This fic forced itself to be written after I saw the wrap-around variant cover for Invincible Iron Man #21, depicting Tony with a glowing implant. Don't know at this point if he will actually get one--and since his medical issue at the moment is his brain, not his heart, would one even make sense?--but I wrote the following story all the same.
Tony woke up to find Pepper lying half on top of him, tracing the glowing circle on his chest with her pointer finger. He wasn't sure if the tickle of her finger roused him him or if it was just the fact that he normally didn't sleep for long after an orgasm. Either way, he was extraordinarily pleased with both the way she seemed utterly absorbed with him and how it felt to have her pressed against him. He had been waiting his entire life for this moment, no question about it.
Pepper noticed he was awake, but didn't pause in her slow circling of his implant. She propped herself on her other arm, leaving very little of her weight to be supporting by his body. "I can feel you," she said.
"Good," Tony answered, shifting. He'd been lying sprawled on his back, but he levered himself up on his elbows to see her better. "I absolutely want you to be able to feel me."
She smiled. It was shy, almost coy. "I mean my..." she faltered, searched for a word and said, "Replusor sense. I can feel yours. I can sense it, just like other machines."
"Huh. So you can..." It made sense when he thought about it. "What's it feel like?"
She stopped her circling and laid her palm flat on his chest. "A vibration. Just a little one. I have to concentrate to pick it up."
He tried to stretch out his own sense, like a ripple in a pond or however he had taught her to visualize, but didn't pick up anything. There were a lot of potential factors for that. He wasn't fully recovered yet, for starters. It might require too much exertion to try to start manipulating his implant the way Pepper did hers. There was also the fact that he was still fairly drained from their previous activities. He wasn't recovered enough for that yet, either, according to Don, but he found himself bereft of patience. Tony Stark was a miracle of modern medicine, always had been, and so was Pep. They more than managed to handle it. It was another possibility that using the implant simply required practice. Pepper's replusor implant had been with her for months and gone through several upgrades and check-ups. She knew her way around it by now. Tony's, by contrast, was brand new and not entirely similar to his past prosthetics. Yet another possibility was the remnants of Extremis still in his system, unable to be used but perhaps able to muck things up for him.
"It's not working for me."
"Oh." He didn't want to disappoint her, but it certainly sounded like he had.
"I think I need more practice. And to be a little more awake. I feel like I haven't slept in years. How long was I out anyway?"
Pepper glanced at the clock on the bedside table. "About twenty minutes. That's when I noticed it, you know?" Tony smirked because it was no surprise to him that her attention was in other places prior to his nodding off. Further proof for his theory that she could read his mind, Pepper slapped him lightly on the chest. "I mean, it felt like it was your version of snoring."
"Well, I hope I didn't keep you up."
"No, it's not a bad thing. I like it."
"Is that a fact?" The blow to his ego over the snoring allegory versus his presumed sexual prowess aside, the fact that she said that she liked the vibration suddenly seemed like an incredibly strange thing to say.
She snorted. "Of course. Tony...it's just another way of being connected to you. I can feel you and know you're here and alive and with me. It's comforting. The past few months have been..." she stopped again and let out a heavy breath. "They've been really, really hard, Tony. I think...a little comfort...it's not too much to ask for. It's something that we both need. We can't just run around blasting things all the time. Sometimes you need the chance to calm down and feel like someone else is there."
The feelings she was describing were hardly new to Tony. He had devoted a lot of time in his life to the search for companionship. Isolation would describe his state more accurately than need to get away from all the hectic places life as a superhero tended to take a person, but the end result was the same. To reach out to someone, to know that someone else was there, even if it was only for a few hours.
Pepper's comments had struck a chord and he found himself wondering what spurred on her sudden acceptance of his romantic overtures. Falling back on to the pillows and staring at the ceiling, Tony absolutely hated himself. He didn't want to know, but it was too big of an issue to just ignore. A brief war raged inside him, between the faction of himself that wanted to accept this uneasy yet good fortune and the part of him that couldn't accept not knowing the truth. The scientist in him won. He had to know. It was just who he was and he hated himself for needing to ask. "Is that what this was?"
"What?" Pepper sounded genuinely confused.
There was a chance that she might have let the subject drop, had he backpedalled when given the option. Driven, he pressed on. "Did you sleep with me to comfort yourself?" Tony squinted at the ceiling. There wasn't anything interesting up there, but maybe he could pretend. Perhaps he could make the entire conversation sound casual. Maybe even make her believe that he didn't care either way. "I don't mind. God knows I've slept with women for reasons worse than that."
"Oh!" She pushed herself off of him, one hand braced on each side of his body, hers held above him at arms length. "No! Tony, I didn't...I would never use you. It was nothing like that."
He nodded. He wasn't entirely convinced that she would never use him. He had noticed over the years that whenever her life got difficult, she tended to throttle back into his at full speed. There were always a multitude of little reasons that kept Pepper's patented coping mechanism of throwing herself at him from working out for either of them. After recognizing the pattern, Tony had grudgingly forced himself to accept that it was never going to result in some sort of destined for true love romance between the two of them.
On the other hand, before he was deposed as the Director of S.H.I.E.L.D., they had never gotten nearly as far as they had in the aftermath of his fall from grace. Here they were now, even without Tony poised on the edge of killing himself, and Pepper was still in bed with him.
