His and Hers

Because it's Tony, he decides on a whim that it might be fun to take Pepper to Paris for dinner. He wants it to be a surprise: despite having been on the scene for a while, he's pretty new to this whole 'seeing the same girl more than once' gig. He figures maybe he needs to step up his game a little bit.

Fortunately, they're still at the penthouse in New York, and he calculates that his faster-than-average jet can have them there in just under five hours. This means that if they leave at noon, they can be there by dinner time—which is perfect, despite the six-hour time difference, because the French tend to eat late. So it all works out. He's an old hand at this: jetsetting, reprogramming his internal chronometer as needed.

He tells her he's taking her to a nice French restaurant—it's all he can do not to laugh maniacally when he says it. He loves the thought of throwing her off-balance. If he had a handlebar moustache, he would probably twirl it.

He'd like to wear his charcoal suit, because he knows she likes it, and because the pinstripes make him look taller. But he can't find it anywhere. He can't ask Natalie/Natasha, not only because he doesn't trust her, but because she's taken off, presumably back to whatever rock she crawled out from under in the first place. He also can't ask Pepper, not only because she isn't his assistant anymore, but because even Tony gets that it would be a bit ridiculous to ask her to help him dress for his date with her.

He has to ask JARVIS to arrange the jet, because he has no idea what to do or who to call to get that going. Normally the biggest decision he makes when he travels is which car to drive to the airport.

And, of course, because it's Tony, he forgets all about passports. After all, he's always had an assistant to handle that kind of thing.

Because it's Pepper, when Tony tells her he's taking her to a nice French restaurant, she suspects what might be afoot. It's the devilish little half-grin that gives him away—Tony's smiles are like road signs, warning her of the perils ahead. This one says, proceed with caution.

Pepper doesn't really do impulsive. In college, when there was no other food in the house, she once ate a can of frosting for dinner, but not until she had done a lengthy cost/benefit analysis of the situation. Applying the same logic to her current situation, she still isn't entirely certain that getting involved with Tony was the smartest move she could have made.

JARVIS politely declines to give her any information, so she calls Blake at the FAA to see whether a flight plan has been filed for the jet. He confirms her suspicions.

She packs: her passport, his passport; a novel to read on the flight; her makeup bag; clean underwear; toiletries. She decides to wear a basic navy Chanel dress, and packs a couple of key pieces that will help style it up or down, depending on where he decides to take her. She checks the weather in Paris, and packs a travel umbrella. She packs a swimsuit, just in case—there's really no telling what he might have planned. She deliberates about whether or not to pack condoms—it's technically a first date, and Pepper Potts really isn't that type of girl. As far as she knows.

Miraculously, she manages to fit everything she needs into a single Coach handbag. After all, she's had years of experience at this sort of thing.

When she arrives at the airport, Tony is already there, waiting. He's early. This comes as a surprise to both of them.

Pepper doesn't recognize the suit he's wearing, but she approves—pinstripes are so classic. She asks him whether he got it recently, and he smiles, and she knows she's accidentally brushed up against a secret. Whatever it is, she knows she isn't going to get it out of him: this road sign reads no entry.

After takeoff, Tony opens and pours the champagne himself, because there are no flight attendants on the jet today. There are very few people in the world that he trusts himself to be around when he's feeling particularly emotional. Pepper is precisely half of those people. The other half is (thankfully) less likely to turn up unexpectedly this time around.

The champagne is nice, but Pepper still feels a bit strange, being on the receiving end of so much concentrated attention. She's used to being in the periphery of his gaze. She has to resist the urge to look over her shoulder, to catch a glimpse of the woman he must be looking at.

Tony calculates that between the takeoff, the landing, a glass of champagne each, and a few pleasantries, he has about three and a half hours—a timeframe suitable for either efficient, athletic and sweaty, or slow and sweet and aching with the promise of what's to come. Historically, his tastes have invariably been for the former, but almost dying has a way of helping a man to reorganize his priorities. He promised himself that if he made it out of this mess alive, the first thing he was going to do was kiss Pepper, possibly for days. Three and a half hours seems like barely enough time.

Pepper doesn't get very far in her book, as it turns out. But she doesn't mind.

