the_water_clock: abstract painting (Untitled 1953)
[personal profile] the_water_clock
Author: Clio
Title: Invitations
Pairing: Avengers: Natasha Romanov / Pepper Potts
Rating: NC-17
Summary: Someone is stealing Stark Tech and using it to fight the Avengers, which offends Pepper on every level. So when Phil asks her to team up with Natasha to root out the traitor she's more than happy to—even if it means reopening some old and not-so-old wounds.
Length: 8700 words
Notes: Man, this was absolutely my very very first choice of art and I'm so excited to have it and all of Rachel's suggestions; Natasha and Pepper working together was her idea and I hope I've done it and her art proud. You can see it here on AO3; it's not quite safe for work, I'd say.
Thanks to my cheerleaders and first-readers [personal profile] amyamy, [personal profile] verity and [personal profile] stevie, who made the work of my super amazing beta [personal profile] ali_wildgoose much easier. Also thanks to the lovely organizers of the [profile] avengers_rbb!

The Avengers—or at least, the adventures of the Avengers—are not Pepper's problem, in a general sense. Of course she has a personal relationship of a sort with each of them, formed when she was with Tony and reformed when she no longer was.

But her actual role is as a CEO of a Fortune-500 corporation, more than a full-time job, one that requires a lot of travel and is more easily done from the west coast. At least, that's what she tells herself in the months following the split. Not that she's avoiding New York, but it only made sentimental sense to have her home base there, and now it … doesn't.

But then one of those adventures very much became her problem, because someone was stealing their tech. And Pepper Potts took that sort of thing very, very personally.

Tony was the first one who found it, and the first person he called was Pepper. And then they both got on the phone to Phil.

"Your tech, I know," Phil said.

"In their robot!" Tony replied, indignant. "The one that tried to kill me. And what do you mean you know?"

"You make it sound like it was specifically sent on a mission to assassinate you," Phil replied. "It only tried to kill you because you got in its way."

"I'm not sure if you were paying attention at the big initiation ceremony with the silly hats and the blood oath but that's my job," Tony said. "And what do you mean you know?"

"Our analysts worked it out."

"When were you going to tell me?"

"When we knew for sure. They only just made the match this morning."

"Took how many analysts how long?"

Phil sighed. "Six, and since the attack a week ago."


"All right, Tony," Pepper said. "You're still more brilliant than all of SHIELD put together, but that's not particularly relevant, is it?"

"No," Phil said. "Because we were following the trail before we knew for sure."

"And?" Pepper asked.

"And we need to have a meeting," Phil said. "Pepper, your presence is requested."

Which is how Pepper found herself in her very first Avengers briefing. It was much less formal than she'd pictured it, just the six of them sprawled across the chairs and sofas staring at the large monitor, almost indistinguishable from movie night except for the packets on their laps and Phil standing by the screen taking them through the intel. She sat on the love seat next to Natasha; it seemed safest and easiest, and besides, of all the things that had been a part of her life in the Tower, she missed Natasha the most. It had been nice, having a friendship like that, and she was sorry it had been collateral damage in the wake of her breakup with Tony.

"As Tony noted, the tech in question was still in development—in fact, if it had had all the kinks worked out we would have had a much harder time defeating the drones powered by it—which means it could only have been leaked by someone working in the Rochester facility. We've been able to narrow it down to this man, Tyler Ford, and in his correspondence found something very unusual for an electrical engineer who'd grown up in Toledo: an invitation to James MacDougal's annual party at his summer home in Southampton. Pepper, I believe you're acquainted with him?"

"No," Tony said. "No, no, no, no, no. You can't ask her to talk to those people."

"It's fine, Tony," Pepper said.

"But there's a reason you left that life and came to me," he said.

"I can handle it," she replied, in the tone that generally shut him down.

He scowled, but said no more.

Pepper turned back to Phil. "What will I need to do?"

"Just get Natasha invited to the party," Phil said. "She can lead from there. She'll be a young socialite—"

"Little rich girls are a dime a dozen," Pepper said, shaking her head.

Phil set down the folder he'd been holding. "What would you suggest?"

"A title. Preferably royal, obviously continental as no one can keep track of all those princes and princesses in exile. They'll be all over her."

He turned to Natasha, a hint of a smile on his face. "Shall we resurrect Princess Natalia of Russia?" he asked.

"I always liked her," she said. "Such good manners."

"Satisfactory?" Phil asked Pepper.

"Very much so," Pepper said, nodding.

"Okay. D-date is the 24th of August. That gives us three weeks to prepare and get into position. So if there are no other objections—" at this Tony tried to talk but was silenced by Phil putting up his hand—"then the three of us can take it from here. Thanks, all."

Of course Tony didn't file out with the others. "You really think this is a good idea?"

Phil cocked his head. "Pepper will be assisting a highly trained agent with a limited operation, where Natasha will be assuming an identity she established in St. Moritz four years ago, and I will be serving as handler. That strikes me as safer than a headstrong man in a fancy suit pulling her into whatever misadventure strikes his fancy, where the only person with any kind of training in the vicinity is Colonel Rhodes, provided he's even available. Wouldn't you agree, Natasha?"

"I would," she said, crossing her arms.

Tony was set back on his heels for a moment, but he quickly recovered. "I'm watching you, Coulson," he said, gesturing with two fingers between his own eyes and Phil's. "If anything happens I'm holding you personally responsible."

