It's Clint who starts it. He's the shenaniganator of the Avengers, but Steve doesn't have a handle on his propensity for mischief yet. He's more familiar with the focused warrior than the merry prankster, and that impish sense of humor is about to lead Steve down the rabbit hole.
Pepper and Tony have just exited the dining room of the common area. Tony dogs her, being persistent about a project he wants to launch, mostly for his own personal entertainment; she's politely but firmly vetoed it on the grounds that Stark Industries isn't Tony's own personal amusement park, even if his name is on it.
Steve looks up from the Travel Guide to New York. Now that he's back in his hometown full-time, he wants to see what's new, and in some cases, what's old that he didn't know about or couldn't afford back in the day. He marvels at Pepper's patience. He and Tony still have their ups and downs, although there's less friction than there used to be.
As the sound of Tony's insistent whine fades into the distance, Steve shakes his head and says to Clint, "I don't get it. She's smart, she's classy, and he can be one of the biggest jackasses I've ever met. What in the world does she see in him?"
Clint looks over his shoulder toward the doorway through which the couple departed. "I guess you wouldn't know," he says after a moment. He leans forward and lowers his voice. "Tell you the truth, I wouldn't know either if it hadn't been for Nat. Pepper told her about it. Y'know--girl talk."
Natasha is currently in Estonia, running an op with Wanda, incommunicado. She would have pointed out Clint's slightly too-earnest tone, his guileless grey eyes. In the end, matters might have evolved very differently.
"Know about what?" Steve asks, right on cue.
"A couple years ago, Pepper went to a hypnotist to try to lose a few pounds. Not that she needs it, but hey, she was convinced she needed to slim down. Tony heard about her appointment and reached out to the hypnotist. He bribed the guy to convince Pepper that she was in love with him. It was supposed to be an April Fool's Day prank" Clint sighs, "but the hypnotist was hit by a car and killed later that day, and nobody could find out what the release word was. Before that, they used to fight like cats and dogs, but she's been crazy about him ever since."
Of course, Steve is horrified. "That's terrible, even for Tony! That's the most unethical thing I've ever heard of!"
"It was supposed to be a joke. You know Pepper, she isn't easy to push around, even if she is hypnotized. You'll notice she's not letting him build that nightclub staffed entirely by robots." Clint rolls his eyes at the idea. The robot bartender Tony's been working on still has some glitches--he still hasn't gotten over being given a Shirley Temple garnished with an olive when he asked for a bourbon on the rocks. "There's nothing wrong with her business sense. She just has a blind spot when it comes to Tony."
Steve, being Steve, is determined to free Pepper from her artificially-induced romance. He reasons that the release word won't be something too common, lest a casual remark break the spell. That rules out ordinary business jargon, and technical terms for computers and the like. Over the course of the next week and a half, he makes excuses to try new words out in her vicinity. He tries to be systematic about it.
Sight-seeing takes him to the zoo. Correction, zoos, plural. In addition to the one in Central Park, there's the Bronx Zoo and one on Staten Island. It's pretty interesting; in addition to being informative, it gives him a bunch of animal names that otherwise probably wouldn't come up in conversation--chinchillas and coatimundi, lemurs, marmoset. Aardvarks are nifty. Kangaroos are comparatively common, but marsupials--What a word!--isn't. And you have things like platypuses, skinks and tapirs and terrapins, oh my.
A visit to the Museum of Natural History yields dinosaurs: Ankyloderms, bracheosaurs, diplodocus--a whole bunch of creatures that hadn't been discovered when he was a kid. He recognizes triceratops and stegosaurus. The brontosaurus that takes up most of one exhibit room is familiar, and everyone knows what a T-Rex is. None of them snaps Pepper out of her Tony-entrancement, but the ensuing discussion leads to an evening watching the Jurassic Park movies. Steve is amazed. "They look so real! How did they do that?!"
Clint walks in on a conversation where Steve's telling Pepper all about the coelocanth, a fish that was thought to be extinct for thousands of years, but which has been discovered in limited numbers off western Africa and in the Indian Ocean.
"Isn't that something?" Clint says with a sidelong glance at Steve. "Doesn't that make you feel like a new woman, knowing their are real, live prehistoric creatures out there?"
"I don't know if I'd go that far," Pepper says with a smile, "but it's certainly interesting. Thanks, Steve. I've got to go. I'm meeting Tony in the gym for a game of racquetball."
"No luck?" Clint asks after she skips out of the common room.
"Not yet. I've been keeping a list of esoteric words and trying to work them into conversations, but--" He sighs. "It could be anything.
The amount of time Steve spends with Pepper, and his constant changes of topic cause Tony to look askance at Steve--especially when he pops into the kitchen, exclaims, "Archipelago!", gives Tony a dirty look and slinks back out.
Tony mentions Steve's odd behavior to Clint, who's waxing his bow and almost drops it, he's laughing so hard. He clues Tony in on the phantom hypnotist, and a gleeful Tony makes it his mission to troll their friend. His PDAs grow more extravagant, and he's apt to shoo Steve away with a glare that says he knows what Steve's up to and he doesn't like it.
