What's he doing up here, anyway? thinks Pepper.
She doesn't exit the elevator, just peers out of the open doors in the unlit gloom of the penthouse level. She used to call it Tony's eyrie, as it is - was - the highest view in Manhattan. Until it was rendered unusable during the Chitauri invasion. (Well, that's not the whole story. Bruce - the Hulk - ruined the floor, but it was in a worthy cause.)
Restoring it is not a high priority, so it's been swept of rubble and glass and left, without lights or other amenities, including windows. Without them a brisk breeze curls over the bare surface of the floor; it would be stronger if the room hadn't been designed to face what is typically a leeward direction.
"JARVIS, is Tony on this level, can you tell?"
"Mr. Stark exited the lift on this level thirty minutes ago," says JARVIS' voice inside the box where she stands. "He has not used any means of egress since that time, including the Mark VII suit, which as you know is still under repair."
"I wouldn't put it past him to have rappelled down the side of the building," Pepper mutters, stepping out of the elevator.
"A most perceptive conclusion, Ms. Potts," JARVIS agrees. "Shall I leave this lift open for the time being?"
"Yes, please," says Pepper.
At the same time, Tony's voice rings across the room. "That won't be necessary, JARVIS."
He saunters out of the swiftly deepening shadows, hands in pockets, grinning.
"Nevertheless," JARVIS replies, "for purposes of safety, this car will remain on the penthouse level until such time as all personnel vacate the area."
Pepper grins at Tony, who comes over to take her hand.
"There's no point arguing when he gets all legal on me," says Tony in a loud whisper. The doors of the elevator snap shut, though there's no indication that the car is going anywhere.
"If he didn't, I would," she says.
Tony kisses her lightly and leads her across the room, toward the broad ledge that formerly lay beyond the barrier of glass. Everything is open to the sky now, and it should be windy up here, but really, it doesn't seem to be inhospitable. The invitation he texted her said to dress comfortably for cool weather, so she's wearing sweat pants (designer lounge wear, the kind you don't actually sweat in) and a long-sleeved henley.
"Why aren't we freezing?" she asks Tony.
"A warm light for all mankind, remember?" he says. "I had the floor heaters installed right before the alien smackdown; the conduits were more or less intact, so I checked 'em over and activated 'em a couple of days ago. It may get windy, but at least it'll be warm."
Pepper is impressed, flattered, and amused, as usual, by Tony's ingenuity, as well as his ability to focus like a diamond cutter when something truly matters to him.
"So we're testing the heat, is that it?" She knows that can't be the only reason she's here. Her eyes scan the almost-bare floor and sure enough, there's something dark and square on the ledge, just outside the line where the windows had been.
Tony walks her over to it. It's a futon, unfolded, with an extra heating unit standing between it and the precipice of the outer ledge. The wind is slightly stronger here and it tugs at Pepper's hair, inviting it to escape from its ponytail.
Tony's hands are sliding around to caress her back and waist and lower as he kisses her slowly and guides her to lie beside him on the futon.
"Out here, really?" she murmurs between kisses.
He bows his head against her shoulder, and she hugs him fiercely when she realizes he's weeping.
"Tony, Tony," she whispers. "What is it?"
She raises her head and kisses his wet face while his tears fall silently and he gazes, not at her but at the sky. At last he takes a deep hiccuping breath and wipes his eyes with the back of his hand.
"Back on the carrier, there was massive damage to the - well, anyway, Cap and I went out to fix it. And if he hadn't pulled that lever I would have been nothing but a pile of scrap metal. Loki could have killed me, throwing me off the roof, if the Mark VII hadn't deployed."
Pepper shivers, but not from the weather. He goes on talking.
"Hell, if you go back far enough, if Obadiah hadn't been such a lousy shot - "
He leans up on an elbow and kisses her briefly as if in apology.
"What I mean is, I really didn't think about the odds of me dying, in nearly any of those situations. I just wanted to get the job done, push through to the conclusion, slam the door shut. Once it was over, I didn't want to think about it.
"Except for the last time, when I went up to that portal to shove the nuke down their throats... JARVIS said, 'Shall I dial Miss Potts, sir?' and until that moment, I knew perfectly well it was a one way trip, but right up until then I didn't think at all past the moment at hand."
"You've always been good at that," says Pepper. "That's the only way you could do that kind of thing."
He nods and looks down at her.
"And when the HUD showed that the call hadn't gone through, I was relieved."
He says it almost guiltily. Pepper is amazed.
"Relieved," he rushes on. "That I could get on with the job, that I didn't have to think of something to say to you, that nothing was going to make me second-guess what I was doing."
"Break your concentration," she says. Now he looks amazed. She adds, "I get that, believe it or not. Completely."
His eyes are shining with tears again.
"I didn't know, afterwards," he says, "how I was going to explain that to you, that I had to do this and that it had nothing to do with how I feel about you, or me, or anything else. That it didn't mean I didn't love you - in fact, totally the opposite."
"You said once that you knew in your heart that what you were doing was right," she says quietly. "Don't ever let me, or anyone or anything, slow you down, once your heart - or your head! - tells you to go on."
"Okay," he says. "So, if my head and heart are telling me I should ask you to marry me?"