The Other Guy and the Little Guy

She had been briefed, of course, on just who Tony was inviting into their home when he had first suggested providing semi-permanent (or permanent, depending on the person) lodgings for every member of the Avengers team in their tower. Knowing that Tony wouldn't have offered something so generous if it hadn't meant a lot to him, she'd been more than willing to meet quietly with the decorators and the reconstruction team to reorganize, shift, rearrange and redesign an entire floor, with easy access to their own set of rooms the floor above ("Pepper, honey, we're talking about saving the world here." "Tony, sweetie-pie, munchkin-face?" "Stop treating you like an idiot?" "Yes, please."). She'd anticipated liking these people – the stories Tony told, the way he'd come back exhausted, but… in a way, rejuvenated, from the Loki encounter, the sense of companionship he'd felt, had gone a long way to reassure her that she would. What she hadn't anticipated was how much she'd come to love them, having them around her.

Natasha was splitting time – keeping up some of her responsibilities at Stark Industries, as well as being a S.H.I.E.L.D agent, and Pepper had come to appreciate the pleasure of having a woman friend around again – for a long while, her life had been exclusively about Tony.

Clint was the definition of unobtrusive. She wasn't often surprised to discover he was in residence. She got the feeling he stopped by randomly – that this one of several bolt-holes he maintained. It probably wasn't actually paranoia if you had reason to believe people were trying to kill you.

Bruce had been the most surprised at the gesture, and the one who spent the most time at the Tower, rarely leaving. He and Tony spent hours together, working in the adult playground Tony called his R&D department, and Pepper had come to appreciate his unexpected sense of humor.

Thor was… enthusiastic, and she'd seen the charm that had so captured the attention of Dr. Jane Foster, whom she knew socially from various S.H.I.E.L.D. functions. His old-fashioned manners and wide-eyed wonder had easily endeared him to her.

And Steve was… Hmm. It was hard to put into words what Steve was. More than little brokenhearted, but so basically decent that Pepper found herself going out of her way to make his transition to the modern world as easy as possible; adding some retro touches to his Avengers quarters, and helping Tony find parts for the Indian motorcycle they'd gifted him with.

At the moment, there was a poker game raging in the lounge downstairs, and Pepper was trying desperately to stay awake long enough to finish a share holder's report, but fatigue had become a big problem in the last couple of weeks. She'd caught herself nodding off at her desk more than once in the past week, and even JARVIS was quietly insisting that she rest when her body demanded it.

Two more points, she told herself, and then sleep. In that huuuuge king. With noooo Tony to get in the way of flailing out the way God intended…

"Pepper?" Bruce Banner was lingering in the doorway to their living room, where the emergencies-only stairwell fed into their apartment.

"Bruce! Come on in." Pepper put her laptop to the side, mentally marking her spot so she could pick it right back up. "Did you guys need something downstairs?"

Bruce smiled. "No. I think I'm going to call it a night soon, anyway."

"Bowing out of guys' night so early?" Pepper asked teasingly.

Bruce shrugged, in that eloquent way that he had. Pepper figured he could say more with a shrug than anyone else she knew. It said: give me space, give me time, give me quietto work out what I need to say… and so Pepper grabbed her laptop and resumed her quiet typing, while Bruce found a spot on a couch across the living room and sat, watching his hands clench and unclench.

"I uh, wanted to come up here and reassure you, myself, that I would be out of your way by the time the little guy comes along."

Pepper stopped typing and looked up from her screen. "Excuse me?"

Bruce smiled ruefully. "I know… no one's supposed to know yet."

"I am going to kill Tony," Pepper growled.

"Actually, you'd have to kill deductive reasoning, a rudimentary knowledge of anatomy, and average observational skills." Bruce coughed. "In my case."

"Bruce, we don't want you to leave. I promise you, that's the very last thing we want," Pepper insisted gently.

Bruce looked down at his hands, still fisting and unfisting. "I've been thinking. I was doing good work in Calcutta."

