The tower was dark, very dark and ominous like it was nearly every night she returned. The lights were dimmed in the passageways and only brighter in the stairwells to prevent accidents. The emergency lighting cast an eerie blue glow throughout the place; but she’d long ago stopped being afraid of the dark. She stepped off the elevator on her floor, frowning softly at how the lights refused to come on. Normally, Stark’s artificially intelligent Butler would have already greeted her and brought the lighting up to the level that she liked it – bright enough to see her way, but dim enough that there were still shadows in the corners. But he didn’t. The lights stayed off and as she moved further into the apartment Stark had allocated for her own personal use, she halted in the middle of the room, looking out to the balcony with a confused tilt of the head.
Beyond the glass, where she could make out a faint reflection of herself; there was someone standing with their elbows pressed to the railing, looking out at the New York City skyline. She wondered what she could possibly be doing there – the view from the Penthouse was so much better – and they’d never really been friends.
She tentatively walked toward the door that was sitting ajar, pushing on it gently. Pepper knew she was there, she could see by the way her shoulders tensed, but the woman didn’t turn. “I’m sorry,” She breathed; and Natasha could hear a faint trace of tears in her voice. “I didn’t know where else to go.”
“What happened?” Natasha didn’t move from her place by the door.
Pepper laughed sardonically. “I honestly don’t know.”
“It’s a bit cold out here.” Natasha couldn’t really feel it; she had on a leather jacket and a thick cotton scarf. But she could see Pepper shivering; the woman was wearing nothing but shorts and a t-shirt that looked like one of Stark’s weathered band-shirts; her arms were crossed over her middle and her legs and feet were bare.
Without another word, Pepper walked past her into the apartment. Natasha reached for the cashmere throw-rug that was hanging over the sofa and handed it to the taller red-head who immediately wrapped it around her shoulders and thanked her with a brief smile. It was then, in the light coming from the kitchen, that Natasha could see Pepper’s red-rimmed eyes.
Natasha didn’t really know what to do. She hadn’t been expecting to get back and find a tear-stained Pepper Potts on her balcony. She wasn’t one for girlfriends and confidants; for some strange reason, she got the distinct impression that Pepper wasn’t either and she knew, from Fury’s files on Stark, that Pepper didn’t have family. So Pepper didn’t know where to go and Natasha didn’t know what to say. She could see in Pepper’s eyes that she needed to talk to someone and for whatever reason, that couldn’t be the guys; so they were going to have to learn together. “What happened?” She decided to ask again.
Pepper looked up from where her fingers were fiddling with a lose thread on the blanket. She blinked a few times, just staring at Natasha until she let out a long breath. “I don’t really know how to explain it.”
Natasha shrugged. “Maybe just start with why you came here?” She didn’t want it to sound like an accusation, but of all the Avengers, Natasha knew that she was most often Pepper’s last choice. Tears were for Bruce and when she was looking for understanding, Steve was usually more useful.
Pepper ran her fingers along the kitchen counter as she slowly lowered herself to one of the stools there, wrapping the blanket tighter around herself. There was a long pause before she spoke, long enough for Natasha to start wondering if she was ever going to talk at all. “Tony’s always been jealous.”
Natasha smirked. “I noticed.”
Pepper met her eye. “Yeah, but in the past it’s just been a little funny; sweet even.”
“I saw the way he physically blocked other guys from talking to you.” Natasha laughed softly and Pepper nodded with a little smile that didn’t reach her eyes. Natasha’s expression suddenly changed. “Did you guys fight about someone?”
Pepper cleared her throat. “We did fight.” She nodded. “But I’m confused...”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, it was like he accused me of cheating;” Natasha’s eyes widened just slightly. “But he didn’t. It was like he was blaming everyone else and that somehow that was my fault.”
“So,” Natasha blinked, resting her elbows on the counter to meet Pepper’s eyes. “He blamed you, for other guys trying to hit on you?”
Pepper furrowed her brow. “I honestly don’t know. He wasn’t saying that he believed I’d cheated, but it was almost like he was so angry that he thought I might. He’s an incredibly jealous person; I’ve always known that, but...”
“I would say more, possessive.”
Pepper shrugged. “Maybe that’s a better word.”
“He doesn’t like other people touching his things.”
“But I’m not a possession.” Pepper stared up at Natasha, fresh tears burning at the corners of her eyes.
