Tony asks Pepper, of course. She smiles. "And what percent vote do I get on this?"
The question isn't sharp. For one thing, the fact that he's alive is still too new to take for granted. For another, he hadn't looked at her when he'd said, "I'd…I just thought, if they had floors, you know, when we needed to save the world and all that it would be convenient."
And even if she had been going to say, "No, this team of super heroes you fought an alien invasion with can't crash at our place," she sure as hell isn't going to say, "No, these people who have somehow gotten under your ridiculous exoskeleton aren't going to work out, go find some others."
She doesn't lie to him, doesn't tell him it's comfortable for her. She does say, "I think there's room enough for everyone to have their own floor, don’t you?"
And if, somehow, Not-Natalie's floor ends up being the furthest from their own? That's just the way the logistics work out.
Pepper has enough wit to fill an entire Emmy-award-winning sitcom; she'd be a fool to date Tony Stark without it, and she's not a fool. (She will admit, privately, that she at times makes foolish decisions regarding Tony, but that is something altogether different.) Despite her profusion of wit, however, she is acutely aware the best defense against the rumors spread about her, the whisperings of illicit sexual activities that have bought her way to the top, is no defense at all, a pure wall of silence. Those who need to believe her, will. Those who do not cannot be allowed to matter.
And if sometimes she daydreams about answering an insulting article or a news-piece by having Tony hack into the responsible journalist's life and dig up every slightly questionable detail or incident and then using that information to subtly and chillingly cow that person into leaving planet earth, well. She does not do this, ever, for two reasons. The first is that she has old-fashioned notions about being the bigger person. She knows what is true, Tony knows, and that is all that matters.
The second, and perhaps most pertinent reason, is because Tony wavers between being an idiot savant at press management, and a pure idiot, but when he's emotional about something, it is always the latter, and Tony is emotional about her. She's not buying herself more trouble, thank you very much.
Once, only once, she gently persuaded Tony to buy-out and sell-off of a company whose owner perpetrated rumors and whispers and slurs. Stark Industries made a fantastic profit on the venture, and that, after all, is what she's paid for.
To some extent, Pepper knows the détente between Natalie-Natasha and she cannot go on indefinitely. The Tower might be big, but they still both live there. Pepper believes Natasha has avoided her as a sort of gift, which is considerate in an annoying fashion. In her—rare—spare moments, Pepper has been toying with just taking her out for a drink, venting a little bit and hashing things out.
Then a mission goes to shit while Thor is off-planet. When it's over, they have to send Steve out to find Bruce, because Tony and Clint are both in medical. Natasha's got a couple of broken ribs and a gash on her right arm that takes thirty-four stitches to close, but she's lucky in comparison. They have to sew Clint up on the inside and hope infection doesn't emerge. Tony's managed a compound fracture to his arm even through the suit, and his entire chest is more blue than skin-toned. Pepper gets the alert as she's still trying to reach Phil for news.
It's Natasha on the other end of the line and she says, "Coulson's watching over Barton. Tony—Tony will recover."
"I'll bring him to you," Natasha tells her, and it's for the best, because getting clearance into SHIELD medical never fails to be an epic pain in the ass.
True to her word, Natasha has Tony back at the Tower within the hour. He's three-quarters asleep and not even complaining about the wheelchair, which scares Pepper more than the injuries, but she forces herself into calmness and helps to get him in bed and settled. She gives JARVIS monitoring instructions and gestures toward the bar area. She's not much of a drinker, but, "Are you allowed a glass of wine?"
Natasha hesitates for a moment, then shakes her head. "Probably not a good idea. Have any chocolate milk?"
"Soy?" Pepper asks.
"That will do."
Pepper finds herself asking, "Comfort drink?"
"Little bit. Helps muscle recovery."
Pepper takes the Silk out of the kitchen and brings it back for her, with a tall glass. She pours herself a Shiraz, takes a sip, and says, hesitating only a second, "Thank you, for getting him home."
"If any of the others had been an option, I would have let them. I hadn't meant—" Natasha looks directly at Pepper, drawing herself up a bit and says, "I'm sorry."
"For there not being anybody else, or because you used me to spy on him?"
Natasha doesn't avert her eyes. She says, "Yes."
Pepper pauses for a moment then finds herself laughing a bit, one hand coming to rub over her face. "I do, on some level, understand it was your job."