Phil didn't even blink. "I accept that responsibility."

"Good," Tony said, then turned to Pepper. "Look, those people are assholes and they don't matter. You, me, Rhodey, Happy, all the people in this room? We're awesome." He tapped her arm. "Don't forget that."

Pepper smiled. "I won't, Tony."

"All right then," Tony said, nodding. He gave a mock salute to Phil as he walked out the door.

"He's very protective of you, still," Phil said.

"In some ways," Natasha added, then left the room.

Pepper raised an eyebrow at Phil, who shrugged.

"She'll probably be off for a bit, re-establishing the identity."

"I didn't realize she was so method," Pepper replied.

"She has her ways," Phil said. "Now, talk to me about how you'll get the two of you into that party."

Princess Natalia Romanova of Russia kept a storage locker near Newark Airport—as did corporate lawyer Natalie Rushman, fiction editor Nicola Rome, and a number of other women who bore a striking resemblance to Natasha Romanov, because helicarriers didn't have a lot of storage space. A garment rack ran along one side of the locker, hung with clean clothes in sealed garment bags. The bags for Natalia contained three designer formal gowns, some cocktail dresses, and casual clothes. Three-year-old collections seemed about right for a minor royal trying to eke out a respectable jet set lifestyle on a limited and shrinking trust fund that, with the condition of the Euro, didn't yield quite as much as it once did. She might buy one or two additional things but she was able to pack the vintage Louis Vuitton suitcase with most of what she'd need for two weeks in the Hamptons.

She opened the Natalie Roman bag as well, thinking that the dress she wore for the race might do for a garden party. But looking at the cache of corporate workplace outfits, she was reminded of those days with Pepper, immediately after Tony had handed SI over to her, working so closely and protecting her from the rest of the staff while Pepper found her footing. It wasn't the mission precisely, but Natasha felt it served the greater good as far as SHIELD was concerned for SI to remain a stable, productive company despite what Tony was up to, and thankfully Fury agreed.

And she'd been rather impressed to watch Pepper during a real crisis, and see how well she kept her head. Sure, there was a certain amount of screaming, but she was a civilian—and even with the screaming she had an ability to think clearly and rationally that most people who'd never been trained didn't possess.

Tony Stark, for example.

Anyway this mission made a lot of sense. She and Pepper were something of a proven team, able to save Tony long enough for Tony to save everyone else, and now that Natasha was on a team with the man she realized how much they'd actually accomplished that night in keeping him on mission.

She returned to Stark Tower, intending to sequester herself on her floor, read the briefing materials, and get into character. But when she got there, a goddamned asshole of an archer was sitting on her bed.

"Waiting for a bus?" she asked.

He cocked his head. "You got that saying from Steve."

"What do you want, Clint?"

"Making sure you're okay," he said, shrugging. "Not stupid enough to ask you in front of a room full of people. Doesn't mean I don't give a shit."

"Are you and Stark having some kind of 'who's the best male friend' contest?" she asked. When he glanced away her eyes widened. "Oh my god you are!"

"Of course we aren't," Clint said. "But—you and Pepper were friends and then you weren't—"

"Or, she was the only other woman living here, and then she didn't live here anymore."

"Well you didn't have to make it like Stark got you in the divorce."

"What?" she asked. "That's—why would I do that?"

"So you don't have to think about what you really want," Clint said, raising his eyebrows.

She crossed her arms. "Get out of my room."

Clint threw up his hands. "Just a thought, since you'll be spending a couple of weeks with her."

"I'm sure the mission will go very well. We're both professionals."

"Never said you weren't."

"All right then."

"All right."

They stared at each other, then Clint finally stood up.

"Keep your eyes open," he said.

"Always do."

He nodded, patting her shoulder as he left.

Natasha sat and looked out at the city lights for a good while. She hadn't made much of an effort to reach out to Pepper after she and Tony broke up, but that friendship had been more situational than anything else, hadn't it? You didn't see any of them calling up former SHIELD agents except to call in a favor. And who was Clint to talk, anyway? He was as new to this team business as Natasha was, and you didn't see any of his circus pals showing up unless they wanted to kill him.

She had some people at SHIELD, and this new team, and who said it had to include ex-girlfriends of teammates? Because she was a woman? Well, fuck that.

And no matter what Clint tried to imply, it didn't have anything to do with how Pepper was single now, how the only thing standing in Natasha's way was the North American continent and a disinterest in finding out for sure what Pepper's feelings were.

She looked down and realized her hands were clenched into fists. Maybe she should go down to the gym and work this off. And if Clint was there, so much the better. He deserved to get his ass kicked, trying to talk to her like they were in one of those teen dramas Thor liked so much. Her life should bear no resemblance to Gossip Girl.

Tony loaned them the Jaguar convertible prototype—when Pepper protested that Tony hadn't yet driven it himself he said, "just take the goddamned car, Pepper"—which made the drive out to Amagansett quite pleasant. Natasha read through the briefing materials and began to talk to Pepper in the European-finishing-school accent she used for Princess Natalia. Watching Natasha morph into her new role fascinated Pepper; she'd only seen the process in reverse.

"I'm glad we can do this," Pepper said.

"The mission?" Natasha asked.

"That too, but I meant, I'm sorry that I haven't been in New York much, lately."

