A/N: so, a mere 18 months ago I promised everyone that a epilogue would be following the final chapter in a mere week.
Yeah, so much for that.
For anyone still following this story, I thought you might appreciate seeing the last leg of this journey.
You've all been more than wonderful.
He waited, neither patiently nor pleasantly, for Pepper to arrive Monday morning. The minutes crawled by, immune to his glare and simmering angst. He felt like an inexperienced schoolboy plotting to corner his crush in the hallway. Or worse, like a gangly teen trying to figure out how to ask the most popular girl in school to the prom. Despite Pepper's promises, he felt an uncertainty that had only ever been a part of his personal relationships – a major reason why he'd kept such relationships to a bare minimum. Whether this thing with Pepper worked out or not, he couldn't see that elected isolation changing at this late date, which made it all the more important for this…development?…to work out.
Seven fifty-six, seven fifty-seven, seven fifty-eight… At precisely 7:59 AM, Pepper strode through the front door, arms filled with a large document box. Before she could do more than look surprised to see him so close, Tony pulled the box from her hands and her into his arms. She was perfect; soft, warm, at precisely the right height for kissing without straining his neck or risking creaky knees. He kissed her as if there was nothing else on his schedule (which there was), as if no one would notice her swollen lips or the blush-tinted burn of his beard against her skin (which no one would).
As if she knew almost exactly how uncertain his control was, Pepper was receptive but restrained. Her hands on his cheeks were gentle, as if he were a wild animal in need of soothing.
"You're managing me," he muttered against her lips, stealing one last kiss before pulling away.
"We all have to play to our strengths," she murmured softly, in a voice he barely recognized. She sounded…content. It made him feel content, at least until her words really registered and he was able to consider all the ways she might manage him in an entirely different context. Then he was just impatient.
He buried his face in her neck, getting lost in silky skin and the warm, alluring smell of this woman. "I've been thinking," he informed her, though he really hadn't been doing anything of the sort. "I don't really need to go into the office today. If it could wait over the weekend then it can wait another twenty-four hours."
It was interesting that Pepper made no attempt to disengage. He brushed aside the collar of her shirt to better explore her neck, wondering how far he could take things before she protested. Wondering if she would protest at all. "If I made you breakfast, would that count as wining and dining?"
"No." Her disagreement was a sigh, but still enough to make him pause. Pepper actually sounded tempted. By him. It was a first in their ten year relationship.
"Sleep with me," he insisted, laying his cards on the table. He was so ready to take her to bed, in his bedroom. To strip away her clothes and his, to explore every pearly inch of her skin and have her return the favor. He craved…focus. Intense physical proximity. A chance to prove to her that she'd made the correct decision.
"Tony." He refused to lift his head when she tried to raise it from her shoulder, so she changed tactics and wrapped her arms around his shoulders. Kissed his ear. Stroked his head. Said with brutal honesty, "We have never rushed into anything. I don't see the point of starting now."
"We've known each other for ten years. How is that rushing into anything?" Even he could hear the petulance in his tone. It'd been far too long since he'd had sex, much less had anything that could compare with what he'd be doing with Pepper.
She planted her hands on his chest and pushed; he resisted, tightening his arms around her. She resisted, leaning back so he had to either look her in the face or commit to ogling her chest. Ogling her seemed the best way to put a swift end to the conversation, but it was also probably the best way to get her riled up.
When he finally met her eyes, she had one eyebrow raised, as if aware of the internal debate he'd had with himself.
"Am I worth waiting for?" Her blunt honesty was still shocking, even after the past several days and with him completely sober. It caught his attention in a way that little else did, or probably ever would. "Is being with me worth making good on all your other responsibilities before gorging ourselves on something that will be hugely gratifying?"
Since she used a term that could be considered selfish (gorge) and another that was clearly chosen to stroke his ego (huge), he was willing to consider her words, however grudgingly.
"Every time I think you're no fun, you prove me right," he finally grumbled.
Pepper laughed softly as she pushed herself away from him. "I'd hate to undo a year's worth of progress just because I can't keep my hands to myself for a little while longer," she teased. "Just think of how my reputation would suffer if people found out I was letting you have your dessert before dinner."
Her mention of her reputation sobered him as nothing else would have. "You're okay with becoming the woman who'd date her boss?" A year ago that was the only protest she could make against making something of the energy that'd always flowed between them.
His question made her…shine. Her whole face lit up, her eyes became bright and no longer sleepy with passion. Her smile was wide and genuine.
It confused the hell out of him.
"What did I do?" he asked.
She rested a hand over his reactor. "You put my concerns in front of your needs." Her smile spread until he couldn't help but smile back even though he still didn't really get it. "You just proved that my boss is becoming the kind of man that no one would blame me for taking a risk on."
Right. Her list from the day before. More than flashes of empathy (he wasn't sure this counted), standards for behavior he set for himself, awareness of the consequences his actions had on others.
He wasn't a slow learner once he decided to give something his full attention.
"So…today we work." It was a question. It was a testing of the metaphorical waters.
"Today we work," she agreed, finally turning away to reclaim the box he'd purloined earlier.
"What about kisses? I think I deserve kisses for being patient. Why did you bring the goldfish back? I won that for you." Inside the box was one of the bonsai he'd bought her, a large empty glass bowl, a bag of rocks, and large plastic bag holding several cups of water and a white and red-spotted goldfish won at the fairway last night.
"You've had kisses, and you didn't win the fish for me. You won the fish and then couldn't figure out what else to do with it except give it to me." She headed towards his shop of all places, still carrying the fish.
"Where are you going with that? You're not taking that to my shop."
"You're a quick learner. Bodes well for the future." The look she gave him over her shoulder was…mischievous. Playfully naughty. There was a sparkle of a secret in her eyes.
"What are you thinking?" He didn't follow her, didn't try to stop her from taking the fish down to the shop (if nothing else it might keep Dummy occupied with something other than that damn fire extinguisher). There was no point in stopping her when she was already everywhere.
"That anyone can learn new tricks as long as they're motivated enough."
He had to shout after her as she started going down the stairs. "I'll have you know that my tricks are top notch!"
Her voice came back faintly, but was enough to make him smile. "Wasn't talking about you!"
Huh. Tony stared after her and scratched the back of his neck. Imagine that.