Author's Note: Many thanks to my beta, Lady Deathstrike!
Disclaimer: Not mine.
Pepper missed Phil Coulson. She missed his smile, his dry sense of humor, and the way he exuded a quiet confidence that suggested he would take care of the problem, no matter what it was. Most of all, though, she missed Phil's ability to handle super-powered beings without batting an eye.
His skills as a handler would have really come in handy right now.
"Jarvis," she said softly, surveying the damage to the garage: a few blood stains splattering the floor; the battered vehicles, haphazardly parked. The nose of Clint's SUV was crushed against a concrete pillar, as if he hadn't bothered to brake when he drove in. "How long have they been home?"
"Three hours, Ms. Potts."
Pepper bit back a sigh. This latest mission was supposed to last for only three days, but complication after complication turned it into a two-week trek that had the Avengers leapfrogging across the globe. She wasn't supposed to know the details, but Pepper did know that the mission had involved tracking down the leaders of a child prostitution ring. And three boatloads of children who had been sold to brothels across the eastern hemisphere. The Avengers had refused to return until they'd found each and every child; they'd seen a lot of ugly things along the way.
So Pepper wasn't really surprised to come home after a late night dinner with the board to find a disaster zone.
It was going to be one of those nights.
Their discarded suits and equipment lay in scattered heaps in the elevator. She stepped over the piles carefully, wincing when she saw Captain America's shield underneath Clint's Kevlar vest. It must have been a rough mission for Steve to simply drop his shield on the floor like that.
"Agent Barton is in the penthouse living room, Ms. Potts," Jarvis offered as the elevator rose. "Shall I mute the doors?"
"Yes, thank you, Jarvis." Pepper quickly kicked off her heels, leaving them among the rest of the mess with her briefcase. Clint wasn't the most difficult one to deal with in these situations, but he was the most lethal if you didn't know how to handle him. She tugged a pen out of her pocket and held it ready.
The doors slid open silently. Pepper tiptoed out, skidding a little in her stockings. She immediately spotted Clint perched on the back of the sofa, hands clenched around a game controller. The light from the television screen emphasized the purple bags under his eyes. His shoulders were tense and knotted as he slouched forward, coiled as tightly as a spring.
Pepper carefully aimed and threw the pen, sending it in an arc to ping against a vase on the bar counter. Clint spun towards the sound, the knife leaving the sheath on his hip and slamming into the counter so quickly that Pepper didn't even see the motion behind the throw.
Pepper waited three seconds for the knife to stop quivering and for Clint to focus on her. "Nice throw," he croaked after a moment more.
She smiled at him, knowing it was now safe to approach him. "I had a good teacher." That had been a fun afternoon, Clint teaching her all the ways she could kill with a pencil—just in case the board members ever got out of control.
Pepper tugged the controller out of his rigid grasp, dropping it on the sofa after she turned off the TV.
"Hey! I was about to get a new high score!"
"Clint," Pepper said patiently, checking the bandages around his bicep and over his eye for fresh blood, "you were playing Mario Kart. Even Thor can play Mario Kart. It's time to go to bed."
"I don't wanna." It was amazing how enough sleep deprivation could turn one of the world's deadliest assassins into a toddler.
Pepper put on her sternest CEO face. "Did I say you had a choice in the matter?" She pulled him off the back of the sofa, pretending to ignore the way he staggered. There were shadows in his eyes as well as under them. She ruffled his spiky hair. "You saved them, you know."
The shadows only deepened. "Saved their lives, maybe."
"And showed them that there are good people in the world, not just bad ones."
Clint smiled darkly. "A few less bad ones, now."
"Did you kill all of them?"
Some of the tension slid out of Clint's shoulders at Pepper's pronouncement. He'd been an assassin for so long—killing people simply because someone told him to do so—that sometimes he wasn't certain about his own judgment. Sometimes he just needed something as simple as being told he'd done the right thing.
Compared to the others, Clint was easy to deal with.
Pepper watched him lurch off to his bedroom without further protest, knowing he'd be out cold for the next eighteen hours.
One down, five to go.
She found Thor next, curled up on the balcony with a box of Pop-Tarts. He held one in his hand but he was picking at the sprinkles instead of eating it.
"On Asgard, our children are protected and nurtured," he said when she slid down to sit next to him.