Natasha shrugged, an elegant gesture that Pepper envied. "Of course you had to get away," she said.

"Not from you," Pepper replied.

She glanced at Natasha, smiling, and Natasha smiled back, that tiny, elusive, private smile, and something caught in Pepper's chest. She was glad she had to turn her eyes back to the road; something about Natasha always made her feel too open, like Natasha could see the silly low-level crush Pepper had always had on her. But maybe it was just where they were going that made her feel like a schoolgirl again, and like Natasha was the cool friend that could make them all think that Pepper might be cool, too.

Their story was that they'd met at the Grand Prix (not too far off) and had been loosely in touch ever since, and when Natalia said she'd like to see the Hamptons, Pepper had invited her out to her family home. That home being a relatively modest beach cottage (four small bedrooms) on a not particularly fashionable lane, one that had been in the Potts family since before the Hamptons became so popular. Pepper rented it out now, mostly to Stark Industries employees, at a very affordable rate. It had no pool, but its own path to the shore. Pepper was fond of the old place, even if it wasn't as palatial as the homes of her prep school classmates. Phil was already there of course; he'd been in Amagansett for a week, securing the house and doing recon on the MacDougal estate.

Pepper gave Natasha the tour, but she didn't allow her to spend too much time there. They needed to go see and be seen.

As soon as they'd freshened up and changed clothes, Pepper took Natasha shopping and ran into Lina Hochstetter, who invited them to dinner that very night. From there Cheryl Mayslin invited them to a "very casual" get-together she was having around her pool the next afternoon, and from there they went to a party on someone's yacht. By the time they hit one of the cafes for brunch on Sunday the entire town knew that Pepper Potts had a real Russian princess as her guest for the next two weeks.

Pepper couldn't help that her head added to this, "and isn't it a shame they're staying at that family place of hers? Imagine a Russian princess in that little beach shack!"

Phil had already made over "that little beach shack" into a safe house, which provided a respite to Natasha, to be able to come back there and not have to be a charming and slightly haughty Russian princess. It was relaxing for Pepper, too; sometimes she wondered if she was playing just as much of a role as Natasha was.

And then, at the little cocktail hour at the Tyler's place on Tuesday night, they finally connected with the man himself. Or rather, Natalia did; as soon as he found out who she was he made a beeline to her, and why wouldn't he? Pepper engaged in vague conversation as she watched Natasha play him out. She was the perfect blend of engaging and withholding, implying that she was willing to be impressed but had not seen much to wow her thus far.

A few minutes later Natasha was leading him over to Pepper, and of course he was all smiles and oozing charm. "Princess Natalia tells me you're the woman I need to talk to about getting you both to come to my party on Saturday?" he asked. "I'm James MacDougal."

"Pepper Potts," she said, shaking his hand.

"Potts, Potts, why do I remember that name?" He stared at her. "Did you go to school with my sister?"

"She was a year ahead of me, but we weren't close," Pepper replied. Actually, she would have been shocked if Shelley even had any awareness of her existence.

"Wait," he said, snapping his fingers. "You work for Tony Stark."

"I'm the CEO of Stark Industries," she replied, "so I really work for the board."

"But he gave you the job," he went on. "And he must think you're good at it, since, didn't you break up? Didn't I hear that?"

"I was running a Fortune-500 company before I was romantically involved with Mr. Stark and I continued to run it after that relationship ended. One had nothing to do with the other."

"I see," he said, sounding dubious.

Natasha was scowling. "I assure you that my friend is a very capable businesswoman," she said.

"Of course, of course, didn't mean to imply otherwise," he said, with a smile that said he very much did. "So can I count on you two lovely ladies Saturday evening?"

"I don't see why not," Pepper said.

"Excellent," he said. He turned to Natasha and pulled one hand toward his lips. "Your Highness," he said, bowing slightly and kissing her ring finger.

"Mr. MacDougal."

He didn't even look at Pepper. "Ms. Potts." Then he stopped, snapped his finger, and turned back around. "Wait, was my English teacher--"

"My mother, yes," she said.

"Now I remember you! Scrawny little thing, always with her nose in a book. President of everything." He looked her up and down, assessing. "Well for a try-hard you certainly improved with age."

Pepper smiled brightly. "I would thank you but I'm not sure that was actually a compliment."

"Oh it was," he said, and then he did leave.

Thank goodness.

Natasha was looking at her, as puzzled as Pepper had ever seen her in public.

"I'll tell you later," Pepper said, suddenly feeling that she had no energy left for this at all. "Would it be too suspicious if we left now?"

"Not at all," Natasha said.

She was quiet as they drove back to the Potts cottage, for which Pepper was grateful. Phil was still out when they returned, but there was fish ready for the grill and a large salad to put together that kept them busy. But once they finally sat down with their dinner, on the little back porch overlooking the water, Pepper realized that of course Natasha hadn't been actually distracted by any of that activity.

Natasha cocked her head. "So?"

That it only took one word for Pepper to open up to Natasha was unnerving, but she supposed that was Natasha's job. She sighed. "Can I give you the short version?"

"Of course," Natasha replied.

