a/n: This chapter was an odyssey to write, but I enjoyed every minute of it. I truly hope you enjoy it as well


"Life is not measured by the number of breaths we take, but by the moments that take our breath away." -Anonymous

Part 2: The Paths We Travel

The nervous tension for both Tony and Pepper has eased quite a bit since Pepper's arrival, leaving them with an altered version of their usual comfortable silence as they sip their drinks at the end of the now somewhat vacant bar.

Finally able to remove his eyes from her distractingly beautiful form, Tony follows Pepper's lead and stares out across the elaborate ballroom to watch the imaginative scene before them. Leaning back against the edge of the bar, he manages to inch himself close enough to Pepper's arm that he can feel the heat radiating from her skin. He's just about to make the last 'scoot' closer, when she speaks; stopping him in his tracks.

"Do you know what this place reminds me of?" Pepper asks in a voice that sounds much more breathy than she intended. She keeps her eyes focused on the ballroom, but she is all too aware of the fact that Tony is just an inch or so away from brushing up against her bare arm.

His eyes skim across her shoulder and up to her face as he turns his head in interest. "What?"

"A Midsummer Night's Dream. I went to watch it at an off-Broadway stage just recently, and it was one of my favorite plays to read while in college," she recalls, sweeping her gaze across the room. An image of Pepper walking around a college campus in a cardigan and carrying a backpack makes him smile. She notices, and turns to face him completely. "Are you making fun of me?" she asks with a smile and mock seriousness.

"No, no!" he says, waving his hand in defense. "I was just wondering if you were one of those college girls gone wild, that's all," he finishes, grinning at her.

She gives him a hateful look. "You wish."

He raises his drink to his lips. "You have no idea," he mumbles into the glass.

"What?"

"Oh, nothing," he replies quickly, then changes the subject. "So…Shakespeare, huh? I would have pegged you for more of a Homer and the Odyssey fan. But if the gratuitous sex and forest nymphs are more your thing…"

"No! Tony…" she replies, smacking him playfully in the arm. "It wasn't about that," she shrugs, a faint blush coming across her cheeks. "I mean, yes…there was a lot of that too…but it was about imagination and dreamy landscapes, fantasy, and …" Pepper's voice trails off as she tries to find another word to describe the play.

"…Love?" Tony blurts before he can stop himself. Pepper's eyes fly to his and Tony swallows nervously. Heat runs up his collar unexpectedly, and he glances down to his drink; suddenly extremely interested in the pattern on the glass. Pepper smiles at his downcast face; amused by the fact that Tony Stark is actually showing signs of embarrassment.

The moment doesn't last long however and within another few seconds, his head rises with a smirk dancing across his lips. "Of course, Shakespeare was a very strange man indeed." He tilts his head to one side as he looks at her. "I mean, what's a guy wearing a car filter around his neck know of love anyway? And don't forget, he wrote about death and mayhem—and then there's Hamlet…"

Worried that the content of the conversation has gotten a bit out of hand, Pepper decides to bring the subject to a close. "Hmm. Maybe you're right."

His eyebrows shoot up in disbelief. "Agreeing with me? Huh. Ok, that's it, you're cut off," he says, reaching for her glass.

She pulls her martini away from his wayward hand just in time. "Hey! I've only had one," she counters and upon instinct, brings her hand up to stop him from advancing. Her left palm lands directly over the solid metal of the arc reactor and upon contact of her hand to his chest, they both cease their movements.

Pepper stares at where her hand lay on Tony's chest and she can't help but be reminded of the many times she has had her hand covering the same spot during the last few months…

…The night that he had returned from the Middle East and had her worried sick about his injuries, leaving her no choice but to stay with him throughout the night.

…When the flowers had arrived at the office and their childish banter and exchange had led to her tripping and falling into his arms. She still secretly replays that moment over and over in her mind.

…And when he had saved her life that night nearly a month ago, as she lay across him in that darkened tunnel; her bound hands pressed fully against the metal of the arc reactor. Her relief at finally being out of harm's way left her body limp and motionless as she lay atop him.

