Okay! So, the first chapter of "Under a Thick Exterior" actually got me to like this pairing.
Actually, consider this a follow up to "Under a Thick Exterior" because I'm tired and lazy and don't feel like making up something new. Second part takes place literally like five minutes after her chapter. You don't need to read that particular story for any of this to make sense, but it helps.
From the point of view of Pepper (which is weird because I don't normally write characters I don't like). And it's not "bashing" or whatever it's called either. Segmented like a lot of my stuff. One shot. Also, the evolution of the relationship seems really fast, but keep in mind this is from a third person who's only hearing/seeing snatches and isn't exactly an objective observer.
Disclaimer: Don't own.
The first time Pepper Potts meets Natasha Romanoff, she doesn't think anything of it. The smaller woman is pretty, she supposes, but she doesn't smile too much which ruins her, and doesn't make her all that great of an assistant either.
That was back when she was just another employee and Tony was acting too strange (which dying from blood poisoning does to you) for her to really pay attention. At that point Natasha - or Natalie, at the time - was just another person caught up in the whirlwind of what was essentially an emotional breakdown and at the end when the truth came out, she hated her. Absolutely and indefinitely, she thought, because she doesn't like liars even if she works for one. That's a fact she likes to ignore most days.
Then the other woman was gone, the disaster temporarily averted, and for about a solid year, she didn't think of her. Because after all, with any semblance of trust broken, it wasn't as if Natasha Romanoff would ever end up near Tony again.
But she's wrong. And she's always wrong, she feels like, when she finds Natasha in the ruined Stark Tower not long after the battle of Manhattan is over, sitting on the table as Tony sticks butterfly stitches on her temple. Captain America is there too, and they're all arguing. The world is saved, an alien invasion successfully put down and God knows what else, and they're arguing about where they want to go for dinner like it's a normal Friday night and there's nothing else to do.
"Hey, Pepper," Tony says, backing up and wiping his hands off on a washcloth he had set on a table. "Romanoff, how does your head feel?"
Pepper doesn't even get a chance to say hello before the other woman answers, "My head feels fine. It's my stomach that's bothering me. Seriously, Stark? Shawarma?"
"I heard it was supposed to be good!"
"I still say we get pizza," Steve Rogers says from the other side of the table, giving her a nod and smile as greeting. "I've been here for three months and still haven't had Brooklyn pizza."
Natasha rolls her eyes and touches the cut on her forehead. "Brooklyn's going to be flooded with people, Captain," she tells him and Pepper can't remember the last time she felt so third wheeled. She's the one at Tony's side and though she's trying to not be possessive, looking at that sarcastically genuine smile he gives her makes it a little hard. "There's this Mexican place in that uptown area that wasn't hit too hard. That should be open."
"That place is like the size of a shack," Tony says. "I don't really think all six of us will fit there. Besides, I want pizza too."
"Wow, something you guys agree on? I'm shocked."
There's something here that she's missing and no one's offering up an explanation. All she wants to do is ask her friend if he's okay, if he's not hiding the fact that he's dying for the second time because there's no way flying into space did anything for his health. Her hands hurt from gripping the arm rests as tightly as she did. "I still say Brooklyn," Rogers says. "What do you think, Stark?"
"Pizza's pizza," he answers. "So, yeah, Brooklyn's good. Or Lombardi's, but that might be covered in rubble by this point. Most places in northern Jersey have pretty good pizza, too, if we get desperate."
"Guys, I really don't -"
"Hey, I flew a rocket into space and killed an alien race. Don't I get a say?"
With a sigh, Natasha slides off the table. "Fine, you win. I'll go tell the others. And hi, Ms. Potts. What's up?"
Hey, Pepper. Hi, Miss Potts. What's up. How were they all being so relaxed? "N-not much," she says weakly, reasonably confused. She adds, "Tony, how're you feeling?"
He looks over and runs his fingers through his hair. "Hm? I feel great - well, except for the whole shawarma thing. That sucked. Want to come out to pizza with us?"
Not a single mention of almost dying, but at least that means he's still the same. And though she wants to go, she shakes her head. "I just wanted to check in," she tells him and smiles. Today is their day, she reminds herself, and pretends that turning it down has nothing to do with not wanting to get hurt. And there's no reason to feel hurt anyway because it's just the adrenaline that's blowing this out of proportion and not because she realizes that Natasha is the woman who touched his face after he woke up and not her. "Um, I better leave. Work beckons."
