True to his promise from the night before, Rhodey dropped Tony off at the Stark Industries air strip that morning on his way to Edwards, just missing Pepper as she pulled up in her own car. Bleary-eyed, her head full of grit, she was in no way ready to face her boss, but she needn't have worried. By the time she made her way into the main cabin Tony had vanished into the bedroom suite and the white-noise of the shower was audible through the open bedroom door.
So she took a seat at the table in the main cabin and gratefully accepted a mug of coffee from Janine, the regular flight attendant for short trips, as the jet taxied down the runway. It was nearly nine hours from L.A. to Mountain View by car; hopping a jet between two private airstrips knocked the trip down to an hour. Long enough for her to review her file on the Google green energy initiative while she picked at a bowl of fruit salad and yogurt with granola. Long enough to nod off in her chair and snap awake with a start to find Tony leaning over the table toward her, half out of his chair, toying with an empty glass of orange juice.
"Morning, Potts," he said, sinking back into his chair.
He was wearing wrinkled sweats the last time she'd seen him. Now, in his charcoal-grey pinstripes and pale gold pocket kerchief, he was a GQ cover in the making. A gold and black striped tie hung loose around his neck, the ends trailing under the lapels of his jacket. Still wet from the shower, his hair was slicked back from his forehead, curling at the nape of his neck.
"You know, drool's a good look on you." Dark sunglasses hid whether his smirk had spread beyond the lower half of his face.
So, they were pretending last night hadn't happened. Fine with her. She didn't bother to check for drool, just scrubbed at her eyes, took a sip of coffee, then grimaced -- it had cooled to room temperature.
"You want a warm-up?" Before she could respond he shot up from the table and retrieved the pot of coffee from behind the bar, waving off Janine. He'd refilled her mug and poured one for himself before she realized something was missing.
He wasn't wearing the sling. His right arm was held close to his body but free, the coffee carafe in his left hand. He followed her gaze and shrugged.
As the jet came to a stop, Pepper pulled out her kit, plucked the sunglasses from Tony's nose, and hid the worst of the fading bruises and abrasions around his temple and cheekbone under a light coat of foundation. Then she looped the gold silk tie into a careful Windsor, pushing the knot snug up against his throat without comment.
He'd pulled it loose from his collar by the time they hit the tarmac. That, at least, had been routine.
"The arc reactor my father built ran our factory for thirty years," Tony said from the front of one of Google's sleek conference rooms, winding up his sales pitch. "The one I'll build you will make that antique look like a car battery."
Pepper blinked, then pulled herself up from her slump against the back wall of the room, straightening her shoulders. A car battery? Tony tapped his fingers over his tie, against the center of his chest, then smoothed his hand over the silk. It was the first gesture he'd made in nearly an hour -- for most of the presentation he'd been subdued, his hands lodged in his trouser pockets. As she'd watched his stance had gradually stiffened, and now his right arm was pressed tightly to his side, the line of his jacket wrinkled from the pressure.
His smile, though, showed nothing but teeth.
"Today you produce a third of your energy in-house. My reactor will get you to 100% self-sufficiency. Take you completely off the grid."
The audience -- a senior vice president or two, a handful of engineering executives, and a busload of curious lower level techies -- had been predictably dubious about the merits of arc reactor technology until Tony presented the same simplified -- and carefully censored -- specs he'd given Maguire for the Board.
Then the questions started. Cost effectiveness. Long-term stability. Inevitably, safety.
The toothy smile went fixed as Tony acknowledged the press reports of the 'accident' at Stark Industries. "Now, statistics isn't my field, but even if you had a secret robotic prototype housed with your arc reactor, the chance that your robot would go haywire and cause an overload the way ours did seems a bit slim. So, how soon do you want one of your very own?"
His new Google fan club swarmed him as he stepped away from the podium, so while he bantered and shook hands without a hint of his earlier rigidity, Pepper ducked to the front of the room to gather up the flash drive he'd used for the presentation.