Her fingers curl downward slightly and she can feel the almost nonexistent hum of the device beneath her palm as her fingertips drift over the fabric of his costume. Tony's free hand lands on her wrist and his warm fingers wrap around the limb, as if holding on to her would somehow allow him to hear her thoughts. They stay that way for what seems like an eternity, but when the 

band strikes up once again, the spell is broken, and Tony clears his throat as Pepper's hand drops away from his chest.

Despite having just finished his drink, Tony's mouth is entirely too dry for his own liking. Noticing two bubbling glasses of champagne sitting at the bar, he grabs both of them before the man who ordered them notices, and then turns to back to Pepper. "C'mon, let's go outside," he says, handing her a glass. She thanks him and proceeds to walk away from the bar.

Tony allows her to lead and just as they reach the end of the dance floor, Tony is intercepted by a large older gentleman dressed as a pirate.

"Mr. Mayor!?" Tony greets swiftly, trying to wipe the surprised look off of his face. His voice catches in his throat and he suddenly feels as if the ground has been swept out from underneath his feet. Glancing around to make sure Pepper didn't wander off, he is relieved to see her standing just behind the Mayor. She smiles then nods to him to keep talking to the man in front of him. She mouths the words, 'be nice' to him and steps off to the side in her usual fade-to-the-background manner, sipping her champagne.

"Tony Stark! You son of a gun! Didn't think you'd show up to this!" the mayor laughs majestically, shaking Tony's hand vigorously. "You always look like a million bucks!"

"A bit more than that actually…" he says wryly, then adds quickly, "Nice costume, sir! Uh, if you'll excuse me--" Tony attempts to pull his hand from the Mayor's meaty grasp, but to no avail.

"Now hold on there, Stark. We need to talk about the energy initiative for our grand city," he says rather seriously, pulling Tony closer. "You've been dodging my secretary for a month now. I think it's time we finally have a face to face meeting."

Feeling his stomach drop at hearing the Mayor's request, he can only barely manage a single word. "Now?" he croaks.

"Well of course not NOW! There's a party going on!" the Mayor replies boisterously, slapping Tony on the back, sending him staggering for just a moment. Tony laughs in both relief and in polite camaraderie with the Mayor. "I have an opening some time next week. How's Monday for you?" The mayor presses forward, leaving Tony no room to escape. Peeking over the man's shoulder, he can see Pepper nodding her head in agreement.

Pulling his attention back to the Mayor, Tony forces a smile. "It looks like Monday will work just fine! How does…" he glances back at Pepper who is waving a peace sign at him. He makes a confused face and then realization snaps to his attention. "Two? Oh, Two o'clock! Sound good?" Tony asks hopefully; anxious to get back to Pepper and away from business banter.

"I think that'll work just fine…" the Mayor agrees, and then shifts closer to Tony, speaking softly. "And just because we all live vicariously through you these days, 'Mr. Superhero', which one of these lucky ladies will be going home with you tonight?" he asks mischievously, winking roguishly.

Tony's mouth hangs open as the Mayor's question suspends itself in the air for a few moments before Tony realizes he has no real answer for him. Pepper, upon hearing the question herself, felt her own mind go blank and was sure she could hear her heartbeat in her ears, but smiles at seeing her employer fidget uncomfortably.

"Well…I—uh," Tony blinks several times, trying to clear the unexpected cobwebs in his head. He can see Pepper trying to stifle a laugh and when she looks back up at him, he can see her eyes sparkling, sending warmth across his body. Taking one more look back at the woman across from him, he suddenly realizes that the answer could not have been clearer. "I'm with that angel right over there," he says, pointing behind the Mayor.

Pepper stops laughing immediately and her eyes widen in surprise at Tony's decision to point her out.

