Pepper meets Maria for the first time on a Friday afternoon. It's boiling hot, too hot even for her, and she's poring over a few incident reports from R&D, where something or other went south and they're still asking for more money. She wants to be home. She wants to go swimming. She wants to be anywhere but here, but Tony hasn't left his lab in days, again, and someone's got to work around here.
The intercom beeps, offering momentary distraction. “Miss Potts,” says her new assistant, who sounds unsure, a bit intimidated. “There's a... visitor for you.”
Pepper squints, finding the pause a bit alarming. Police? Other law enforcement? A surprise tax audit? No. The new girl is no Natalie Rushman, but she's competent and smart. She'd have told Pepper outright if it were any of those, warn her beforehand. That she hasn't issued such a warning means she really doesn't know who the visitor is, what their affiliation might be, what they could want.
“Send them in,” Pepper says. She stands and smooths the creases out of her skirt, positions herself leaning on the desk, nonchalantly, ready to face anything and anyone that might have plans to ruin her day.
A moment later, the door opens and a woman steps in, wearing a dark business suit with flat shoes and a blank expression, a small briefcase under one arm, and Pepper knows immediately just what organization she must work for. It's obvious. She could have just as well have it tattooed on her forehead.
Pepper smiles. Well. At least they're finally mixing it up. In the early days of Tony's association with SHIELD, Pepper sometimes wondered if they even had more staff than Phil Coulson. She briefly considered, then just as quickly discarded, the thought that maybe someone higher in rank had decided Coulson was merely the man best suited to deal with Tony. Obviously, that isn't the case. They could have just as well left Natal– Natasha in charge of dealing with him; that's the same level of mismatch.
The woman in her office right now seems like she'd smack Tony upside the head after two sentences, but at least she's new. She's someone else. Pepper steps away from the desk and holds out her hand. “Pepper Potts. Nice to meet you.”
“I know,” says the other woman with a dry smile, but she takes the proffered hand and shakes. “Maria Hill. Nice to meet you too.”
Pepper nods to acknowledge the introduction. “So what can I do for you, Agent Hill?”
Hill lifts an eyebrow. Her voice is toneless, but her mouth curves into a more lopsided, less professional smile. “Is it that obvious?”
Waving a hand, Pepper smiles back. “Oh no,” she lies, feeling herself relax a little. She likes Coulson, but he's almost too nice sometimes, too friendly, making it too obvious they're being handled. Pepper appreciates an honest personality, even if comes in the form of deadpan sarcasm. “I'm sure you'd make a fine undercover agent if you really apply yourself.”
Hill huffs a quiet laugh and steps forward, producing a manila folder from the briefcase. “We need some signatures for Mr. Stark's new security clearances,” she says, back to formal, blank expression. “He doesn't answer our requests. I thought maybe you could... nudge him.”
Had someone else said it, in a different tone, it might have sounded like an attempt at making the head of Stark Industries out to still be Tony Stark's personal assistant. Hill, however, makes it sound almost conspiratorial. She seems exasperated, like a kindergarten teacher turning to the only other adult in the room while they're watching the children squabble.
And so, Pepper takes the manila folder. “Sure. I'll see what I can do.”
In the aftermath of the attack on New York – aliens, goddamn aliens – Tony reacts in a very Tony-specific way: he throws a party. There's still a Loki-shaped hole in the penthouse suite and everyone sidesteps it with a scoff on their way to the bar, but said bar is well-stocked and the mood is slowly getting less tense. A Norse god laughs at one of Nick Fury's rare jokes, Captain America chats with the man who turned into a big green monster just hours previously, and Pepper wonders what happened to her life, to the world she thought she knew.
She's sipping a fruity cocktail from the sidelines, watching the scene, when she feels someone nudge her shoulder. She wheels around and finds herself face to face with Maria Hill, who holds her hands up as if in apology or appeasement.
“I didn't mean to startle you,” she says. She doesn't quite smile, looks like she's too tired to even pretend, but Pepper doesn't miss the way her eyes roam Pepper's attire – shorts and a loose, v-necked, sleeveless shirt – but she ascribes it to a professional habit.
Pepper points to two unoccupied bar stools and points at the bartender Tony found who-knows-where, at such a time. “Please sit and have a drink, Agent Hill.” She grins. “I'm buying.”
“Maria,” comes the response, as casual and nonchalant as their first introduction way back when in Pepper's office. “I think it's high time you call me Maria.” From the way Hill eyes the array of liquor bottles above the bar, Pepper guesses she's not much into drinking, but she does sit down. Her jaw tenses as if she's suppressing a yawn, and yeah, looks like Pepper isn't the only person in the room who'd much rather have about fifteen hours of uninterrupted sleep than a party.