"Pepper," he called over his shoulder as she surreptitiously kneaded the back of her neck, swallowing a yawn. "When's that meeting in L.A. tonight?"
She glanced up, smoothing the confusion from her was no meeting in L.A. He was still mobbed -- the suits had given way to what looked like a group of engineers and technicians in tee shirts and jeans. One had even asked him for his autograph, which Tony scrawled left-handed without thought.
Pepper made a show of checking her Blackberry. "Six o'clock," she said.
"Sorry, kids." Tony shook his head. "Duty calls. Potts will have my ass if I'm late."
The crowd around him deflated.
Twenty minutes into the flight back to L.A., Tony tore himself away from obsessively flipping through news channels on the jet's big projection screen long enough to signal one of the flight attendants for a fresh Tom Collins. Pepper just shook her head when the attendant asked her if she wanted anything. It was only four o'clock, and she had three or four more hours of work ahead of her after they landed, but what she really wanted was to curl up in bed.
Tony dropped the remote onto the table between them and dug through his pocket for his phone. He'd settled into the armchair across from her at an awkward angle, with his back to one of the arms, and the chair swiveled a little every few minutes as he shifted position. The knot of his tie hung in a noose down to his breastbone, his white dress shirt was wrinkled beyond repair, and though it was usually the first thing to go, he hadn't stripped off his suit jacket yet. If there had been anyone else to wager with, Pepper would have bet he couldn't take the jacket off without help, but after last night she wasn't sure she should offer.
So she kept her opinion to herself. Anything she might have said would sound too much like I told you so.
Listening in on his phone conversations wasn't new, but this one was particularly hard to avoid -- she was sitting right across from him and there really wasn't anyplace else to go in the jet's enclosed space besides the bedroom, and... if he'd wanted privacy, he could have gotten up from the table. Ignoring him was useless, but Pepper took a shot at it anyhow, annotating her Google file with updated information and contacts.
"Never mind how I got your number. How do you think I got it?" Tony grinned into the air, his phone pressed to his left ear.
The flirtatious tone brought Pepper's attention back up from her laptop. She hadn't heard him lay on the charisma quite that heavily since... well, before Afghanistan.
Tony took a long sip of his Tom Collins and laughed, ice rattling against his glass."Nope," he continued. "Yeah, good guess, but no. And you call yourself a reporter? Too bad, that was three. Three's the magic number."
Reporter? It had to be Christine Everhart. What was he doing? While it was good to hear him lighthearted and actually mean it after the last few days, he had an uncanny talent for picking exactly the wrong person to joke with at exactly the wrong time.
"You really wanna know how I got your number?" Tony said to Everhart. "You met Jarvis, right? Well, Jarvis doesn't like snoops, so I'm not surprised, but he's a decent gumshoe when he puts his mind to it--Well, you said you wanted to know. "
There was a long pause. His grin faded. "Look, I saw your newest exposé."
Pepper's hands stilled on her keyboard. He had? When had he had time to read Everhart's Times article? How did he even know about it? She'd only found out from Rhodey last night, had only read it after lying in bed for two hours worrying about what was in the damn thing.
"That's what I'm-- You are unrelenting," he continued, the corner of his mouth turning up. "Yes, they've asked, no, I'm not going to testify."
He was talking about the repeated requests from the Senate Armed Services Committee. Where did Everhart get this stuff? Pepper had to hand it to the reporter -- she certainly had connections. Nothing about the possibility of Tony testifying before Congress had been made public, and Everhart was the last person Pepper wanted digging further into their reasons for turning Senator Bruckman down.
She shut her laptop. "Tony."
"Right thing to do or not, I leave that kind of decision to my lawyers. Are all reporters this combative or are you a special case? I mean, don't get me wrong, it's incredibly--"
"Mr. Stark." She rose from her chair, stifling the urge to snatch the phone out of his hand. "Tony--"
"Hang on, just a sec," he said to Everhart.
