Author's Note: It was interesting writing this - this chapter happened in the midst of writer's block. I suppose I shall just go ahead and blame this chapter on writer's block. That's my story, and I'm sticking to it... All the same, if you enjoyed it, please do feel free to let me know.
One of the aspects of the practicality of Pepper Potts was her ability to observe, draw conclusions, and then dismiss all that seemed ancillary, thus freeing her to focus on what mattered most. It was one part the ability to concentrate, and one part sensory triage. And it worked, most of the time.
It worked most of the time, except for today.
The informal café was one of her sister's favorite places, and they didn't take reservations, but one of the things that her sister liked most about it – besides the food, which was tasty, and the owner's comfort level with patrons lingering over coffee for as long as they liked – was the eclectic music. Just as they had walked in, there seemed to be an indie steel-string guitar version of AC/DC's "Back in Black", and now there was a very feisty version of Beethoven's Presto movement of the Moonlight Sonata. It was stormy and strong, something that could overpower the senses if you allowed it.
It fit her frame of mind just perfectly, and so she was having a hard time concentrating on other things. Like her date. Or finding her sister.
He had his hand at the small of her back – he seemed to be putting it there quite often, and Pepper had to admit that she was getting used to it – but just now slid it over to hold her waist as he leaned over to her ear, a simple shift due to their same height. "There's a woman waving and looking significantly at us. Could that be your sister?"
Pepper snapped out of it and shook herself slightly before looking over and seeing Ann smirk at her. Pepper walked forward, smiling and waving off the seating hostess, but as soon as she walked away, Tony's hand disappeared from her person, leaving feeling bereft. She glanced back and gave him a small smile, catching up his now free hand in hers. His hand was incredibly warm.
She felt her self release a breath she hadn't realized she was holding, and she took a deep breath as she weaved her way to the side where her sister was beginning to stand up, the better to properly greet them.
"Ginny! I'm glad you didn't have to cancel after all," her sister said, holding her in a quick one arm hug with a peck on the cheek. "And this must be Tony," she said with a genuine smile.
Pepper's heart descended back to where it was supposed to be, vacating her throat. It seemed that Ann had decided to behave herself and be hospitable. Ann was a good person through and through, but she could be a pip, and thus, deeply annoying, when the mood struck her.
"Yes, Ann, this is Tony. Tony, my youngest sister, Ann Jarvey." She did the introductions as Tony shook her hand and they got themselves seated.
"Does she cancel often?" was Tony's lazy question – lazy, but Pepper knew better. What was he up to? Was he checking up on her? He was, dammit.
Ann, god bless her, just shrugged and pointed out that she didn't keep a tally. It was at that point that the waitress had caught up with them, handed out menus and received drink orders.
"So, Ginny's told us a lot about you."
With most people, this would be a completely innocuous opening gambit.
Pepper watched as Tony smiled and turned on the charisma. He quirked an eyebrow and a grin over at her before answering her sister. "It's all true."
Pepper paled as she glanced over at Ann's mischievous expression.
"You don't know what she's told us."
Tony smirked and accepted his orange juice with grace from the waitress who was giving him the look that came just before recognition hit. "No, but I can imagine. If it's damning, it's true. If it's glowing, it's true."
"And what if it was just mediocre and somewhat run-of-the-mill?"
"No, that's not true," he said immediately before turning to her. "Mediocre? Mediocre? Pepper. When have I ever done things by halves?"
The butterflies finally escaped when she was on the receiving end of his incredulous glare. She tried to smother a smile, but was largely unsuccessful. "Never, Mr. Stark," she responded softly, in her lowest register.
"That's right, Miss Potts," he said, picking up her hand from the table, turning it over and pressing a kiss into her open palm. "And let's not forget it."
A snorted chuckle eventually brought them back to the task at hand: choosing lunch. Pepper could breathe normally after that, though. The worst had past, and the rest of lunch was the right mixture of charming, relaxing, and humorous. Tony now officially had blackmail material on her.
And then the coffee came.
"What about next weekend? The weather is supposed to be nice, and Sev can put some steaks on the grill. Anything you hate eating, Tony?"
"I eat anything," he deadpanned, but her sister just kept going.
"I don't know if that's a good time, but I need to check the schedule. I'll call you later," Pepper told her sister.
Tony leaned back and with one hand cradling a coffee cup and the other on her thigh, under the table, he remarked, "you got a hot date next weekend, Potts?"
She looked up at him and raised an eyebrow. She wanted to be able to give him an out, just in case he didn't want to actually have a family barbeque at her sister's house, but she didn't respond in addition to this because she couldn't perfectly remember his schedule, and hadn't brought it with her.
"No, but I think you're due to be in New York." She did, actually. She was almost positive.
"Really? Cancel it. Or reschedule. What was it?"
"An art opening."
"Definitely cancel it. This is more important."
Ann was just stirring the cream and sugar into her coffee when Pepper decided that she should have been an only child.
"So, you're dating now, and you work together, and one of you is the newest superhero on the block. Are you going to move in with him? Because you know that's going to freak out Mom." At Pepper's absolutely mortified glare, Ann shrugged. "You know Mom is going to grill you, and possibly you too," she nodded to Tony, "and so I thought I'd just get you ready for her inevitable questions about your intentions."
Pepper closed her eyes and wished herself away.
Tony chuckled and moved his hand from her thigh, picking up her hand instead. He kissed her knuckles and laughed longer when she steadfastly refused to look at him, but continued on with her eyes shut.
"I assure you and your entire family that my intentions are entirely honorable." At this, Pepper cracked one eye open and gave him a sidelong glance. His features were light, and once again he didn't look quite as old as he usually did. He looked a bit closer to his 33 years. He squeezed her hand and gave her a look that seemed to silently ask her full attention. She gave it to him.
"If I thought I'd have half a chance of her saying yes, I'd ask her right now to marry me." He looked deeply into her eyes, and all trace of humor was gone from his face, though it was still soft and open. "But she won't even move in with me."
Pepper blinked as her jaw gaped slightly. "Are you serious?" she whispered even as her brain was whizzing at light speed. The practical side of her was doing some quick calculations.
Marriage is respectable. Marriage to a coworker is respectable. Marriage is a legal and binding contract, and in case he got in trouble or injured due to his extra-curricular activities, which was entirely possible, she would have many more rights than she would now, among them being able to plead the Fifth Amendment.
Dating can go either way. Dating your boss is seedy and sordid, no matter who discusses it on FOX News or at the water cooler.
And then of course, there were her feelings: she adored him.
"Yes. Serious. Completely serious. Do I take, from your expression that I might have half a chance of you saying yes to that sort of query?"
She swallowed past the lump in her throat, but when she couldn't quite form words, she nodded instead.
She watched as he put down his coffee cup, slipped his chair back at an angle to avoid the other patrons and sank down onto one knee. There was a lump in her throat again.
He kissed her hand that he still held, and rubbed his fingers across her knuckles.
"Virginia Potts," he started, slowly and softly, as if savoring her name. "Will you make me the happiest man in the world? Will you marry me?"
And then everything clicked into a perfect state of clarity.
"Yes," she whispered. "Yes," she said again, stronger this time, and leaned over and down to kiss him thoroughly. They were interrupted by the applause and cheering that broke out across the café. They ignored the whispers that speculated on the possibility of him being Iron Man.