“No,” Natasha nodded. “...and he knows that; he does. He’s just really bad at showing it. So much of his life is about his money and his possessions.” Natasha didn’t even know where her responses were coming from. She’d never been good at consoling anyone. Fixing Clint emotionally had meant a swift whack to the head and children tended to stare at her with strange expressions, rather than hug her. Pepper was nodding slowly, blinking away the tears that hadn’t yet fallen and it suddenly came to Natasha that this couldn’t be all it was about. There had to be more to the story. Pepper wasn’t normally dismayed by Tony’s antics.
Natasha could see in Pepper’s eyes that the argument she’d had with Tony, whatever the finer details were, was not what had her in tears. It wasn’t what had her seeking out a calm perspective in the middle of the night. There was something more.
Pepper looked frightened, genuinely.
“Pepper, what is this really about?”
Pepper looked away, twisting her fingers together as she studied the kitchen wall. She wasn’t going to volunteer the information, at least that’s what Natasha figured. Pepper didn’t look ready to let it all out just yet and Natasha could see her closing off and she realized, due to the subject of conversation, she probably still wasn’t the first person Pepper would have preferred to open up to; it was just less likely to fuel Tony’s fire when he found out that she was the one Pepper had run to.
“Would you like a drink?” She changed her angle, reaching for the cupboard. “I have tea, coffee, scotch.”
Pepper’s eyes widened to saucers. “Ah, do you have juice?”
Natasha changed direction to the fridge; opening it up and peering inside. “I have apple.”
“I thought you didn’t like apple juice.”
Natasha’s cheeks flushed slightly. “No, I...ah...”
Pepper’s mouth opened just a little and she made an ‘ah’ sound of understanding. “How’s that going?”
Pepper swallowed. “Good.”
The two women were almost awkwardly silent as Natasha poured Pepper’s glass of juice and slid it across the bench-top. Pepper didn’t drink from it; she just sat there staring at it and running her finger around the rim of the glass. Natasha could see that she was battling with something; tossing it around in her head and probably lining it all up to pick out the information she was willing to share and the things she wasn’t.
She’d known Pepper longer than the others hand, but somehow they’d lost their way in honestly knowing anything about each other. One thing Natasha did know, though, was that Pepper was methodical and if she didn’t want to share something, there was no prising it from her grasp.
Time ticked over silently. The lights had slowly come on without a word from JARVIS and whilst Pepper studied her glass of juice, Natasha alternated between watching Pepper and watching her shadow on the wall.
“Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve been spending a lot of time with Bruce.”
Natasha was shocked. She stared at the other woman, blinking and most certainly had her mouth hanging open, if only slightly. Not many things could catch Natasha off-guard, but Pepper had managed it in one sentence.
“Calls, texts,” Pepper nodded as if she hadn’t even noticed Natasha’s surprise – and in her defence, she hadn’t looked up from the glass. “We’ve been meeting every couple of days. And Tony;” She swallowed. “He wasn’t snooping, but he saw some of the texts in my phone and...”
“So...” Natasha drew out the word, honestly unsure as to how to interpret what Pepper was trying to tell her. Tony was a paranoid, possessive man but he had a large, open heart. And Pepper was the most stable thing that had ever occupied it, so she was confused as to what it all meant. And Bruce, he was the last one Natasha would have thought would...
Pepper cut off her thoughts. “It’s not what you think.” She pressed her palm to her forehead, scrunching up her face in annoyance and no small dose of emotional turmoil. “It’s not what Tony thinks.”
“Well, then tell him what it really is.” Somehow Natasha knew it wasn’t as straight forward as she’d made it sound.
“I want to,” Pepper looked straight up into her eyes, the red-rims having returned to her baby-blues. “-I want to so badly. But I,” She looked away again, tears choking her voice.
Natasha rounded the counter, tentatively pressing her hand to Pepper’s shoulder and took a seat on the stool next to her. To her surprise, Pepper didn’t pull away or straighten her spine; she didn’t try and behave stronger than she was. And Pepper was a strong woman, Natasha knew that. It was amongst the small amount of things she did know about Pepper; but one thing she envied was the woman’s ability to be vulnerable too; truly, honestly vulnerable but strong enough to ask for help. Natasha was so closely guarded there was only one person in the world that had seen her truly cry and even then, he still wasn’t entirely sure if he’d seen it at all.