"What are you doing?" Pepper said as evenly as she could manage when he looked up.
His amusement glazed over and hardened. "Having a personal conversation."
"With Christine Everhart. Who just wrote about you in the Times."
"And?" He shifted back in his chair, his right arm pressed tight to the side of his chest, his hand limp in his lap.
"Just-- be careful what you tell her, okay? She's a reporter, Tony."
He turned away without responding and raised the phone back up to his ear. "My assistant reminds me to remind you that this is off the record. I don't care, whatever record you're keeping. I know you're at least taking notes."
Pepper sank back into her chair and let her eyes fall briefly closed. Bad enough that he'd so blithely contributed to Everhart's original Vanity Fair profile -- now he was doing it again, while she sat right there.
"Yeah, well, that's what I pay her to do, so suck it up, Lois Lane." Without warning, the lingering playfulness fell away from his tone. His chair swiveled around so that she couldn't clearly see his face. "I didn't call to play true confessions, you have information I want."
Where Lester Briggs's L.A. Times profile had highlighted Tony's mile-wide impulsive streak, Everhardt's article had only mentioned him in passing. Instead, she'd focused on the negative space around his disappearance. She's started off with Iron Man's destruction of the weapons caches in Gulmira, carefully leaving out the fact that she'd been the one to tip him off to their existence in the first place. Then she'd linked that story back to the dead scientist found in the nearby caves -- Dr. Ibrahim Yinsen, the village's prodigal son.
Pepper had to hand it to Everhart -- she'd done a hell of a lot of legwork on this one. After connecting the dots Pepper herself had uncovered before everything went to hell -- Yinsen's professor at Cambridge, his stints at Johns Hopkins and the Landmine Survivors Network -- Everhart had dug deeper. Talked to the locals in Gulmira about Iron Man, about the doctor who'd come home to help them after the war started. In a few short paragraphs, she'd obliterated the lingering rumors that Yinsen had willingly aided the Ten Rings.
"I don't know yet, I just found out about it, and if I was going you'd be the last to--" Tony let out a frustrated huff. "Yeah, I read it. I want to know where you got your--" A hint of admiration crept into his voice. "Well, Miss Brown, jetting into a war zone is a tad hard core for a Vanity Fair reporter, isn't it? So it occurs to me that you must have an inside-- no, this isn't a threat, I don't care who it is. I just want to know what you know. What you didn't publish. Call it a hunch."
Everhart obviously had contacts at the Pentagon. Someone had leaked her excerpts of interrogation transcripts for two members of the Ten Rings captured within days of Tony's escape. Turned out that Raza's interest in Yinsen had started months before Tony even arrived in Afghanistan. The Ten Rings had stormed Gulmira and slaughtered Yinsen's entire family -- his wife, his teenage daughter, his nine-year-old son, his elderly mother -- then took the doctor hostage, forcing him to tend to their fighters. The deal was simple: either Yinsen cooperated, or the Ten Rings would level the rest of his village.
And then Raza had brought him the great Tony Stark, the Merchant of Death, dying of shrapnel wounds inflicted by his own RPG.
The captured terrorists had known more about Yinsen than they did Tony -- Raza had restricted access to Tony to his top lieutenant. The portion of the transcript that detailed Tony's escape had been heavily redacted, but one bit had slipped past the censors: Yinsen had helped, despite the threat to his village. One of the terrorists, a young Hungarian, had laughed in astonishment as he relayed the tale: he'd gone to investigate an explosion in the cavern cell Tony and Yinsen had shared, only to be met by the doctor running towards him, yelling and waving a gun.
"But he just fired at over our heads!" the man had told the interrogator in disbelief. "He didn't even try to shoot us!"
The Ten Rings hadn't returned the favor, of course.
