Pepper knows she's staring but she can't quite get her brain to engage. Natasha is frowning at her, but it doesn't make much of a difference and for a long minute she just stares. Natasha doesn't even say anything, she just waits for Pepper to come out of her stupor.
When she does, she really doesn't mean to say what she does.
"You're wearing pyjamas!"
Natasha looks down at the fleecy blue pyjamas she's sporting, then back up at Pepper, still frowning.
"It's half eleven at night?" she says and Pepper definitely thinks that should explain everything and it should, it really should but it's Natasha. It's Black Widow.
"Sorry, it is late, I should go."
She turns to go, and Natasha grabs her arm and pulls her back around; a little too hard as Pepper almost slams into her with an oof.
"Sorry," Natasha says. "What did you need?"
"A favour," Pepper says, remembering the file in her hand.
"Sanctioned?" Natasha asks, relaxing her grip on her arm a little but still holding on and leading Pepper through the apartment into the den. There is half a cup of cocoa and a film on pause on the television. She lets go and sits, gesturing Pepper to do the same. She does, eyes tracking the creases in the blue fleece down her legs.
"Not really," Pepper tells her, pulling a file from her bag. "That's why it's a favour."
Natasha simply nods and takes the file, she flicks through it.
"Information or assassination?" she asks, not looking up.
"No, no, don't kill anyone," Pepper cries a little sharper than she intends and she really should not be surprised by Natasha's question but the pyjamas have thrown her off a little. "Sorry, I just want information. All of it."
"Sure," she says. "Is he a threat?"
"To Stark Industries, not to anyone else," Pepper replies. "Is that okay?"
"They're just pyjamas, Pepper," she says. Pepper can feel the blush burn her cheeks.
"I know, I know, I just didn't expect you to, I mean, them to be, I mean."
She never stutters, only Tony can make her feel so out of her depth but since he signed on with the Avengers she's felt a little out of her comfort zone. And while a woman wearing pyjamas wasn't so unusual, it's just not the image of Natasha she has.
Natasha is catsuits and boots and that scissor flip she does to break necks. Even when she was Natalie she was still heals and business suits and that scissor flip.
Natasha is not baby blue pyjamas and slippers and movie nights.
"Sorry," she manages to get out. "This is a different side to you," she adds as if it makes it better. From the look on Natasha's face, it is not. "Shit."
Natasha smiles, then she starts laughing and Pepper blushes harder if possible and that just makes the other woman laugh more.
"What did you think I slept in?" she asks through giggles.
"Nothing!" Pepper blurts out. She is on fire, from her cheeks out and she jumps to her feet. "I better go, thanks and sorry."
She's out the door before Natasha can say anything and before she can say anything else too.
She's half asleep when the doorbell rings. Someone must answer, they don't buzz again, so she turns over and goes back to sleep, glancing at her clock on the way over. It's 4 am, she doesn't need to get up if Tony needs to go save the world. She can sleep through that for another hour or so.
She's been trying to get into some sort of routine since resettling in New York for a while but she can't quite manage it. It's been months but she still feels like she's on California time.
She can't hear Tony talking to anyone but suddenly her door opens and someone flops down on the edge of her bed. She groans and turns over, ready to tear him a new one but finds Natasha sitting there instead. She smiles and Pepper feels the irrational urge to pull the covers up to her chin.
Except she's wearing a t-shirt so what the hell is she covering up? Snoopy?
She manages to sit up, and open both eyes this time.
"Morning?" she tries.
Pepper is pretty sure they do not know each other well enough for this, (mores the pity her mind helpfully adds) but then, Natasha probably has similarly screwed up boundaries to Tony so she isn't overly bothered. Tony would've tried to figure out what she was wearing with the t-shirt.
And would've outright asked.
"That guy, Marcos, you wanted me to look into," Natasha starts. "What exactly were you looking for?"
"He took over one of our suppliers, hostile take over and wants to renegotiate the contracts we have. With me specifically," Pepper replies, very awake and sitting cross-legged in the bed. "Why?"
Natasha ignores her questions.
"Why ask me to look into him though? You have a whole department of corporate spies."
Pepper is about to deny it but remembers that Natasha is a spy and, at one point, helped her coordinate that department.
"Because they couldn't come up with anything. And neither could I," Pepper says, "and I don't mean I couldn't find any dirt, I mean I could even find out who this man was before he bought the company, it's like he didn't exist until six months ago."