It's the Mayor's turn to be struck dumbfounded and speechless as he turns his attention to the familiar woman behind him. Pepper smiles a wide, toothy grin and nods her head towards him. Embarrassment aside, she extends her hand politely. "Mr. Mayor, it's very nice to see you again," she greets kindly. Taking her hand, the Mayor continues to stare, clearly in disbelief at the beautiful woman standing before him.

"Miss…Potts, is it?" he asks finally, speaking kindheartedly. Pepper continues to smile and simply nods her head. "Well…now I know for sure that Mr. Stark here truly is one of the luckiest men in the world," he finishes in a deep, sincere voice, and then bids his farewell to them both and heads off to join a group of city officials.

Tony lifts his flute of champagne to his lips, swallowing the contents in one gulp. "Well, that was fun. Let's not do that again!" He lets out a ragged breath. "I thought I was gonna be stuck talking about light bulbs and energy star appliances for the next hour," he shudders, taking a step towards Pepper. "You would've saved me, right?"

Pepper laughs at his request and then takes his glass and hands it off to a waiter along with her empty one. "Well, I don't know…I kind of like watching you…squirm," she says with a sweet, innocent smile.

He counters with a sly grin and another step closer to her, making sure to catch her eyes. "In that case, Miss Potts, there are much more…entertaining ways to see me…squirm, as you put it," he says in a devilishly quiet way.

She is usually prepared for his blatant come-ons and one-liners, as years of putting up with them has resulted in a tough second skin to block them, but the intensity in his gaze catches her off guard and traps her words deep down in her chest. And for the second time this evening, she can't help the blush that paints her cheeks pink. Tony watches her begin to chew on her bottom lip and he wonders curiously if she knows that when she does that, it makes him squirm.

The crowd of the ballroom has gotten a bit larger and there is a noticeable increase in the number of people beginning to surround them and threatening to cut off their path to the patio. Tony, aware of the fact that they are about to get crushed by a new onset of dancers heading for the center of the room, slides his hand into Pepper's and pulls her along behind him as he heads for their original destination outside. He holds onto her hand firmly and she can feel the roughness of his calloused thumb as it slides over the back of her hand. Once the cool breeze of the night air hits her bare skin, Pepper naturally brings her body closer to his, seeking refuge from the cold. Three heat lamps are burning along the patio allowing the few guests who have ventured outdoors some relief from the chilled night air, but Tony doesn't seem interested in stopping there.

He stops short of descending the stone staircase down into the gardens. "Is it too cold? Would you rather stay inside?"

Pepper looks back from where they came; the golden glow of the ballroom a stark contrast to the dimly lit outdoor courtyard. She steps closer to him. "No. I'm fine," she replies with a smile.

He returns the gesture and continues leading them down past the heated balconies and towards the grand fountain at the center of the courtyard. The white fairy lights light up the pathway and as they get closer to the fountain, Pepper can see their glow being reflected in the water as it splashes serenely into the large basin. The luminescent radiance of the lights also dance off of Pepper's glittery wings and the tiny jewels that run across her cheek, alighting Tony to the fact that the Mayor was indeed correct in his observation earlier.

Once they enter the open space, Pepper removes her hand from his and a rush of cool air hits her skin where his once warm fingers had been, making her miss the contact instantly. "Wow…" she breathes, taking in the beautifully decorated garden surrounding them. To the left, a line of rose bushes dance in the cool breeze of the night, drawing her attention. Lifting the bud of a blooming pink rose, she sniffs it gently, smiling at the sweet scent.

Tony steps past her lightly, moving to the edge of the fountain. The weathered stone-tiered centerpiece draws his eye and he is unexpectedly impressed by the craftsmanship of the piece. Reaching down into the large basin, he welcomes the sensation of the cool water upon his fingertips.

"Tony?" she calls to him. Her voice is soft, and when it hits his ears, it sounds wistful and dreamy.

"Hm?" he replies, turning to face her, but is surprised to find that she has yet to turn and face him.

When she finally does turn and speak, her face is unreadable, and her voice has lost the softness it had carried with his name. "What are we doing here?"