Tony shook his head at whatever Everhart was saying, his attention straying back to Pepper. "No, I don't think she'll go for that. Not a good idea, not right now. Because you're making a name for yourself over something that happened to-- You already know I knew him. Do I sound like I'm going to give you a heart-to-heart about this? No. Forget it. No. There's no quid pro quo here. I just want to know--"
He swung around to the face the table again, bumping Pepper's ankle as he did. She pulled her feet back out of the way, trying to gauge just how willing he was to piss off Everhart and how much damage control it was going to take if he did.
"It's no one's goddamn business, that's why. This isn't a story to me. You don't have the right to--"
Mid-sentence he chucked the cell phone across the cabin. It collided with the bedroom door with a crack of shattered plastic.
Well. She didn't have to worry as much about damage control if he was going to be the one to lose his temper first.
Happy was leaning on the Rolls in the usual spot when the jet landed back in L.A.. He shimmered, insubstantial, like he was floating over the asphalt. Pepper blinked and Happy solidified and a second later the late afternoon heat hit her full strength.
"--sure Jameson's on board for the reactor, but he's got to convince Larry and Sergey. Not to mention Schmidt," Tony rattled off as he picked his way down the stairs to the tarmac, his knuckles white where he gripped the railing.
He'd been planning aloud since they'd touched down, as if the slight jolt when the jet's wheels met concrete had snapped him back to the day's business. She entered a note into her Blackberry, following on his heels as he made a beeline for Happy and the car.
"Give 'em a few days and then set up a lunch, will you? But keep Jameson in the loop, this green energy thing is his baby. And I want to talk to Maguire. Get a sense of how far the board is gonna let me run before they yank on the choke chain."
Happy held open the door to the Rolls for her and she ducked her head as she took a seat, still poking at her Blackberry.
"Maybe I should have the Maguires over for dinner. A little welcome-to-the-madness party," Tony said as he settled into the seat next to her, leaning sideways against the leather. Happy slammed the door shut. A moment later he slid into the front seat and the engine purred to life.
"You don't cook," Pepper said, lips quirking. She could see the edge of Happy's grin in the rear-view mirror.
"Obviously." Tony rolled his eyes, shifting against the seat. His left hand curled around his right bicep just above his elbow and his jaw had gone stiff.
"Unless you plan on serving them one of your famous seaweed shakes." Dinner with Maguires, she typed into the Blackberry. "And I don't cook, either," she reminded him.
"Algae," he retorted, "not seaweed." He squirmed in his seat, rolling his head back, stretching his neck. Then: "This is why god invented catering, Potts."
"Hey, boss," Happy turned in the seat, tossed something over the divider. It landed with a rattle in Tony's lap. "Thought you might need these."
Tony picked up the orange plastic bottle of pills and shook them, squinting at the label. She'd completely forgotten she'd asked Happy to grab them when she'd called to tell him when they'd be arriving at the airstrip.
"Uh... thanks," Tony said. "You got any..." Before he could finish Happy passed a water bottle to the back seat. She grabbed it and handed it over to Tony, watched as without comment he popped one of the Vicodin and swallowed it down with a gulp of water.
It took awhile, maybe twenty minutes, but when the medication kicked in it was obvious. Tony gradually sagged into his seat, expression going slack around the edges, the sudden relaxation emphasizing just how stiffly he'd been holding himself all day.
Happy met her eye in the rear view and nodded.
It wasn't until they were stuck in traffic on the 405 that Pepper remembered that she'd driven to the air strip that morning. She straightened with a start, blinking as if she'd just woken in someone else's bed with no idea how she'd gotten there. How could she have forgotten her car?
"French would be too obvious, I suppose." His eyes half closed, Tony was still mulling over his plans to impress his new CFO and his wife, oblivious to her dilemma. "Maybe Indian? Or, you know, that whole fusion thing is still hot, right?"
Pepper leaned forward in her seat, the belt pulling at her shoulder. "Wait, Happy--"
"Who did we use for the fourth of July party?" Tony asked her, but she'd stopped listening.