"That's usually the case here, too," she pointed out quietly. "You've seen the families in Central Park, right?"
The Pop-Tart crumbled when he clenched his fist. "If an Asgardian is found guilty of using a child like that, the punishment is to spend eternity in the Place of Judgment in unspeakable torment." He looked away, throwing the crumbs over the ledge. "Death was too good for those—monsters."
Pepper caught his hand and started brushing away the sticky frosting. "Some people here believe in an afterlife, in heaven and hell. Good people go to heaven and bad people go to hell, where they're punished for the crimes they committed in life."
Thor mulled this over in silence for a moment. "Jane wishes to have children one day."
It seemed an odd comment, but Pepper understood his train of thought. Thor was an optimist, practically dewy-eyed over Midgard. Even though he knew there were cruel, evil people in the world, missions like this still tended to shake his faith in humanity to its very core.
She squeezed his hand. "And they would have a father who would always protect them from the monsters of the world."
Thor relaxed slightly, gently clasping her hand in response. "Thank you, my friend."
She handed him the box of Pop-Tarts, watching in relief as he ripped one package open and took a huge bite.
Pepper left him to his stargazing, knowing he'd fall asleep once he finished the box.
Natasha was in the shower, standing huddled in the corner and running a sliver of soap across her hands, over and over, trying to wash away something that only she could see. This always happened when something reminded her of her own childhood. Judging from the wrinkles in her skin, she'd been in the shower ever since the Avengers had returned home, oblivious to the passage of time.
It really said something, Pepper mused, about how Natasha had come to trust them all enough to zone out so completely. It used to be that Pepper couldn't get within fifteen feet of Natasha's door without the assassin appearing as if by magic, but now she could walk straight into the bathroom without garnering a response.
Pepper turned the water off, tugged the soap out of Natasha's hands to drop it by the drain, and wrapped a huge, fluffy towel around her. She didn't say anything. Natasha was far too self-reliant to be assured by the platitudes of others; she would come back in her own time. For now, Pepper just wanted to get her warm and dry before she caught pneumonia.
"There's a lot of red," Natasha said abruptly as Pepper combed the tangles out of her hair.
Pepper knew what she meant. She'd been an accountant, after all. "I know. But you're working on it."
The assassin finally stopped wringing her hands and tugged the towel more firmly around her shoulders. She sniffed a little bit. "I don't know if it's going to be enough."
"I can think of sixty kids who would say otherwise."
Natasha twisted on the edge of the tub until she could see Pepper's face. "Where do you get your information?" she demanded, successfully distracted.
Pepper smiled like the Cheshire Cat. "I have my contacts." Specifically, Director Nick Fury. They had a longstanding agreement that he would let her in on the details of missions as long as she handled the Avengers during their downtime. She would have taken care of them anyway, but there was no reason to tell Fury that.
Natasha sniffed again as she stood up and walked to the bedroom. "Who's left?"
"Tony, Bruce, and Steve."
Natasha nodded thoughtfully. "Good luck."
Pepper's eyebrows shot up in alarm. Natasha was wishing her luck?
God, she missed Phil Coulson.
Bruce's lab was two floors above Tony's, so Pepper decided to tackle him next.
He was working on an experiment, moving with jerky, sharp gestures. There was an air of frantic panic about him.
"You shouldn't be here right now," he said when she walked in.
"I brought you some tea," she replied, setting the steaming mug on the counter.
Bruce tapped a pen rapidly against the inside of his wrist; she knew it was keeping time with his pulse. "Pepper—you really shouldn't be in here right now."
She sat down on a stool, crossing her ankles neatly and smiling at him.
The tapping increased in speed. "There were all those kids, and they were so frightened, and I couldn't let the Other Guy out—he's still angry."
"He's not angry at me," she said calmly.
The pen froze and his eyes flashed green. For a moment Pepper wondered if this time she had pushed too hard, but she wasn't scared; she knew the Hulk wouldn't hurt her.
He'd just destroy most of the tower. But that was an acceptable risk. Besides, it would give her an excuse to redecorate.
Then Bruce let out a rough bark of laughter, dropped the pen on the counter, and chugged half the tea in one gulp. Crisis over. "God, you're as insane as Tony."
