The town car accelerates smoothly across the 59th Street bridge, and through the traffic and the trusses Pepper gets syncopated snapshots of the city at night: skyscrapers behind her and the East River lit up green and orange and the long stretch of Roosevelt Island and then Queens rushing up to meet them. Phil is quiet beside her, his hands resting on his knees, and the only way Pepper sees the hint of strain in his face is the same reason she was tasked with being Tony Stark's PA—she knows how to read people, how to anticipate what they might need to say.
"Have you considered trying to make it work long-distance?" she tries. "SHIELD has a base in San Francisco, right? Commuting at the weekends wouldn't be that difficult."
"Portland, Maine," Phil says. "She was offered a position in the School of Music at the university there. Not that it matters one way or the other. It wasn't just the distance."
Pepper quirks an eyebrow at him. "Well, it can't be the job—she doesn't know what you really do."
Phil makes a soft sound of demurral, and that's enough to make both of Pepper's eyebrows shoot up. "You told her about SHIELD?" she hisses, knowing that her voice has reached roughly the pitch it did in the aftermath of the one and only time Tony had been in close proximity to the Queen of England. Pepper only knows the barest outlines of SHIELD's activities, and some days she still wakes up surprised that Nick Fury hasn't wiped her memory over night.
"No," Phil says. "She thinks I'm an IT procurement manager with a cubicle in mid-town Manhattan and a small but well-maintained collection of Captain America memorabilia."
Pepper frowns. "So what's the problem?"
"She thinks I'm an IT procurement manager with a cubicle in mid-town Manhattan and a small but well-maintained collection of Captain America memorabilia." Phil's small smile has no real humor in it. "Apparently I lack in both ambition and excitement."
Tony being Tony, there's no such thing as an unhackable security camera in the continental United States; Pepper's seen what Phil can do when armed only with a bag of flour. She gapes at him. "Seriously?"
Phil nods. "Seriously."
"Well," Pepper says, leaning back in her seat and thinking about Phil—how he's faced down a homicidal Obadiah Stane and a petulant Tony Stark and never once flinched; how his shoes are always brightly polished and he never forgets her birthday. "Her loss."
"Thank you," Phil says, accepting the compliment with every sign of equanimity.
Pepper peers at him. "That's really not what's bothering you, is it? You don't really care that she doesn't understand what you do."
Phil thinks for a moment before he answers. "All those tabloid stories about you, the ones that started as soon as you got the job."
He doesn't have to be more specific than that—Pepper knows exactly which ones he means, the ones that sometimes implied, sometimes baldly said that she'd gone through her job interview flat on her back; the ones that ignored her value in order to calculate her price. She's had practice, so she doesn't blush. "Yes?"
"Not one of them understood who you were or what you did. Did their perception of you really matter, in the long run?"
Pepper finds she doesn't really have to think about it. "No, of course not."
This time, Phil's smile is much more genuine. As the car coasts to a stop in front of his terminal he says, "The fact that they couldn't see you was their loss." He leans in and kisses her on the cheek. "Agent Fallows will see you to your terminal," he says before he slides out of the car, his movements neat and economical as always.
And this is the reason why Pepper worked for Tony for all those years, why she stayed—because, she thinks, when she watches Phil walk straight-backed into the terminal building, she knows how to measure the worth of a man.