"My car. I... It's back at SI."
"What?" Tony turned a vague frown on her. "What're you--"
"I drove this morning. My car--"
Happy shook his head. "We're bumper to bumper here."
And they were -- every lane was clogged, the glare of the sun bouncing off of the hot roofs of cars as they faded into the horizon, miles ahead.
"What's wrong with your car?" Tony asked.
She blew out a frustrated puff of air that left her bangs hanging in her eyes. Swiping at her forehead, she rummaged through her purse as if finding her keys would somehow transport her back to her own car. "Nothing's wrong with it. As far as I know, it's perfectly fine, sitting there back at the air strip. I just... I forgot I drove this morning."
"So... wait. What's the problem?" Tony scratched at his chin, peering down his nose at her like she'd just asked him to explain string theory as a parlor trick.
"The problem is I left my car back--" She bit her lip. "Nevermind. So there's no way to turn around?" she tossed to Happy.
"I'm really sorry," Happy said, hangdog. "Not anytime soon, anyway. I can take you back for it after I--"
"Yeah, okay," she said, taking a deep breath. "It's not a big deal. Sorry, Happy."
Happy shrugged. Tony's gaze finally focused on her face, shifted to the keys clenched in her hand, then away, out her window, at the traffic.
"I've been running you kind of ragged lately, huh?" The quiet tone overwrote the casual words with something she didn't want to look too closely at.
She shook her head, stuffing her keyring back into her purse. "It was a stupid mistake. I just forgot I drove this morning, that's all. It happens."
"Not to you, it doesn't. People ask me if you're eidetic, you know that?"
"You're the one with the photographic memory. I'm just organized," Pepper said. "I was tired and we were talking and I--"
"Forgot. And you left your stuff at my place last night, too."
"You're making a big deal out of nothing. I'll just have Happy drop me off after we're finished tonight."
"Look, I'm trying to... I know things have gotten... complicated. I mean. Last night--"
"God, last night. I'm sorry I left like that. You were right, I shouldn't have been treating you like an invalid, I--"
"I'm trying to say I get it. You're fucking tired, of course you are, I mean, I haven't exactly helped matters, what with the flying robot suit and the explosions and... I'm trying to take responsibility here, but most of the time I have no idea what the hell I'm doing, and you always seem to know what you're doing, how do you do that?"
She tried to get in a word, to insist he'd misread the situation, that she was fine; but he was rambling now, his words sliding together with that earnestness that never failed to knock her off her stride.
"I mean, I'm jealous. Or I was. You know, until--" His left hand lifted from his lap to trace a lazy wave through the air. "Look, if you're going to take a walk on the scatterbrained side for awhile it's probably about time. Even I realize you deserve a break, so that's saying something; but I just need to know, so I can--"
And it all came together, the pieces snapping into place, just like that: the way he'd cut the visit with his Google fan club short with the excuse about the meeting that didn't exist, the way he was watching her, right now, as if he thought she'd scatter apart like a dandelion puff at the slightest breeze. He'd gotten her coffee that morning, for heaven's sake.
"Oh god, you--" she ran a hand over her face, every bit of the forced calm she'd used to bolster herself all day draining away. "You heard. Last night."
The brittle set of his mouth was answer enough.
"Things have been complicated," she said, wrapping the strap to her purse around one fist, over and under and over again. How much had he heard? He'd have only gotten Rhodey's side of the conversation, but that was probably plenty. "I was just blowing off steam, I didn't-- I can't believe you were listening."
A lopsided shrug, and. "Rhodey has thin doors."
"He said you were--"
He just gave her a look.
The traffic broke and Happy pushed the Rolls forward, the hum of the engine the only sound until they exited onto the Pacific Coast Highway. Then Tony straightened, leaning forward in his seat.
"Hey, Hogan. Changed my mind. Stop off at Moonshadows, alright?"