She got up and walked around the counter until she was standing beside him. "I don't think trusting you counts as being insane," she said, pressing a quick kiss to his cheek. She waved at the equipment on the counter. "Can this wait until morning?"
Bruce nudged a beaker. "Yeah, it's nothing important. I was just looking at a chemical imbalance in—" He paused when her face assumed the carefully blank look she always got when he or Tony began talking shop. "Science stuff. It's just unimportant science stuff."
"Good. Then you can go eat something and get some rest."
"Are you going to tuck me in, too, Mom?"
Pepper slapped his arm playfully. "I only tuck Tony in. He gets jealous otherwise."
She walked with him to the elevator in companionable silence, making sure that he pushed the button for the kitchen level before wishing him goodnight and stepping back as the elevator doors closed.
Tony had stopped using copious amounts of alcohol to deal with his issues months ago. The Avengers were called to battle at strange hours too often for him to risk being drunk or hungover. It wasn't just Tony risking his own neck now; five other people depended on him to watch their backs. He needed to be sober for them.
Pepper was incredibly grateful for this unexpected reprieve; she certainly didn't miss cleaning up vomit or worse messes in the mornings after. Unfortunately, it also meant Tony had to face his feelings rather than run away from them.
He was having a little trouble with that.
When Pepper found the original arc reactor lying face down in its glass case by the lab door, she knew it was definitely one of those nights.
"Son of a bitch!" Pepper followed the string of further curses to the far side of the lab and found Tony abusing one of his robotic arms. He kicked it savagely as she approached. "Make a note, Potts. Send this piece of shit to a local tech school first thing in the morning. Let the highschoolers have at it."
The robot whined.
"You don't mean that, Tony," Pepper scolded, moving the robot out of harm's way. "You know you'd miss Dummy. How many times have you flown this poor thing across the country?"
Tony flung a wrench carelessly at his tool box. It hit the lid and fell to the floor with a clatter. He swore again, scrubbing a hand through his hair.
Pepper ignored him and crossed over to the mini bar, pouring out two high balls of Tony's finest scotch. Tony followed her, looking around in aimless frustration.
He hadn't turned into a teetotaler by any means, but in situations like this—when drinking equaled coping—he never poured himself a drink but waited instead for someone else to do it for him. That way it didn't seem like he was running away again.
Pepper was very proud of him for the advances he'd made.
He downed his scotch in a single gulp. Pepper sipped hers more slowly, watching him.
Tony didn't look at her, focusing on the empty glass in his hand instead. Then his arm jerked back and he flung it as hard as he could. It smashed against the wall in a spray of glass. He stood motionless, breathing heavily.
Pepper kept her face perfectly smooth, hiding a flinch.
"I hate this job."
She took another sip of her drink. "You could always give up Iron Man. Go back to being the great Tony Stark."
He snorted wryly. "I am Iron Man. Besides, who would I give the suit to? The government? Ha!"
"You could give the War Machine back to Rhodey. You trust him."
Tony was shaking his head before she even finished speaking. "No. I am Iron Man." Pepper knew what he was trying to say. He was Iron Man—he was the one who took all the hits, who risked his life in one insane battle after another. He would never willingly let another person wear the Iron Man suit, not when he knew so well how much of a target that made its wearer. As long as he was breathing, Tony Stark would be the only Iron Man in the skies.
Tony slumped against the counter. "I am Iron Man," he repeated quietly, resignedly.
Pepper scooted beside him, pressing against his side. She gently intertwined her fingers with his.
Most people thought that Iron Man was a mask, a way for Tony Stark to compensate for his own inadequacies and self-doubts. Pepper knew better, though. Iron Man was Tony. When he was in the suit, encased by metal and wires and electricity, he could finally let the real Tony Stark out. He could finally risk caring about something because he had the power to protect it.
"Yes, you are," she agreed just as quietly.
Iron Man was the hero Pepper had always known Tony could be if he would just admit that he had a heart.
Tony turned suddenly to bury his face in her shoulder. His hair smelled like motor oil and sweat and expensive gel. Pepper held him for a moment before squirming free. She walked across the room and rescued the engraved arc reactor from the floor. The glass case was cracked again; she'd have to buy a new one tomorrow.
Tony stared at it ruefully when she handed it to him, mouth twisting sardonically. He put it back in its place of honor on his desk, though.