Tony nods distractedly as he throws away bloodied wash clothes, and Rogers asks, "You have work right after the world almost ends?"
"Well, you know," she answers but of course he doesn't, "Stark Industries and all. The destruction of New York City pretty much guarantees a press conference."
"Do me a favor and try to delay that as long as possible," Tony says, last few words overlapped by Natasha yelling from the floor below, "If you want pizza, get your asses down here!"
"You sure, Pepper?"
He shrugs and grabs a jacket. "I'll talk to you tomorrow," he says and she nods.
"It was nice meeting you, Ms. Potts, " Rogers says politely and she echoes him with a "You too" before he and Tony exit, leaving her to stand alone in the steadily darkening living room.
In shock, Pepper stares at the six red letters set glaringly at the top of the keypad, flashing at her for the second time. So much for trying the wrong combination. A slight panic begins the build in the back of her throat because no, Tony could not have terminated her access code. It just wasn't -
"I suggest you back up, Ms. Potts," JARVIS suddenly says, causing her to jump. "The elevator doors are about to open."
Not knowing what else to do, she backs up and waits, assuming it's Tony coming to apologize for a glitch or something. But to her surprise, it's Natasha that walks out, face turned to her cell phone as she exits. Though she gives no acknowledgement that she knows Pepper is there, she asks, "Are you trying to get into Stark's floor?"
"Yes," she answers, not knowing what else to say, and Natasha looks up. "Did he -"
Natasha shakes her head. "I locked everyone out who tries to access his floor for the next three hours," she says in a casual way like anyone's allowed to do that other than Tony. "I just got him to go to sleep and I'm not letting anyone wake him up."
"Sleep?" she repeats, jumping to conclusions even as she tries not to. "Why - What's wrong?"
The phone beeps, and the other woman's face is turned down again, focused on the small screen. It's one of Tony's, Pepper realizes, not something from S.H.I.E.L.D. or a common company. "Nothing," she says. "He just hasn't slept in about seventy hours. Can the thing wait? Because it took me like ten minutes just to get him to open the door."
"Ten minutes?" She says that like it's a long time. "He let you in?"
She hesitates, then says, "Okay, then. Thanks for letting me know."
Though Natasha nods, she doesn't seem to be listening anymore and because she doesn't know what else to do, Pepper walks away.
"Why do you only have microwaveable food, Stark?"
"I'm a horrible cook."
Pepper hears Natasha snicker as she stands outside the third floor door and JARVIS announces her presence. Tony calls for to come in and she pushes open the door and walks down the short hallway to the kitchen on the right. It's just the two of them there, sharing a bowl of edamame beans that looks dosed in salt. Before she can say anything, Natasha looks up and says, "How have you not killed him yet?"
"He's so unhealthy," she answers and throws one of the seed casings back into the bowl. "And you know, Stark, for someone with your level of health issues, you should probably take a little bit more care of yourself."
Tony throws a bean at her, whacking her in the forehead. "Shut up," he says before adding, "Want some edamame, Pepper?"
"No, thanks," she says and glances down at the tablet, forcing herself not to wonder why Natasha and Tony were suddenly acting like best friends. She's never seen the other woman smile before, but here she is, sending him a small one that shouldn't count as real but does. "Listen, Tony, the Board wants to hold a meeting about stocks. They're dramatically increased over the past month and -"
He groans. "Another one? The last one wasn't even two weeks ago. Romanoff, be happy you don't have to deal with this bullshit. You just have to go to a S.H.I.E.L.D. meetings."
"Which we have tomorrow."
"Don't remind me." He sighs and takes an edamame and Pepper feels third wheeled again. "What day?"
"Tomorrow," she answers and takes a seat next to him. "What time should I make it for?"
Natasha, rather than Tony, answers, "Some time after six."
Though she doesn't want to take orders from the other woman, she marks it down anyway. Tony asks, "Anything else, Pepper?"
"No," she says. "It's been pretty quiet over the past few weeks."
Across from them, Natasha eats the last edamame bean and puts it back into the bowl. "Clint can cook, you know," she says. "I think I'm going to call him and tell him to pick up groceries or something. Or trick Steve into doing it again. That way you won't just eat crap."