A Malibu fixture that had started life as a surfer hangout -- she'd never heard whether the Cat Stevens song had been an influence on the name, but the place dated back to the seventies, so it was as likely a story as any other -- Moonshadows perched on the beachfront a little over ten miles east of Tony's house. There'd been a time when she'd eaten more meals in a week at the restaurant than she had at her own apartment, and the outdoor lounge was a favorite of Tony's when he wasn't trying too terribly hard to lay on the shock and awe. Despite the dated moniker Moonshadows had three things going for it in Pepper's eyes: it was a twenty minute drive from the house, the food was consistently excellent, and she'd once spied a group of dolphins bucking in the waves from the windows that overlooked the ocean. And it didn't hurt that the staff was used to celebrities.
"Tony," she started, glancing at her watch. "I really--"
"Come on, I'll let you start with the oysters."
Her nose wrinkled. "I hate oysters."
"Right, I knew one of us did. I'll order the oysters, then. You can have the--"
"Tuna Tartare." Drawn in despite herself, she felt the corners of her mouth lift up. "If it's still on the menu. It's been awhile." With a jolt, Pepper realized she hadn't been since Tony's return from Afghanistan. When were things going to stop being divided into before and after in her head?
"All the more reason why we should go," Tony pressed, glossing over the why and how long.
"Boss," Happy called from the front seat, "we're coming up on it in a few." Which was Happy's way of saying make a decision, please. Pepper couldn't help a smile, but a yawn broke through before she could smother it.
"It's been a long day," she protested, in another attempt to disengage herself from Tony's impromptu dining plans. "A couple of long days, actually, and I've still got--"
"It's just dinner, Potts, and it's only five-thirty. I hereby grant you an hour off the clock."
There was no way to win with him in this mood, and God, all she could think about was how thoroughly she'd lost it on the phone to Rhodey the night before. Had they... had they discussed her?
"Aren't we a little formally dressed--"
With a huff, Tony stripped off his jacket -- taking care with his right shoulder -- and yanked off his tie. Unfastened the first two buttons of his shirt then proceeded to pocket his cufflinks and roll his sleeves up to his elbows.
"That doesn't help me," she said, shaking her head. She was wearing a camisole with spaghetti straps under her suit jacket. She supposed it would pass muster. Besides, now she had a craving for the tuna and all she had at home was yogurt and probably some eggs. "Okay, okay. Have it your way."
"I usually do," Tony said, grinning.
Two glasses of wine and the broomstick in her spine finally dissolved. Tony had only ordered Perrier, and she'd raised an eyebrow at that, but he'd been too busy tormenting the waiter to notice. The hostess had greeted them by name at the door, ushered them to Tony's favorite table by the wide bank of windows that leaned out over the ocean, and they were deep into their entrees -- Kobe beef short ribs for Tony, the roasted red fish for herself -- when the thought struck her. He'd been coming to this restaurant since he'd had a beach-front condo he'd only stayed in a couple of weekends a year, back before he'd decided to settle in Malibu permanently. Or as permanently as he was likely to settle anywhere.
"All the times I've eaten here, and I never realized until today -- you stole these windows for your house."
Tony glanced up, a wave of puzzlement breaking through whatever had been distracting him since their food had arrived. He took in the windows, which ran the length of the dining room and offered a floor-to-ceiling view of the horizon, and frowned.
"I don't see it," he said, shaking his head. "Look, I need you to do something for me. Not tonight, but..."
She set her fork aside, smoothed her napkin over her lap. "What is it?"
"That article. Everhart isn't gonna talk to me, but maybe she'll, I don't know. Maybe she'll spill something to you. I need--"
"You want her sources?"
He nodded. "I want the stuff she couldn't confirm."
She toyed with the stem to her wine glass. Took a sip. "We don't need her," she said.
"Of course we--"
"We don't need her," she repeated. It was a weeknight, and early, and the restaurant was only half full. The tables around them were empty. No reason not to lay it out. "Tony, S.H.I.E.L.D.'s bound to have any information Everhart could give you -- they probably even have a file on her, given her interest in you."