"That's what I found too," she says, "on the surface," she adds.
"What did you find?"
"You better have some coffee first," she tells her.
"I'll just put some clothes on," Pepper says, throwing the covers aside as Natasha stands up.
"Don't feel obligated to on my account," the other woman says, eyes raking down her body, lingering on her almost bare legs and if she were anyone else Pepper would slap her. Or mace her.
But this is Natasha, who can block and break her easily. This is Natasha and instead, Pepper just feels very warm.
The spy winks at her and leaves the room.
For her own sake more than anything, Pepper finds some pyjama pants and slips them on before heading out into the den.
Rene Marcos is a false name for a Canadian national, whose real name is stolen too.
Beyond that, the super six as Pepper sometimes likes to call them (in her head at least), seem a little stumped about who this guy actually is because he's been using the name of a dead three-year-old since he was a six-year-old at least.
His obsession is not Stark Industries.
His obsession is with Pepper.
So now she has a rotation of superheroes as her bodyguards which feels completely unnecessary when she has perfectly good security details working for Stark Industries. Though, she supposes this is a little easier, a little nicer because she gets on with them, and she's never been overly great with being followed around or accompanied by security unless it's Happy.
When she's not trying to find Marcos, Natasha takes more than her fair share of shifts with Pepper which makes the entire ordeal almost pleasurable.
Especially, as it turns out, Natasha has a dazzling array of pyjamas.
"Christmas pyjamas?" Pepper asks, as the spy comes out of her bedroom one morning, hair seemingly perfect, and probably has three weapons hidden under the red and white candy cane fabric.
"It's December in New York Pepper," she says.
Pepper looks down at her own sleepwear, a t-shirt and shorts. She's never really been one for pyjamas, California never really called for more than a camisole and panties. She upgraded to a t-shirt and occasionally some shorts but the thermostat and insulation in the tower really makes them moot. It's more psychological than anything.
"I don't know you at all," she mutters, surprised when it's out loud and not just in her head.
"I really am mostly normal," Natasha says, grabbing the coffee and pouring herself a cup. She reaches up to grab some cereal from the cupboard and there is definitely a weapon attached to her waist.
Pepper is both terrified and aroused.
"Did you sleep in that?" she asks.
"In what? The pyjamas?" Pepper reaches out and pokes the hard object beneath the shirt, Natasha lifts it up to reveal a gun at her hip. Pepper can not figure out how it's attached to her pale, soft skin but decides not to ask. "Oh that, no, I keep that under my pillow."
It shouldn't be terrifying, she is surrounded by walking weapons and has been for years now but still, only Natasha really uses guns.
"You expect trouble at breakfast?" she asks, taking the cereal and pouring them both some cornflakes.
"I always expect trouble," she says. "And I don't want anything to happen to you," she adds, a little softer.
The trouble comes at dinner.
Pepper was trying to lead a normal life, it's only been two weeks, and she as good as the Avengers are, as good a spy as Natasha is, she knows she could be in this for the long haul. She once spent nine months with heavy security after a threat to Tony's life, so two weeks is nothing. And both Tony and Natasha reassure her it's not going to take months but weeks.
But then, they were at one point saying it would take days and here they are.
So she keeps up her appointments and other engagements, like this dinner with some of the shareholders and directors of a company Tony really wants her to buy for reasons.
Iron Man reasons.
They made sense, she's not arguing that but she'd really prefer to acquire companies that Stark Industries needs as well as tech he wants. She's trying to grow the company, not arm the avengers. Not that Tony sees it that way, but she's still trying to find a balance between the two of them and their new responsibilities.
So, dinner, a little shop talk and a little wine and they order a second bottle of this stupidly expensive white that the director still seems to like but tastes a bit like it has anti-freeze in it. She's not keen on drinking any more of it and would be almost relieved when it spills all over if it weren't for the fact the bottle explodes as the waiter pours it.
Then the waiter
falls to the floor, blood blooming out from his chest and Pepper doesn't scream until Natasha appears at her side, making her jump. She dives to the floor
when she hears the shot from the other woman's gun.
This is something she's getting used to, alarmingly. She watches as Natasha fires a few more shots, hears Steve yelling at people to get back, get away, but her focus is on the other woman as she works.
This is this the Natasha she knows, the one she's used to.
