Sentinel

"He's outdone himself this time."

Startled by the voice at her ear, Pepper turned to find James Rhodes at her elbow. "Hmm," she agreed. She leaned on the railing that ringed the edge of the cliff side terrace as a low coughing whump announced the launch of another shower of fireworks into the darkened sky over the ocean. The crowd gathered on Tony Stark's patio for the July 4th festivities let out a wordless chorus as the rocket burst into a silver chrysanthemum so large it filled the horizon.

"Just one of the many benefits of working for a former weapons designer," Pepper said, allowing herself a hint of irony she knew Rhodey would appreciate. The sparkling flower dissolved into twinkling streams of light over their heads. Hoots of laughter floated her way, Tony's among them. She met Rhodey's eyes and smiled.

"He make them himself this time?" he asked.

Pepper rolled her eyes. "I put my foot down. Remember last year?"

"Remember? My ears are still ringing," he said. "How'd you talk him out of it?"

Tony's annual threat to put together his own Independence Day show had felt perfunctory this time, and she still wasn't sure whether that worried her or not. "I scheduled him a tour of the factory. It's family owned – three generations of pyros." She shrugged. "He spent four hours discussing the proper packing of gunpowder with the company patriarch."

"So next year…"

Pepper punched his shoulder. "Don't even start. I have eleven months until I have to worry about next year."

Rhodey grinned at her, eyes crinkling at the corners. His hands on the railing were long fingered and elegant, his nails neat and smooth. Tony's were big knuckled and scarred. He bit his nails to the quick and no matter how much Lava he used they were never quite clean. Grease and engine oil and god only knew what else were permanently ingrained in the lines of his palms, in the whorls of his fingers. Tony might wear suits that cost more than Pepper's first car but his hands gave away the real man, the man she respected enough to put up with the rest.

There was a pause in the fireworks. Rhodey leaned out over the cliff edge, the breeze ruffling his loose linen shirt, more at ease than she'd seen him since Afghanistan. Pepper turned to rest her back against the railing, her arm brushing his shoulder companionably. Then the milling crowd parted and she found Tony's eyes on her. Studying her narrowly, like she was one of his circuit boards, like she was a problem that could be solved with a little tinkering. She returned the stare but true to form he didn't back down, just sipped his ridiculous electric blue martini, his gaze never leaving hers.

"He won't tell me what the hell he's building down there. Says it's a surprise." Rhodey's voice drew her attention away from her stare-off with her boss. "You know I don't like surprises. Especially Tony Stark-shaped surprises."

Pepper nodded. "None of us like Tony Stark-shaped surprises," she said.

"He's sworn you to secrecy, hasn't he?" Rhodey nudged her with his shoulder.

Her lips quirked. "Not anything so dramatic, believe me. Only a nondisclosure agreement signed in blood." Truth was, Tony wasn't talking much these days about his subterranean projects. He welded things together, he tore them apart – but so far nothing recognizable had materialized. She'd taken to gauging his frustration level by the discordance of his musical choices.

Another firework launched. It triggered too soon, too low, and with an earsplitting crash – and across the patio she caught Tony in a flinch. He met her gaze again as if unable to look away, wide-eyed and stiff in his impeccable suit, his mechanic's knuckles briefly white. Then the woman next to him, a pixy with almond eyes and a diamond nose ring, put her hand on his arm.

Pepper turned back to the darkness over the water.

"What was that all about?" Rhodey asked. She'd forgotten he was there and had to quell a start of shock at his voice.

"What was what all about?"

He frowned. Waited for the crash of the next firework to pass before continuing. "Pepper, don't do that. Not with me. What's going on?"

It was automatic, an impulse, a defense she'd developed within the first month of working for Tony. Now it was easy to forget that not everyone played conversations like they were a tennis match.

She couldn't meet the concern she knew was in Rhodey's eyes. "I don't-" She broke off. "He's-" Her hands lifted, circled, dropped again. "Different."

She sensed Rhodey's nod more than she saw it. "Yeah. He is." Another burst of sparks in the sky, this time like huge firecrackers, fizzing down to nearly touch the water, snapping and popping with white light. "You know you don't have to do this on your own, right?"

Pepper blinked. Turned to find the skin around Rhodey's eyes tight, lines framing his mouth. "Thank you," she said. He nodded.

Over head the fireworks display reached its peak, drowning out the delighted cries from the guests. The grand finale, her mother would have called it - but Tony was resolutely ignoring the barrage of colored light, his back to the show he put on every year for his upper level executives and their families. The blue drink was gone, replaced by a flute of champagne. The blonde pixie was gone too, but she hadn't been replaced. Yet.

"You want a drink?" Rhodey asked after the silence between them went from comfortable to stretched thin.

"Yeah," she answered, finding a smile for him. "Surprise me."