[Just Stick to the Cards]
Sprawled next to her, Tony rolls his head along the back of the seat, away from the view of the coastline along Highway 1 to meet her eyes with a lazy grin that doesn't quite reach his. "I 'personally emphasized' something? That sounds delightfully naughty, Potts."
"You grunted in what I took as interest at various points when I read you the list last week." It's been like this all week, a parody of normality. Either he's only just off normal, enough to make the skin between her shoulder blades itch, or he's astonishingly critical, blunt. Not in the way she's become used to over the years, the impersonal indifference of genius self-absorption, but bitter, even on a few occasions deliberately cruel.
She hands him a thin stack of index cards, neatly color-coded and flagged, each with no more than three bullet-points - more quick references than any actual attempt at detailed remarks - and chokes down the now-constant knot of regret and unease that mocks her for ever thinking today had been a good idea. "Please try and hit at least three of these."
Tony fans the cards out, reading a few, shuffling them around before he tosses them away. They flutter across the seat and floor of the Phantom in a sherbert-colored swirl. "You know they don't really care about any of this."
Weariness softens his callous dismissal of her work; it's the first genuine reaction she's seen from him in days. Collecting the cards, she slots them back into order and tucks them away in her folio. Tony's gone back to staring out at the coastline, a masterpiece of studied indifference, but even through the tinted windows the sunlight reflecting off the water throws his profile into sharp relief, highlighting the muscles along his jawline that tense and relax when she says, "I made sure Afghanistan is off limits."
Doug Brandeis had balked when she first laid down that stipulation; it was, after all, a special interview all about Tony Stark's first year back in action, on the anniversary of his kidnapping. The public knows what Iron Man does now, but they still want to know why, that was the producer's argument. Pepper acknowledged it but made it clear she'd pull the plug, literally, if anyone but Tony brought it up during the show. She's fairly certain he knew she wasn't bluffing, and if not, well, he'd certainly find out.
"Impressive. Did Brandeis wake up with a horse's head in his bed?" Real humor glimmers through his sarcasm, and that knot in Pepper's throat starts to unravel when he snaps his fingers and demands, "Let me see those cards."
Her phone chirps with a text message notification right on the heels of his request and she juggles phone and folio, thumbing the new message onto the screen.
Happy bday, P. Drinks soon?
She stares at it until Tony's "You have something better to do, Potts?" startles her free of the shock that she'd forgotten.
When she looks up Tony is watching her, eyes hooded, but not clouded anymore. She quickly scrolls the text off the screen and hands him the cards. "Of course not."
She debates letting Tony know she's leaving. He'd vanished into the shop the second they got back, only pausing at the top of the stairs long enough to say, "I've been a dick lately," acknowledgement and apology all tangled together, like he's still not sure how to do either. While Pepper thought that their exchange in the car that morning marked a positive turn, she didn't think it had made anything magically better for either of them. He'd hardly said a word to her after that, but had charmed his way through the interview and the rest of his engagements that day with a genuine grace, leaving her feeling like a poorly healed bone re-broken and re-set, equal parts hurt and relieved. Right now she's not sure she's got enough energy left to get herself home. She certainly doesn't have anything left for Tony.
"Jarvis," she says, hoping this sounds more like an appropriate compromise than the cowardice she fears it really is, "will you tell-"
The intercom cuts her off. "Pepper, I need you."
"Fuck," she murmurs under her breath. "Jarvis," she starts again, "please tell Tony I'll be right down."
There are three drawers in the table he gestures to, so she opens each: a tangle of wire, a collection of broken tools, and…
A small box, neatly gift-wrapped and tied off with a too-large garish green ribbon.
"You thought I forgot." She jumps when she hears his voice so close; he stands just a step away, hands in his pockets. His carriage reminds her of him in the car that morning; indifferent when he is anything but.
"Well, there is precedent."
"Yeah, whatever. You gonna open it?"
Pepper carefully peels the paper away, ignoring Tony's, "Dear god, you are anal, Potts. Just open it already."
An abstract twist of gold on a fine chain lays nestled in a bed of tissue paper. "Tony, it's lovely."
"Very expensive, too."
She lays it in her palm and that's when she realizes it's not shapeless. It's a heart, heavily stylized, but at the right angle unmistakable.
"You don't like it."
She wonders what he sees in her face right now. "No, I do. Really. It's beautiful. It's just… not what I'd expect from you."
"The thing is, what does one get for the woman who works for the man who has everything? So I thought I should take the opportunity to repay an old debt." He takes it from her hands, motioning for her to turn.
"I don't understand," she says as she obeys the unspoken order.
"Once upon a time," his breath is warm on the back of her neck as he settles the necklace in place, "you gave me proof I have a heart. Now I'm giving you proof it's yours."
Pepper spins around so fast she almost bumps his nose with hers. He's wearing that wry, lopsided grin. "I thought you weren't nostalgic."
"I'm not. But maybe I am a little sentimental." And then he's leaning in, the rough of his beard tickling her skin as he presses a sweet, chaste kiss to her cheek, and after a tiny hesitation, another to the corner of her mouth. "Happy birthday, Pepper."
She breathes in the words. She's not sure when she splayed a hand across his chest, palm centered over the reactor, fingers curled over the edge of its housing, cushioned from the sharp edge by the expensive silk of his shirt.
"Thank you," she manages after she remembers to breathe out again. He hasn't moved; his beard scratches along her chin, and his fingers curve over the back of her hand, holding it in place against him.
"I apologized for being a dick, right?"
"More or less."
"I am sorry. You know that right? Please tell me you know."
She thinks he's asking for confirmation of so much more than that, and yet she says, without hesitating, "I know."
"Good." He rocks back on his heels, not really putting any space between them, but now she can see his face, count the lines that weren't there a year ago, the scars that never quite faded. "So, good birthday?"
Someday this man will break her heart, Pepper thinks. Or maybe he already has, and she just hasn't noticed yet. "The best."