Then she's gone from her side and over to the other side of the restaurant, Pepper can't help but peek out from behind the table. Natasha is standing over a body, Steve is ushering a few last stragglers out of the restaurant.
"You can come out Pepper," Natasha calls, not looking back behind her. Pepper stands, wipes some of the wine and blood down her – thankfully black – dress. She doesn't go over to Natasha though, she drops down to her knees by the waiter, feels for a pulse, gets nothing.
She jumps at Natasha's voice, the woman standing over her. Pepper looks up at her and nods, letting the woman help her up.
Letting her embrace her for a moment too.
"Is that Marcos?" she asks when Natasha pulls away as quickly as she had stepped in.
"No, but we'll get him, he's getting desperate by targeting you in public like this," she says. "Let's get you home?"
"The waiter..." Pepper says, looking down at the body at her feet.
"Steve and the others will take care of him," Natasha starts to lead her away and Pepper thinks it's odd the other woman is shaking.
"I want to pay for the funeral," she says, "take care of his family," she adds, holding a hand in front of her. It's trembling.
"That's a great idea," Natasha says, taking her hand on holding it in hers, wrapping her other arm around her. She walks her out of the restaurant and the trip back to the tower becomes a bit of a blur.
She sleeps as if the world has gone on vacation and wakes to cold coffee on her bedside table and Natasha sitting in the wicker chair in the corner in yoga pants and t-shirt reading a book. Pepper's book.
When she sits up she realises she's wearing the sole pair of matching pyjamas she owns, a Christmas present she thinks. She doesn't remember from whom. She doesn't remember putting them on. Or leaving the restaurant now she thinks about.
"How you feeling?" Natasha asks, putting the book aside.
"You went into shock, we had medical check you over and then put you to bed," Natasha says, "You don't own a lot of pyjamas."
Pepper looks down at the satin pink.
"You've been here all night?" she asks.
"I switched out for Tony at one point," she replies, "He's down with others, working on finding Marcos."
"Not when I left but if you're feeling okay I can go check."
"I'm fine, I just need coffee," Pepper tells her.
"I can do both."
She doesn't really feel like getting dressed but doesn't really want to deal with the Avengers in pink satin pyjamas. She definitely does not know some of them well enough just yet. She compromises on leggings and a sweater and heads down to the hub Tony has set up for them.
She's kinda glad Thor and Clint have gone out for bagels. Thor always has questions and she's not had enough coffee for them and Clint has been grilling her lately about Natasha in a not so subtle way. And she's never going to have had enough coffee for those conversations.
"Hey Pep, you know this guy?" Tony says, bringing a DMV photo up on the screen. He looms above her, with that I've spent too long in this queue face that she definitely recognises.
"Sorry, no, who is he?"
"The shooter from last night," Natasha says, handing her a coffee and smiling. She's dressed too, the yoga pants replaced with black jeans and a shield hoodie.
"I've never seen him before," she says.
"You're sure?" Tony asks.
She rolls her eyes and Natasha catches the expression and smoothers a laugh.
"It's my job to be sure Tony," she says, taking a long drink of too-hot coffee but not caring in the slightest. When the caffeine hits it will be worth it, she knows that. "Who is he?"
She directs the question at Natasha and the other woman frowns.
"Another nobody, another dead six-year-old from Quebec," she tells her. "I don't really know what's going on here, but this is bigger than some nut with an obsession with you Pepper."
"You better hope Agent Barton got my bagel order correct," she says.
"I called ahead," Natasha tells her.
The Sons of Seven Stars are a cult.
That's all she's really gleaned from the file Natasha has forwarded to her. She's too tired to really take anything in and she's doesn't know any of the faces and this isn't really about her but her place in dealing with Shield and the Avengers. They're working their way from the bottom up apparently; she ranks pretty low on the list.
She's not sure if she's relieved or insulted.
"It's okay to be both," Natasha drops down onto the sofa next to her, curling her legs up beneath her. She's back in matching pyjamas, green cotton, and she rests her head on the back of the cushions and smiles. "I'd be relieved and insulted too."
"How do you do that?" Pepper asks.
"It's my job to read people," she says, "and I know you pretty well."
Pepper smiles. She looks back at the file on her tablet, but Natasha plucks it out of her hand. She puts it on the coffee table, replaces it with a mug of cocoa. She thinks she might be too tired to even drink it but she takes a small sip to make the other woman happy.