"My parents taught at one of the better upper east side prep schools, which meant I could attend tuition-free so long as I kept my grades up. And because we had this place, I could come out in the summer and stay with my grandmother, while my parents stayed in the city and taught summer school. It was an amazing opportunity, but as I got older I understood how different I was, living in a tiny apartment in Yorkville instead of a brownstone near the park, summering in this little cottage instead of in one of the large houses in Southampton." She paused, remembering. "Or I should say, that was when the others let me know that I was different."

"The assholes Tony mentioned," Natasha said.

"Yes," Pepper said, and didn't have to let Natasha draw her own conclusions about what that was like—she'd seen it. "So once I went away to college I didn't look back. Gran was gone by then anyway. I started with Stark Industries right out of school, and that was that."

"And your parents?"

"They passed a few years ago. It's just been me and Tony since then." She paused. "Well, not anymore, I suppose."

Natasha looked at her, silently, hard to read as always, and then she said, "No, not anymore. Because you have all the rest of us."

Pepper was just opening her mouth to ask who "all the rest of us" was, exactly, when Phil came out onto the porch.

"Leave enough for me?" he asked.

"Of course," Natasha said, and the subject was dropped for the rest of the evening in favor of structuring the rest of the mission now that they had their in.

Watching expertise in action was one of Pepper's favorite pastimes. It's what had drawn her to Stark Industries in the first place, what drew her to Tony himself. It drove her to seek out a friendship with Phil, and made living in a tower with superheroes fun, if exasperating. So as she watched Natasha and Phil talk over the finer points of their strategy, a wave of longing came over her.

Tony was right; she needed to spend more time in New York.

Natasha stood before the mirror in her bedroom trying to decide on earrings. Natalia wanted to wear the emeralds; it was an appropriate occasion to bring them out and show her social status, and they looked great against her black dress. But Natasha thought the blue topaz might make her more approachable, particularly by an awkward engineer.

Anyway now she felt a kind of solidarity with Pepper, and wasn't in the mood to impress the people who'd been too idiotic to see the woman's value. She never thought she'd agree with Stark on much of anything, but after only ten days in this pressure cooker of assumed privilege--so much more anxiety-producing than the actual privilege of the titled classes, however minor, at least in Natasha's experience--she could understand why Stark had protested Pepper's inclusion in the mission so strongly. Natasha had rarely met anyone as sure of themselves as Pepper, but as good as she was at the clever retort even she was starting to fold under the constant bitchery about her background and her connections to Stark. At least Princess Natalia was Pepper's friend, so Natasha could occasionally come to her defense. Not that Pepper needed it, but it made Natasha feel better to do it.

She looked up and saw Pepper standing in the doorway of her bedroom, leaning against the jamb. She wore a simple dress of dark blue, low in the back, with a flirty handkerchief hem, and as usual looked like perfection itself. If there was any justice in the world, which Natasha knew well there wasn't, she'd be able to prove all her detractors wrong just by walking into the party looking like that, with more class than any of them.

Natasha, on the other hand, only had the class that she borrowed from whatever persona she was inhabiting at the moment, but at least that was enough to keep her from putting her hands all over Pepper, or at least to know that she was invited to.

"The topaz, definitely," Pepper said, coming up behind Natasha in the mirror. She was a full head taller, being in heels while Natasha was still barefoot, and smiled at her in the reflection. "They match your eyes."

"Topaz it is," Natasha said, putting the earrings on and pushing the other thoughts firmly out of her mind. "Nervous?"

"A little," she admitted. "But you'll be there."

Natasha turned around. "And Phil will be outside."

"Right, of course," Pepper replied. "Well, we should get going."

They did a last check of their tech with Phil, then headed off in separate cars.

Once at the party, it wasn't particularly difficult to find their target, Tyler Ford; he was the one chatting up ladies by talking about the recent Mars landing.

Natasha shook her head. "Wrong crowd," she muttered to herself, then steeled herself for a debate on the Russian vs. American space programs.

And after only twenty minutes of extolling the virtues of Valentina Vladimirovna Tereshkova (to be fair, she actually was a childhood hero for Natasha) Tyler had escorted her out of the stuffy main room onto the porch overlooking the sea, loaned her his jacket because the ocean breezes were chilly, and gone back into the party to get her another cocktail. As soon as he was out of sight, she felt the pocket.

"Got it," she said.

"Starkphone?" Pepper asked.

"Sure is. Looks like standard issue, might have a few extras."

"Doesn't matter," she replied. "I'm on it."

A moment later she appeared on the porch and made a beeline for Natasha. "We have a few minutes," she said. "He's having some trouble getting the bartender's attention."

"That'll teach him to tip better," Natasha replied. "You're sure you can hack this phone?" she asked.

"If Tony made it, I can get into it. He's a control freak; he's programmed a backdoor into everything that has his name on it so it can't be used against him."

"What about the stolen tech?"

"It's unfinished," Pepper said. Her fingers flew across the touchpad, and Natasha shouldn't be finding this hot, shouldn't be leaning in closer; she was on a mission, dammit. "He hadn't put in the code yet because the project wasn't at the point where it would be shared with him."

"No wonder he was so angry," Natasha said, then thought about Pepper's comment. "So Stark personally approves every piece of tech that SI puts out, closely enough that he can insert code?"

"Of course," Pepper said, as if it should be self-evident that a playboy superhero would be that hands-on with a technology company started by his father and currently managed by his former personal assistant. "I'm in. Calendar, tonight—billiard room, 11:30."