He furrows his brow in confusion and glances around them. "What do mean, 'here' exactly?"

She sighs, and even though she seems somewhat serious, it comes out slowly and runs over him like a caress. "Let's face it, I didn't put on a pair of wings, and you didn't dress up like…" she points a finger arbitrarily at his outfit. "that—just so we could stare at a fountain all night."

His gaze travels back over to the stone structure and shrugs. "Well, I don't know about you, but--"

"Don't," she warns. His eyes focus back on her.

His eyebrows rise, as if to say, 'are you sure?', and he asks, "You want to have this conversation now?"

"It's been a long time coming, don't you think?"

"Yeah, it has," he replies earnestly. "I just didn't think you'd want to discuss it here."

A beat, and then, "It's kind of ironic, don't you think? You and I here at this fancy ball, acting as if everything is normal and just as it's always been...when it's not."

"It's not?"

"Stop that!" she whispers sharply. "You're the one who came to me and said the words already. How we've been dancing around each other for the past few months. How neither one of us really know what to do next."

"I have a few suggestions," he says sarcastically, without really meaning to. The filter from head to mouth must be malfunctioning, and Tony can't help but mentally slap himself for not taking the conversation more seriously.

Frustrated by his glib attitude, she takes several steps towards him, intending to impress upon him how serious she is. "Tony, this isn't a game! I'm not one of those girls--"

"No. You're not," he says firmly, cutting her off; all hints of sarcasm gone from his voice.

As if his words are an affirmation of a doubt, Pepper pulls back slightly on her assault, relenting to the fact that the words are also a compliment given in a way that only she would recognize. He stoops down to pick up a discarded flower from the ground. The edges are wilted and the stem is broken and hanging on by a thread.

Now that the direction of their discussion has changed, they both seem to be at a loss for words.

Tony's eyes soften, and when he finally speaks, it's with a familiar lightheartedness. "We've both been sidestepping a lot of issues lately," he says, fiddling with the stem of the flower in his hands.

The tension in Pepper's shoulders has eased slightly as well, and she gives way to a smile. "Well, my excuse is that it has a lot to do with all of the new responsibilities of being an assistant to a superhero with an ego, what's yours?"

"Mine?" He pauses to think about it, swinging the flower around until the petals fly off. "Does destroying dangerous and potentially lethal weaponry count?"

Pepper grins. "Ok. Sure. But that doesn't help the fact that our working relationship has been described by many as strange and disfunctional."

This brings a smile to his lips. "True…true. But even you can't deny the fact that our ever evolving relationship goes beyond just business and covering my ass when I go out in the armor." His eyes look to hers briefly; a glimmer of hope in them.

"Of course not, I consider you a…friend," she replies sincerely, taking a seat at the edge of the fountain.

"Some friend," he mumbles. "You know everything about me, and I know nothing about you."

She laughs incredulously, shaking her head. "Tony, you're not interested in knowing about me."

He crosses his arms, taking a stance at her feet; a curl of hurt creeps up his neck at her assumption. "What makes you think I'm not?"

Her eyes widen slightly in surprise at his question. "I—I just always thought that this was good enough for you," she replies, indicating the space between them.

He's shaking his head and when he speaks, his voice is steady and sure. "That's not gonna fly any longer. I want more." The words are not shocking to her. In fact, they are just what she has come to expect from him. No sugar-coating, no false pretenses—just a simple statement of fact.

"Tony…" she starts, averting her eyes and looking down at her hands. Still trying to convince him otherwise, or perhaps herself—and trying desperately to ignore his intense stare and the effect it is having on her body, Pepper changes tact. "Tony, when you think about it, you and I have been travelling on two separate paths for more than seven years now, we see and do things differently. It's kept me sane, and you functional—it's worked well for us," she braces herself and looks up to his face.