Then again, she doesn't expect she'd manage to fall asleep, given the chance. She shudders. Hill cocks her head. Pepper waves the silent inquiry away. “I'm fine. Tired and not looking forward to the paperwork on the damages to company property, but, other than that I'm fine.”
Hill accepts the lie and turns away to vie for the attention of the barkeeper, who's currently flirting with Natasha while her partner with the arrows snores on peacefully, head resting on his folded arms. The sight induces a slight stab of envy in Pepper. Ah, at least one of them is getting some rest. She swivels on her bar stool so that she's facing towards the crowd, braced on her elbows, and closes her eyes for a second, takes a deep breath.
She'll get used to all this, eventually. But, for tonight, at least she's found someone to keep her company while she preemptively drowns out the impending nightmares.
Her phone pings and plings incessantly and Pepper sighs, stuffing it into her pocket. None of it is really important, per se, but the activity on that little thing gives her a preview of what awaits her once she returns to the office. Nevertheless, she promised she'll be here, watch Tony and the others train, do something together. Why together means something he wants and keeps doing after years of her asking him to stop is better not examined out here, with his friends around. Since they hardly spent any time together at home, though, that equals never mentioning it again and Pepper –
No. She won't get worked up now. Not again. He asked. She agreed. That it lately ties into a pattern is not his fault alone. She's letting it. And while she's here, pacing, he's over there, with Rhodey, talking shop and enjoying himself. To fling accusations at him in her mind while he has no idea what's going on with her is unfair.
Pepper sits down and pulls her phone out again, scrolling through the latest wave of messages. Maybe she can answer a few emails while he's distracted, get ahead of her workload for later.
She barely notices that someone else sits down beside her, only turns once they clear their throat to politely, quietly get her attention. Pepper turns, ready to talk about how wonderful this facility is with one of Tony's friends, but she relaxes when she finds the newcomer to be Maria. Which is stupid; it's not like they have a lot of other things to talk about than the Avengers, either. Still, it's... it's just different.
“You don't want to be here,” Maria observes right off the bat, without so much as a greeting, and Pepper deflates. She should be used to it by now; the two of them have known each other for a couple of years now and Maria doesn't beat around the bush. And yet, having her own misery thrown into her face like that, Pepper swallows hard.
Her hands curl around the edge of the bench, gripping it so tightly it hurts. “I can't even count the times I asked him to quit.” The words bubble out of her, brought forth by the simple fact that someone asked. “And I know it's selfish, he's not playing war games anymore, he's saving people, so many people, but I love him and it kills me and he doesn't care and...” She takes a deep breath. “Sorry. I didn't mean to unload on you like that.”
Maria reaches out, and Pepper flinches at the contact as her left hand settles over Pepper's right and starts to try and stop her from digging her nails into the unforgiving metal of the bench. Once again, though, Pepper relaxes, letting Maria put her hand on the bench and squeeze it once, very briefly. Pepper folds both her hands in her lap and swallows a few more times, fighting down an emotion she can't quite name.
“Thank you,” Pepper whispers.
She turns to look at Maria, meet her eyes, and gives her a smile that's all the bigger for all the worry it eases, all the turmoil it shoves to the side. Maria smiles back at her and it's the gentlest expression Pepper has seen on her so far, sympathetic yet far from pitying. It looks good on her.
Pepper blushes and looks away. She glances at Tony and Rhodey again. Part of her wants to get up, get away from the seedling of an idea that just shot through her head, through her heart, but the part that wants to stay here, soak in Maria's understanding just a little bit longer, wins out. She exhales, and she stays.
Pepper is so angry she could cry. Not sad – that will come later, once the reality of what she just did has settled in – but angry. Livid. At Tony, at herself; he was never going to change, and she should have known better from the start.
Their breakup was quick and spontaneous. He didn't put a word in edgewise, likely too stunned at her words, at their meaning, and Pepper fled the beach house before she could change her mind take them all back. She ordered a private flight to New York and here she is, in the penthouse apartment that's not hers and that she'll have to vacate soon, finding her own place, and she doesn't know whether he'll fire her or give her the company or... she doesn't know. She scrolls through her phone for someone to call, but hilariously, pretty much all her friends are also his friends. Or mostly his friends.
She wonders when that happened, but realistically, she never had many close friends to begin with. Work, work, work. Before that, studying, studying, studying. She gets along with people, she's no hermit. They just hardly ever stick around.
She reaches the entry titled Maria Hill, SHIELD and she stops scrolling. The number is for emergencies, given to her way back when Maria was still Agent Hill, and Pepper hasn't used it once.
A laugh bubbles up in her throat, and Pepper covers her mouth with her palm. If she starts laughing now, she'll get hysterical. She puts the one on the glass table by the couch and goes into the kitchen, pouring herself a glass of wine, then another. She takes the glass and the bottle to the living room and plops down on the couch.