He tugged her into his arms again. "Come up to bed," he murmured into her hair.
"I will in a moment. I still have to take care of Steve."
A flash of remorse and concern crossed his face. "Do you want some help?"
She really was proud of how far he'd come in the last few months.
Pepper shook her head. "You know he'll just get distracted with taking care of you."
"Fine. But if you're not up in an hour, I'm coming down for you."
An hour? Dear God, what kind of state was Steve in?
"I'll be there before you know it," she said with false bravado.
After missions that ranged from normal to not-quite-horrendous, Steve was always the one who got the team calmed and settled. It was only after horrendous missions that Pepper had to step in, so she'd known he would be upset. But she wasn't expecting this.
He was in complete lockdown. Steve had never learned to school his features; normally he was an open book. Now, though, his expression was wooden and empty as he hunched over the desk in his private sitting room, filling out paperwork for the following morning's debriefing.
"I thought you might like something to eat," Pepper said by way of announcing herself, sliding the plate onto the desk by his elbow.
Steve glanced at the sandwich and shook his head once, sharply. His jaw was clenched so tightly that Pepper thought she could hear his teeth creaking in protest.
Pepper bit her lip, peering over his shoulder to read what he had written. There were seven individuals in the room, three men and four children. Three of the children—two boys and a girl—were in cages against the east wall. Two of the men (physical descriptions below) were holding the second girl down on a bed while the third man—
Steve covered the report with his large hand before she could read the rest. He refused to look at her.
"People keep telling me how much better the world is nowadays." His voice was completely emotionless. "'Look at the technology we have now,' they say. 'Look at all the advances in medicine and social equality. Isn't it great?'" He exhaled slowly through his nose. "And yet there are still countries where child prostitution is legal and we can't do a damn thing about it." Pepper knew by "we" he meant the Avengers.
She glanced at the pile of papers he had already written and saw the names on the top of each sheet. "You've already filled out the others' reports?" she asked in surprise. "Is that even legal?"
Steve shrugged. "They made their reports to me along the way so I already know what they saw. And it's not something anyone should have to relive, even for a debriefing."
"Oh, Steve." Pepper tried to pick them up, but he shoved them out of her reach, adding his own to the pile. Pepper frowned at him; although she wasn't supposed to know about the Avengers' missions, Steve had never before tried to keep her in the black. "Let me read them."
She sighed, crouching beside his chair and resting her hands on his arm as she looked up into his face. "You shouldn't have to deal with something like this alone. And you don't have to, Steve."
There was nothing mirthful about his smile. "I'm the leader. It's my job." As if to prove his point, he grabbed the files and shoved them into the center drawer, blocking it with his stomach once he shut it again.
Steve jerked in surprise, his head snapping up. He still wasn't used to the idea of women cursing like sailors, and especially not Pepper—Pepper never swore. Well, hardly ever. She saved her oaths for when they would have the most impact.
"Pepper," Steve said a little helplessly. Then he broke, his wooden features fracturing. "They were kids. Just kids."
"I know. I can't imagine how awful it must have been."
He scrubbed his face with his hands. "I saw things in the war, but…" His voice trailed off.
Pepper ran her hand up and down his arm. "You saved those children, Steve," she reminded him.
He finally looked at her. "And how many more are still out there, still being hurt? We saved sixty, Pepper. And that was just from one sale." His mouth twisted. "Phillips used to tell me that I couldn't save everyone, but I just—I didn't know it could hurt this much."
Pepper brushed the hair out of his eyes. He was still covered in grime and blood from the mission, his thigh bulky from a bandage under his uniform. "Maybe you can't save everyone—but that's not going to stop you from trying. That's what makes you and the others heroes."
"Is it? I thought that's what makes us nuts."
"Oh, that too," she assured him. She felt his arm relax under her soothing touch. "You should get cleaned up," she urged gently. "You smell like a sweaty little boy."
The corner of his mouth gave the tiniest twitch upwards. "Sorry." He shifted but didn't try to stand, looking so weary that Pepper's heart ached for him.
"Do you want to eat first?"
Steve looked at the sandwich and shook his head again. "No. Thanks, but—I'll just be sick."
Pepper rested her forehead against his arm for a moment. Two of the men were holding the second girl down on the bed. She could feel her own stomach churning at the thought.