Natasha smiles at that, just a small quirking of her lips. "And I do, on some level, understand that doesn't matter."
"The thing is, that's not really it."
Natasha raises an eyebrow. "It?"
"I'm not overly thrilled by the fact that you infiltrated my company and spied on my fiancé, but all's fair in love, war, corporate and government espionage. Fine. It's that you got him wrong, on a basic level, and now half the time all he hears is your words, your judgment of him based on an incomplete study during an atypical period of his life."
Natasha is still for a long moment. When she moves, it is a bare opening of her lips. "Ah."
"Ah," Pepper responds. She can hear the harshness, and she doesn't care.
"So doing my job is acceptable, but that I might make mistakes is not?" The question's not even sarcastic, it's wholly sincere with an underlying thread of what Pepper thinks might be concern.
Pepper drinks more of her wine. When she has calmed the roiling in her chest and stomach a little, she says, "Not—not about him. Not around me. Not and expect immediate forgiveness."
Natasha tilts her head. "But eventual is possible?"
"You've brought him home to me more often now than I can ignore with any bit of fairness or…truth."
"I am well-used to receiving neither," Natasha says softly.
"Yeah," Pepper says, drowning the last of her wine. "I think that's part of the problem I'm having."
Two days later, when Tony's bitching every time he wakes up and luckily, asleep more than not, Pepper escapes to the office for a bit, glad she had the foresight to locate the administrative branch of the company over forty floors away from any residential areas. It's not another building, but it can feel like it if she wishes. She leaves Tony in Bruce's capable hands with JARVIS's equally capable oversight. It's hard to not hear his breathing for the first hour or so until she acclimates again, and then it's just nice, the sun through the windows, nothing but the quiet clicking while she types.
She's been there five hours or so when her PA calls up, "A Ms. Romanoff to see you?"
Pepper bites back a laugh at the confusion and slight terror in her PA's tone. "Send her in."
Natasha sashays in, the old jeans and ratty t-shirt she's wearing doing nothing to hide her curves. She sets a coffee down on Pepper's desk: Americano, from her favorite little shop, which is fourteen blocks north of where they are, and still hot. Pepper takes a sip, swallows, and casts an appreciative glance in Natasha's direction at the same time as she asks, "Didn't I fire you?"
Natasha responsive smile is wry. "I'm terrible at following directions."
"Mm. Very well, to what do I owe this visit?"
"Clint's annoying when he's injured," she says, in a tone that in no way masks her fondness, "and I needed to get out."
"But not," Pepper points out, "to come here."
"I can leave, if you'd prefer."
"Not until you've answered my question."
Natasha stares past Pepper, out the window, for a moment. "When we spoke, the other night, I—well, I was being honest as to low expectations of others. And I found that, when I thought I about it, I—"
Pepper waits, eventually making a soft noise of encouragement. Natasha focuses back in on her, "That you have those qualities, it makes you someone I would value as a friend, but I haven't the skills necessary to create a true friendship, merely the façade of one."
Pepper narrows her eyes. "You don't consider Clint a true friend?"
Natasha waves a hand. "Clint has seen me—has helped to take me apart. It is different, and not something that can be duplicated."
"I see," Pepper says softly, although she suspects she does not, not really.
"If you'd prefer not—"
"Thank you for the coffee," Pepper interrupts. "That was sweet."
"Oh." Then, "It was a bribe."
"I know," Pepper reassures her. "But the thought's appreciated nonetheless."
Natasha glances down and then back up. "Do you need help? I was good at my fake job, you know?"
Pepper does know. It's one of the reasons she was so pissed. She looks at the piles on her desk. "Are you really offering?"
Natasha's smile is small and a little heartbreaking when she says, "I'm working pretty hard at the whole 'being real' approach to life."
Tony is always oblivious right up until the point where he's not, so Pepper's not surprised when he rests his chin on her stomach one night as they're both post-coital and says, "You've been spending a lot of time with our resident arachnid."
He's just gotten his cast off, and is a nightmare to try and corral, to force into stillness and rest just enough to maintain the ongoing healing process. As much as she loves sex with him, she does not kid herself that it is not sometimes her way of taking him down far enough that he can at least close his eyes.
Pepper buries her fingers in his hair. "That a question?"
Tony arches into the touch. "Hm. Not really. Just…glad that's gotten easier for you."
Pepper laughs a bit. "You choose the strangest moments to actually notice things."