"You were hiding. You weren't doing research in your field of expertise. Yes, you gained some control over your… issue, but Tony tells me you've come a long way in just the few months you've been here, too." Pepper glanced at him through half-closed lids. "Plus, you know, your presence here in our R&D department isn't doing much to hurt Stark Industries."

"Uh, thank you? I think. But… I just thought…"

Pepper waved a hand. "We trust you. Tony and I trust you. And we trust the Hulk. He did the right thing we needed him to during the whole Loki thing. You're gaining more and more control every day."

"If the right thing is destroying whole city blocks, then you can definitely count on the other guy to do the right thing."

Pepper crossed the room and took Bruce's hand in hers, cautiously, watching his face for any sign he was too uncomfortable with the contact for it to continue. "You know, I think you and Tony just… you speak your own language. You understand each other – I don't want Tony to have to lose contact with a friend – and I don't want you to have to give Tony up, either."

Bruce didn't let go of her hand, but he didn't relent, either. "Pepper, you're taking a huge risk here."

Pepper's eyes grew dark and serious – this was the Pepper Potts that corralled Tony Stark in the morning, had four meetings before breakfast, and ruled the board with an iron fist. This was a woman who knew what she wanted. "This child will be a Stark," Pepper said, "with all of the wonderful gifts that comes with – and all of the terrible burdens."

Bruce looked away, but Pepper could see she was starting to get through to him."It's not even just the Stark name we have to worry about. It's Iron Man."

Bruce's fists stopped clenching and relaxed.

"You see what I mean?" Pepper asked. "I can only speak for myself. But from where I'm standing, the more of you who are practically bulletproof, who could eat tanks for breakfast – the more giant green rage monsters– the better."

Bruce refused to meet her eyes, but he nodded. "Okay."

"Go, if you feel like you need to – we would never want you to feel burdened or forced or confined, but please. Don't go because you think I'm worried about the… other guy, with the little guy. Cause I'm not."

"Your faith is… something."

Pepper waved a hand. "I kept the lights burning for three months while Tony was in Afghanistan, and the whole time Obadiah Stane was telling me to ready myself for the worst. That with as long as he'd been gone, if we'd ever found any part of him, it wouldn't have been recognizable…" Pepper trailed off. "I guess what I'm saying is: when it comes to faith, baby… you haven't seen nothing yet."

Bruce quietly withdrew his hand, and Pepper stepped back to give him space. "He's very lucky to have you."

Pepper lifted a corner of her mouth in a smile. "He knows."

"Then he's as smart as I thought he was."

He padded out of the apartment, as quietly and inconspicuously as he'd entered it, and Pepper sat down on the couch, her hands shaking a little… partly from fatigue, partly from what she'd just brought to light… a time in her life she did her best not to think about. Ever.

"Nice job, Potts."

"Jesus fuck, Tony!" Pepper said, pressing her hand to her chest. "Are you trying to kill me?"

"No." He smiled. "I just uh… you're a nice person, you know that?"

"I'm not, actually," Pepper said with a smile, "but I'll allow you to think that. How much money did you lose to Rogers this time?"

"It's astounding. The man doesn't even cheat. He just sits there, being… decent."

"Disgusting."

"Tell me about it." Tony ran his hands through his hair nervously. "Potts, I never said it before, but… uh. You know I'm sorry, right?"

"Tony… we don't have to talk about this now. We don't have to talk about this ever, actually."

"This isn't us talking about it. This is me… saying I know what you went through must have been hard on this end, because it was sure as hell hard on the other end, and it wasn't just… you know. Being in a cave. It was being away from you. So." Tony cleared his throat. "That's all I have to say about that."

"Good," Pepper said, wiping her eyes. "…Tony…"

"Potts… no crying, all right? I'll just feel like shit, and…"

"Get over here, and take me bed, Stark."

Tony grinned. "Is this 'oh God, I'm so glad you're alive' sex? Because that's like, in the top three."

"Do you want to talk or do you want to…"

Tony was already shutting off lights. "Don't even finish that sentence, Potts. I'm right behind you. JARVIS, lock the door. The devil himself doesn't get a pass, tonight."

"Very good, Mr. Stark. Have a pleasant evening."

Tony laughed. "Oh, I intend to."