When Agent Coulson said "We'll be in touch," this is not what Pepper expected to happen.
Nevertheless, "That would be lovely," she finds herself saying into the phone, in response to his enquiry of whether she is free for dinner later in the week. "Let me check my schedule."
Eight p.m. Thursday evening finds her walking into the beautifully minimalistic lobby of Matsuhisa, pencil skirt and eggplant shirt and spiky heels click-clacking a confidence boost despite her confusion as to why she's there at all. The hostess weaves the way through the tables and Pepper follows, plastering a serene smile on her mouth and keeping her eyes level with the back of the room, avoiding the curious gazes she feels crawling over her skin. She loves Matsuhisa; the cuisine is exquisite, she'd been thrilled to hear about their Michelin star. If nothing else, at least the meal will be excellent.
Agent Coulson half-rises from his seat when he sees her. Pepper doesn't know why she's surprised; the man has never exhibited anything less than perfect manners -- a shade too perfect, perhaps. Pepper suspects this is one of the many walls Agent Coulson puts up between the man and the world, just like his perfectly tailored, perfectly boring black suit and pinstriped off-white shirt.
"Ms Potts," he greets her in that flat accent of his that could be from everywhere and nowhere. "Thank you for agreeing to meet me."
"Agent Coulson," she replies, shaking the hand he offers her. "I have no idea what I'm doing here, but it's good to see you."
Coulson's lips twitch; for a second, Pepper imagines that the mask cracks the slightest bit. The sharp, appreciative humour behind it is like a shock of fresh air after hours in a stuffy room. She finds herself grinning back.
Coulson lowers himself back into his chair. "I apologise for the level of secrecy; however, I was instructed to do whatever I thought necessary to keep the... party in question, shall we say, in the dark about the purpose of this meeting."
It takes her less than five seconds to understand. "Mr Stark does not have access to my appointments schedule, you realise," she says tartly. "And even if he did, I find it difficult to believe he would bother finding out whom I was meeting for dinner."
Coulson levels her a look that begs to disagree, but doesn't engage the point.
"Is this about Tony?" Pepper asks after another moment of silence, wondering where this is going.
"...Yes and no," Coulson says, folding the menu he'd been holding closed again when the waiter approaches, and ordering in perfect Japanese.
So does Pepper. It's not that easy to impress her anymore, considering whom she works with on a daily basis. Yet there's that curious smile again, hovering over Coulson's mouth, quirking the corners the slightest bit and making his blue eyes crinkle. It's a far cry from the bland smile he had wielded like a sword a month ago at the press conference; it's more sincere even than the last, unguarded smile he had given her, when she had called him back to thank him for all his help. Pepper finds the flicker of genuine emotion refreshing, a glimpse of the man under the Suit.
"The Dungeness Crab with Creamy Spicy Sauce is particularly fine," she tells Coulson when he hesitates, still in Japanese. The waiter bows at her, a series of "Hai" and "So desu ne" showing his agreement.
"Arigato gozaimasu," Coulson says, confirming the order and politely dismissing him. Pepper eyes the smile that accompanies the words, mentally pulling up her tally. It's the same expression as the one she had encountered at their very first meeting -- perfectly neutral, the epitome of average. In short, nothing whatsoever like the one Pepper was offered less than two minutes ago. That, more than anything, convinces her to listen to what he has to say.
The waiter bows again and trots away happily while Coulson returns his assessing gaze to her. "Where were we?"
"You were about to tell me how this pertains to my boss."
The aborted downturn of his mouth is another glimpse behind the mask. Pepper finds herself adding it to what has apparently become a list.
"Since Mr Stark has, in rather spectacular fashion, gone against the express advise of the Agency, I'm afraid we are going to have to monitor him much closer. Director Fury has already been in touch with him. We were hoping that you might consider a... more intricate role in the process."
Pepper scrutinises him for any underhanded intentions, any well-hidden malice; finds nothing but that irritatingly inscrutable expression and, underneath it, a touch of earnestness. It is that last that makes the choice for her -- not that she has much of one in the first place, considering she'd do just about anything to make the transition between Tony Stark the billionaire and Tony Stark who is also Iron Man in his spare time as smooth as physically possible -- for the company's sake, not just his. She is also perfectly aware that the illusion of choice is just that, but she appreciates being offered it all the same. Agent Coulson is a clever man.
"You mean spy on him for you?" she throws out, just to test him. He lifts both eyebrows, somehow contriving to look reproachful without moving another muscle.
"Ms Potts, I think you and I both know that we don't need your cooperation if that were our aim; I assure you it isn't. Likewise, we both know you'd much rather be involved in the process than tolerate being relegated to the sidelines. Am I wrong?"
Oh, he's good. Not that Pepper ever expected otherwise.
"What exactly would this more intricate role entail?" she asks, holding his gaze, allowing him to see her discarding the pretense. He's called her bluff well and good; she can't help but respect him for it.
He smiles again, and tells her.
Agent Coulson is surprisingly good company, once all matters of business have been attended to and concluded.
"It did not," Pepper laughs, shaking her head.
"It did, too, scared my sister half to death," Coulson says, throwing another rueful look at the lobster being demolished by a perfectly-put-together middle-aged lady and her companion at the table to their right.
"Not you, though," Pepper grins. "What did you do? Go on, tell me," she coaxes when Coulson hesitates minutely and throws her another sharp look. Those have been getting more and more frequent as the evening goes on, not less; yet the nature of them has undergone a subtle change, from merely assessing to something more... considering.
"I slammed it on the head with the toy shovel we'd been playing with, and then I trapped it with the sand bucket," Coulson confides at last; Pepper grins, imagining a small boy with a shock of salt-roughened mousy hair brandishing a plastic shovel like a weapon. "Then I sat on top of it while she screamed her head off for Dad. Dad came running, shooed me off the bucket, tipped it over and threw the lobster back in the bay. My sister still can't even look at a crustacean without breaking into goosebumps."
Pepper winces sympathetically. "You were a brave little trooper, to protect her like that."
Coulson scrunches his nose. It's startlingly endearing on someone as tightly closed off as Coulson holds himself. "I had nightmares for a month about pincers chasing after me," he says, almost shyly, like a confession. Pepper finds herself wondering how many people have heard this story, particularly from Coulson himself. She can't help her genuine smile, even less the level of fondness it has suddenly acquired; more surprising still, she means it.
Half an hour later, when Coulson escorts her out of the door and into her car, she turns and thanks him for dinner, tells him, "I had a wonderful time," and means that, too.
When he leans closer to her open window and asks if she's free next Thursday, she doesn't even have to look at her calendar to say yes.