"Worked. Past tense." His body suddenly regains its edginess from before, and he begins to pace back and forth in front of her much like an animal in a cage. "Afghanistan was only the catalyst for this change, Pepper. Everything that's happened up until now has been a fresh start for both of us. I'm different. You're different. And if experience has taught me one thing, it's to acknowledge the fact that when things do change, you have to adapt. And I'll be the first to admit, lines have been blurred and things between us have gotten complicated over the past few months."

"No, Tony, they haven't. They're still just as simple as they were. I am your assistant. I come to work, I get you through your day, I go home. Simple—things don't have to be complicated," she remarks pointedly; the voice in the back of her head starts whispering to her, saying how even she doesn't really believe those words.

Her eyes track him dutifully as he continues to pace, until all of a sudden he stops in his tracks and faces her head on.

"We're practically married, ya know?" he blurts, a smirk at his lips.

"What?" Her eyes widen in disbelief. Tony's ability to throw her off track with random comments never ceases to amaze her.

"You run my life, you pick out my clothes, Jarvis likes you better than me—and I'm the one who programmed him--" He inches closer to her. "…and we're definitely not having sex," he stops at her toes, looking down at her. "Married," he states again.

She stands abruptly, forcing him to take a step back. "I—you," she stutters, urging her mouth to form words. She sighs again, settling her hands on her hips. "Yeah, well I don't think that's exactly the point I was trying to make."

He looks back at her; her expression is once again unreadable. So, rather than try to decipher what's going through her mind, he cuts to the chase. "What are you thinking?"

She thinks about her answer, unsure of what to say. Her confidence wavers for just a instant and in a rare moment of vulnerability; she says the first thing that comes to her mind. "Well, you're Tony Stark, for God's sake! You can have any woman in the world…What would I—"

He throws a hand up to interrupt her, angry with the conclusion she is about to make. "Please don't finish that sentence Pepper because it's one hundred times over the most incorrect statement you could ever make," he says firmly. The gravity in his voice sends her backpedaling and she finds herself sitting down once again at the edge of the fountain. He pauses to take a long, deep breath as if his lungs have been without air for the last few moments.

A drifting silence settles over them, leaving the echoing sounds of the splashing water from the fountain and the distant melodic tones from the band inside to fill the night air. Pepper's fingers have begun twirling a loose curl of red hair as she waits for him to continue, watching the emotion play out on his face. Never before has she thought that she would be the one to cause such turmoil in this man.

Tony clears his throat and Pepper is relieved when he finally stops moving and takes a seat next to her. He keeps a safe distance however, but is still close enough to see the faint glow of the arc reactor beneath his shirt. Leaning forward, he settles his elbows on top of his knees and laces his fingers together. She glances at him sideways and even from his profile she can tell he is deep in thought.

He keeps his eyes trained on his hands and when he finally speaks, his voice is soft. "It's never occurred to you, that after all of these years, that one day our two paths would cross?"

His words shatter her resolve and they sink into her slowly, like tiny little knives all over her body. Her confidence at starting this conversation quickly diminishes and she can't think of a single answer that will satisfy his question. She is quickly losing control of the situation and it irks her to no end. Pepper can feel the panic seeping up through her veins, and as Tony turns his head to look at her, he can see it in her eyes as well. So, instead of answering his question, she does something completely unexpected; something, after years of seeing this woman stand up to angry businessmen and pushy reporters, leaves Tony sitting in the middle of the garden with his mouth agape.

She runs.

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Mumbling something that sounds like, 'I need a drink', Pepper lifts herself from where she's seated, picks up the end of her dress and leaves Tony staring at the wings on her back as she makes a beeline back to the ballroom.

Still in somewhat of a shocked state, Tony can't help but watch her go. On more than one occasion, Tony Stark was usually the one to ditch a conversation when he felt that he's lost control; and now, watching Pepper walk away from him, he can't help but feel a bit shocked at the role reversal.

"I thought that was my line?" he says out loud. Then, shaking the surprised look off his face, he breaks into a jog after her.