When they land in Paris, Tony is surprised to find that it's raining. He hadn't pictured it raining and, as a general rule, the world around him tends to be shaped by his sheer force of will. Fortunately, there's room under Pepper's little umbrella for both of them. A car and driver are waiting.

He tells her, quite casually, that he's arranged a suite at a hotel—or rather, JARVIS has. He's a bit surprised when she doesn't ask any questions. He only mentioned it because he wanted to let her know there was somewhere to freshen up or change before dinner. She probably doesn't need to change, though—she's already dressed to kill, and all she has with her is a handbag.

Pepper's stomach is fluttering, but she tries to stay calm, tries not to think too hard about what his expectations must be. She can't quite decide whether or not she would prefer that Tony treats her the same as if she were just any other girl. She thinks back, trying to remember if he's ever taken anyone to Paris for dinner before. There have been a lot of dalliances over the years, and she isn't certain.

He hasn't.

Tony has the car drop them a few blocks away from the restaurant—the rain has stopped, the puddles are navigable, and Paris at night is a spectacle worth enjoying. They walk over a passerelle, a foot bridge dotted with street lamps.

Pepper pulls out her Blackberry to check her e-mail. It doesn't occur to her that this is bad date etiquette; she and Tony have always been so inextricably linked to their phones, to their work. She's quite certain he won't mind. She slides her free hand through the crook of his arm as a way keeping herself anchored to the here and now. She doesn't notice when he takes out his own phone and taps the screen a few times.

Without warning, her Blackberry goes dark. Fortunately, Pepper is accustomed to having her own personal tech support on hand. "Tony? Could you…?"

He takes it from her hand, detaches the cover, and evicerates the phone, removing the battery, SIM card, memory card. They are both bent over it now, huddled together in the halo of the lamp overhead. He has very sure hands; it's like watching a surgeon at work. She feels a wave of affection for him, mingled with a proprietary sense of pride in his natural gifts. It's a very tender moment.

Then he rears back and pitches the Blackberry out onto the river in a high arc.

Pepper watches, uncomprehendingly, as her phone hits the black water. It's so far away she can't even hear the splash.

It was a spectacular throw. He's quite pleased.

"What the hell is wrong with you?" she demands.

"I exported your settings." He indicates his own phone, which he is tucking back into his jacket pocket, along with the components from the Blackberry. "I'll get you a new one tomorrow."

He can tell by the way her lips are compressed that she isn't mollified. She doesn't want a new phone; she liked the one she had. Tony has never understood this about her—her sentimental attachments to outdated, inefficient technology. When she had to replace her laptop a couple of years ago, there were very nearly tears, in spite of the fact that the new model was superior in every way.

She supposes he has a point, even if he chose a particularly inconsiderate way to make it. She can't understand why, with all his creative talent and energy, his impulses invariably tend towards the destructive.

"You just can't stand it when I stop thinking about you for five seconds," she remarks.

He smiles: yield. Tacitly acknowledging the truth of her statement.

The restaurant is beautiful, classical, decorated in warm tones and shimmering accents. There's a richly-detailed trompe l'oeil ceiling, which makes it seem as though they are under a hanging garden. Pepper is charmed; she's passionate about art. She wishes they had arrived during the day, so that they could have gone to a museum or a gallery. Another time, perhaps.

Tony doesn't really notice the décor; he's working out how he wants to order. He can speak bits and pieces of several languages, French better than most. He understands it fairly well, and can speak enough to get by, although he struggles a bit with the subjunctive and has a regrettable habit of always using the familiar form of address. He can't always tell when to use être (to be) and when to use avoir (to have), which makes sense: for a man as wealthy as Tony Stark, the two concepts are not necessarily distinct.

When he gets stuck, he simply points to what he's after and says 'give me' or 'I want.' This has served him remarkably well in the past.

Tony knows most of the items on the menu. He orders for himself and Pepper, feeling fairly confident; most of the women he has dated are impressed by his command of the language. He can't really get a read on this one, however: her smile is warm, but inscrutable. Like the Mona Lisa, which is fitting, considering the setting.