She let Pepper lean into her hand, the woman’s head lolling closer to her as she cried softly. They stayed like that for quite some time, until Pepper’s tears died down and she had the strength to pull herself away, straighten up and look Natasha in the eye.
“I’ve been...” She blinked, biting her lip and setting her eyes on the corner of a kitchen tile. “Bruce has been...” She swallowed and Natasha found herself rubbing the woman’s back reassuringly.
“It’s alright; you don’t have to tell me.”
“No, I do.” Pepper took a deep breath. “Bruce has been running tests. I didn’t want to say anything or go to my usual doctor because I wanted to be sure before Tony found out.” She licked her lips. “I wanted to be sure of everything, not just sure,” She furrowed her brow, looking for understanding in Natasha’s face. “You know?”
The corners of Natasha’s lips twitched as realization dawned. “You’re pregnant, aren’t you?”
“Yeah.” She breathed out the word as though telling someone other than Bruce was a weight off her shoulders.
“You need to tell him.”
“I know,” She pushed herself away from the counter, hopping up from her stool and pacing across the room. “I know I do and I really want to because,” Pepper turned back around with a bright, hopeful smile in contrast to her red-eyes. “He’d be ecstatic, I know he would. I just,” She dropped her arms to her sides, deflated. “I’m scared that this blow-out will have an impact on how he feels about this.”
Pepper’s hand had unconsciously gone to her stomach and thinking back over their entire exchange, Natasha had realized that Pepper’s hand had landed there quite a lot; and she suddenly understood the reason for the large baggy shirt that hung off one shoulder and obscured her figure.
“You should just tell him the truth.” Natasha shrugged. “Tell him he’s an idiot and tell him why. You can’t run from it. You know Stark better than I do, but I honestly don’t think he’d continue to be so stupid, if he knew the truth.”
“I know,” Pepper nodded. “I know he won’t. I just don’t want to deal with him when he’s like this.”
Natasha chuckled slightly. “You’re the only one that can.”
Pepper smirked. “Well that’s true.” She straightened the shirt against her stomach, tugging at the edge of her shorts in a vain attempt to tidy herself up. Natasha noticed the little bump of her belly as she flattened the shirt but didn’t mention it as Pepper ran her fingers through her hair before patting at her puffy eyes. “Alright,” She cleared her throat. “I’d better get back. Thanks...” Pepper hesitated, taking a deep breath. “Thanks Natasha.”
“Don’t worry about it.” The other woman smiled as Pepper disappeared into the elevator. Neither of them were one for girlfriends but Natasha felt that maybe they were each one step closer to understanding how that kind of dynamic worked.
Tony had a glass of scotch resting on his thigh as he lay back on the sofa, staring open-mouthed at the fire. He’d felt like a right bastard as he’d replayed their argument over in his mind. Pepper was the most stable thing in his life and for a long time before he’d agreed with himself that loving her was okay, he’d known she was also the most loyal. She couldn’t be having an affair, she just couldn’t. It wasn’t in her nature, it wasn’t who she was.
But Tony couldn’t get over the nagging feeling that she was keeping something from him and as he downed another gulp of the warm liquor he internally berated himself for his hypocrisy.
He was a hypocrite; he knew that. He went for weeks without telling Pepper he was dying so that he could protect her, only to discover it had hurt her more, being the only one that didn’t know. He’d vowed from then on to be honest with her; because as dedicated as he was to the whole idea of them, so was she. He’d warned her off with fear of alien attacks and constant threats on his life, but she’d chosen to stay. She’d chosen the life of never knowing what fate the next mission held for them. He had to trust that, right?
But he couldn’t let it go. It chewed and gnawed at him like a rabbid dog with a bone, taking away pieces and leaving an open, throbbing wound. He didn’t pretend to be level-headed and he didn’t pretend that he wasn’t possessive, protective, obsessive. He couldn’t pretend, not with Pepper. There was so much that he was that he berated of himself but he also argued that Pepper had always known that man; she’d worked for him, cared for him, respected him. He liked to believe that she loved him. He couldn’t pretend to be different to - as much as he couldn’t change - the man he was.
He just hoped that Pepper’s almost immeasurable ability to forgive, extended to the level of stupidity he’d reached.