She pulled back, sitting straight up rather than hovering over him. The sheets tangled around her lap, but she didn't make any move to cover her chest.
"I...I care about you, Tony, I do." She licked her lips and shifted again. "I don't think I ever realized how much before."
"I love you." There. He said it. It was out. He knew that she knew how he felt. She had known for a long time. But he couldn't remember saying it so plainly before. Sure, he'd make vague references to his feelings for her. And so much that he did spelled it out clearer than words ever could, but now he'd said it. There was no taking it back, no pretending that it never happened. No ignoring him and changing the subject. Not when she was bare-breasted in his bed. Not when twin lights glowed from their chests.
She could feel him. Feel him.
He closed his eyes. He wasn't ready for this. He thought he was ready and he wasn't. Self-loathing spiked. Why had he said that? What kind of idiot says something like that?
"I'm..I'm not ready."
"I shouldn't have said that."
"No." Pepper laid down on her side, pressing herself against him. "I'm glad you did. Thank you."
He opened his eyes and turned his head just enough to see her face. "You're welcome. It's been a long time." The admission felt heavy, as though something was pressing down on him and forcibly squeezing the words out.
"I know. I'm sorry. I don't want to hurt you. I never wanted to hurt you."
"I know." None of this changed the fact that it did, of course, but he could see the sincerity in her eyes.
"I'm just not ready."
"So you keep saying."
"To say it."
"I understand." This conversation really needed to stop. Tony was wishing it had stopped before it started, when it was just them and sex and maybe poor reasoning behind it but why on earth would he let that keep him from Pepper Potts? He had wanted her too damn long. He should have been happy with what he got. Why wasn't he happy with what he got?
Because he was in love with her. Because he wanted her to love him. He had his chance at making this work, once upon a time, long before their friendship became what it was. She had made her intentions towards him clear, but he didn't think it would have been fair to her to get involved with an injured man who felt the need to exacerbate his situation by running off to play superhero. Truth be told, he was never really sure of how real those feelings she claimed to have even were. Starved for honest affection, he had watched her like a hawk, examining every word and gesture she had directed towards himself and other men. She seemed fickle. Did she love him or did she love Happy and just wanted to make the man jealous? What about those times she dropped Tony Stark like a bad habit because she had decided that Iron Man was her soulmate, unaware that they were the same person? When Pepper and Happy married, Tony was envious, hurt--but not surprised. Years past, new women and new injuries came and went. Pepper was widowed and in the process, Tony lost a man who had been like a brother to him.
Somehow, they had wound up in this unbelievable present, both reliant on machines to keep them alive. Both taken to jetting around in suits of armor to save the world.
And even though he could see about a million reasons why she shouldn't, Pepper had seen fit to give him her body twice now. The first time, in Russia, he was not terribly proud of looking back on. She deserved more than a sudden romp with him at half-capacity in the middle of an abandoned labratory buried in the tundra. Pepper had wanted it that way, why he couldn't say. He didn't see what was attractive about him then--unshaven, gibbering incoherent apologies, completely lacking in finesse, his usual charm or even the ability to fight his own damn battles. The second time, with his brain back together, was better. He was more of himself, even if he did fall asleep right afterwards.
"I'm ready to be with you."
"What?" Tony propped himself on one elbow and stared at her. "What?"
"I'm ready. I think its time. Way, way past time." She laid her hand on his chest, on his implant, on his heart. "This isn't just sex, Tony. This is us. This is the start of something."
That hardly made sense. "But you're--"
"--Afraid," she admitted. "Of where this might go, of how I feel, of what how I feel says about me, but not of you. I can't be not-with you anymore."
All of a sudden, something clicked into place inside of his brain. He rolled over, pushing her onto her back with himself settled on top of her and grinned down as her hands planted themselves just below his ribcage. Tony finally heard what Pepper was really saying. "You love me." She rolled her eyes, but didn't deny it. "You love me, you're not ready say it yet, but you love me." A drop of water splashed on her face and Tony realized he might be crying. Pepper moved one of her hands away from his torso and cupped his face, wiping his tears with her thumb. "You love me."
"You love me," she parroted at him. Pepper didn't sound nearly as bowled over at the knowledge that Tony did, but she had known for a long time, had years to mull it over. Whatever this was going to be, it was starting on her terms, with her decisions.
"Love of my life," Tony affirmed. He dropped his face against the curve of her neck and her arms curled around him, one stroking his hair and the other tucked around his waist. He lay still against her, savoring the rare experience of actually feeling loved. He didn't want to move, but after a long while he had to, and reluctantly rolled off of her. On his back again, Tony repeated, "I love you." This time it didn't seem like an idiotic mistake leaping out of his mouth. Not only was he now allowed to say it, but Pepper rewarded him with a light kiss. He grinned against her mouth. "I really do want to hear it back, you know."
"Mm-hm," Pepper hummed, settling herself along the side of his body.
"Whenever you're ready, just lay it on me."
"I'll keep that in mind," she replied dryly. Tony opened his mouth to retort, but Pepper shut it with an insistent finger on his chin. Then her hand traveled up to his brow to ease his eyes shut. "Go back to sleep, lover. You've earned a rest."
"Will be here when you wake up."
As much as he wanted to be awake, his battered body was revolting against him. Tony could only fight his exhaustion long enough to feel Pepper lay her head on his shoulder and resume her delicate tracing of his glowing heart as he fell asleep.