The server asks Tony a question he doesn't quite understand, related to some detail about how the meal will be prepared, and the conversation gets into the weeds a bit. He's on the verge of giving up and switching to English when Pepper gently interrupts and, in absolutely flawless French, corrects the situation. She and the waiter chat for a bit, exchanging pleasantries. She uses the more formal 'vous'.

Tony has no idea, because they've never had occasion to discuss it before now, but Pepper spent a semester in Paris as an undergraduate that included a whirlwind romance with a boy from Avignon. So she knows quite a bit of French, much of it not fit for public consumption.

Before departing, the waiter offers Pepper the wine list, making it clear which of them he believes is in charge. She grins impishly at Tony over the top of it, which makes him feel a little better about the fact that he's just been linguistically cockblocked—by someone that he wasn't even aware possessed the necessary equipment.

Not to be outdone, he falls back on what he knows. "Je veux," he says, clearly and distinctly. I want.

She thinks at first that he's pointing at the wine he would like. He isn't. He counts it as a victory when she blushes.

It might just be the wine, but halfway through dinner, Pepper suddenly realizes that she's enjoying herself far more than she thought she would when they first landed. She's managed to forget about the auspicious nature of the occasion—a date ten years in the making—and ignore the burden of the extravagant setting. It's just as much fun as it would have been at home in Malibu, and the food is better.

Tony keeps both the wine and the conversation flowing. Occasionally he asks her, as an aside, how to say this or that word in French. It isn't until he's done it a few times that she realizes: all the words sound dirty. She prods him with her foot. "Enough," she tells him.

"You know, Pepper, most women take the shoes off before they try to play footsie. A for effort, though. Hey, did you notice that they had seal on the menu?"


"Yeah, didn't you see it? I was going to order it, actually, but I didn't want to offend you if you were against that sort of thing. For some reason, it's more wrong to eat animals if they're cute and can be trained to balance balls on their noses."

She's still a bit dubious—she's noticed his French is a little shaky. She's trying to be tactful. "Are you sure it was seal, Tony?"

"I don't know, maybe I misread. What's the French for seal?" he asks, innocently.

She falls for it. Again. She kicks him under the table. Again.

Pepper's so used to being beguiled by him when he's not trying, she's forgotten how persuasive he can actually be when given the chance to put his best foot forward. Metaphorically speaking.

After dinner, he can see her starting to get tense again, running the risk of undoing all the effort he's put into getting her to relax. He isn't certain, but he thinks he may have pinpointed the source of her anxiety: mentioning the hotel room right at the start was clearly a tactical error. Even though he's already far too alert to need it, he orders coffee—he wants to show her that he's in no hurry to leave.

He suggests they go dancing. "Then maybe we'll head home after that. What do you think?"

"What about the hotel?"

He shrugs, carefully nonchalant. "I don't mind sleeping on the plane. We'll play it by ear."

Pepper isn't sure whether she's relieved or disappointed.

Still, she feels as though a weight has been lifted, and so she feels comfortable enough to eat her crème brulée. Then, shamelessly, she eats his crème brulée because he can't stop watching her long enough to guide the spoon to his mouth.

Photographers appear out of nowhere as they are exiting the restaurant. Pepper doesn't get it, doesn't understand why Tony is suddenly glued to the pavement, his hand frozen at the small of her back. Normally, he loves cameras, loves the spotlight—he's the sort of man who can't pass his own reflection in the mirror without striking a pose. And it's not as if he's ever had a bad picture taken of him in his entire life (Pepper, whose pale skin is easily washed out by a strong flash, is more envious of this than she would care to admit).

She doesn't realize yet—because she's been such a fixture, and has had access to the most intimate parts of his life for so long—that Tony is actually a very private person, who just happens to have grown up in the public eye. He doesn't mind mugging for the cameras when it's on his terms, doesn't mind acting the lead role in the Tony Stark Show, but that's exactly what it is, an act. He resents being forced to share this moment with the entire world, because it's in this moment that he really is unmasked. Plenty of people have seen Tony Stark naked, but very few have actually seen him exposed.

As for the reporters, Pepper knows that the very worst thing one can say in any media situation is 'no comment.' She opts instead to respond to their rather indelicate questions with "I really couldn't speculate on that," and "let me take your card so that I can get back to you." She's very poised, very polite. She repeats her responses in French.