She sounds about one step away from telling him to sleep more, and Pepper can't help but wonder want changed. "Fine," Tony answers. "Pepper, want to stay? Or are you busy again?"
Over the past month, he's asked her to stick around a few times and she can't turn him down forever, so she agrees. He nods and looks back at Natasha, but she's on the phone already, arguing with Barton and for the thousandth time, Pepper feels left out.
On a Tuesday in August, Pepper reenters her office after her lunch break to find an unannounced Natasha Romanoff sitting in the chair across from her on the desk, arms crossed and posture low. When she sees her, she straightens and says, "We have to talk."
Of all the ways to start a conversation, that's probably one of the more unexpected ones. Pepper walks around the desk and takes her seat. "Is there something wrong?" she asks because there's no reason for the other woman to be here since they've pretty much established that their relationship is one based on hate. "Did something happen with Tony?"
"Tony is the problem," Natasha answers and tucks her hair behind her ear. Pepper wonders when she and Tony went from a last name to first name basis, and when they started worrying about each other. "Do you have any idea how to get him to see a psychiatrist?"
Oh god, no. "I've been trying for two years," she says with a sigh. "When do you ask?"
"He hasn't slept in about a week, yesterday he took three showers, and according to Dr. Banner, he had a literal panic attack last Wednesday when he woke him up." The other woman crosses her arms again and Pepper never took her to be fidgety. "And - I mean, fuck, even Clint and Steve are worried. Apparently he isn't using the melatonin you gave him either."
You might have a better chance than I do, she thinks, but keeps that thought to herself. "I don't know," she says honestly. "He had flashbacks for about a month and half two years ago, but he never showed any signs since then. Either he's just been really good at hiding them, or something triggered it to -"
Natasha swears in what Pepper's pretty sure is Russian before saying, "I think he's always had and they've just gotten worse. I blame space. You really have no idea?"
"Great, so this was useless. Not even how to get him to sleep?"
She thinks. "You can do what you did last time," she answers. "If he's in the lab, the new override code is eight-five-seven-five -"
"I know it," Natasha says. "Besides, he lets me if I annoy him enough. Thanks anyway, I guess."
"Any time," she says numbly, and all she can think is that Natasha doesn't need the code.
And admittedly, Pepper finds herself jealous.
Pepper isn't sure how she ended up on the couch in front of the third floor television, squished between Tony and the armrest and watching The Departed with all six of the Avengers (Thor having recently come back from Asgard), some girl named Jane, and Agent Hill. And "watching" is a bit of an exaggeration since everyone's talking at once and no one's paying attention.
"This are my kids," Agent Hill tells her, showing her pictures of her children. They both look like her, and they're both completely adorable. "Michaela's staying over a friend's house for the night for a birthday party and Barton invited me, so my dad's spending time with Billy."
The picture Agent Hill holds out to her is of the two kids in rec sports shirts, little Michaela in green with a number sixteen and Billy in a red number eight, hugging each other tightly and smiling with missing teeth. "How old are they?" she asks and out of the corner of her she sees Natasha take a seat on the floor directly in front of Tony. She looks up at him and that smile is definitely big enough to count as real.
Agent Hill answers, "Michaela's five and Billy's seven," as she hears Tony say, "What? I thought you wanted to meet Jane."
"They're getting all cuddly," Natasha says. "That isn't exactly my thing."
"What sport?" Pepper asks, trying her hardest to pretend the other two aren't there.
"Soccer. I don't think Mickey likes it, but you know little sisters - Billy started and naturally she wanted to play too."
As a kid she knew more than enough siblings to know this. A friend of hers calls her daughter "Little Sarah Me-Too." Tony says, "I don't think I believe you, 'Tasha."
Tasha? Pepper feels her breath catch in her throat, her world narrowing in, something not helped by Natasha's answer of, "I don't cuddle, Tony."
"Oh, that's bullshit and you know it."
"Are you okay?" Agent Hill asks suddenly, and she snaps out of it, giving the other woman a nod and a strained smile.
"Just a little tired," she says. "Long day."
This really isn't true, and this Friday has actually been her easiest one in a while, but the agent doesn't need to know that, and they continue on with the conversation like nothing's wrong.
The problem with Tony's Arc Reactor is that it's always about one step away from killing him if he uses too much power with his suit. So when she finds out that he and Banner were injured after a mission (that occurred before the "other guy" was able to make an appearance), she's worried but not all that surprised. Unfortunately, she isn't all that surprised to find Natasha at his bedside either.