The jubilant blast of swing music hits Tony as he enters back into the elaborately decorated ballroom. Couples are flying around on the dance floor, guests are chattering noisily at the cocktail tables to his right, and a large group of people still surround the gourmet buffet on his left. Squinting into the bright lights, he scans the room in search of his winged angel and catches a glimpse of a glittery wing making its way around the dance floor to the bar. Taking a shortcut through the dance floor, he is almost knocked out by a woman dressed as a Cinderella, and receives a very unDisney-like curse from the princess.

"Sorry…So sorry. Excuse me…Coming through," he says as he bobs and weaves his way through the hoard of dancers. When he finally arrives at the edge of the bar, Pepper is ordering a drink and doesn't see him approach.

Stepping up quickly to her left, he grabs her wrist gently but firmly and pulls her in the direction of the dance floor; ignoring her squeal of protest along the way.

"Mr. Stark—Tony! Wait! I was just--" she stutters, pointing back to the bar.

"I know what you were doing, Miss Potts. Trust me; I'm very good at doing what you just did," he says with mock formality. He was beginning to enjoy the back and forth last name calling—it made the banter even more interesting—despite Pepper's insistence earlier that this was most definitely not a game. In Tony's mind, her reaction to his question was a test. She was seeing how far he would go—after all, Tony has always been the one to shy away from relationships and commitments. But this was different. It was an unspoken challenge, started cleverly by Pepper Potts.

And Tony Stark was never one to back away from a challenge.

"And what is that?" she says while attempting to pull her hand from his grasp. Her efforts don't pay off and instead, he wheels around to face her, pulling her into a dancing position.

"You were avoiding a serious conversation and sidestepping spectacularly provocative question, posed by yours truly, by running away from the situation. And straight to the bar? Really? I'm sorry to say that my bad habits are rubbing off on you."

"I wasn't running, I was just…moving very quickly. A skill that has been perfected thanks to you."

"Ah, I see."

His hand settles in the center of her back, just below the ending of the wings yet still safely high enough away from the curve of her bottom. His fingertips lay cautiously upon her skin, while his palm sits safely on the fabric of her dress. Still, the feeling of his hand on her back and their close proximity is not without consequences.

Pepper is beginning to feel reminded of the night at the Firemen's Ball when they had danced in a similar fashion. Except this time, his purpose for being here is not to show off or to make a worthwhile appearance. It is to be with her. And that reason alone is good enough to turn her nervous energy into something almost tangible.

"Am I making you uncomfortable?" he asks, knowing that she is thinking about the last time they danced.

"Actually…no," she replies boldly, ready to spar.

"Does that worry you?"

"That I'm not uncomfortable?"

"Yeah."

"No," she lies. He smiles knowingly, then spins them efficiently off to one side of the dance floor where it is far less crowded.

"Did you know that my mother enrolled me in ballroom dancing classes when I was twelve?" he asks, trying to connect with her eyes.

She looks directly at him, meeting his gaze. "Yes, I did actually."

"Right, I forgot who I was talking to," he replies, nodding his head. Taking the cue from the music, which was reaching a peak in the current song, he pulls Pepper closer and spins again; only this time it is faster, requiring her to tighten her grip on his shoulder. "I was quite good. In fact, I won two medals in competition."

"Really? I wouldn't have guessed," she replies almost breathlessly. She suddenly regrets not eating anything earlier in the evening and after a rather strong martini and a glass of champagne, her head takes a few seconds more to recover from their spin.

Seeing her flushed appearance, Tony relaxes his hold on her. "Sorry. You alright?"

"I'm fine. Just…enough with the twirling, Ok?"

"Not a problem. I think it's time we stop dancing around the subject anyway," he states slyly, amused at his own pun.

Pepper avoids his eyes and looks over his shoulder. "What subject would you be referring to?"

"Whether or not you want to take me up on that girlfriend offer I made a year ago."

Pepper's eyes fly to his and she can't stop herself before she stumbles over his feet. Strong arms hold her steady, and then he's moving again, bringing her back up once again and jumping right back into the rhythm of the music—never missing a beat.