Tony's statement consists of two words, the second of which is 'off,' the first of which sounds remarkably like the French word for 'seal.' They won't be able to print this verbatim, of course, but no doubt they'll find a way to make it clear. He also repeats his response in French. Pepper can't help but reflect that 'no comment' is actually looking better by the second.

Then he hooks an arm around her waist, pauses to give a grin and a cavalier wave for the clicking shutters, and pulls her in for a kiss—a deep one. After all, if they're going to be in the papers anyhow, there isn't much point in being subtle.

As embarrassed as she is, Pepper is also reassured: it turns out he's not ashamed to be seen with her in public. Quite the opposite, actually.

Tony asks their driver to suggest an appropriate location for their next stop. Preferrably somewhere with relatively good security, to avoid any further disruptions to their evening.

The driver recommends a bar on the rooftop terrace of a nearby hotel. And so Tony takes Pepper dancing under the stars.

It's getting late, even for the Parisians, and the bar is about to close. Tony charms the manager into keeping it open an hour longer, including a generous gratuity for the staff and musicians who have to stay on.

Being outside reminds Pepper of that night at the concert hall. It seems such a long time ago now; before he became a superhero or she became a CEO, before anyone almost died, before trans-continental dinner dates and impromptu press conferences became de rigeur—before it all, it was the two of them, alone under the canopy of night, the lights of the city spread out below them like thousands of tiny candles.

He's looking at her the same way he did then: intently, liquid dark eyes fixed on her face. "Can I get you a martini?" he asks, teasingly.

"No, thanks," she replies, the fingers of one hand stroking the lapel of his jacket. "I don't want you to disappear on me again."

She feels his fingers tighten at the base of her spine. His tone is light, but his face is entirely serious as he replies, "I'm not going anywhere."

The bar is closed, and they are alone on the elevator.

Tony's telling a story about the last time he was in Paris. As he talks, he grasps her hand, threads his fingers through hers. It's a simple gesture, but it says a lot: he doesn't typically hold hands. It has always seemed to him to be such a pointless expenditure of energy—as a rule, he doesn't feel any affection for the women he dates, and there are so many more interesting places he could be touching.

He doesn't even seem to know he's doing it, and it's that small detail that sends Pepper over the edge. A pleasant warmth pools in the pit of her stomach and flares outwards, every nerve ending in her body flickering to life.

Without warning, she leans into him and whispers, "Je suis chaude." I'm hot. Which puzzles him because, with the air conditioning going full blast, it's actually quite chilly in the elevator—besides which, her bare arms are covered in goosebumps. He knows this because they are suddenly around his shoulders, one hand stroking the back of his neck.

He doesn't know that this is one of the phrases she picked up during her summer dalliance with the boy from Avignon—that it's a semantic, not a literal meaning. It doesn't matter, though; he doesn't need an excuse to kiss her. She tastes like red wine and crème brulée, and he can't get enough.

He tastes like he always does, and she can't get enough.

She has him backed against the wall, tie unknotted and collar unbuttoned, her fingers tangled in his hair. He reaches across her and presses the 'stop' button (which stops the world, for a moment at least) and as he does so, his mouth brushes against her bare collarbone. She gasps sharply. When his lips curve against her skin, it's a new smile, a new road sign—she doesn't know its meaning, but she can guess. It's all about context.

He's never heard her make a noise like that. He wants to hear it again. It's all about trial and error.

Now he has her backed against the wall, her dress hiked up, his fingers splayed over her hip. She tilts her head back, which is how she catches sight of their reflection in the elevator's mirrored ceiling. She can see the back of his head, and his hands moving with careful, deliberate intent over her body—it's like watching him in the workshop. There are red fingernail marks on his neck, but she can't quite bring herself to regret anything just now. She's shocked at how exultant the other Pepper looks. How triumphant.

He notices her staring, and looks up to see what she's looking at. When he sees the mirror, he laughs, and calls her an exhibitionist. He's unexpectedly turned on by the sight of her watching herself, smiling that inscrutable smile, the one that makes her mouth look delicious.

Pepper's not an exhibitionist, not really; she's just intrigued by the woman he sees when he looks at her.