"Fifteen minutes," Phil said over the earpiece. "I'll tell you when I'm in position outside the room."

Pepper was backing out when Natasha spotted Tyler returning. "There he is."

Pepper looked up. "It's fine," she said.

He walked up to them, stunned. "Pepper Potts?" he asked.

She smiled back, friendly. "That would be me," she said.

"Wow, I uh—I work for you," he said. "At the Rochester facility."

Natasha just about kept herself from rolling her eyes at his so easily giving himself away, but Phil, listening in, tsked and muttered, "Amateur."

Pepper bit her lip so as not to laugh. "Do you really? Then maybe you can help me. I just found this phone under one of the tables and I was trying to unlock it so I could work out to whom it belonged." She offered it to Tyler.

"Be glad to," he said, giving Natasha her drink so quickly that it sloshed in the glass. Not that he noticed; his eyes were on the phone. "Oh, this is mine, actually," he said. "Must have fallen out of the pocket when I lent my jacket to this young lady."

"Yes," Pepper said, "I see you've met my friend the Princess Natalia."

"Princess?" he asked.

"Did I not mention that?" she said.

Tyler scowled. "But if you're a princess, shouldn't you be against the Soviet regime who launched the program?" he asked. "Didn't they kill your relatives?"

Ah, pedantry. Natasha shrugged. "I may not be their princess, but they are still my people," she said.

"Well!" Pepper said, "thank you for taking care of my friend ..."

"Actually," he said, glancing down at his phone, "I need to connect with someone, so if I can leave her in your hands, Ms. Potts?"

"Of course," Pepper said.

"Um," he said, turning to Natasha, and clearly having no idea how to address her. "Your ..."

"Highness," Natasha said, smiling, because Natalia would of course be amused by his confusion.

He smiled, grateful. "Your Highness," he said, nodding, "I enjoyed our conversation. I hope I'll see you again?"

"One never knows," she replied. "All kinds of strange things are possible in America."

"True," he said, though he looked confused, and then he took back his jacket and left the porch.

"He's on his way," Natasha said.

"I'm all set," Phil replied.

They left themselves soon after, watching as Tyler made his way across the main hall and then, after looking over his shoulder, down the side corridor that led to the billiards room.

"Our boy is coming your way," Natasha said, and after a bit they followed, taking a different hallway so they approached the door from the other end of the hall.

"I see him," Phil said.

And then some minutes later--to no one's surprise--MacDougal slipped into the room.

"It was him all the time?" Pepper whispered.

Make that one person.

Now was the wait, while Phil watched the men talk from whatever hiding place he'd found, waiting for the handover.

"We are go," Phil whispered, and Pepper and Natasha walked through the door.

"Oh excuse us," Pepper said. "Just giving Natalia the tour."

"Must seem palatial compared to where you're staying," he said.

"No," Natalia said. "I've been in palaces. For a palace this would be very small."

"Sure, sure," he replied. "Well we were just doing some business but I think we're done here. You ladies like me to show you how to shoot some pool?"

Natasha picked up one of the cues. "This is real wood?" she asked, turning it around in her hands.

MacDougal grinned. "Of course, I wouldn't accept anything else."

"And the balls?" she asked, picking up the 8-ball.

"A superior new resin," he said. "Gives a lovely finish."

"Huh," she said, tossing the ball in her hand, and then with one fluid motion she threw it at Tyler, hitting him in the stomach, then took the cue and thwacked MacDougal in the back of the knees, dropping him to the floor, where she pinned him by pointing the end of the cue at his chest. Tyler had hit the floor too, moaning and clutching his midsection.

Phil emerged from behind a curtain and said, quietly, "Now Natasha, was violence really necessary?"

"That one is an idiot," she said, tipping her head toward Tyler, "and this one was unkind to Pepper," she replied.

"Oh well, then by all means continue," he said, resting one hip on the pool table.

"Should have made you say something in Russian," MacDougal said. "I knew Pepper couldn't possibly know royalty."

"I may not be their princess," she muttered to him in Russian, pressing down harder with the end of the cue, "but they are still my people."

Phil grabbed Tyler by the collar and threw him down on the floor next to MacDougal, and Natasha had to smile a little at the way both men flinched at Phil's show of dominance. Then he crouched down in front of them, pulling his jacket aside just enough to show the handgun in his holster.

"So here's what's going to happen now," he said. "We're going to head out those French doors to the van that's waiting to take you to a safe house, where you two are going to tell me everything about your little operation and who you've been acquiring this tech for. Got me?"

"I want a lawyer," MacDougal said.

Natasha laughed. "He thinks we're arresting him," she said.

Phil leaned in closer, going up on the balls of his feet. "Do I look like a cop to you?"

"No?" MacDougal said, a quaver of fear in his voice.

Phil nodded, and rose to his feet. "All right, let's go."

"Um, Ms. Potts?" Tyler asked.

"Yes, Mr. Ford?"

"Does this mean I'm fired?"

Phil had vanished with the other SHIELD agents that had materialized along with the van, while Pepper drove Natasha back to her house. They didn't speak much on the way back, coming down from the intensity of the mission. Pepper, remembering late-night conversations over cups of tea back when she still lived in the tower, put on the kettle as soon as they got home. Then she went to her room to change out of her dress into some more casual clothes, and put her hair up in a loose, easy bun. She brought the tea directly up to Natasha's room, the door of which was open.

