The Next Mission, Nothing Else by AndromedaMarine

"There is the next mission, and nothing else," he said with a heavy expression, his eyes betraying what anxiety lurked in his mind. Nothing else. What happens when he runs out of missions? What happens when he finally gets blown out of the sky for good? What then? Will it always be the next mission and nothing else? Pepper held his gaze for a few seconds longer, trying to decipher the darkness masking his heart. Her own heart nearly broke when she forced herself to turn away from her employer.

She paused at the steps leading to the rest of the mansion. "I hope you don't mean that, Tony, because if you do, it means that you never really came home." Her voice was filled with the false strength to keep from snapping under his heart-breaking gaze.

For a moment Tony seemed to regret his words, but he broke the steely lock between their eyes and turned to his computer console. "Have a good night, Miss Potts."

Pepper Potts couldn't believe Tony Stark's attitude. How could he not see that she was desperately worried for him? Jarvis was the only voice in his head during the life-threatening flights, unless Rhodey called him mid-flight, and part of her was in a constant knot due to her boss's seeming lack of concern for his own wellbeing. Was it really just the next mission, and nothing else?

"Jarvis," she called from her desk, eyes focused on the computer screen, which was getting blurrier by the second.

"Yes, Miss Potts?" the British voice answered almost immediately.

She sighed. "Has Tony left for his next mission yet? I have it in my schedule for him to be off to the Middle East again."

"Mr. Stark is currently stepping into his suit. Shall I call him for you?"

Pepper waved her hand. "No, no, just make sure he knows that he better get his ass back here fast, and in one piece."

"Yes, Miss Potts."

"And Jarvis," Pepper rubbed her temples, "keep him safe. Tell him good luck." Jarvis did not reply and Pepper imagined a non-existent head nodding up in down to her words. Her head fell to her palms and it was several minutes before she pushed back the loose strands and stared out the wide window overlooking the Malibu bay. "Stay safe, Tony," she whispered to herself.

----

Tony Stark ascended into the clouds over the Pacific with two things on his mind: his careless words to Pepper, and the fact that he was risking his life yet again. He cursed. Jarvis had related his assistant's message to him, the disembodied voice unnerving in its calmness. It was just the next mission, and nothing else. Did he really believe that? Did he really believe that he could make it out of every mission unscathed? He wondered about the same thing Pepper did. What happens when he doesn't come home?

"Jarvis, dial Rhodey." The earpiece rang twice before the deep voice belonging to James Rhodes answered. "Rhodey, just how important is this particular mission? I mean, it doesn't have to do with the Ten Rings, right?"

"This isn't Ten Rings, no, but it has to do with Al Qaida, Tony. Don't tell me you don't want to do this one! You're the only person – superhero, dare I say it – that can really change the tide of this war." Rhodes sounded exasperated, preoccupied. "Tony?"

"Fine, I'll do this one now but I want these things more spaced out. And I want missions exclusive to dealing with the Ten Rings."

Rhodes sighed, the earpiece filling with white noise. "Keep your head on straight, Tony. Just get this one done with and we'll talk about it when you get back." Without so much as a goodbye, James Rhodes hung up his end of the line.

Tony shook off the feeling of anger that came over him when his friend cut off abruptly, and Jarvis's proximity alarm went off like crazy, flashing red and beeping loudly in his ears.

"Mr. Stark, we are the target of a heat-seeking missile. I advise you use evasive maneuvers."

Tony saw the plume of smoke following the thin missile, and swerved aside at the last moment. "Flares!" he yelled, and an eruption of sparks flew out behind him. The missile connected with the flares and the explosion knocked him off his flight path, sending him tumbling down through the air. "Jarvis!" He fumbled for a few more seconds and regained the lift, using his sonic booster to shoot back towards the high cloud cover. "Screw it, Jarvis," he cursed loudly. "This isn't worth it when I can't think –"

"Second missile, sir," Jarvis said with a tinge of artificial panic. "Five o'clock."

"Can we out-fly it?"

"Possibly, but we will be over populated areas within seven minutes if we stay at this speed. Deploying flares." Another explosion knocked him off course, but not as severely as the first.

The next mission, nothing else. The next mission, nothing else. Ha. Tony, by now, knew that was such a lie. Only two missiles were launched at him, and he made it back to the mansion in record time, barely twenty minutes after he left. Pepper still must be in her office, he mused, landing on the launch pad with a light touchdown. Jarvis must have alerted his assistant to the premature arrival because when the helmet came off Tony heard the tell-tale sound of high heels against marble. The robots unscrewed the plating across his legs and arms, and soon the breastplate was free.

Pepper expected a playboy grin to be plastered across his face. She expected him to be sporting some sort of horrible injury. She didn't expect him to be solemn. But solemn he was. The suit had soot stains across it (a detail she had not failed to notice) and his eyes were less bright than they usually were.

Her features faltered, slipping into worry. "What happened? Why are you back so early? And why is the suit dirty?" She marched up to him and stood but a foot from him, arms crossed and a half-worried, half-angry expression on her face.

"Missiles before I even got on the ground. I didn't finish this one, Pepper. I called Rhodes mid-flight and told him I'm doing selected Ten Rings ops now – that's it. You have a say in everything, Pepper. I was wrong when I said there's the next mission and nothing else." He brushed Butterfingers away when he rolled over to nudge Tony with the fire extinguisher. "I'm not burning," he snapped quickly at the robot, which retreated. "I'm sorry, Potts."

"At least you're alive," she shot back, internally grateful he'd given up this particular operation. "And thank you for understanding. You mean too much to me to go off and die in a red and gold suit." She patted his arm. "And don't let me catch you asleep at your desk again. It's getting quite old, and it's not very good for your neck." She smiled and turned to go back upstairs.

Tony caught her arm. "You were right...I didn't really mean it. I came home to you." He gave her a quick kiss on the cheek and brushed past her to change.

Pepper grinned. "I know the feeling," she whispered to herself, taking one last look at her boss before ascending the steps into the main of the mansion.