. Neither noticed May and Pepper until he gently put her down and helped her out of her puffy coat.
"Oh,hey...hi, guys. Wow, you're home...cool." Peter's grin was lopsided. "Um, so, we…"
"We had a snowball fight!" Morgan finished as she struggled out of her shoes. Pepper had dressed her warmly for skating, but she hadn't been prepared for the snow to fall quickly enough for snowballs. Morgan's pants were damp between where her coat ended and her boots began. She ran to Pepper, who caught her, picking her up into a hug.
"I can see that. Wow."
"Hey! Only because you and MJ teamed up against me. How was I supposed to stand up to that?"
Pepper smiled. "Let's go see if we can find something dry for you to wear."
And of course they could because Pepper was always prepared. Managing Tony Stark's life for so long had been excellent preparation for parenting a toddler. She grabbed an extra pair of fleece-lined leggings from Morgan's bag and headed to the small bathroom Peter used as his own. Morgan, of course, insisted on doing everything herself without help because she needed privacy. Tony would have found that hilarious and undoubtedly come up with a host of reasons why a kindergartner would need privacy.
As Pepper was closing the bathroom door, she could hear May and Peter talking. She didn't mean to eavesdrop, but something about the tone of the conversation made her stop.
"Um…" Peter laughed nervously. "This is...I mean, you're probably going to laugh because… Well, MJ has this idea that you and, um, Pepper are… You're not...right?"
"Nevermind, it's… I told MJ she was crazy."
"Peter, you can't just start out like that and then say 'nevermind.' Come on, spit it out."
"Are you dating Pepper?" he blurted.
Pepper felt her cheeks begin to burn. She thought about their dinner that night where they were tucked away into a private corner. They'd laughed as much as they ate, and Pepper realized she hadn't thought about Tony, about how she should feel guilty for enjoying herself, once. She remembered May warming her hands. But May was always touching her and Peter and Morgan. It was a part of who she was, or at least, that's what Pepper had assumed.
"No," May said quickly, an uneasy laugh escaping her lips after the word. "I'm not saying I wouldn't want to, but I...I'm not really sure Pepper would be ready for that, even if she did reciprocate."
"Oh, my god, Aunt May, seriously? You can't just...just go around trying to date Tony Stark's widow!"
"Okay, first of all, that's sexist, and second of all…"
"Sorry," Peter interrupted, "Sorry, I know she's more than that I just…"
"...it's none of your business…" May was saying over him.
But Pepper wasn't really listening anymore. She felt like her chest was going to cave in on itself, it was so hard to catch her breath. And she didn't want to. She couldn't take a beat to parse out what she had just heard because it meant she would have to confront her own thoughts about the situation. And she didn't have to because Morgan came out holding the pair of damp pants crumpled into a wad.
"What's wrong, Mommy?"
"Nothing." Pepper cleared her throat, which seemed painfully dry. "Nothing, sweetheart. Go put on your coat and your boots. We need to get home."
"Go on, Morgan."
Pepper gently nudged her along, and she dipped gracefully to pick up the bag of Morgan's things. "We should get going...the snow…"
"Oh, gosh, it's really coming down out there. Are you sure you don't want to just crash here?" May asked.
"Oh, no, we couldn't…" Couldn't impose? Pepper mentally scoffed at herself. How many times before had they imposed? She knew her cheeks were still flushed bright red, and she knew it probably made the freckles dotting her nose stand out. She needed to get outside, to breathe the cold air. "Thank you so much for taking Morgan, Peter."
Pepper grabbed her own coat and threw it over her arm before picking Morgan up. She was getting too big for that, and Pepper had a fleeting thought wondering how many more time she would get to hold her like this. She stumbled through her goodbyes and let the Morgan's chatter about going skating and the snowball fight soothe her nerves as they were driven home.
The snow had turned into an unexpected storm, and Pepper knew they were lucky to have gotten home when they did. She chided herself for being irresponsible about going home that way. A succession of snow days gave her an excuse not to go into the city, and she happily threw herself into working from home while Morgan built snowmen and attempted igloo construction with varying degrees of success.
What she didn't do was let herself think about May. Here at home, she was surrounded by reminders of Tony--the things she kept, the things he built, the ghost of his habits. And to dwell on what May had said seemed like it would be a betrayal. She had told Tony that they would be okay. She had let his close his eyes and take his last breath before letting herself fall apart
And after that, she had pulled her grief inside of her and let it reside there, boxed up but ever present. She didn't mind being vulnerable or having Morgan or anyone else see her cry. But Tony's choice was greater than any of that. Doing anything other than going on, being okay, seemed like a betrayal to his memory.
But she hadn't thought of opening her heart again as a possibility, even a distant one. And that's how she found herself sitting at her desk in front of a spreadsheet on a computer screen she couldn't see through her tears. And even though she felt like the grief was ripping her apart all over again, she was laughing. She was laughing at the absurdity of it. Because the first thing Tony told her about Peter--this kid before Peter was his kid--after his excited ramble about the superhuman capabilities and the natural born intellect to match them, was that he hadn't expected the hot aunt.
Her laughter broke into a sob, and Pepper put her head in her hands. He would be laughing at her now, and somehow that made facing her own feelings more difficult. She wiped her eyes, though, and took a deep breath. And Pepper got back to work.
That evening, she found herself cutting the crusts off of Morgan's grilled cheese--with pickles and tomato soup the way Peter had showed her--Pepper looked up to find her daughter watching her with those dark eyes she knew so well.