"I'll summarise," she says, "because I'm not sure you can even focus right now."
"I can read just fine, it's just not staying in."
"They're misogynistic," she starts, "and obsessed with this idea that Shield is corrupted."
"From the core," Natasha shrugs, "they've floated a few theories about, Nazis, communists, and the current theory – feminists."
"We're a bad influence on the boys apparently," Natasha laughs and Pepper would laugh too if she weren't so tired.
"So you're on the list."
"Yep, pretty much every woman and anyone born female, in Shield, is, and then all the peripheries, people working with Shield and the Avengers."
Pepper finishes her drink and places the empty mug back on the table.
"Can you find them all?" she says, "or the leader."
Natasha squeezes her hand at the hitch in her voice, which makes her blush more.
"It's okay to be afraid," she says. "And I will find them. Every single one. And I'll start at the top."
With that she wishes Natasha a goodnight and not for the first time wishes she had the confidence to invite her to join her. Even it's just to sleep and make her feel safe.
It's taking a long time.
Two weeks was fine, two months is becoming a chore.
Again, she's used to having increased security, bodyguards tailing her everywhere, hell, she's even used to Tony being in her business every second of the day but this, this is different.
This is two months of Natasha Romanov in her life, every day and more than anything she doesn't want it to end.
Okay, so Pepper admits that it's not every day. Because every so often, Natasha disappears, either alone or with the others for a couple of days and comes back to inform her another of the Seven Sons is dead. The rest of the time she is with Pepper, she's moved into her apartment in the tower and when she's not there Pepper misses her.
It's ridiculous, she thinks, she should not feel this way about a trained spy.
A trained assassin.
She does though, she misses Natasha terribly when she's away and mopes around in Tony's apartment talking to Jarvis and Happy who has reassigned himself away from Tony and onto her security detail.
Tony doesn't need a security detail, he'd said at the time, Tony is a security detail.
She can't argue with that logic.
There is a sense of relief whenever Natasha comes back in one piece and another name crossed off her list. There's a sense of dread too. With every man dealt with (sometimes they're killed in action, sometimes taken into Shield custody), they're a little closer to things going back to normal.
Back to normal means less of Natasha in her life. The other woman goes back to her own apartment, her own life and they won't really intersect unless Pepper is around when the Avengers come together.
She falls asleep on the sofa in her clothes, thinking about it.
She's woken up by a firm shake, and she almost rolls over onto the floor. Natasha catches her, helps her to sit up and smiles.
"You have a perfectly good bed Pepper."
Pepper looks her over, inspects whatever skin is visible from head to toe but sees nothing obvious.
"You're home," she says, "are you okay?"
"I'm fine, not a scratch, guy came easy." Pepper raises an eyebrow. "Well, easy enough."
Pepper forces a smile out because that makes six.
"What are you doing on the sofa?"
"Fell asleep watching the television." Natasha glances at the black screen of the set but doesn't comment on it. Jarvis turns everything off for her anyway, they both know it.
"Can I get you some coffee?" she asks instead. "I brought bagels."
"You're amazing," Pepper exhales the words, then blushes. Natasha simply grins at her.
She hauls Pepper to her feet and leads her into the kitchen. She knows she looks a mess, she can feel the snarls of hair at the back of her head and tries to tamp them down at least a little. Natasha looks fine, perfect as if she was heading out on a mission instead of returning from one and Pepper finds it a little disconcerting.
"Here," she says, sliding a mug over to Pepper. She places a bagel in front of her too and sits opposite. "I'm going to
eat, then sleep, if that's okay. Tony and Happy are lurking around somewhere."
"Will this one talk?" Pepper asks.
"Maybe, I don't really need him to talk though," she smiles. "I seem to be doing pretty well without them ratting each other out."
Pepper agrees, and while she doesn't want Natasha to leave, she does wonder
if it would be a little quicker if the Seven Sons did start selling each other out.
"What happens when you catch them all?" Pepper asks.
"When the ring leaders are caught we should be able to fully dismantle the entire organisation," she says. "Then, then you'll be safe." She waits for a reply before taking another bite of her bagel but Pepper doesn't have anything to say. Or at least, she doesn't know how to say it just yet.
Natasha finishes up her breakfast pretty quickly and stands up. She heads out of the kitchen, pauses, then turns to squeeze Pepper's shoulder.