"I thought you might like some—oh," she finished, rather lamely, when she realized Natasha was in her bra and panties. "I'm sorry, I should have knocked."

Natasha glanced up, raising one eyebrow. "No, it's fine."

"Anyway I brought some tea," Pepper said, setting it down on the bureau before perching on the windowsill. She wasn't sure why she felt so jittery; she was certainly used to Natasha's ways, how she could seem to open up and then suddenly close, the parts of her past clearly labelled, "No Access," and she respected that. And sure, she'd had a low-level attraction to the woman since they'd met, but at the time she had been fairly wrapped up in Tony.

Now, of course, she wasn't.

Pepper had interrupted Natasha taking off her gear. The communicator already lay on the bed, and now she was taking off the weapons—two guns, three knives—that had been strapped to her person.

"I shouldn't let you see where I hide these things," Natasha said, smiling slightly.

"Like I could use that against you," Pepper said. She took a breath and before she could think about it too much said, "You know, you should come out to Los Angeles. I know you have downtime."

Natasha nodded. "Or you could stay here," she said. "Everyone misses you."

"Everyone?" Pepper asked.

"Phil," she replied, putting the last of the weapons away. "He doesn't have that many friends, you know. Not real ones. And Clint was just getting to know you."

"He's a difficult one," Pepper said, watching Natasha move closer.

"He doesn't let people in easily," she replied, and now she was standing in the window with Pepper, in the bright light of the full moon reflecting off the water. "Neither do I."

"Well, I'm certainly glad that I rate, then," Pepper said.

"You don't know, do you?" Natasha said, cocking her head.

"Know what?" Pepper asked. "What should I know? There's something I should know?"

Natasha looked at her, then leaned forward and kissed her, pushing her back against the window frame with the force of it. And it was kissing the way she'd always imagined Natasha would kiss—strong, take-no-prisoners, and Pepper had to struggle to keep up. One of Natasha's hands was on her breast and she leaned into the touch, thrilling to it, and even when Natasha released her lips, she kept her hand on Pepper's breast, her fingers pushing into the soft flesh.

Pepper slumped against the window, feeling like a spent balloon. She looked up at Natasha, who was still staring at her as though she might be something tasty to eat.

"I didn't know," Pepper said, once she'd got her breath back.

"Now you do," Natasha said. Then suddenly, it was like a cloud passed between them, and Natasha removed her hand. "You should go."

"What if I don't want to?" Pepper said.

"No," she replied, moving further away. "It's no good. I can't—you should go."

Pepper stood up, suddenly angry to have something she didn't even know she wanted until a few minutes ago abruptly snatched away with no explanation. "Don't I get a say?" she asked. "Don't I even get to know why?"

"I just—" she began, then shook her head. "I can't. I'm sorry."

Pepper got up and went to the door, because what else could she do? But she paused, staring out into the hallway, and asked, "Can we still be friends?"

"Please?" Natasha said, and she sounded so small that it was all Pepper could do not to go back in and hold her.

But if she was going to be Natasha's friend, Natasha's anything, she had to allow her that decision. So she took her tea down the hall to her own room, and closed the door.

And as she lay in bed that night looking at the moon through her own window, she wondered how she could catch Natasha with a door open, if only to throw her foot in it to keep it ajar.

The next morning, Natasha was gone. Her note said she was going to help Phil with the interrogation after all, and Pepper should head back to the city without her. Pepper wasn't sure whether to feel relieved that she didn't need to suffer through what would have been a fairly awkward car ride, or annoyed that she still felt so unsettled about what had happened.

Tony had said she could stay in one of the guest rooms at the Tower while she was in the city, and as soon as they returned Pepper could hear Tony's laugh coming from the kitchen. So she walked in, wondering what he was up to.

And saw that what he was up to, was sitting on the counter making out with Captain America.

"Oh!" she said, then cursed her inability to remain silent as they quickly split apart.

"Uh, Pepper, hello," Steve said, his blush turning redder by the minute.

Tony smiled. "Hey Pepper. So …"

"So," she said.

Steve backed away. "I think I'm going to—I'll let you two—I'll be downstairs, okay?"

"Yeah, that's probably best," Tony added.

Pepper smiled at him. "It's really fine, Steve."

"No, it's okay," he said, and then, as he walked past, he put a hand on her shoulder. "It's nice to have you around the Tower again," he added. "We've all missed you."

She could feel the retort at the tip of her tongue, but she swallowed it; his sincerity didn't deserve her cynicism. "Thank you, Steve."

"Don't disappear," Tony called out after him.

"I won't," Steve called back.

"So," Tony said, hopping down off the counter. "Hey, let's go outside. Sunset's nice."

And a few minutes later they were on one of the benches on the roof, looking west over the Hudson.

"How long?" she asked.

"A week," he said. "Only since you were out in the Hamptons."

"I see," she said.

"I didn't," he replied. "Or at least—it wasn't until you were back, until I saw you again and it didn't hurt so much? I realized we actually are friends. And I'm okay. It wasn't until after I had that particular little revelation that I could do something about all the puppy-dog eyes that golden lab of a superhero was giving me."

"He's patient. I'll give him that." She turned to him. "And that's what you want?"

"I think so," he replied. "No, I might even know so."

"Then I'm glad," she said.

