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No Rest for the Wicked

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"You know, you really do look stunning in those sorts of dresses," Natasha moans softly. "It wasn't an empty compliment, Pepper."

Pepper glances up towards the doorway from the counter; her gaze and her voice are terse - restrained, unemotional, professional, but sharp, with only feigned, pursed-lip sweetness. The tart sweetness of raspberries that would stain her lips with the same hue as the shade of lipstick she was wearing. Lipstick that Natasha was thinking far too much about.

"Is that so, Agent Romanova?"

"Romanoff," Natasha corrects carelessly. “Here I am using Romanoff.”

“I suppose it makes you seem a bit less Russian to have an Americanized name.”

Natasha bites her tongue and swallows her words. Pepper starts washing dishes without another word, and the rushing water drowns out any sound Natasha may have found herself able to make at that time, but she can’t convince herself to leave. She came with something to say, and as much as she doesn’t particularly want to have to say it, she knows that she must.

“The citizenship is also of assistance in that matter,” she gives as reply, so that she can begin to speak again, berating herself for her failure to carry her courage into the kitchen with her.

“I’d imagine,” Pepper’s voice is bitter, but still not scathing - the heat of her anger having dissipated below the temperature of the steaming water still coming out of the faucet in the sink.

“My intent never was to hurt you, please know that. Not anyone, but especially not you.”

The words burst forth from her, falling brusquely into the vast space of the kitchen that remains between them, and she can feel her cheeks now becoming red and hot; her blusher would conceal much of that physical reaction from Pepper, but Natasha could not help but be hyperaware of it, and its ramifications and accompaniments - the swelling uneasiness of her breath, the jitters pulsing in her veins that made it more work than instinct to remain still…

“If your intention had informed the outcome of your actions, perhaps that would carry more weight.”

Again, a notably different tone: less heart, more break. Natasha would be lying to herself to purport that the comment hadn’t the same effect on her.

“But at least you think I’m pretty, right? Something to hold onto.”

Natasha commands her eyes not to wander and gulps down the arousal that mounts in her chest as Pepper reminds her of this conversation’s second precipitating event.

“I believe I used the word ‘stunning.’”

Pepper scoffs, at no one and nowhere in particular, though she’s looking down into the sink, seemingly not expecting Natasha to hear her.

She shouldn’t be imagining the feeling of Pepper’s hot breath pushing against hers, but she is; Pepper’s taking off her lavender apron should not arouse the longing to be tearing at the slim-fitting dress that’s revealed as she raises her arms above her head and the fabric strains against her toned backside…but it does. To press wet lips against her unconcealed collarbones, to free her hair from her impeccable bun, to drag fingers through it, perhaps to even muss it up, to trace the outline of her spine whilst pulling down the gold zipper of the black designer dress. Too much longing.

“Indeed you did. Though, I can’t say you’ve ever looked half bad yourself.”

The comment is meant to appease her, Natasha knows, but the flush rises at her neck at knowing that Pepper thought it worth making.

It’s easily another five minutes before either of them says anything again, five minutes of what can’t properly be called an awkward silence: nervous shuffling, Pepper’s occasional continuation of her dishwashing, Natasha’s unfulfilled attempts at speaking and stumbling over herself.

It’s comparable to an out-of-body experience, the stark division of her mental processes and her physical sensations, her wariness and her wanting, her ability to reason and her capacity to hope. She’s not quite sure which one wins.

“Perhaps stunning was not the correct word,” she finds herself saying. “A more accurate descriptor would be…ravishing.”

Her voice breaks as she realizes what syllables she’s uttering, and the threat of the collapse of pretense is followed by Pepper’s shifting towards her. She meets Natasha’s gaze, and Natasha can see the momentary sense of confusion and consideration ripple through her. Pepper’s stance softens; her response retains the force of those she’d given before, but less of their severity, which leaves in its place a burgeoning curiosity.

“Is that so?”