He wants her so badly that it's almost painful, and they're pressed together in such a way that he knows she can tell. But he also knows she's uncertain, so it's up to her to give the word.

When she pulls a condom out of her handbag, he almost tells her that he loves her. The thought bursts into his brain like a Roman candle; he can't quite believe it, but it's true. But he suspects—correctly—that she'd prefer he said it for the first time when she didn't have her hand in his shorts.

She can't quite believe it, but she's got her hand in his shorts. He groans when she touches him; she's never heard him make a noise like that. She reflects, wryly, that if she were still his assistant this would be the ideal moment to ask for a raise. No pun intended.

Tony's always found it a bit galling that she was so tall and wore such high heels; he's pleased to find that in this instance it works to his advantage, particularly when she wraps one leg around his waist. He can't imagine why he hasn't done the math on this before—it's actual, scientific proof that they were made for each other.

She's glad it's such a new hotel—she can be quite sure he's never had this with anyone before.

He's never had this with anyone before.

She knows the time is limited, and she accepts with equanimity that he will finish before she does, if she does—but then he says her name, and then he says "Please," and then it's all over. For her, and then for both of them.

He's startled, and a bit embarrassed—this is normally one of the few areas of his life where he has complete self-control. He wanted to go slow, and he fully expected to be able to manage it. But he can't quite bring himself to regret anything that would make her smile like that.

She smiles wickedly and says, "Will that be all, Mr. Stark?"

It's challenging to be imperious with your pants around your ankles, but if anyone can do it, it's Tony. "That will be all, Miss Potts," he replies. He can't resist adding, "For the time being."

At some point during the proceedings, the capacious Coach handbag was overturned, its contents spilling out onto the floor of the elevator. Pepper collects everything as quickly as she can, but not before a few of her secrets have been exposed.

"Potts," he murmurs, one eyebrow raised. "Is that a swimsuit?"

When she presses the button to start the elevator again, they are standing two feet apart, facing the doors, their appearances suspiciously immaculate. This is Pepper's doing; she's had years of practice in concealing what he's been up to.

As the elevator begins to move, she reaches over and ruffles his hair; it's a gesture that is somehow more intimate than the ones that came before. She loves him so much. But she suspects—correctly—that he wants to be the one to say it first.

It isn't until the elevator doors open on the ground floor that the thought finally penetrates his bemused brain: oh, right. It's the other kind of hot.

Pepper's limbs are feeling deliciously heavy as she nestles against him in the back of the car. She's still in a euphoric sort of daze, which she recognizes as an endorphin high. The whole world seems to have a shine to it. He slips an arm around her shoulders—he's uncharacteristically quiet, but she doesn't mind. She's feeling introspective, too.

She's glad about the hotel room, after all; she's ready for a hot shower and a soft bed. She always sleeps especially soundly after really good sex, and it's been a long time since she had a decent night's sleep.

Tony's more wired than ever, his mind racing with possibility. He always does his best thinking after really good sex, and what just happened has given him a lot of new data to parse. He feels as though his next step should be to repeat the experiment in a different setting, under more controlled conditions. He'd like the chance to put his best foot forward. Metaphorically speaking.

Pepper precedes him into the extravagant suite, looking around for the bathroom. She's already envisioning the shower—hot jets of water grinding the remaining tension out of her neck and shoulders. Their little encounter in the elevator was hard on her back, and these expensive places always have such terrific water pressure.

Tony's standing behind her, still not talking. She figures he might just be worn down—which isn't surprising; he still hasn't entirely recovered from the palladium poisoning. When he slides his arms around her waist, she reaches over her shoulder and pats his cheek affectionately.

Then he pulls her close and starts to nibble at her shoulder, and Pepper realizes what she's up against. Literally.

"You have got to be kidding me," she says. "You really are Iron Man."

His snort of laughter is muffled against her skin.

He's persistent, but she stands her ground, and in the end they compromise: they shower. First together, then individually. True to form, Tony savors the opportunity to demonstrate his legendary stamina and prowess to a captive audience: in other words, he shows off. In spite of her fatigue, Pepper can appreciate his boundless capacity for innovation, his single-minded focus, his rather admirable physical development, and the depth of his experience. She does occasionally worry that he might actually drown during certain of the proceedings—which, aside from everything else, would be a PR nightmare—or that she's going to crack her head on the tile, because she appears to have lost control of her legs. But it all works out.