"Maybe this is how we're supposed to be," he said, taking her hand. "Friends who talk to each other about the sex they're having. Which leads me to, what about you?"

She looked back out over the water. "Natasha kissed me."

"Really?" he asked.

"Then she grabbed my breast," she added.

"Fresh," he said, but he was grinning; she could tell just from the tone of his voice. "I should have set up that three-way when I had the chance!"

"And then she said that it was no good and kicked me out of her bedroom."

"Ouch," he said, sobering. "And you thought I had intimacy problems."

Pepper shrugged. "I sure know how to pick them," she said.

"Maybe we pick you," he said. "Ever think about that?"

"Well, no matter what might happen with Natasha, I'm going to get my own place in the city," she said. "Stop running away. The time in Amagansett—"

"You seem to be in one piece."

"Natasha helped," she said. "And facing it, I realized, I want to face this, too."

He put an arm around her. "Good," he said. "You were missed. You know, by the team."

"So I've been told," she said, smiling, and they sat there looking out over the river until the sun had disappeared behind the buildings on the west side.

A week after the Hamptons mission, Clint once again appeared on Natasha's bed.

"How do—oh never mind, what do you want?"

"So I know you have this 'love is for children' thing going, and maybe that's working for you in a 'when I get lonely I just hit up my buddies for cock' kind of way, which, fine, you know Phil and I wouldn't welcome you into our bed if we didn't want to--"

"Is there a point to this?"

"You need to go to California and get that girl and you know it."

"She's not a girl. And she's coming back."

"And time will have passed and you'll do nothing. Come on, isn't this exactly what you told me once?"

"But Phil's one of us," she said.

"You were just on a mission with her!"

"A highly non-dangerous mission!"

"What did she do when you incapacitated the targets?" he asked.

Natasha thought for a moment. She'd been focused in that moment, with Pepper classified as "non-threat to be protected" so she had to close her eyes to clearly picture Pepper, standing next to her. "I think she was ... smiling?"

"That's what Phil said. So you might as well go get her since you already grabbed her breast."

"And how did you hear about that?" Natasha asked, not bothering to deny it.

Clint shrugged. "People should know better than to come up on the roof to have private conversations," he said.

"You're the worst."

"I think you mean best, and why are you still here? You don't have any excuses left as far as I can see."

She put her hands on her hips. She wanted to object, but Clint was right--she didn't actually have any reasons not to go, except that she was scared, and really, since when had that ever stopped her? "Fly me out there?"

"I would," he said, smugly unsurprised that she'd caved in, which irritated her, "but I bet Tony would lend you the corporate jet."

"Wow, you two are really bonding over this, aren't you?" She paused, and her eyes narrowed. "There isn't a bet, is there?"

"Nah," Clint said. "We'd be on the same side."

All Pepper could say, after a week of preparations to move back to New York, was that she was glad that in Diana she had an assistant almost as good as she had been. The whole week she was distracted by her previous assistant, who'd grabbed her breast in the bedroom of her beach house. The LA office reminded her of Natasha-as-Natalie, of those early days as CEO when Tony was being distant and terrible. Back when she was relying too much on a young lawyer who at least didn't make her feel like she should know what she was doing, who made her feel less self-conscious as she felt her way.

But after talking to Tony and then thinking on her own, she'd pretty much decided that when she got back to New York she'd see if she couldn't work things out with Natasha. Sure, she might still say no, but Pepper had come to the conclusion that if a person kissed you and grabbed your breast and then pushed you away, you at least deserved an explanation.

And then, as though Pepper had conjured her by thinking about her so much, Natasha walked into her office. She was in a leather jumpsuit and was holding a small bag and two motorcycle helmets.

"Hi," Pepper said, standing up and resisting the urge to say, "well, don't you look like sex," which was probably the Tony part of her brain talking.

"I brought you a change of clothes," she said, walking into the room and handing the bag to Pepper. "Your schedule has been cleared for the next week, if anything comes up Tony will handle it in your absence, and Diana will oversee the movers packing up your apartment." She sat down in the chair opposite Pepper's desk.

"What is all this for?" Pepper asked.

Natasha cocked her head, her brow furrowed a little. "I'm bringing you back to New York," she said.

Pepper glanced down at the helmets. "On a bike?"

"One of Tony's," she said, nodding. "Which one we take is up to you."

She thought about that, about straddling a bike behind Natasha all day, staying in some motel each night, and knew she had to say something. "So how is this going to work?" she asked. "Because you kissed me, and then you grabbed my breast, and then you kicked me out, and you can't keep doing that."

"You're right," Natasha said. "I'm sorry; I shouldn't have done that."

"Which part? The kissing, the grabbing or—"

"The sending you out of my room," Natasha answered. "But you have to understand, this never happens to me."

"The kissing?" Pepper asked, because that couldn't be possible.

"No, the caring. And then you left."

It was a two-sentence explanation and probably all she would ever get, but it was enough, and Pepper couldn't stop a little smile from coming to her lips. But Natasha clearly needed some guidance on how to do these things properly. "I'm coming back," she said. "You're bringing me back. So I think you should kiss me now."

Natasha smiled, lopsided, and said, "I'd like to do more than that." And there was that look again, from that night at the cottage, almost feral.

Pepper tried to play this as cool as possible, but she wanted to squirm. Instead, she hit the intercom. "Diana, could you come in here please?"