"Are you mad at Aunt May?"
Pepper stop and she squatted down to look Morgan in the eyes. "Why would you think that?"
Morgan just shrugged. "Is it because she likes you?"
"No, of course not." Pepper cocked her head as she pushed a piece of Morgan's hair behind one of her ears. "I like May too, and Peter."
"No," Morgan said, shaking her head, causing the hair to fall back onto her cheek. "She likes you like Daddy liked you."
It was one of those moments of uncanny understanding and insight that children sometimes display, which Tony thought was creepy and Pepper dismissed as kids sometimes getting lucky while observing the world.
She heard herself giving a little laugh, and she knew Morgan would know her smile was fake. "What makes you say that?"
Morgan shrugged again, and just like that, the moment of insight, the intense stare where she looked so much like her father, was gone. "Can I have my soup in a big mug?"
"Sure." Pepper tousled Morgan's hair as she stood back up, and she moved on autopilot to finish up dinner. Even if she couldn't let herself acknowledge that feelings, or at least the beginnings of feelings, were there for May, Morgan had clearly seen it. It wasn't permission--Pepper wasn't sure that she was looking for permission--but it was a push.
Pepper wore a skirt suit--winter white, perfectly tailored--and nude Louboutin heels. It was the kind of thing she'd worn years ago when she went from secretarial pool member to executive assistant. And it wasn't because she could suddenly afford it or it matched her new role. It simply made her feel confident, powerful. Now, she could walk into her office in sweats and no one would question her. But she felt out of place tucked away in a little bar that was mostly empty but where at least one person had recognized her.
It wasn't like going out in public with Tony. People recognized her. They recognized Morgan. But after everything, there seemed to be a collective, unconscious agreement to keep a respectful distance. Barring that, she had well placed and discreet security. It was one thing to let Morgan go ice skating or to the zoo with Peter--he was Spider-Man--it was another to send her to school every day or even to a playdate without being prepared for the worst that could happen even after the worst had happened.
From her seat, Pepper could see May before May spotted her. She was in a high-waisted skirt and furry boots, long coat and scarf hanging open. She had taken off her glasses to clean them after they fogged up. Pepper stood, and May's face lit as she slid her glasses back on and saw her. She waved before making her way over.
"Wow." May hugged her, and as she pressed their cheeks together, Pepper felt a brief shock of coolness before the true warmth of May's skin underneath the chill of the outside air that clung to her. "You look…" She leaned back, grinning as she finished, "intimidating."
Pepper smoothed her jacket, feeling heat creeping into her cheeks. "Thank you...I think."
It was easy with May. This realization was like a gust of cool air for Pepper. May brought a warmth with her that made it difficult to be uncomfortable. And if she noticed that Pepper was unusually silent, she didn't let on. Morgan had gone home with Peter that afternoon while Pepper had a meeting, and May wove the mundane things they did together into the kind of bright, warm story that made Pepper ache for catching Tony feeding their daughter popsicles before dinner or helping her make a pillow fort in the middle of the night. But those were good memories, a good ache.
"And then Peter let her start taking apart his computer. He's always doing that...tinkering with it, adding new things. But it just makes me nervous every time. Who knows what's in those things?" May went on, sipping something from a seasonally incongruous tiki glass, complete with paper umbrella, "Apparently Morgan does because she had absolutely no trouble. I guess when you have tiny fingers, tiny screwdrivers aren't an issue."
"The genius gene probably helps," Pepper deadpanned. Then she sighed and fished an olive out of her martini--her second. "I was hoping it wouldn't be very...pronounced in her." She left the rest unsaid. It could lead to such a hard life, even with the cushion of wealth that Morgan already had around her, that Tony had had. And Morgan's little life was already so fraught.
May's face grew serious. "It's okay. She's got a good head on her shoulders, and she's got you and Peter, who will hopefully use his head instead of his hormones to make good choices." She smiled once more, and Pepper found herself meeting it with one of her own.
She took May's hand, pulling it away from fidgeting with the little black straw in her drink. Pepper was glad she'd already had half of the second martini because this was so difficult and so frightening even with that. "And you too, May," she said quietly. "God, this is so hard. It's just so…"
"It's okay. After everything Tony did for Peter…"
"Not just that…"
Pepper looked into May's eyes as her heart pounded in her chest. When their lips met, she closed her eyes and sighed softly into the kiss. It was soft, almost chaste--almost. And when they pulled apart, May was blushing just as much as she was. Pepper couldn't help a sheepish smile. She was still holding May's hand.
"I hope I didn't…"
"You didn't," May cut in. She turned their hands over and rubbed her thumb over the back of Pepper's.
Pepper wanted to say so much. She wanted to say that she had no idea what she was doing, how to do this all over again after Tony, after the world had changed so much. But she wanted to do it...carefully, slowly. And yet she found herself silent, smiling, almost crying. She was afraid it would feel like an end, an end to a life she couldn't have imagined the first time she saw Tony Stark. That was unbearable and possibly inevitable. Because in the warmth of the candlelight and the air between them, she felt a beginning too. And even though Pepper didn't know if she would ever be whole, she knew they really would be alright.
She felt like a teenager with the voices on the television seeming far away and her own heartbeat too close as she and May kissed again and again. May had her hand halfway up Pepper's shirt, and Pepper was pulling her closer. Some part of her mind registered the sound of keys in the door and then the door opening, but her reactions were sluggish. When she and May pulled apart, both gasping for breath and flushed, Peter stood in the doorway, eyes wide, as he said, "What the f…"