"He didn't over use any power," says the woman before she can ask, not looking at her. Pepper feels like she does this a lot. "He got hit in the side with a couple tons of force. Broke six of his ribs."
Pepper takes a seat across from her. "Did they give him anesthesia?" she asks, and doesn't like that over the past few months she's become the one with the questions rather than the one with the answers. It reminds her too much of middle school, when her best friend started freshman year and made new friends, and she became pushed aside as the youngest one. Now she's thirty-four, twenty years later, and she doesn't like the similarities she finds between now and then. Natasha nods, and seems irked that she's there, though maybe she's just reading too much into it. "He didn't puncture a lung, did he?"
"Scraped it," Natasha answers. "He'll be up in about an hour and half, so he'll probably be allowed to go home by the time the day ends."
Tony looks like a wreck, one half of his shirt pulled up so as not to irritate the stitches, an IV running into one arm, hair sticking out in all directions, a cut on the back of one hand. She doesn't even want to imagine how much he'll complain when he wakes up, but stops the train of thought before it can go further. Without being told, she knows she won't be there to hear his kvetching because he isn't so alone now, living in home with five other people, and Natasha as the one who stands at his side.
She never thought she'd miss being needed.
After a few moments of awkward silence pass, she stands, unable to take the intense way Natasha's eyes are focused on Tony's face, like she's just waiting for him to wake up and lecture him. Which should be her job. "Tell him to call me when he gets out," she says.
JARVIS rarely announces her presence if she plugs in her access code. Normally this isn't an issue, but there are certain things she'd rather not see. Tony kissing Natasha as she sits on one of his work tables has to be up there in her top ten.
She watches in shock from her unseen vantage point, trying to take in the fact that Tony hasn't told her. They've kept secrets between each other, she knows, and isn't naive enough to think otherwise, but a relationship with probably one of the most dangerous woman in the world is fairly important. Does everyone else know, she wonders, and she's the only one who hasn't been informed? No, she decides, because there's no way that Tony would have told them and not her because she was here first and that has to count for something.
Or at least that's what she hopes.
Though she wants to walk away and pretend she never saw this, she can't because the message she has for Tony needs to get to him asap and when she sees his hand slide up Natasha's shirt, she says, "JARVIS, please let Tony know that I'm here to see him," in a voice that's a good octave higher than normal. Though the sound is muffled through the wall, she can hear the AI follow orders and waits until Tony and Natasha finish fixing their clothes before she opens the door.
"Hey, Pepper," he says and it almost scares her how causal he sounds.
Because if he's keeping something this big from her, what else is he hiding?
"Did I do something wrong, Pepper?"
She leans back against the desk and crosses her arms. "You could've told me," she says.
"Could've tol -" Understand dawns of his face. "Oh."
With a sigh, she says, "Yes, Tony, 'oh.' It would've been nice to know."
"No one knows," he says like that somehow makes up for it. And it doesn't, because she's dealt with his shit for about ten years now and there are some things she should be told by principal alone. Sure, she works with him (or, for him, technically) but last she checked, they were still friends...right? "We aren't sure if this allowed since I don't really work for S.H.I.E.L.D., but am still part of the Avengers. If that makes any sense."
"So you're following rules now?" she asks, because hell if she's letting him off that easy. Finding out the way she did hurt, something that Tony is completely oblivious to and because he is the way he is, she doesn't think he'd ever understand.
In response, he shrugs. "Precautions," he answers. Awkwardly, he adds, "I mean, you get it, right? She's not just some girl."
"Not just some girl" is something of an understatement. Just some average girl can't kill someone in about a hundred different way and she never really registered until now that for Tony this might not be too weird because he can do the same thing. And he has. The Avengers, here to protect the world, but in the end they reach it in the most Machiavellian way possible. So much for superheroes.
Or maybe this is simply her being bitter.
"Fine," she says. "Do you love her?"
"I asked, do you love her?"
Again, a shrug. "Haven't really thought it," he answers, and she doesn't believe him.
Um, awkward cut off, but it's like two in the morning and this is the best I can think of (I'll post this tomorrow). If enough people request it, I can do either an add-on or separate story written in either Natasha or Tony's POV. Or both.
Also, writing this actually made me feel bad for Pepper. When I don't like her. Weird.