Tony grins. "Careful…wouldn't want to bring any unwanted attention to us now, would we?"

Pepper hooks her right arm around Tony's neck and looks off to her right. A group of people are staring at them and whispering amongst themselves. She can tell that they recognize Tony, but they seemed confused as to who she is.

Tony changes their direction, bringing her attention back to their conversation.

"Tony, I--"

"There's no more avoiding it, Pepper. We've been kidding ourselves long enough don't you think?"

She sighs. "It's not that simple," she says, looking down at his chest rather than his face.

"Yes it is, Pepper. You said it yourself—why should things have to be so complicated?"

She looks up at him suddenly. "I don't know if I'm strong enough," her words come out in a rush, and when his eyes meet hers, she can't hide the glimmer of unshed tears that threaten to fall. She holds them at bay and looks away from him again.

Her words are like a punch in the gut to him. Without even having to explain what she means, he already knows—it's been clear to him for quite some time now.

She is scared that he'll break her heart. And if that day should come—she doesn't know if she'll be able to survive such a thing.

Does she really have such little faith in me? He wonders.

Shaking his head, a bubble of anger rises from within him. "That's not really the problem Pepper, and you know it," he says heatedly.

Her eyes snap back to his, and her words carry just as much seriousness as his when she speaks. "Oh really, Tony? Then what? What is the problem?" her question puts pressure on him like a vice. He clenches his jaw as he struggles to find a way to answer her challenge.

The band has gotten louder as it reaches the climax of a rather lively song, but Tony's ears can only hear the steady rhythm of his own heartbeat.

And then it comes to him—plain as day. He pulls her closer against him as they reach the edge of the dance floor. Moving them behind a large pillar, he blocks them from the view of onlookers.

"The truth is—you aren't scared that I might hurt you, Pepper," he stops their dancing and looks her directly in the eyes. "You're scared of the fact that you want me just as much as I want you."

A quavering heat moves through her body at his simple words, rendering her speechless. She might have been able to defend herself against a glib comment or a smarmy come-on, might even be able to thwart her own desires, but his honesty was somehow stronger than she could bear.

She finds herself frozen to the spot staring back at him—her limbs have suddenly gone numb and feel detached, but she is still somehow acutely aware of his hands still on her; and when his left hand pulls her right one down from its place on his neck and in between their bodies, stopping over the arc reactor, she finally has enough sense of mind to close her mouth and take a breath.

He keeps his gaze on her even as she looks down at their entwined hands. He is squeezing her fingers so tight that she can feel a slight tremor race through his body as he waits for her to speak. When she looks back up to his face there is a tenderness and sincerity there that is her undoing. His eyes almost plead with her to accept his statement, and he looks infinitely younger; like a young man taking one of the biggest risks of his life.

The walls she has carefully constructed around her heart over the years and especially over the last few months come crashing down as she finally comes to a realization. His words speak a truth that she has been denying for far too long—and now, finally—exhausted from trying to keep her true desires at bay—she lets him in, and accepts the fact that he is completely, utterly, undeniably…correct.

He was half expecting her to slap him or laugh in his face. But when she smiles up at him, he leans back in surprise. Even more surprising is the familiar glint of poise and eloquence that has returned to her eyes; and when she speaks, her voice is pure and strong—not a trace of sadness or doubt, nor fear or nervousness. "You, Mr. Stark," she starts, her voice raspy and filled with emotion. "…are entirely too insightful for your own good. What in the world makes you think that I would want you?" she smiles lightheartedly up at him and brings her hand back up and around his neck.

The tension from moments before has broken and they now find themselves easing into another session of flirty chitchat.

His lips purse and then spread into a grin. He pulls them away from the pillar and renews a calm sway to the beat of the music. "Well, for one thing…you just can't keep your hands off of me."

Her head quirks to one side. "Oh yeah?" she challenges and then begins to play with the hair at the nape of his neck.