"It'll be fine Pepper," she says.
When she's gone, Pepper drops her head down on the table and sits there until Tony comes looking for her.
The last of the Seven Son's takes another month to find.
Pepper isn't really in danger at this point; with most of the Seven Sons either dead or in custody, the rest of the organisation is trying to regroup, resettle, restructure. It's almost like a business in a way, something she'd mentioned in passing to Natasha.
Apparently, it's how she caught the last 'son', by following the businesses, the changes in CEOs and other executive officers.
But she spends the month with security, like a whole roster of other people, with Natasha, Happy and Tony as her main protection. It becomes normal because she's known Happy and Tony for years and has fallen in love with Natasha.
She doesn't realise until the spy walks in one afternoon, after a week away with a smile that Pepper has come to know well and vehemently dislike. It's her mission accomplished smile and it means that the last of the Seven Sons is either dead or in custody.
It means it's over.
Pepper should be relieved and she can tell Natasha is a little confused when she doesn't really react with any enthusiasm to her news. But all she can think about is how much she'll miss Natasha and how much she loves her.
When she realises it, realises how she feels, she gasps.
Steve is behind Natasha, she hadn't even noticed him over Natasha's smile and her own mounting grief. He's at her side when she gasps, mistaking it for shock or pain.
Which, to be fair, she is in both shock and pain but none of it physical. He takes her elbow and leads her over to the sofa, sitting her down.
"Are you okay?" he asks. "Can I get you anything?"
Pepper manages to nod and Natasha steps up to Steve, pulls him away and whispers something to him. He frowns, but whatever the other woman said to him he leaves without another word. Natasha waits a moment, the doors sliding closed before sitting down on the sofa next to Pepper.
"Want to talk about it?" she asks.
Pepper does. She really does.
What she does instead is lean into Natasha and kiss her on the cheek. She blushes when she sits back but is somewhat emboldened by the flush on the spy's cheeks too.
"I'm going to miss you," she manages to get out and Natasha smiles. "Thank you for everything."
"It was my pleasure Pepper," she replies and she sounds so sincere Pepper could cry. Or kiss her again. "I have some things to finish up, report to Shield, get a medical check..."
"A medical check?" she interrupts. "Are you hurt?"
Natasha laughs again.
"I'm fine, it's standard," she tells her. "I'll be back later okay," she says. "And we'll talk."
Natasha stands, not before kissing Pepper on the cheek, and nods.
"Later," she repeats. She wants to stay sitting on the sofa, wants to wait exactly there for her but she does actually have work to do and the only reason she's not at the office is that it's easier (and safer) to be at home with the increased security.
She doesn't immediately race to the office though like she might once have done. she knows she'll end up at the office long into the evening and Pepper wants to be here when Natasha returns. Even if the idea of talking terrifies her a little.
Natasha turns up at seven in emerald green cotton pyjamas, with take-out in one hand and a shopping bag in the other. She's smiling still, not her mission successful smile but her honestly happy smile that Pepper likes to think is because of her.
"Hey Pepper, Chinese food okay?" she asks, "I got your favourites."
"Put these on first," she says thrusting the shopping bag into her hands. Pepper frowns for a moment but Natasha just shakes her head. "Go change."
She takes the bag and heads into her bedroom. When she pulls out a matching pair of pyjamas she smiles and quickly changes into them. She comes back out barefooted to find Natasha has helped herself to some of Pepper's wine, set out their dinner on the coffee table and is already curled up on her sofa.
"They fit!" Natasha jumps back up and grins at her. "Are they okay?"
"They're great, thank you but..."
Natasha cuts her off with a kiss, their lips connecting for a long moment that steals Pepper's breath.
"I know we need to talk," she says. "But maybe tomorrow, I don't even know what I want to say right now."
Pepper nods but stops her from sitting back down for a moment.
"I just, I just need to tell you I love you though," she says. "It's been on my mind and I just can't..."
Natasha kisses her again, harder this time and Pepper is certain she feels the same way, even if the other woman can't tell her just yet. She can wait though because the way Natasha pulls her closer and even as she breaks the kiss says a lot.
"Natasha," Pepper breathes and the other woman frowns, but Pepper simply smiles. "You want to watch a movie?"
She laughs in reply and pulls Pepper down on the sofa with her, the two of them curling up together in their matching pyjamas.