A muscle jumped at the side of his jaw. When he spoke his voice was low and clipped. "What makes you think I want anything--"
"That little checkmate the Board set up yesterday hasn't left us with much choice," she interrupted. "You know Fury's investigated everything that had anything to do with the armor."
He picked up his fork and took a bite of meat.
"I... like how your mind works, Potts," he said finally.
She nodded. "As long as they're going to use us..."
"Might as well use them right back," he finished.
"I'll give Coulson a call tomorrow."
"Ten to one they figured we'd call yesterday after the board meeting," Tony said, picking at his plate. "I'm surprised Fury didn't show up at the house again to spank me in person."
Outside the windows a gull swooped down to pluck something from the waves. Pepper eyed the half-full bottle of very good Pinot Noir that she'd ordered despite the fact that it didn't complement her entree in the slightest. "Maybe he did," she said, refilling her glass.
"In that case, he's probably still there, waiting for me," Tony said, his mouth twisting. "Unless he couldn't get past Jarvis's new security protocols."
"If we're stuck with them," she said, "and it looks like we are, unless you're willing to retire the armor--"
"The worst part is, I don't know if he's after me, or the tech." Tony stabbed at a carrot. "He didn't make handing over the tech part of the deal, but that doesn't mean he--"
"Exactly," she said. "Until we know what their intentions are, we have to be careful. But that doesn't mean we can't use their resources."
"Coulson said they'd been investigating Stane for years. Seems convenient that they never found enough evidence to move on him." He left the obvious unspoken: if S.H.I.E.L.D. had been watching Obadiah so closely, how had they missed his attempts to kill Tony?
She tilted her head. "Either they're incompetent, or--"
"Exactly," Tony said.
When had she finished her glass of wine? "Either way, we have to work with them. So you're going to need someone to watch your back."
Tony went still. "No," he said. "And don't think I didn't notice what you're doing. There's no 'we' here, Potts."
"You're not going to give up on your missions, I know that, and they're going to make you coordinate things through Coulson or someone else and how can you trust them when you're halfway across the world? Jarvis isn't enough. Jarvis can't protect your interests."
"No," he said again. "Absolutely not."
"I'm not looking to take a bullet for you." She sat back in her chair, her hands pressed flat on the tablecloth on either side of her plate. "I just want to do my job, Tony, and whether you intended it to happen or not, when you went public as Iron Man the armor and what you do in it became a part of that. I'm already your liaison to the Board. I don't see this as being any different."
The waiter approached their table, took one look at their faces, and discretely backed away. She emptied the rest of the wine into her glass, watched the last few drops dribble from the bottle.
"Why were you there that night, Pepper?"
"...what? What night?"
"You know what night. At the factory. When S.H.I.E.L. to arrest Stane." He laid out his words like a mathematical proof, even and inevitable. "You'd already given them the ghost drive. They didn't need you to get inside, am I right? So why were you there?"
"I..." She frowned, her hands sliding to twist in the napkin on her lap. "I couldn't get a hold of you. I wanted to make sure."
"You saw the plans. You knew he'd built himself his own armor."
She shook her head. "I saw the plans, but I didn't think he'd had time to--"
"Bullshit," Tony said, hunching over the table. "You were a civilian, Coulson and his men were trained agents. Why did you have to be there in person for the arrest?"
"Civilian? Tony, you're just as much a civilian as--"
"I stopped being a civilian when Raza's men mowed down a Humvee full of airmen in front of me. Why did you go back to the factory with Coulson?"
How had he managed to turn this around on her?
"Because I should have insisted Coulson arrest him right there at the office. If I had--"
"Coulson wouldn't have moved without seeing the evidence first. I get why you gave him the drive. I get why you went to the S.H.I.E.L.D. offices. What I don't get is why you had to be at the factory that night."