Tony kisses her stomach and doesn't argue.
When the Malibu house—where Pepper's removed Tony to specifically to try and get him to unwind a bit—is leveled, the first person Pepper attempts to call is Natasha. She doesn't get through; Natasha's on assignment and unreachable, but it's the first dime she drops. Then she stops making calls until she can come up with a game plan that doesn't put anyone else in danger. She wants Tony, dripping and bleeding and scared, but alive. She wants Natasha at her back. She wants Rhodey's strategic mind, Phil's calm manner, Bruce's inner demons and Steve's protective streak. She might not know them as well, but she wouldn't mind having Clint or Thor around either, if nothing else because strategy in times of conflict is what they know. She does too, but it's more about hostile corporate takeovers than actual missiles being aimed at her hearth and home.
She should probably be used to it by now. She'll consider this possibility later, when she's gotten herself and Tony's not-ex-botanist somewhere relatively safe. Phil is still recovering, but if she can get through to him, he might be able to locate Natasha, or at least send her one of the others. She's a little surprised not to have heard from him, but JARVIS is…down? Something is wrong, at the very least, and Pepper wouldn't be the least surprised if there's a security protocol only Tony knows about that nobody can break through just yet.
It is a mark of how much she loves the man that as two complete psychopaths are discussing using her in a plot for world domination while she's having her airways cut off, most of her thoughts sound like, next time, we need to have emergency procedures in place to summon reinforcements and get one of the others to me. And if "one of the others" sounds a lot like "Natasha" in her own head, that's nobody's business but her own.
JARVIS gets hold of Steve—who's the only one at the Tower, evidently—and they've got air lift off the damn floating nest of AIM and Crazy within an hour. The SHIELD pilot tries to take them to the nearest hospital, but after Pepper melts one of the seats, he acknowledges that Tony might be right about needing his own equipment.
Natasha returns to the Tower less than a day after Tony and Pepper; and she must come to them first, because she's not even out of her field suit. Her hair is in tangles and her expression is blank. Tony, who's answered the door, says, "Oh. Hi."
There's a beat before Natasha asks, "May I come in?"
Tony stands back and lets her inside. She walks in far enough to be able to see Pepper, and then stands still, glancing back and forth between the two of them. When it's become evident Natasha won't break the silence, Pepper asks, "Mission go all right?"
It's barely noticeable, the way Natasha takes a breath through her nose and lets it out slowly, but it's there. After a long moment, she says, "I've…convinced Fury to change the team protocols so there's an alert system in case of future problems."
"We're okay," Pepper says softly. "I mean…mostly. We will be."
Natasha nods in acknowledgment, but otherwise doesn't move. Pepper catches Tony's attention and raises an eyebrow. He looks worn and terrified in a way he never does when there are explosions and shit, only when other humans are involved. Pepper smiles at him, she can't help it. He drives her crazy, of course he does, but never so much that she's considered walking away.
He nods and asks, "You wanna stay here tonight?"
Natasha looks over at him, surprise evident only in the slight shift of her body language. "You two should—"
"Stay," Tony says again. "We want you to."
Natasha looks toward Pepper, who says, "Keep us safe," because she knows sometimes it is easier to have a task, to be entrusted with something, rather than just trusted.
"Yes," Natasha says. "Yes, of course."
That night is the first time they sleep together. Settled between them, Tony manages to fall asleep. He seems to give into the strain of the past few weeks and the sleepless months before in the face of their promise to stay. When his breathing has evened out, Natasha says softly, "I can go. If—well, if this is just friendship, perhaps I should."
Curious and too tired to filter, Pepper asks, "And if I asked you to stay as just a friend?"
"I don't know. I imagine I would stay for the moment. But my concept of you as someone who is driven and practical but not cruel would be damaged, certainly. And I'm good at walking away."
"Good," Pepper says softly. It's reassuring somehow.
"Should I stay?"
Pepper finds Natasha's hand with hers and threads their fingers together. "Please."
Pepper wakes to find Natasha sitting up, over Tony, cataloguing his new bumps and bruises, her expression thoughtful. She looks at Pepper half a second after Pepper's eyes have opened. Pepper says, "You can kiss it better."
It's surprisingly sweet, getting to watch Tony react. For so long the thought of Tony with other women was a complicated, sticky notion that Pepper simply avoided, but here, watching him take Natasha in, let her lead, is something simple and terrifying and perfect.