Still, considering how many calories his serum-enhanced metabolism required—"Would you like some ginger ale?"
His lips twitched again. "You mean the old people's drink?"
Pepper huffed in annoyance. "Ignore Tony. Just ignore him. What about a Coke?" He loved soda, rarely turned it down.
Steve let his head fall against the back of the chair. "Right before bed, Mom?"
She smiled at the weak joke. "Just this once, sweetie." She tugged on his arm as she stood. "Come on, let's get you cleaned up." Steve rose reluctantly, limping when he put weight on his wounded leg. "Strip off and go take a shower. I'll take care of your uniform," she instructed, turning her back to give him some privacy. She listened to the hiss of zippers being unzipped and cloth shuffling as it fell to the floor.
"Pepper." She lifted her chin to acknowledge that she heard him but didn't turn around, respecting his modesty. "Don't look at the reports."
Pepper bit her lip, glancing at the desk drawer. She still didn't think this was a burden he needed to carry alone—but she wasn't an Avenger. She wasn't even their official handler. "I won't," she promised at last.
When he disappeared into the bathroom, Pepper got busy. She dumped his filthy uniform with the rest of the Avengers' equipment in the main elevator to sort through later, put the sandwich in the fridge for when he woke up in the morning, grabbed a Coke, and returned to his suite to turn down the bed. By the time he emerged, clothed in his worn sweats and limping badly now, Pepper was pointedly fluffing his pillows.
He gave her an amused look. "I thought I got a Coke first."
She pointed to the can on the bedside table. "You can drink it in bed."
Steve gave a rueful shake of his head and obediently limped across to sit on the edge of the mattress. "What?" he asked as Pepper continued to look at him expectantly. "I'm in bed."
"You're on the bed, not in it."
He looked at the ceiling as if he couldn't quite believe this was happening but swung his legs up and sprawled against the pillows anyway.
Pepper smiled in approval and handed him the Coke. "Goodnight, Steve. Try to get some sleep."
"I'll try. Pepper…thanks. For—listening. And for not pushing."
She paused by the doorway to the sitting room, glancing back. His hair was ruffled and still damp from the shower, falling haphazardly across his forehead instead of being slicked back in the neat military part. It made him look much younger than he usually did.
She crossed back to the bed and tugged the covers up, pulling them firmly around his torso without thinking about what she was doing. Steve looked a little startled and awkwardly held his hands in the air.
Pepper stepped back, clapping a hand to her mouth. "Oh my God. Did I just tuck Captain America into bed?" she asked, mortified.
Steve was blushing. "Uh, yeah. But, um, thanks. It was—sweet." Then he grinned, alleviating her embarrassment. "I promise I won't stay awake too long, Mom."
Pepper smiled fondly. "You better not, son." She blew him a kiss as she backed out of the room. "Goodnight, Steve." She didn't say 'sweet dreams'; there would be none of those in the tower tonight.
Pepper used the glow of Tony's arc reactor to maneuver around the dark room and gratefully crawled into bed beside him.
"You're late, Potts," he complained sleepily, drawing her into his arms. "I missed you."
"I missed you, too." She could feel the tension that had built up over the last few hours ease out of her shoulders as Tony slid his fingers up and down her spine. She yawned sleepily.
It was exhausting work, babysitting Earth's Mightiest Heroes.
"Is Steve all tucked in?"
Pepper buried her face against his chest, the arc reactor cold and smooth on her forehead. She wondered briefly if Phil Coulson had ever found himself biting back a hysterical giggle like she was doing now.
Years ago, her friends and family used to tell her that she was insane for working as Tony Stark's PA, that she had no idea what she was getting into. It had led to her becoming CEO of one of the world's largest companies and the girlfriend of an eccentric genius with no sense of self-preservation. She'd barely gotten her feet back under her after these life-changing developments when five strangers from across time and space burst into her life, turning her world upside down and staking their own claims on her heart.
An interviewer asked her recently if she would change anything about her past. Pepper had answered "No" without hesitation.
"All tucked in," she confirmed once she had her voice back under control.
They were all tucked in. Alive. Safe. Home.
Wounded, bearing new scars, but they'd all come home to her again.
Pepper sighed in relief and fell asleep.