Steve is less blatant after that, but he's been to a couple concerts at Lincoln Center and starts instigating conversations that touch on Terpsichorian revels, the well-tuned clavier and the glockenspiel. He introduces accordions, harpsichords and hurdy-gurdies, not to mention melodions, concertinas and the flugelhorn. Adjectives like staccato, allegro and largo season his rhetoric (discourse, elocution, filibuster...thesaurus).
Roaming the streets of New York gets him hungry--there's no place like it for exotic cuisine from all over the world. There are dozens of kinds of cheese at Zabar's: Gorgonzola and marscarpone, limberger and jarlsberg, nokkelost and havarti. There are meats: Lutefisk, capicolla, brunsweiger, Lebanon bologna, thuringer, and baked goods galore: focaccia, profiteroles, cannoli. Departing that chat, Pepper makes a note to get Tony some lox for Sunday brunch. They haven't had it in a while....
After a New York Historical Society presentation on notable architecture with, there's earnest discussion of architraves, belvederes and caryatids follows. It broadening to include returnable, pediments and porticos, quoins and triglyphs. His earnest discourse about mansard roofs, Palladian windows, portemanteaus and cupolas has Pepper glassy-eyed, although Steve's reminiscences about watching the Empire State Building and the Chrysler Building take shape on the horizon during his boyhood reminds her that he may be from Brooklyn, but not the one that's just over the bridge.
The subject of Steve's attempted intervention still knows nothing of her supposed hypnosis, and she's starting to twitch every time Steve walks into the room. She doesn't know why she's the one he's turning to to describe his adventures in sight-seeing, but it's kind of wearing. She likes Steve, but Tony has been getting...territorial.
When another historical society presentation sparks a monologue about death and cemeteries, rigor mortis, postmortem lividity, entombment, sarcophagi, crypts and tombs and ossuaries, Pepper becomes alarmed enough to take her concerns to Tony. Solemnly, Tony assures her that Steve is fine, but he's been worried about his aging memory and the sudden burst of studying is just him trying to stay sharp.
Clint sits back and watches the whole thing, the picture of wide-eyed innocence.
There's no telling how long the farce might continue, then Natasha returns. Clint tells her about his little drama, she sighs and before the day is out, she's told Pepper everything.
Steve is in the communal kitchen fixing himself a sandwich after his visit to the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens. His version of a snack involves a loaf of Italian bread sliced lengthwise, loaded with a combined pound of pepperoni, salami and provolone garnished with lettuce and tomatoes, mayonnaise and mustard, all carefully cut into wedges that will fit in the kitchen's panini press.
Pepper enters with the brisk carriage of a woman with something on her mind. Steve barely has time to say "It was magnificent! You should have seen it--heliotropes, hyacinths, hydrangeas--" when she holds up her hand. "Steve, I know what you're doing. Hold it!"
He halts the litany of all things botanical; Pepper is reminded of Dorothy Parker, who, when asked to use the word "horticulture" in a sentence, said, 'You can lead a whore to culture, but you can't make her think.'. "I'm not hypnotized. That was Clint's idea of a joke. I really am in love with Tony. I know you find that inexplicable, but it's true."
"You weren't hypnotized?" Steve looks chagrined.
"I've been hypnotized exactly once in my life, to stop biting my nails, and that was right about the time we completed the Tower. The woman's office got destroyed during the Battle of New York, so I didn't go back, but--" She extends her hand, the one with the diamond the size of a hazelnut. "--I haven't really needed it." Her nails are flawlessly manicured.
Steve exhales. "Well, good. That you're not under somebody's spell, I mean."
Pepper laughs. "I know you and Tony butt heads a lot, but he wouldn't do a thing like that. Honestly? With his ego? If he couldn't charm me himself he wouldn't stoop to a cheap trick like that."
The more Steve thinks about it, the more he knows she's right. He swaps a newly flattened panini for another wedge from the row of cut-up chunks on the counter.
"I guess you'd know," he says, putting away the remains of a head of lettuce. "It's just.. the whole subject of hypnotism makes me a little leery. One time, Bucky and I were at Coney Island, and there was a demonstration of the 'Miraculous Art of Mesmerism' by the Marquis of Manchester. He mesmerized this guy we knew from the neighborhood, Ray Lubowitz, and made him stand on one leg and moo. And if you knew this guy--"
Steve turns around with a wry smile at the memory. Pepper's gone, having said what she had to say. He shrugs and chomps into a hot hunk of sandwich. He begins cleaning up behind himself, putting away the cold cuts and condiments and sweeping away the crumbs, when two things happen more of less simultaneously: He realizes the big bread knife he used on the loaf isn't on the counter, and there's a commotion at the far side of the adjacent common room.
Pepper screams, Tony yells, and there's a bellow that can only be the Other Guy. Steve bolts toward the fracas.
Pepper has the bread knife, which she's slashing wildly and saying, "Die, die, die!" in a shrill monotone. Tony's shirt is bloody. He has defensive cuts on his left arm. The Other Guy--thankfully he's not full size--he's swatting at Pepper, obviously trying to stay between her and Tony. Any rational person would retreat, but Pepper has clearly lost her mind.