The water pressure is terrific; Pepper has never been so clean and so dirty at the same time.

Tony showers second; when he emerges from the bathroom in a cloud of mist, Pepper's already under the covers, breathing deeply. She's either asleep, or pretending in order to escape his assiduous attentions. No matter; the warm water has had a soporific effect.

He climbs into his shorts, then picks the rest of his clothes up off the floor and drapes them over a chair by the window—unlike Pepper, he's only got the one set with him, and he doesn't want them to get too wrinkled. He can't seem to locate his shirt, though; he vaguely remembers taking it off, but everything immediately following her crack about Iron Man is a little hazy, possibly because of reduced bloodflow to the higher functions of his brain. After a protracted search, he gives up—if the situation is too dire in the morning, he'll just send one of the hotel staff out to buy him another one.

He slides into bed beside Pepper, taking care not to disturb her. She's lying on her side, facing away from him. When he touches her back, he realizes what happened to his shirt; she's wearing it, tiny hands tucked up into the sleeves. He pulls her close, and she settles solidly into the crook of his arm.

Because she brought her own soap and shampoo from home, she smells just like she always does—but she also smells like him, which he finds oddly satisfying.

He's out cold in a matter of moments.

Tony is snoring when Pepper eases out of bed, taking care not to disturb him, and picks her way quietly to the chair by the window. She rifles the pockets of his suit until she finds his phone—she knows he would be annoyed, but she just wants to make sure nothing major is going on while they're both off the radar. She never goes this long without at least checking the stock ticker.

The phone is password protected, but she's not too worried—all of Tony's entry-level passwords are some variation on his own name. She settles herself comfortably in the chair and starts guessing: she tries tony, anthony, stark, tstark, aestark, as well as the various numeric equivalents of each, with no success. She can't quite resist a wry smile as she punches in ironman. Access denied. Hands trembling a bit, she taps out pepper, then potts. Nothing, then nothing—she figures that was a long shot, anyway. She bites her lip, stymied.

Tony stretches, yawns, and props himself up on one elbow. His hair is tousled, eyes half-lidded, the crisp lines of his goatee blurred by five o'clock shadow. "What are you doing?" he asks, voice gravelly with sleep.

She doesn't say anything; it's pretty obvious what she's doing. He's irritated, but he can't help but admire her persistence. Besides which, he's never seen anything quite as enticing as Pepper curled up in that chair, wearing his shirt, careless curls gilded by the morning light. He starts to speak; he wonders if he's going to tell her he loves her.

Instead he says something that, to his mind, is very close: "Try virginia."

She does. It works.

Tony calls room service. Breakfast is coffee, croissants, cheese, and fresh fruit. No strawberries—he hasn't forgotten. They eat in bed, backs propped against the headboard, the tray nestled between them.

He keeps trying to feed her grapes, but she smiles and bats his fingers away; she's perfectly capable of using her own two hands, thank you very much. It scares her that she might become dependent on his doting, become addicted to it. She knows how quickly he gets bored.

Pepper reads the paper; they didn't make the front page, but a full-colour photo graces the top half of page four. Mercifully, it's not the kiss, but the moment shortly before it, with Tony smiling wolfishly as he waves to the cameras. As always, he looks implacably handsome. Pepper is captured from an awkward angle, and has legs like sticks, her skin the colour of chalk. She wonders if it made the papers back home, and if so, what her mother is going to think. At least there's no mention of Tony's rude comment.

Tony, who is flipping the grapes into the air and catching them in his mouth, finds the whole thing incredibly entertaining. Particularly the part where Pepper doesn't seem to realize what a total fox she is in the photo: alabaster skin, swan-like neck, and those gorgeous legs… if he were any other man, he'd be envious of this Tony Stark character. Clearly, the guy has it all. His conveniently selective memory has already forgotten how he actually felt when the photo was taken.

Via e-mail, he instructs JARVIS to search out a high-resolution copy of the photo and have it framed. He'll make sure it finds its way onto her desk by the next time she's back in the office.

Tony announces that he's extended the room, in case they decide they'd like to stay.

