Rules

A/N: Pepper plays matchmaker…

As they ate a quiet breakfast together, Pepper looked at Tony. "I need your help with something."

"Of course. What is it?" Tony asked.

She laid out her plan.

Days later the guys were all (supposedly) out, so Pepper and Natasha were eating ice cream in the main living area and talking.

Tony had told Clint to stay silent and led him to a security control room.

"Why are we here, Tony?" Clint asked.

"I'm here because Pepper asked me to do something for her, and I can't tell that woman 'no'. You're here because Pepper is going to ask Natasha some questions she thinks you need to hear the answers to."

"So were going to eaves drop on them?"

"Yes," Tony admitted. "Don't tell me you aren't interested in what Red might have to say."

"I'd rather she know she was saying to me," Clint said, but he couldn't deny his curiosity. He turned to leave.

"JARVIS, seal the door until Pepper or I say otherwise, and even if Clint knocks me out, keep playing the feed," Tony said, then smirked at Clint.

Clint rolled his eyes and sat down.

"Are you in love with Clint?" Pepper asked.

"Love is for children," Natasha answered automatically. She saw the flash of hurt in Pepper's eyes. "I'm sorry, Pepper. I know how in love you and Tony are. But you have to admit that Tony isn't always the best argument for being a grown up," Natasha teased.

Pepper smiled, unable to argue the point.

In the security room Clint smirked at Tony.

"You're saying you don't love Clint? I know at least some of what you did to get him back from Loki. I see the way you two are together."

"I… I love Clint, but I don't know if I know how to be in love the way you are with Tony. The way Jane is with Thor. I don't believe in fairy tales with happy endings… at least not for me. I hope you and Tony prove me wrong, and Jane and Thor. But me…"

Pepper gave her friend an assessing look. "You don't think you deserve to fall in love and have a happy ending."

Clint shut his eyes, knowing just how right Pepper was. He didn't see the sympathy in Tony's eyes, or the knowing look as Tony realized Clint felt the same way Natasha did.

"I don't. And before you say I do deserve it, you've only seen me at my best. You don't know the things I've done in my past. The blood on my hands."

"You saved New York, probably the world. That washes away a lot of blood, Tasha."

"It does. And yet, my hands still aren't clean. That should tell you something, Pepper. I'm not sure some things can be washed away…"

"But you keep trying," Pepper noted.

"Yeah. The other choice is to go back to being what I was before. I won't do that to myself, or to Clint."

"To Clint?"

"He broke the rules to save my life and bring me in. The 'deal' was that if I ever… If I go back to how I was, Clint has to finish the job."

"You mean… he'd have to kill you?" Pepper was horrified.

Tony's horrified eyes met Clint's calm eyes. Clint knew he'd never have to finish that particular job. He trusted Natasha not to go back to being what she was.

"That was the deal. He made it to save my life – so SHIELD wouldn't kill me." Natasha replied.

"But that was years ago. He'd never kill you now. It would…" Pepper's voice trailed off into silence.

"Destroy him. I know."

Tony looked at Clint, who just met his gaze, not bothering to deny it.

"But he'd never do it. He'd…" Pepper paused as she realized what it would mean if he refused.

"You're right. He wouldn't. That would mean he'd be hunted by SHIELD, and by his enemies. With Coulson gone it would be easier for him to leave SHIELD, but still…" Tasha paused for a moment. "I'd never put him through that."

They each took a few bites of ice cream.

"And going back to what I was would destroy me. I won't do that to either of us… I don't even know why I'm telling you all this," Natasha finished.

Pepper smiled. "Because we're friends, and friends tell each other things."

Clint smiled. Pepper was good for Tasha. It was one of the many things he liked about Pepper.

"I had a few simple rules I lived by: Love is for children. Don't trust anyone. Don't let anyone get close, emotionally. Don't let anyone see your weakness. Then I met Clint… They say there's an exception to every rule. Clint became the exception to every rule. And now the Avengers, and you…" Natasha sighed.

"Caring about people makes life more complicated."

Natasha smirked at her friend. She was sure that loving Tony had made Pepper's life much more complicated… "But more interesting?"

"Much more interesting," Pepper admitted with a smile. "Of the many thing that can be said of Tony Stark, he can never be called boring."

Tony grinned.

"True," Natasha admitted.

"And Clint?"

"He's certainly not as… dramatic as Tony, but I've never found him boring," Natasha replied.

They fell silent and ate more ice cream; Natasha lost in memories, and Pepper considering what she knew of Clint.

"I can see that," Pepper said.

Tony made a face. Clint chuckled.

"I think that's enough," Tony said. "JARVIS, open the door."

A few moments later, Tony and Clint walked into the main living area. Pepper smiled in greeting.

"You're back already?" Tasha asked Clint. There was something in his eyes and expression that was different – softer.

"We never left the Tower," Tony said.

Tasha eyes narrowed in suspicion.

"I was my idea. Don't be mad at Clint. And Tony just did what I asked him to," Pepper said.

"What was your idea?" Natasha asked, her eyes cold and hard.

"We heard your entire conversation," Clint cut in. Knowing that Nat would regret it if she lashed out at Pepper in a temper, he took her hand, and led her towards the door that led out to the roof.

"We'll talk later…" Natasha called over her shoulder to Pepper, but she let Clint lead her outside.

Once they were outside, she let go of Clint's hand, and strode to the edge of the roof, looking out over the magnificent view of the city, but not seeing it.

He walked up and put his arms around her, pleased when she relaxed back against him. "Hey…"

"So… you heard…" she said softly.

"I heard nothing I didn't already know," he said, just as softly.

"Then why didn't you ever say anything?"

"I wasn't going to force you into a conversation you weren't ready to have, or force you to admit something I wasn't sure you were ready to admit to yourself, much less me," he explained.

"When Phil called and told me you were compromised… my whole world just… tilted. Everything was… wrong. And then Loki asked me… 'is this love'. He taunted me that the world was on balance, and I was bargaining for one man. And I realized that he was right… That I'd trade the whole damn world for you… because without you the world didn't matter – not to me. That's why I said I was compromised. Because I'd have betrayed SHIELD, and the world, just to get you back. Watching you restrained in that room… I prayed, Clint. For the first time since I was a little girl, I prayed. I prayed to a God I don't even believe in that you'd come back to me. I couldn't deny it anymore. Loki made me admit that truth – that I love you. That I'm in love with you."

"And I'm in love with you, Nat. Have been for… I don't even know how long… a long time. Budapest is what made me admit it."

"Someday we're going to have to talk about Budapest, and how each of us remember it…"

"Someday," Clint agreed.

Clint turned her in his arms, his arms wrapped around her waist as her arms raised to his shoulders. Their lips melded in a kiss. It was deep and slow, each allowing the love and passion they felt to show in the kiss.