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What Friends are For

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Recovery after trauma was hard. Pepper had been with Tony after Afghanistan and the Battle of New York, but she’d never really experienced it directly herself, not to this degree. She never knew just how difficult it was to return to normal, to not feel like there was danger lurking in every dark corner of her office, to not feel like she might just shake apart at any moment.

The first week after the whole Extremis debacle was honestly a mess. There was so much to deal with, so much to do, that Pepper didn’t quite know what to do. The house in Malibu was just a pile of rubble, so they didn’t even have a home to go to. Almost immediately, Tony bought a new, fully furnished house with as many security upgrades as possible not far from there, but it just wasn’t the same.

Pepper couldn’t help but think about how their private space, the place they were supposed to be safe, had been blown to hell and had in fact almost killed Tony. Things just couldn’t be the same after that, and she hated feeling uncomfortable in their new home. It just wasn’t fair, but then again few things in their lives were. She’d learn to deal just like she always had.

Tony’s next step in dealing with things was apparently surgery to remove the arc reactor and shrapnel from his chest. The idea terrified Pepper, but she knew it was something he thought he had to do. She could respect that, even if she hated waiting for hours in a cold, sterile hospital waiting room to hear how it went.

Still, she had plenty of time to think during those long, mostly lonely hours. Rhodey came in to wait with her for awhile, but he had other responsibilities he had to see to. Happy waited with her the whole time, but thankfully he understood that she needed the silence more than the conversation. It was probably the calmest, quietest time she’d get for who knew how long, and she wanted to take advantage of it even if she was worried out of her mind.

The thing was, she no longer really felt in control of her life. She thrived on control, on being able to schedule and organize everything around her. It was what made her such a good personal assistant, she knew, and what made her such a good CEO.

Now though… Killian took that from her with the Extremis. The power coursing through her veins didn’t make her feel strong or powerful, it made her feel scared and lost. She hated that feeling. As soon as Tony was recovered enough to be left on his own, she decided, it was time for her own surgery. It was time to take back her control.

***

Despite her hopes, getting the Extremis removed didn’t help quite as much as Pepper thought it would. It was nice to not feel afraid of her own body anymore, and it was even nicer to be able to return to a veneer of her previous life, but there was something not quite right. The worst part was that she couldn’t even pinpoint what exactly was wrong.

She started working overtime as soon as she could. It was probably too much too soon, but she was honestly at a loss. Home still didn’t feel like home and Tony was just as lost and hurt as she was. They can’t be each other’s anchors, not right now. Time away would be good for them, would give them both time to recover so they can be together again without thoughts of fire flickering in the back of their minds.

***

A knock on the door of her office startled Pepper awake. She looked around, frowning at how dark it was. She must have fallen asleep working again, the fourth time this week, and no one came to wake her after she practically bit a janitor’s head off just a few nights before.

The knock came again and she shook her head, quickly straightening her hair and clothing until she looked presentable. “Come in,” she called, plastering on her business smile.

“You look like shit,” Natasha said when she came through the door. “When was the last time you actually slept? Or ate an actual meal?”

“Thanks so much,” Pepper said, frowning at the other woman, then wrinkling her nose, thinking. She can’t quite remember the answer to either question, and she knew Natasha wasn’t going to like that.

After a few beats of not particularly comfortable silence, Natasha frowned. “You don’t know, do you,” she said, more a statement than a question. “You really need to be taking better care of yourself. You don’t have to push yourself so hard all the time.”

Pepper took a deep breath, preparing to defend herself, but to her horror, a sob came out instead. In an instant, she was crying into her hands, eyes burning and throat tight. She didn’t quite know why she was crying, just that this was the first time she’d really felt like someone was paying attention to her well being for no other reason than that they’re worried about her.

“Shh, shh, hey,” Natasha said, and Pepper looked up long enough to see the other woman kneeling by her side. A moment later an arm came up to rub her back, and Pepper practically melted into it, still crying. “Why don’t we move somewhere more comfortable?”

They moved to the much more comfortable seating area to the side of Pepper’s office. Natasha sat on the couch, pulling Pepper down next to her. Pepper resisted at first, the moving across the room giving her enough time to think about how humiliating it was to be crying like this in front of someone, but she eventually relented.

Natasha was quiet and calming, murmuring words that from anyone else would be meant as comforting nothings, but from her sounded like she really means every word. It made Pepper feel a little better about crying on her like this, though there was still a part of her that resented whatever still has her so on edge and emotional.

“I’m sorry,” Pepper said after a few minutes, her tears finally slowing and the sobs no longer ripping their way out of her chest. She felt wrung out and weak, nothing like her usual self.

“You don’t have to apologize,” Natasha replied, a tiny smile on her face. Even with how good she’d been about Pepper’s crying, she seemed glad it had stopped. Being with SHIELD, she was probably not really used to outbursts like this. “It’s what friends are for, right, emotional support?”

Pepper stopped, breath catching in her throat. Friends? She hadn’t even thought about that, but yes, she supposed they were friends. She’d been too caught up in herself and her problems, she hadn’t considered that there was anyone but Tony and Rhodey and Happy to lean on. Those three were wonderful and she loved them all in their own way, but apparently they hadn’t been quite what she’d needed.

“Thank you,” Pepper replied softly. “I think I’d forgotten a little what it’s like to have a friend.”

Natasha laughed, not the fake one Pepper knew from when the other woman was undercover, but a much lighter, more genuine thing. “Well, I’m not exactly the prime example of one,” she said with a wry grin, “but I’m trying.”

“I appreciate it,” Pepper said. She waited a beat, then leaned in for a hug, holding tightly until she could tell Natasha was getting uncomfortable, then leaned back into her own space. A sudden wave of exhaustion hit her as she moved and she swayed just a bit.

“I think it’s time you had some sleep,” Natasha said, looking at her consideringly. “And probably some food. We’ll stop somewhere on the way.”

“I’m really not sure I can drive at the moment,” Pepper replied, frowning as she looked down and saw how much her hands were trembling. She must have worn herself down far more than she’d realized.

“I’ll drive,” Natasha said without hesitation. She stood, holding out a hand, and Pepper let herself be pulled up and led to the door. “After all, what are friends for?”