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Tony awoke to find Pepper breathing soundly, her head on his chest. She usually rose first, so he savored these mornings when he could just watch her sleep, unencumbered by the many stresses of a typical day, let alone one like the day before. They hadn't even slept in Stark Tower that night--opting instead for a nearby but somehow still operating hotel--since Pepper insisted on staying out of the tower until it had been inspected and deemed structurally sound by someone other than Tony or JARVIS. Tony thought that she was being a little paranoid; he just wasn't bothered or particularly worried by the damage. Things appeared ruined at the moment, but they would be rebuilt in time. New York had done it before, and on a lesser scale, Tony had done it with the house in Malibu--and himself. But, since he was more interested in being with her than in the building, he had acquiesced.
He had fallen asleep as soon as his head hit the pillow, completely lacking the energy to hash out the events of the past couple days. Now, he lay there contemplating her and them. When he had thought he was about to die, he had called her; they hadn't really talked about that yet, or what he had intended to say to her if she had answered. He wondered briefly if he would have even thought to dial her if JARVIS hadn't suggested it, but since JARVIS was his creation, he decided it didn't really matter. What did matter was the fact that Pepper was the person with whom he wanted to spend the final moments of his life, even if the best he could hope for was the sound of her voice. He'd felt that way for years, but facing it in that way hit him like an epiphany.
He brushed his fingers through her hair and she stirred, clinging to him a little tighter than usual. He ventured a guess that she'd had a fairly restless night, but he felt the urgent need to wake her anyway. “Pepper?” She grunted, and he shook her shoulder slightly. "Pepper, it's important."
She stirred. "What's wrong?"
“Have you ever had shawarma?”
"Shawarma. I had it for the first time last night. Kind of like gyros, but better... which could just be the circumstances talking."
She stretched, made a noncommittal noise, and propped herself up on one elbow so she could face him, blinking the sleep from her eyes. "I can't say I have, though I did eat a lot of falafel sandwiches in college."
"Don't tell me you went through a vegetarian phase." She raised an eyebrow. "That's cute, Potts--trying to save the world as a bright-eyed undergrad." Both eyebrows were up. "Well, I was a lot younger than you when I was in college. I couldn't save the world yet since I hadn't fully developed my social conscience." Her eyebrows disappeared behind her bangs. "Okay, maybe I didn't do that until... yesterday. Anyway, you've never had shawarma, ergo we've never had shawarma together, so--"
"Tony, you almost died yesterday--more so than usual, that is--and when I finally fall asleep you wake me up to talk about shawar--"
"I love you." A beat passed; she blinked at him in surprise. He almost thought he'd made a mistake, so he did what he usually did in those situations: he kept talking without any kind of plan. “Look, I've been dancing around this for years, right? 'I don't have anyone but you,' 'It's always been you,' and whatever else I've come up with that I thought was me telling you I loved you in my own way. That's BS, because it needed to be said. I love you, I've been in love with you for years, and I can't believe that after everything we'd already been through together it took me really almost dying to actually say it. I wanted to tell you yesterday, you know. But you didn't answer the phone, and all I could think was that I was about to die, and although shepherding a nuclear missile into outer space to save Manhattan might have actually been a really spectacular way to go, there were so many things that we'd never said and never done, and it was just... so shitty.” He finally stopped to catch his breath, and looked at her expectantly. “So.”
“So?” she asked, with a bemused look on her face.
“So. I know I don't have a lot of experience in this arena, but traditionally, when someone declares their love for you, aren't you supposed to respond with... something? Anything?” He eyed her nervously. “Are you about to hit me?”
She smiled and shook her head. “I love you, too.”
His shoulders relaxed, and he grinned. “Yeah?”
“Then how come you never said it, either?”
“I figured it would mean more to both of us if you were the first one to say it... sober. But, I knew,” she answered. Then, with a chuckle: “I thought for a second you were about to ask me to marry you.”
“Oh... oh!” His eyes went wide. “That's an amazing idea, Potts. Wait, what would have been your answer?”
“I think you're a little addled from your near-death experience, and that these aren't the right circumstances.”
“But it is my magnetically-protected heart's greatest desire to spend the rest of my debatably natural life with you.”
“Wow, you really know how to make a girl swoon,” she quipped, as she rimmed her finger around the Arc Reactor in his chest.
“I'm serious, Pepper.”
“I know, but so am I. I think we'd need to figure out the implications for the company, and Iron Man.” Always a professional.
“Well, since I am Iron Man--”
“Honestly, if I ever hear that statement come out of your mouth again...”
He raised his hands in surrender. “Okay, okay, I know. But this--it's something we'll think about?”
“Yes. But for right now, I want to hear more about how much you love me.” She smiled coyly. “And then, maybe you can show me.”
That part, he was good at.
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