Title: Public Display
Recipient: Cousin Shelley
Fandoms: Iron Man / The Incredible Hulk
Author's note: This story is a variation from the story idea suggested in the prompt.
”Do you know there is men shadowing you?”
Pepper sipped her wine and stepped slightly to the left, like she was looking close the details of the sculpture. In same movement she glanced through the gallery's front window. The men were not hard to spot. They were trying very hard to appear inconspicuous. They were dressed in all black, and not in the fashionable sense, but battle gear style. Like a small military maneuver in the middle of the street. Pepper sighed and walked around the display case back to Bruce's side.
”Tony hired some extra security. It has been somewhat embarrassing, because I already had my own and there has been some static in the line of communication, so to speak.”
”What is he so worried about? That you are spending time with me?”
”No, I don't think so.” Pepper said, tapping her fingernail against the glass. She hated lying to his face, but the truth would only hurt his feelings for no reason. It wasn't Bruce's fault that Tony could act like a stupid jerk at times. “It's just... He worries about things, and then he has to act, you know? It is cute, but rather annoying. I'll take care of it.”
Pepper turned and signaled her own bodyguard. She explained the situation quietly and then turned her attention back to Bruce. He had quizzical expression, the same one that he had in front of the art pieces.
”And I suppose that you feel that you don't really need all this protection in the first place? You can take care of yourself.”
“Oh no, I need the protection. You know I can plan and organize anything without breaking a sweat, but in actual hand to hand combat I'm pretty helpless. See? Look at these shoes for one.” Pepper joked, to light the mood. “I could snap an ankle just by taking a brisk step.”
“They are pretty, but not combat boots.”
Behind the window, the men in the street were confronted by two stern looking women, who were both wearing cocktail dresses, the suitable clothing for an art gallery opening. The men looked alarmed, but after a few minutes of talking, the women turned back to return inside and the men slunk back to their car. No one else in the gallery seemed to noticed what has happened outside.
Pepper emptied her glass with a quick gulp. She had hoped for a fun evening, not a territory squabble between security. She sighed and placed the empty glass on passing waiters tray.
“Let's go back to the point of our evening. Here, let me show you something.” Pepper touched Bruce's arm to direct him away from the windows and towards the canvas stretched at the far end of the gallery.
The piece filled the whole wall. Pepper stayed back and let Bruce look at the work at his own pace. He didn't say anything for a long time. Other guests walked into the room and everyone fell silent in front of the piece. The hushed conversation returned again outside the show room. Pepper looked at Bruce instead the piece. She had seen it dozens of times. She liked to take people to see it and then observe their reactions. Bruce seemed melancholy though occasionally a rare smile flickered across his face. His watch chirped a warning once, but he didn't even look at it. Then the room was quiet again.
“What do you think?” Pepper finally asked, to break the spell.
“I don't know. It's hard to take all of it in, it's just so... complex. This isn't really my area of expertise, like I said before. Science is more in my ballpark.”
“I have never understood why those two areas are mutually exclusive, art and science. You were thinking something, weren't you? The piece affects you. Your watch made a sound.”
“Yes, that's...yes. What's it called? The piece?”
“Yes, I can see that. It makes you sad and happy at the same time. You think of Tony when you see it, don't you?”
“Why do you say that?” Pepper asked, suddenly curious. “I haven't told that to anyone.”
Bruce just shrugged, like the answer was too obvious. They looked at the piece in silence. Finally Bruce turned away from it and returned back Pepper's side. “Have you shown this to Tony?”
“No. He would want to buy it. I like this piece too much to let it be part of his collection.”
“I thought you were in charge of the Stark Art Collection. The manner the gallery owner scraped and bowed before you, I would say you have some serious influence in these circles.”
“I'm in charge, yes, but its still Tony's collection, even if he doesn't pay attention to it. He just likes to own rare objects, and there is nothing as unique as art works. But he doesn't care about art, not really.”
Pepper said, and smiled to take the edge from her words. It sounded harsh when she said it out loud, even though it was true.
“But you care.”
“I understand that. Sometimes, I think it is the same with my studies. Everyone wants to have my research, just for the ownership, not really caring about it or its ramifications. So we are the protectors, aren't we?”
“I would like to think that.”
“Are you forcing my girl to think on her night off, Banner? That won't do.”
They turned in unison. Tony was standing behind them, beaming with charm and energy. Pepper knew him, and she could distinguish the showmanship from the truth. His eyes were cold and serious. Bruce straightened and stepped aside in search for open space, unconscious move that spoke volumes. He was getting ready to fight or flee. Pepper noticed that behind Tony's back her bodyguards were also looking at them, ready to intervene if she needed. She shook her head ever so slightly to signal them to stay away, and not to draw attention to them. It was a mute point, because Tony drew attention just by standing there.
“Tony, I didn't know you were coming.” Pepper smiled her brightest smile at him, and leaned in to kiss him lightly. His body language didn't change. “We were just talking about you.”
“Of course you were.” He just said, like it was given that in his absence he was still the topic of the conversation. “I just came by to see if you would like to have a late dinner, and what happened to the security team? You had your hands on that, Banner?”
“No, I did not.” Bruce said, calm and collected. Pepper knew that he could control himself better than anyone, but she still couldn't help but fear for Tony. She always did that, and sometimes she was just tired of that feeling. Maybe because of that her tone was a lot sharper than what she had intended.
sent them away. You know I'm well covered and I don't need your men, especially not such blatant and embarrassing ones.” Pepper said, and nodded to the two women standing close by, monitoring the exchange with tense expressions. “You don't want to insult women who were hand-picked and trained by Natasha, do you, by marching in some random extras?”
“Yes Tony, you should be careful not to insult the Black Widow.” Bruce added, seemingly innocent comment that immediately made Tony stiffen up with anger. Everyone knew that Natasha had given him a painful lesson about respect just few days ago. Pepper rested her hand on his arm and with skilled move turned him slightly away from Bruce and toward the curious crowd that was milling about behind them. It was always wisest to distract Tony with shiny objects, this time the admiring crowd would do.
“I could actually eat something, so dinner sounds great.” Pepper added, and waved her hand to Bruce as a short good bye. Just like that the potentially disastrous situation was reduced to mundane meet and greet with the gallery goers and to few posed pictures for the press outside.
Later, when they were driving back to home from the restaurant, Pepper's personal phone signaled an incoming message. It was a slightly unfocused picture of the work Home
and a text: “Wishing safe journey to home, to woman with her unique combat boots. B.”