"Threesomes already?" Natasha muttered, raising her eyebrows.

Pepper pursed her lips at her as Diana came in.

"Yes, Pepper?"

"I'm starting my vacation a little early," Pepper said. "Please put the alerts on my email and voice mail."

"Will do," she replied.

"Oh and by the way, I understand that you went behind my back with Natasha and Tony to facilitate this vacation."

"Mr. Stark said it was something you might have done for him," Diana replied.

"He's not wrong," she said. "Thank you."

"Of course," Diana said. "Anything else?"

"No. I'll see you in New York in a week."

Diana nodded. "Have a good vacation."

"I will. Oh, and Diana?"


Pepper turned to Natasha. "Lock the door behind you," she said.

As soon as the door clicked, Natasha slid down off the chair. "Always wanted to do this," she said, moving between Pepper's thighs.

"What?" Pepper said, but her legs automatically opened, god, of course they did, and Natasha's hands were on her ass, pulling her hips forward and spreading her legs further, until Pepper's skirt was up around her waist.

"Mmm, wet panties already," Natasha said, licking them.

"Well, you look at me like that."

Natasha was pulling her panties down her thighs. "Like what?" she asked.

"Like you want to eat me."

"Oh but I do," she said, her voice low.

At that point Pepper started to lose track of time, space, eventually her own name. It had been so long, since that last time with Tony, and even longer since she'd been with a woman. There were fingers and lips and tongue and teeth and Pepper started out trying to pay attention to what Natasha did, so she could do it in return, but then she started floating, one hand buried in Natasha's hair and one holding on to the arm of her chair as though it were the only thing keeping her connected to the earth.

After the orgasms had had their way with her and her ability to think returned, she pushed her chair back. "Get up here," she said.

Natasha looked up at her. "You don't have to—"

"I want to," she said. "And besides, you haven't given me that kiss yet."

"Well, in that case," Natasha said, and climbed up into the chair with Pepper, straddling her legs, and leaned in.

Pepper could taste herself on Natasha's lips in the same ferocious kiss as before, and even better, felt Natasha hot and writhing in her lap. "Is there a zipper on this thing?" she asked.

"Snaps," she replied, guiding Pepper's hand down between her legs.

Pepper pulled them apart and slipped her hand inside, surprised for a moment that Natasha wore no panties. But she was wet and ready and grinding against Pepper's hand, her own hands wrapped around Pepper's shoulders. Pepper moved her other hand from the small of Natasha's back to her front.

"Payback?" Natasha muttered against her lips.

"Something like that," she replied, wrapping her fingers around Natasha's breast and stroking the nipple with her thumb.

"Good," Natasha said, pushing harder against Pepper. "Good, good," she repeated, and Pepper wasn't sure if that was response or encouragement.

So she took it as both, tipping the seat back and putting her feet up against the desk to let gravity keep Natasha in the cradle of her hips, pulling Natasha closer.

Natasha whined in Pepper's ear, "please," and Pepper obliged, pushing it all a little harder, and then it was her turn to come apart in Pepper's arms before she slumped against her, spent.

"If that's how we're spending the week," Pepper said, "we should take the touring bike. Cushier seats."

Natasha lifted her head. "But if we take the Harley it'll be like foreplay all day long," she said.

And Pepper found she couldn't argue with that.

Natasha was a little wary of what would be waiting for them when she and Pepper got back to the Tower; she didn't trust either Clint or Tony (or heaven forbid, the two of them working together) not to plan something embarrassing and ridiculous to "welcome" them, and just hoped that Phil could put a stop to most of it.

But when they came into the common area the boys were just sitting on top of the island in the kitchen, eating pistachios. "Hey," Clint said.

Natasha's eyes narrowed, suspicious. "Hello," she said.

Clint laughed and turned to Tony. "Told you she'd expect something," he said.

"How about this," Tony said, and tossed a set of keys to Pepper.

"What are these for?" she asked.

"Double-sized brownstone on 47th, used to be a consulate. Already secured by SHIELD, pretty big. Calling it the Annex. You get the top floor, though. And hey, you can walk to work."

Pepper looked at Natasha, then back at Tony. "And you want me to live there?"

"You can't just live in some condo in Chelsea," Clint said. "Someone will grab you."

"He's got a point," Natasha said.

"All the floors are open space right now," Tony said. "You can do what you want with them. Walls are big, you can hang some of that art you bought for me that I know you never sold."

"I don't know what to say," Pepper said.

"Say that you'll stay in the Tower while you fix up the place, and then you'll live there, and even if Natasha does you wrong as I did that you won't go back to California," Tony said.

"Give me some credit," Natasha said. "I'm sure I can find my own way to do her wrong."

"Or you can not do her wrong at all," Clint said.

Natasha turned to Clint, held his gaze for a bit, then said, "Or I could do that."

"Pepper?" Tony asked.

She looked at the keys, and put them in her pocket. "Okay Tony," she said. "I'll stay."

"Good, good," he said, as though it hadn't been a question. He hopped down off the counter and put an arm around Pepper. "Come on; we're grilling up on the roof. Oh and Natasha?"

"Yeah?" she asked.

"Thanks for bringing her back."

Clint was standing next to her now, leaning in close, and she took his hand in hers. "Any time," she said.

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