Even though he's okay for the time being, Tony's brush with death is enough to make him realize that the odds are getting longer every day. He can't stop thinking about legacy.
A couple of weeks after the night on the rooftop, Pepper stops by the house with groceries. Tony has two broken ribs and a miscellany of other injuries, and is under strict orders to stay in bed unless it's to go to either the bathroom or the hospital, so—naturally—she finds him in the workshop. Even when he can barely stand, Tony is the living embodiment of Galileo's principle of relativity, incapable of achieving an absolute state of rest.
"I warned you," she chides. If she were a little surer of his ability to withstand it, she'd be tempted to smack him on the arm.
"You did," he agrees, without looking up from his work. He's pale, beads of sweat forming on his forehead. Even sitting up is costing him an incredible amount of effort. He doesn't like to take the painkillers he's been prescribed because he claims they make him 'stupid'—which for Tony is still well above average.
She places one hand on each of his shoulders and presses down gently. "What're you working on?" She wants to know what project was so absolutely vital that it's worth the pain, worth prolonging his recovery. It's not part of the armour, as far as she can tell; Pepper is already more familiar with Iron Man's workings than she really cares to be. The pieces spread out over the workbench don't really look like much of anything—just fragmented bits of circuitry and wires. But Pepper knows that, like Michelangelo coaxing the fragile sculpture out from within the blank slab of marble, Tony has a unique, alchemical ability to see the completed object in even the tiniest and most flawed of components.
In response to her question, he shrugs absently, hard muscles cording and flexing under her fingers. "Could you grab me some solder wire out of that drawer?" He points behind him. "331, the red box. Thanks."
Pepper pulls open the drawer to find about a dozen identical hexagonal cardboard containers with flat tops, all red, each one labeled 331 Organic Flux Core Solder Wire. She chooses one at random and extracts it.
When she turns around, the box cradled in her palm, Tony is kneeling on the floor in front of her. On one knee. Everything has gone completely silent; even Dummy and You have paused in their work to observe, their sightless heads cocked expectantly.
"Tony," she breathes.
He's panting slightly—he isn't supposed to be walking around yet, and even the swift, stealthy movement from chair to floor was enough to wind him—but his gaze is steady, fixed on the little box. "Open it," he urges.
The ring has been carefully wedged into a pre-cut block of polyurethane foam, which is why the box didn't rattle when she plucked it out of the drawer. He's even weighted it on one end, to be certain she would hold the box right-side-up. It's about as thoughtful as Tony gets.
"You're not serious," asserts Pepper, even though she knows he is entirely too serious.
He beams up at her, in that way that always makes her feel as though his meticulous hands have unlatched her chest and applied a shot of direct current to her stammering heart. Emotional cardioversion.
Pepper tips the box over, depositing the ring in the palm of her hand. It's a solitaire—classic, tasteful. Harry Winston, if she isn't mistaken. He knows she wouldn't wear anything too ostentatious. Which is progress, of a kind.
"Tony," she says again, shakily. "It's been two weeks."
"Yeah, I'm not really about delayed gratification." The smile sharpens into a wicked grin, marred only slightly by a smudgy bruise at the corner of his mouth.
She feels herself blush. It's true: they've already engaged in a couple of activities directly counterindicated by both JARVIS and the doctors at the SHIELD hospital—the memory of which helpfully serves to remind Pepper that this man has a way of talking her into things that could potentially be hazardous to both of them.
"What would you have done if I'd picked the wrong box?"
"There is no wrong box."
Her mouth falls open.
"Don't get too excited, Pepper, they're all the same. And you only get to keep one, the rest are going back to the store." Smugly, he deadpans, "Don't tell me you're allergic to diamonds."
She offers her hand to guide him up; he grasps it and squeezes her fingers gently, but remains kneeling at her feet.
"You should be in bed."
"You should stop trying to change the subject," he counters.
"Look, Pepper, it's not forever. I mean, not really. When you're married to a superhero, 'Till death do us part' isn't likely to be—"
"Don't say that." She feels physically ill—there have been so many close calls already. "Don't joke about that."
He continues to grin up at her with his bruised mouth, and they both pretend that what Tony just said was in fact a joke.
"So?" he prompts. "How about an answer?"
"To what?" she retorts. "You haven't technically asked me anything."
"Okay: Pepper, I think you and I should get married."
"That's a statement, not a question."
"True. Do you agree or disagree?"
She tugs insistently at his wrist, and this time he stands, supporting himself with a hand on her shoulder. She slides her arms around his waist, buries her face in his grease-stained sweatshirt, and simply holds him still. She's careful to avoid squeezing too hard, or not hard enough—life with Tony means always having to divine that precarious point of balance.
He is simultaneously the strongest and the most vulnerable person she's ever loved. She knows that nothing about their relationship will ever be simple, or straightforward, or peaceful, or painless. In a single instant, she's able to visualise, with startling clarity, the hundreds of obstacles that lie ahead, and the thousands of ways this all could go so awfully, catastrophically wrong.
And in that moment, for the first time, Pepper really gets a sense of what it must be like to be Tony Stark—to envision the whole tenuously emerging from the tiniest parts. It isn't perfect, and it isn't easy. But it's possible. It's there.
"Trust me," he says, just as he did that night. "I can do this."
And Pepper does.
"Maybe," she hears herself concede. "Okay. Yes."
He smiles into her hair. "Maybe, okay, yes?"
Like she did on the rooftop, Pepper closes her eyes and hangs on for dear life. "Just the last one," she amends. "Just yes."