Tony reaches out and draws Pepper nearer to him at some point, finding her lips with his. After that, things become more sense-driven than linear. Natasha still smells of gun oil, but underneath there's also the French soap she uses. Tony smells of smoke and metal, coffee and whiskey.
Natasha has more scars than Tony, but Tony's are more evident. She's confident about her bedroom skills in the same way Tony can be, and strangely gentle with Pepper, echoing Tony's familiar touch.
They nap, afterward, tangled and heated and still so tired. And when they wake, they meet in the middle again.
They get a little unsubtle in the weeks that follow. Tony's desperate to fix Extremis, Pepper's having nightmares on-and-off about watching him disappear into the ocean, about the heat that sometimes rips through her, threatening obliteration, and Natasha is clearly fighting her own desire to stay close all the time. So, it's not shocking when a photo of the three of them at dinner surfaces. The photo isn't terribly suggestive, but it has all the right elements of intrigue, with Pepper smiling adoringly at Natasha, and Tony's hands lying atop one of Pepper's and one of Natasha's.
Of course, it may (sort of kind of a little bit) be the picture that lights the spark, but it's not what fans the media's flames. No, the headlines are to thank for that, the insidious suggestions that maybe Pepper is doing what she can to keep Tony from returning to his playboy days, or that she'll do whatever he wants to keep his company and his money.
Natasha offers to kill the perpetrators, and Pepper says, "You can't kill every member of the press." She follows up with, "I actually believe in free speech," when Natasha looks as though she has taken Pepper's previous statement as a challenge.
"We could sue for libel," Tony says. Tony likes riling up the legal department, which always ends with Pepper having to impose damage control.
"Would you like to be the one to explain that yes, we are in a sexual relationship with each other, but no, it does not have to do with my desire to manipulate you?" Pepper asks with all the sweetness she can muster.
Tony perks up. "Wait, you're going to let me appear at a press conference?"
Pepper buries her face in her hands.
"I could use some lessons in not giving a shit what others think," Pepper admits quietly to Natasha one day while they're both at the offices, working on their own projects.
Natasha leans back and puts her feet on top of the desk. They're bare, and Pepper visually follows the line of skin around the curve of Natasha's ankle until it disappears inside her jeans. Natasha says, "I give a shit. Sometimes."
Pepper raises an eyebrow. Natasha shrugs. "I do with Clint, or you. Phil. Sometimes Tony, when it's worth the effort."
Pepper waves a hand. "Different. That's a necessary component of working relationships. I've seen the cartoons that get published about you, the editorials, the sly suggestions that your 'assets' are the reason you're on the team."
Natasha holds Pepper's gaze as she says, "I killed people without question or conscience for most of my formative years and well into young adulthood. There's very little that can be said about me that's worse than the truth."
Since that's an issue Pepper's not sure of how to approach yet, she responds, "We're going to agree to disagree on that point for the moment."
Natasha's eyes narrow ever so slightly, more a flicker than anything else. "If it helps, I don't do as well when the talk is about…what is mine."
A shock of electricity runs down Pepper's spine at the uncertain possessiveness of the statement. "A little."
Natasha tilts her head. "What they think, it—it matters because it's never about who we are, but about the parts we're made up of. They look at you and see a woman, and that's only one part, and they don't even really understand what it means. And that's what makes it so infuriating, but it's also what makes it ultimately powerless."
Pepper nods slowly. "It's still fucking insulting. All of it."
And it makes Pepper worry, in the deepest part of her, that maybe the people who matter see her as a woman who has pursued and accomplished love only in the name of success and manipulation. She knows it is not true, but intellectual realization is rarely a substitute for emotional understanding. She sighs and looks at the financial report she has been slogging through. "I deserve fresh air. And really good coffee."
"Agreed," Natasha says, and is on her feet before Pepper realizes she's moving.
The furor over the picture dies down in a few weeks, only to be revived months later when Pepper rushes to the scene of an Avengers-averted attack in New Jersey. There are more pictures, and more suggestions of all sorts. Tony says, "I think we should frame them. I like thinking I'm sleeping with a woman as devious and calculating as you clearly are."
There's a pause where Pepper blinks before Natasha asks, "You do, huh?"
Tony smirks at her. Pepper crumples the offending article in her fist, laughs, and tosses it toward the nearest trash bin.