Pepper picks the phone back up and dials Maria's number.
The conversation is brief, and it ends, to Pepper's stunned surprise, with Maria's assurance that she'll be over as soon as possible. Pepper draws her leg up and hugs her knees as she waits for the building concierge to announce a visitor. By the time that happens, she's almost through the bottle of wine. She's not drunk, but a bit lightheaded, and otherwise not feeling any difference whatsoever. Nothing's easier. Everything's still raw and aching.
Once she's let in, Maria surveys the room, pausing on the empty wine bottle, and finally looks at Pepper, one eyebrow cocked.
“You or him?” is all she asks.
Pepper frowns, hoping to convey that very thought Tony would dump her is outrageous. “Me.”
Maria exhales and walks over to sit down next to her. “I'm sure he earned it, and that you made the right decision.”
“You don't want me to tell you the whole story?” Pepper asks, vaguely ticked off that Maria, of all people, is giving her empty platitudes, and doesn't even seem all that committed to executing them with sympathy.
Maria's face softens, and her voice is gentler, this time. “Was it anything new?”
“No,” Pepper admits. Hugging her legs even closer, she rests her chin on her knees. “It wasn't.”
After eying her for a moment, Maria stands back up. Pepper distantly wonders whether she's already got enough of this pity party, decided she shouldn't have come and about to rectify that mistake, but instead she picks up the wine bottle and waves it in front of Pepper's face. “Want more?”
A childish giggle wants to bubble up in Pepper's throat at Maria offering her more alcohol, as if that's against protocol somehow, but she manages to bite down on it. “Yes. No. I don't know.”
Maria walks into the kitchen anyway, and a clang tells Pepper that she's deposited of the bottle. Next Pepper hears the tap running, and then Maria's back and holding a glass of water out to her.
“Thank you,” Pepper murmurs, accepting the glass, and Maria sits down again.
Several minutes pass in companionable silence, during which Pepper inches ever closer to Maria. She doesn't hedge any particular intentions; rather, it's about seeking comfort beyond the mere presence of a person who's familiar and in her corner. Maria flinches almost imperceptibly when their shoulders brush, but doesn't move away. She turns to stare at Pepper, and there's something unreadable in her expression, in her gaze.
It's too easy for Pepper to angle her head up, lean in a little, and bring their lips together. She doesn't think about it – hasn't ever thought about it before, hasn't allowed herself those thoughts – and to her surprise, the kiss is reciprocated. She momentarily forgets to breathe, and when reality rushes back in, she unfolds herself, pushes Maria against the armrest. She moves to straddle her, deepen the kiss before her brain has a chance to catch up and register objections, and –
Maria pulls back, her palm pressed to a spot just underneath Pepper's collarbone, and shoves her away. “I'm not a rebound.”
“Of course not,” assures Pepper. She entangles their fingers and attempts to guide Maria's hand to a place where it'd be of much better use.
Again, she meets resistance. Maria sits up, dislodging her, and her expression is once again difficult to parse, but not at all unkind. “I'm interested, Pepper,” she says. “I am. But not like this, not on the same day you broke up with him. Think about it. Figure out what you want. And when you've done that, no matter the result, you can give me a call.”
With that, she gets up, and Pepper is still trying to imagine what she could have said to make her stay when the door falls closed behind her.
Pepper does think about it. She thinks about it good and proper, her thoughts wandering whenever she has a few minutes to herself in the office, when she's about to fall asleep at night, when she gets up in the morning. Tony makes a few attempts at wooing her back; some are tempting, but she manages to refuse each and every one of them.
He gives her the company – not officially, there's an intricate tangle of documents that say he's still officially the owner, although all business decisions are relegated to her – and he would have given her more. Money, a house, an apartment, several cars; he sure remains generous. Pepper refuses. She buys her own apartment. She doesn't need a holiday home. She never drives anyway.
Weeks pass and segue into one month, then two. Pepper scrolls down to Maria's number almost every day. After nine weeks and four days, during a quick lunch break between board meetings, she finally presses the call button and waits, heart in her throat, through several rings. She's almost ready to hang up and try another day when the line clicks and Maria's voice comes from the other end of the line.
“Pepper,” she says. Just that. There's no urgency in it, no apparent curiosity, no reproach for how much time it took Pepper to make this call.
“I thought about it,” Pepper says, giddy and elated and flooded with relief at her own decision – at finally saying it out loud. “And I want you. Maria, I'm sure. I want you.”
On the other end of the line, Maria audibly exhales. “Well, good.” She chuckles, a warm sound filled with genuine happiness, and it carries more weight than a thousand words from anyone else. “I'm really glad you finally caught up.”