"Because you were right. When you said that I'd stood by you all those years while you built those weapons, weapons that nearly killed you, you were right. And I stood by, completely oblivious, while Obadiah sold them to the highest bidder. I thought if Coulson arrested Obadiah, if S.H.I.E.L.D. had the evidence, that they could take over. Find your weapons for you."
"Those weapons are my responsibility--"
"I know you think that, but at the time--"
"I never asked you to put yourself in Stane's sights. I never asked you--"
"I was in his sights the minute he figured out what I was doing in the office, the minute I saw what was on that ghost drive. It wasn't just the shipping manifests or the plans for the armor... he knew I knew. About Raza. He'd tried to have you killed, Tony. I went with Coulson because I wanted to make sure."
After she'd left the office Obadiah had gone to the house, she'd put together that much. He'd known she was going to give the evidence to S.H.I.E.L.D. He'd gotten desperate and he'd gone to the house and--
"Yeah, Coulson and his goons were oh so effective against Stane and his hackneyed battle-bot," Tony snarled, then ran his hand over the nape of his neck, over his eyes. "You shouldn't have been there."
"If I hadn't been there," she pressed, "Obadiah would be running your company right now, you'd be about a foot shorter, and I'd probably be dead anyway. You wanted to know why I was there? Well, I want to know how you ended up with the old arc reactor that night."
His chin lifted. "Don't change the subject. This isn't about me."
"Tony," she said, trying for gentle. "If it's not about you, what is it about?"
A tight fist came down to rest on the table by his forgotten fork. She watched as he deliberately opened his hand, relaxed his fingers, curled them around his water glass. He didn't take a drink.
"It's about how people can't seem to stick to the plan," he ground out.
"You say you don't want to... that you aren't going to step in front of a bullet for me. You say it like working with S.H.I.E.L.D. will be just another part of your routine. I don't want this to be... I don't want you involved."
"I'm already involved," she said. "Like it or not, I can't do my job anymore if you leave me out of the loop. Look, your mission -- it's not mine. I... I don't want my life on the line any more than you do. It doesn't have to be that way. All I'm suggesting is that I act as a go-between, a liaison with Fury's people. If only to make my life easier, okay?"
Tony stared out the window at the ocean, where the early evening sun painted the water orange and laced the waves with glitter.
"I know what you're thinking," she said into the silence. "But I'm not Yinsen." She willed him to meet her eyes, but he didn't move. She wasn't sure he was even breathing. "He'd seen his entire family killed in front of him. He'd been held hostage for months before you met him. He didn't have anything to live for, Tony."
"Raza promised to wipe out the rest of his village if he let me die," he said to the window. "Did you know that?"
She shook her head.
He didn't look away from the window. "I didn't either. When's this memorial?"
"What?" Her back went stiff again as she caught up. "Oh god, I'm sorry. I got an email a couple of days ago and I meant to ask--"
"Yeah, well, as I said, things have been..." he trailed off, dismissing her apology with a wave of his hand.
"It's on Saturday. In Cambridge. If you'd like to go, I've already cleared--"
"Whatever. Yeah. You saw the article?"
Pepper nodded. "I'm sorry you had to read about it in the paper," she ventured. "I should have--"
"Potts," he said, "if I ever hear you or Rhodey apologize to me again I won't be held responsible for what happens."
"Rhodey? What has--"
He just looked at her, then turned away.
"Yeah. You both seem hell-bent on winning the gold in the Guilt Olympics." Tony scrubbed at his face. "I'm pretty sure, comparatively speaking, that your side of the cosmic balance sheet is paid in full."
"I'll make arrangements for the trip to Cambridge," she said. "Did you want to speak at the service?"
He just shook his head. Pepper drained her glass. Her nose had gone numb. Her food was cold, a half-eaten mess of white flesh and translucent fish bones. She folded her napkin into thirds and set it aside.
When the waiter came by this time they let him carry their plates away. No one ordered dessert.