Pepper would like to stay, but there are still a number of fires (mostly metaphorical, one or two literal) that need putting out in New York and elsewhere. She needs Tony, but the company needs Mr. Stark. The whole world needs Iron Man. The cost/benefit analysis there is relatively simple. She calls to arrange for the jet to be ready in an hour.

It's meant to be some kind of grand gesture, but Pepper feels that there's something a bit petulant about the way he brushes aside the tray of food, kicking it onto the floor, before reaching across the bed for her. It makes her uncomfortable that he consumes so voraciously and then discards so carelessly. She refuses to even kiss him until he promises to pick it all up; he needs to learn to be accountable for the messes he makes.

He assumes they aren't going to make their flight on time, but Pepper is nothing if not ruthlessly efficient. She has years of experience pushing his buttons, of keeping him on task, and of channelling her irritation with him in a positive direction. It turns out that many of her skills are transferrable.

On the plane, they are seated across from each other. Pepper stretches out with her feet in his lap, and reads her book. They've been continuously together for almost 24 hours at this point; she needs a bit of time to be in her own head, to decompress. However, she knows that he can't decompress without some way to occupy his hands, which is why she asks him if he'd mind giving her a foot massage while she reads. She's slowly learning how to navigate this new relationship, if that's what it is.

She manages to get about 200 pages in before he says, "So," with a certain air of finality.

She looks up. "So?"

"What do you think?" His voice carries an edge of impatience. He's still holding her right foot in both hands, fiddling with it absently.

"About what?"

"This." He points to her, then indicates himself. "Think you could get used to it?"

Tony's not showing it on the surface, but knowing the answer to this question has suddenly become absolutely vital. He doesn't know how it happened, but he can't imagine his life without Pepper in it—and the more he has of her, it seems, the more he wants. He worries that one day she will just throw up her hands and walk out without any warning. He's noticed that she has a tendency to quit her job when the going gets tough—would she quit the relationship as easily? Probably more easily, since she isn't bound by a contract. He wants some sort of reassurance.

Pepper sits up, sliding her feet back into her shoes. She marks her page and puts the book down. She wants to give this issue her full attention.

Because it's Pepper, she weighs all of the factors very, very carefully:

Yes, he is smart, and witty, and exciting, and sexy as hell. She enjoys his company, and the chemistry between them is undeniable. She thrives on the challenges he presents. Life as Tony's paramour would be a lot of things, but it would never be boring.

However, he's also arrogant, and capricious, and wasteful, and vain, and rude, and selfish—and that's the short list. Some of these qualities might change over time, but most of them probably won't. And if they did, then he would essentially be a stranger, and she doesn't know if she would feel the same way about that Tony Stark as she does about this one.

He clearly has a great deal of affection for her—he might even love her. But she senses that his feelings for her could either smoulder beneath the surface for years, or burn brightly for a short while; she can't necessarily count on both intensity and longevity. She also knows that he always wants what he can't have. He thrives on the challenges she presents, too.

But she knows his moods, and she knows his secrets, and she knows his smiles, and above all, she knows his faults. She, more than anyone else, has a pretty good idea of what she'd be getting into. She has enough information to make the best decision for herself, or for him, or for both of them.

"Maybe," she says.

Because it's Tony, his instinct is to push back, to demand an explanation, but he knows through experience that forcing the issue won't help. He's cheered by the fact that it isn't an outright no; he's confident in his ability to wear her down over time. Sooner or later, he always gets what he wants.

She perches on the edge of her seat and slowly leans forward, placing her hands on his thighs to steady herself. Her eyes have the same unfocused, slightly myopic look that he remembers so well from that first night on the rooftop. As though, in spite of all her better instincts, she's just a little bit drunk on him. A little bit out of control.

He shifts towards her in return and brackets her knees with his, one hand grasping her shoulder, the other caressing her cheek. He's unusually tentative; his eyes are wide, apprehensive. This is uncharted territory, and he isn't as sure of himself as he pretends to be.

There's a considerable gap to close, but they meet halfway, because meeting halfway is the only way it's ever going to work.

The kiss is slow and sweet and aching with the promise of what's to come. Which is perfect, because they are about an hour away from landing in New York.

There's just enough time.