Steve comes in fast from behind her, grabbing her arm and squeezing it to make her release the knife. She's still repeating, "Die, die, die!" and snarling at Tony, who looks like he's going into shock.
First things first. He spins Pepper around to face him. "I'm going to count to three and snap my fingers, and you're going to snap out of it. One, two, three--!" He snaps his fingers, and Pepper looks up at him blankly.
"It's okay, Big Guy," Steve says quietly to the Hulk. "We've got this under control. We need the Other Guy, though, for some first aid. Okay? Can you help us out?"
"Oh my God! Tony! What did I do?!" For the next couple minutes, Steve has his hands full. Pepper is weeping hysterically and keeps sobbing that she's sorry, so sorry. Tony is swaying on his feet until Steve half-carries him to one of the sofas and sits him down. The wounds turn out to be several gashes on his arm and one along his rib cage.
After his alter-ego obligingly retreats, Banner gets up from the floor. "I'll be right there," he says, taking in the scene of agita. "Just as soon as I pull on some pants."
Tony applies pressure to the slice on his ribs, while Pepper hold her blood-spattered blouse to the next-worst injury, a long score running from just above Tony's left wrist almost to the bend of his elbow. She's in just a camisole, so Steve gives her his Museum of Modern Art tee shirt, without mentioning cubism, fauvism or photo-realism.
Taking the knife with him, Steve is headed for kitchen when the smoke detector goes off. His panini is cremated. Incinerated. Toast. By the time he's dealt with that and grabbed every clean towel and napkin in sight, Banner is back on the scene, examining Tony's wounds.
Tony drapes his uninjured arm over Pepper's shoulders. She's crying quietly. Steve hands over a fistful of paper napkins and watches helplessly as Tony consoles the woman who just tried to kill him.
"So apparently you were at least half right, Cap," Tony says as Bruce stitches the long cut. "Judging by the way you snapped her out of it, she was hypnotized. But not to fall in love with me--to kill me. Which was definitely not my idea."
"But who's behind it, and why?" Steve's brow furrows. "Pep, we're going to have to track down that hypnotist."
Pepper shakes her head. "She's dead. Her whole building was destroyed during the Battle of New York."
"The building being wrecked doesn't mean she's dead," Bruce points out.
"I saw her obituary in the Times," Pepper says flatly. "Dr. Sophia Delgado, hypnotherapist, aged 44, survived by a sister in Chicago and a brother in Atlanta. Dead."
Tony looks thoughtful. "JARVIS, please call Happy for me." A moment later, the chauffeur's image shimmers onto one of the wall screens. "Hey, Hap, how's it going? And where do I know the name Sophia Delgado from?"
"Geez, boss, don't tell me you don't remember that fruitcake?" The genial driver shakes his head. "It was when you were staying at the Beverly Wiltshire, after the Malibu house got trashed. She was that goofy broad that said you were her reincarnated soulmate."
"Oh, her," Tony perks up. "She thought I used to be some big deal railroad baron from the 1800's and she'd been my mistress."
"What?!" Steve asks quietly, because the conversation just stopped making sense.
Bruce looks up at him. "A lot of people who believe in reincarnation use hypnosis to regress to previous lives," he says at the same volume. "There's no scientific basis to it, but it's been a popular use for the process for several decades."
"Don't worry about it," Tony is saying. "I just found out she's dead. Thanks, Happy. Talk at ya later."
"So let me see if I've got this straight," Steve says. "This Delgado woman came on to you because she thought you were her reincarnated lover, and when you turned her down, she managed to hypnotize Pepper and plant the suggestion to murder you?"
"That's about the size of it," Tony says matter-of-factly. "She was probably waiting for the big press party we had scheduled for the Tower's official opening. What do you want to bet she would have called Pepper at a strategic moment and had her assassinate me on live TV?"
"That's the goofiest thing I've ever heard."
Tony looks at his partner. "So, after all those words he came up with to break the conditioning you weren't under, what triggered the conditioning you were under?"
"It was 'mesmerized'," Pepper says in a small voice. Steve immediately goes after another towel, a wet one this time, so she can wipe away the blood, snot and tears.
In the middle of it all, Clint and Natasha stroll in and are visibly startled that apparent carnage has taken place without them. After explanations, Tony says, "You know, none of this would have happened if you hadn't told Steve that cockamamie story."
"But," Natasha points out, "if he hadn't, Pepper would still be walking around like a loaded gun, ready to be triggered by who knows what, a theater review, perhaps? She might have snapped under worse circumstances and caused who knows what kind of collateral damage."
"Good point," says Tony, who is being remarkably calm, for Tony. He hugs Pepper a little tighter. Her left hand is grasping his right. "It isn't your fault, sweetheart. I'm not mad at you. It'll be okay."
There's just one thing wrong with the picture of mutual devotion they're presenting, and that's her other hand, which is against her lips.
"Pepper," Steve says emphatically, "Please. Stop biting your nails."