He flinched when he heard the sound of the elevator opening, fighting his want to turn around knowing that it was her. She’d come back. For the moment, he couldn’t let her see just how happy that made him.
He still needed to know.
“JARVIS is playing favourites again.” He muttered, taking a sip of his scotch as he listened to her bare feet pad across the room to stand just a few feet behind him.
He was referring to his desperate attempts to chase after Pepper as she’d stormed out of the penthouse. But JARVIS had barred all the doors and locked him in the living-room with a fully-stocked bar and the promise that “Miss Potts has not left the building, sir. I assure you, for her safety, I will inform you if she does but in the mean time, I must respect Miss Potts request that she be left alone.”
“I’m sorry about that.”
“Not your fault.” He stated quietly. “He’s always liked you better,” He slowly got up from the sofa, rounding it to stand directly across from her seeing her with her arms crossed over her chest and a deep frown on her face. “Apparently everyone does.” The remark was made with far more venom than intended and he wanted to slap himself.
“Tony, that’s not fair.”
“Isn’t it? And lying to me is? You’re the one who’s always spouting off about honesty.”
Pepper pressed her eyes closed tightly and turned her head away. She was surprised though, when the thick silence in the room was suddenly filled with the warmth of Tony’s breath against her face and his gentle fingertips against her chin. Her eyes opened slowly, her head turning to look up into his eyes. “Please, Pepper, just tell me what this is.” He looked on the verge of tears and Pepper’s heart nearly broke in two. “You’ve been the most constant thing in my life, Pep; I just need to know I haven’t lost that.”
“Oh Tony,” Pepper sighed deeply, reaching up to press her palms to his face, pulling him forward to rest their foreheads together. She breathed him in, new tears arising as she felt his arms envelope her. “You’re not going to lose me.” She whispered, pressing a salty kiss to the corner of his mouth. “I just wanted to be sure.”
“Sure of what?”
Pepper tilted back a little, looking up into his eyes; and she could see him then; the man that had been her rock, even when he couldn’t be his own. She could see Iron Man and Tony Stark and she could see all the things about him she’d always seen; that insecurity the rest of the world wouldn’t believe and the timidity his friends would balk at.
She took a step back slowly, letting her hands slide down his arms until she could curl her fingers within his own; she dragged him towards her, smiling softly at the look of confusion on his face as she pulled his hands to her stomach and pressed his broad palm out flat over his old shirt she was wearing. She could feel his heart-rate increase where her fingertips touched his pulse point as she held his wrist and she smiled up through her lashes, tears still present, as it hit him.
“This is why Bruce,”
“Yes.” Pepper breathed. “Tony, I’m so sorry I lied to you. I just,”
He turned his eyes down to his hand; his fingers tracing her small bump with awe and wonder at how he hadn’t noticed before. He supposed though, he hadn’t really been looking. It was obvious now that she’d pointed it out and he wanted to slap himself for every second that his eyes had been closed. But he’d been so confused and so frightened that he’d been blinded to what he’d have otherwise spotted a mile away.
“I just wanted to know that the baby was healthy, before I told you.”
It was all there now; Pepper’s eating habits, her glow; her smile. She’d been different and he’d been terrified that it meant the worst. He hadn’t stopped to think that maybe she was different for entirely wonderful reasons. He’d seen her phone and he’d immediately jumped to the worst case scenario. How wrong he was.
“I’m sorry, Pep.” He pulled her close, wrapping his arms around her tightly and pressing his lips to her temple. “I’m so, so sorry.” He let it all wash over him then. He let the guilt envelope him because he knew he deserved it; for screaming at her, for blaming her, for breaking her blackberry against the wall when she’d stormed out. He chastised himself for all the hateful thoughts he’d had of Bruce while he’d wallowed in his scotch and loudly berated JARVIS for choosing sides.
“Tony, it’s alright.” She breathed against his neck, wrapping her arms around him just as tightly.
“No,” He sighed. “It’s really not.”
“Tony.” Her voice was soft and tentative as she looked up at him; with her fingers curling in his shirt at the small of his back. “Are we going to be okay?”
“Yeah.” He pressed his lips to her brow and she could feel his faint smile as he kissed her. “I promise. From now on, yeah; we have to be.”
“Okay.” Pepper sighed contentedly, pressing her face to his chest and closing her eyes as they held each other in the middle of their living room.