Tony shivers at the contact, but still manages to keep a straight face. Barely. "Yup. Every chance you get you're fixing my tie, running your hands through my hair--"

"Well, some day you'll learn to put yourself together before you go out in public." Her touch wanders down to his shoulder, leaving a trail of fire in its wake.

Tony's lips have gone dry and he licks them reflexively. "Hey—hey now, I managed just fine tonight," he stutters.

She gives him an approving, seductive look. "Yes, you did." The air between them has suddenly gone from fun and flirty to stimulating and electric, sending them both tumbling across yet another line they had drawn between themselves years back.

Anxious to regain lost ground in this battle of wills, Tony takes the opportunity to dance them further into a more secluded area of the dance floor just as the band begins a slow, melodic song.

"And besides," he starts, drawing her nearer and bringing his lips closer to her ear. "You're the one who was leaning in to kiss me that night at the Firemen's Ball," he whispers.

She draws back slightly from him. "I was not!" she says in a huff.

"Oh ho! How easily we forget! Don't play coy with me, Miss Potts…I remember every, vivid, detail. And let's not forget who kissed who first that night at the mansion." His words cause her 

ears to redden, and he wonders, not for the first time if the rest of her skin has the ability to blush like that.

Pepper clears her throat and looks off to the side. "Yeah, well. It wasn't that kind of a kiss anyway," she says nonchalantly. "It was to distract you enough to listen to me, and it worked. So easily persuaded."

"Yeah well, I too have my own ways of getting people to do what I want."

"Yet another one of your many talents, I know," she breathes, sounding uninterested in hearing him gloat about his abilities—and trying yet again to get a rise out of him.

Feeling challenged yet again by Pepper's actions, Tony steps up his attack another notch. Turning them in time with the slower music, he returns them to their earlier location on the dance floor near the pillar and presses her back in to it—effectively trapping her body with his own. Pepper's nervousness rebounds and she can only watch as his eyes travel down across her cheekbone to her lips. And when he speaks it is purely magnetic. "You may be aware of my many talents in the board room and in the realm of engineering—but there are certain others that you've never had the opportunity to experience firsthand—at least, not yet." As if to punctuate his words, he flattens his entire palm onto the exposed skin of her back and pulls her more tightly into the firmness of his body. Pepper gasps at the contact, and Tony's eyes seem to gain an intensity that she has never seen before. Their stomachs press together and she can feel the strength of his body when he breathes, sending tendrils of heat into her belly.

He backs away from her slightly, smiling a smug smile. "But don't worry. You're safe here while we're in view of prying eyes," he comments softly, a hint of disappointment in his voice.

Her eyes are focused on his jacket as he watches her. She looks as if she is trying to understand his words while wrestling with an inner voice, trying to decide on something. Her eyes shift and a soft smile lights up her face—decision made.

She brings her right hand down to his chest, running her finger along the edge of the crimson red edge of the lapel. Leaning forward, she mimics his earlier action by bringing her mouth across his cheek and when their lips were only a hairsbreadth apart, she speaks, "Then maybe we should leave."

He hadn't noticed that he had stopped moving until he realized that the air has rushed out of his lungs, making it almost painful to breathe. And if it were at all possible for one to swallow their tongue, he definitely would have at that moment. "What?" is all he could manage.

She doesn't answer him out loud, but instead looks up at him with promise and affection. Her eyes are intense and Tony's breath catches in his throat once again at the realization that Pepper Potts is staring back at him with desire in her eyes. All hints of nervousness gone, she holds her gaze firmly on him, waiting for him to make the next move.

For the barest of moments he hesitates, and when she sees the uncertainty in his eyes she is suddenly, achingly afraid she has made the wrong decision.

Was he going to reject her?

But just when she is about to retract her comment and laugh it off as a joke, he sees his eyes shift and his lips curve up into a smile.

"Ok," he says, slipping his hand into hers. "Let's get out of here."

The paths they had traveled alone for nearly eight years have finally crossed.

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