He had long since gotten over his fears of wormholes and raining Viking Gods from the sky. He had even managed and overcome his crippling dependence on his suits. His suits – sure, he tinkered still, but it was nothing like he was known to do. His lack of tinker-time was not what made him wake out of a restless sleep. Dreams of time and space being ripped apart were not what pushed him into screaming fits during the night. No, none of that was the case, though it would be reasonable to assume so.
What he feared most was the woman that lay next to him every night. There was a time where she would wake up when he did, but recently she had resigned herself to sleeping through his nightly fits. There was nothing she could do to stop it, she knew that, and he knew it even better. He also liked to think of himself as a completely independent man, but as he got up for the fifteenth time that night, he began to envy Pepper’s ability to sleep throughout the night and long for her presence.
How could she not worry? In his single life, he barely knew the definition of fear. He could remember closing his eyes at night, completely comfortable in his bed, and sleeping through the night without any trouble. Now, he was lucky to get even an hour of light dozing, and it seemed tonight was another one of those nights. He threw his legs over the side of the bed and hunched forward, elbows pressing into his legs and the heels of his palms scrubbing at his eyelids. He hoped the act would scrub away his fears, but he wasn’t one to rely on miracles.
Frustrated, he rose from his sitting position and trudged toward the large windows facing out toward the ocean. He had gone through this process more times than he would have liked to admit, but he hoped this time the ocean would calm his nerves.
“Maybe this time.” It never was.
Regardless, he made his way over to the floor-to-ceiling glass panels, or at least they seemed to be glass. Now that he was much more human than he had been previously, he wanted to make sure Pepper was safe even in the event that he might not be. Bullet-proof glass, the best of the best. It wasn’t enough to stop a missile or a rocket, but it would give her a chance. The thought sobered him a little, and he found himself smiling. It was a strange feeling.
He pressed his hand against the glass, the thickness, while apparent, did nothing to prevent the cold of the night from seeping through. The cold was calming, and he could feel his shoulders beginning to slump. It was the most relaxing he had done since his surgery. Unconsciously, he leaned forward until his forehead pressed against the glass and the chill made its way across the exposed flesh. He let out a content sigh and allowed his eyelids to slide shut.
It was comforting to find darkness on the other side of his eyelids and to not be bombarded by images of Pepper and her impending death. As soon as the thought crossed his mind, the images that had haunted him every night came in a flood. Waking up next to Pepper, dead, murdered in her sleep, Pepper standing next to the windows and smiling at him as a large rocket headed straight for her, and, even worse, he imagined her dying in a hospital bed. He wasn’t sure why this particular image scared him more than anything, but it was always the same. She was lay up in the bed, weak from a disease, which he could not cure. She would die, and he had no way to help her.
Though he had ultimately given up his core, he would always be Iron Man, which meant there would always be people after him. If they were after him, then they would go after her. Yet, there she was, in his bed, asleep as she always was while he was up and in a panic. It wasn’t solely the fact that people would be after her, which frightened him, but it was instead the thought that his abilities would fail him. They would fail him, and nature would win out. Nature would take his wife because she was human, and he knew all too well how fragile human life was. Eyes wide open now, he felt the tears begin to spill over.
He panicked every night, but it wasn’t often that he cried. Not because he couldn’t, but because he couldn’t allow himself to. He couldn’t allow himself to be weak. He had to be more than a human. Not just for his own protection, but for hers.
Sometime, during his fit, Pepper had gotten up. She wrapped her arms around him, pressing against him and running her hands across the scar on his chest. It reminded him of the decision he made that changed their lives forever. He would always be Iron Man, but now he was so much more man. It made him feel vulnerable, and he hated when she touched it. Her hands were like soft whispers and reminders of his choices, whether they were wrong or right – he wasn’t sure.
Though his voice shook, he said, “I’m sorry. Did I wake you?”
He felt the soft movement of her head against his back before she responded, “No, I haven’t slept in a long time.”
This surprised him, but he remained still. He wondered what all she had seen and heard, and if she was actually telling the truth.
“What do you do during the night?”
She hugged him a little tighter, and he could feel her form begin to shake.
“I like to watch you. I know you don’t like to be…” she paused, “I don’t like to leave you alone with yourself. I want to make sure you’re alright.”
A smile made its way to his lips. That was just like his Pepper. She was just as sneaky and resourceful as he was, and he often forgot that fact. He also forgot how blunt she could be.
“Why do you cry at night?”
The question sent a chill through his body, and he could feel hers go rigid at the change. Now, he had to make another decision. He had gotten tired of making decisions. He never knew when he was making the right or wrong one, and not knowing how it would affect Pepper only made it that much harder. Did he tell her the truth, or did he continue on with his lie? He decided his decision would be best made if he could see her face. He would know the answer then.
With a slow turn, his arms found their way around her waist and her arms lifted and draped around his neck. He studied her face, noting the newly formed crow’s feet that appeared when she blinked and the small indents, which he knew formed a set of perfect dimples, that framed her crooked smile. She was perfect because she wasn’t perfect. He couldn’t help caressing her cheek, and her head dipped into his hand. It was a perfect dance, and, as he always did, he trailed his thumb across the apple of her cheek.
Then, there were her blue eyes. They glistened in the moonlight. He was glad to have taken the time to add the window feature, but when the first tears formed in the creases of her eyes, he began to regret it. They shined like tiny stars, and he couldn’t bear to see them. That’s when he knew the answer.
“I cry because I know, one day, I will lose you,” he paused to release her waist and hold her face completely in his hands, “whether it is by a person or by age itself, I know I will lose you.”
He dipped his head to press his forehead against hers. He couldn’t meet her eyes, not until he was done saying what he needed to say.
“You will get sick, and there will be nothing I can do. What is the point in having all the money and the knowledge in the world when I can’t use it to save you?”
Silence fell between them, and Stark began to wonder if he had possibly said something wrong, though he had no idea what it would be. It wasn’t much longer before Pepper had something she wanted to say.
“I am willing to die, though.”
Her words shocked him, so much so that he physical began to pull away from her, but her hands found their way to his hair and locked him in place. He was cornered, but he had never thought it would be by his wife.
“I want to live my life the best I can. With death comes drive and need… I need to love you as long as I can because one day, I know I could lose you. What’s the point of life if there is never an end? I have come too close to losing you. I want to protect you, just as much as you want to protect me.”
Stark couldn’t help the smile. It was just like his Pepper to see the philosophical side of everything. He was a scientist, first and foremost. She was sentimental and could always see the other side of things. They weren’t perfect, but that was probably the reason they were perfect together.
He shook his head and let out a deep chuckle before pressing his lips against hers. He couldn’t remember the last time he kissed her so deeply, and he couldn’t remember the last time he had, had such a great night without sleep.