It's well passed 4 in the morning when he finally gets out of the suit after being away on a mission for five days. Five long, restless days that ended with chaos as usual. He's more exhausted - physically, mentally, emotionally- than he's used to. His suit is in such a state that the metal whines as it's disassembled, bent and scraped in ways that makes Tony realize that he needs to work on an upgrade. As he pulls his arms and legs free and takes a few steps, he groans at the stiffness in his muscles and the burning pain throughout his body. It's nothing he's not accustomed to, of course. These little trips that Fury likes to send him on seem to get slightly more violent and dangerous each time.

Groaning, he runs a hand through his unruly, unwashed hair. "Jarvis, is Pepper asleep?"

"Yes, sir. Miss Potts is in the master bedroom."

Tony sighs with some form of relief, knowing that Pepper usually can't bring herself to their bed when he's out trying to make the world a little safer. The amount of times he's come home in the middle of the night to find her lying awake and restless on the couch is outright insane. Being the source of her anxious, sleepless nights is not something he has a taste for. Two at a time, he takes the stairs from his shop on his way to the bedroom.

The room is dark but he can make out her slender figure buried under the down duvet that she loves so much - he hates the damn thing because he constantly wakes up in a sweat). Her breathing is so deep that she's snoring just the slightest bit, though he'd never tell her that. His eyes adjust to the lack of light and he can make out the weary expression on her face that is present even in her subconscious. Guilt and longing and need slowly begin to replace the pressure and stress he's been dealing with the last few days. The mattress dips slightly with his weight as he sits close enough to feel her body warmth, though he doesn't make a move to wake her; he just wants to look at her, just for a second.

There's something about the way her belongings have invaded his space that makes his blood run warmer when he thinks about it. Her pressed business suits are hanging next to his in the closet, her toothbrush is stored in a holder in the bathroom, and that shampoo that makes her hair smell so damn great sits in the shower stall. She's curled on her side, dreaming in his bed and he thinks to himself that she has captured a lot more than just the extra space in his house. He can't pinpoint when exactly it happened but he suspects she's had a hold on him for years longer than he knows.

He brushes a strand of tousled hair from her face for no reason other than he wants to, and a mixture of guilt and excitement hits him when her eyes slowly flutter open.

"Hi."

"Tony?" her voice is hoarse with sleep, "When did you get home?"

"About 10 minutes ago. You're on my side of the bed." He remarks, letting his eyes scan over the form of her body under the sheets. She's usually a pain about having her side of the bed. On more than one occasion she's nudged him from a slumber and told him to move over when he's fallen asleep before her.

"In your absence I discovered I like this side better."

"I guess I'll just lay on top of you then." In the dark he can't see the playful roll of her eyes, but he hears her quiet laugh as he leans over her. Finding her lips with his own feels like a sigh of relief.

"I missed you." She mumbles against his mouth, wrapping her arms around his neck and keeping him close. The touch makes him wince. "Tony, are you okay? Jarvis, lights."

Crap. He probably should have taken a look at himself before coming to the bedroom. He knows he can't look good. He hasn't even bothered to splash some water on his face, for God's sake.

"Take off your shirt." She mutters.

"Now we're talking."

"Shut up." She says, her voice lighter; the beginning of a smile is in the tug of her lips. He knows this probably won't end well but he obeys anyway, and lifts the hem of his shirt over his head. "Damn it." She breathes at the sight of him. He's got a few ugly bruises, some small cuts in a number of places, and there's a nice gash just below his collarbone that has allowed blood to trail down his chest. She stares at him with an odd mixture of conflicting emotions that he's come to recognize as uniquely Pepper.

"Pepper, not the look. Don't give me that look."

"I don't have a look."

"Please, I could write a handbook on all the different looks you have."

"You're avoiding the topic." She deadpans.

"Coming home battered and bruised is kind of part of the job description, Pep. I'm fine."

"You probably need some stitches," the gentle touch of her fingers to the bruises on his chest is like ice, "you might even have some cracked ribs. Tony, you need to see a doctor."

She suggests that any time he comes home looking less than healthy. He makes a habit of ignoring it. It's also the reason he made some significant updates to Jarvis' capabilities of monitoring his health.

"Jarvis check under the hood, how many broken parts do I have?"

"Sir, you have a bruised ribcage and six minor lacerations with superficial bleeding, including five to the torso and one on the forehead. None require extensive medical attention. May I suggest disinfection and dressings, along with medicinal pain relief?"

"See? Nothing that an oversized band-aid and ice pack can't fix." He kisses her chastely. "I'm okay."

"At least let me help you get cleaned up." She sighs, tracing his jaw with her palm and rolling her eyes when his brow lifts suggestively. "Bruised ribs, Tony. Not tonight."

"But Pepper… for days the only company I've had is Captain Cyclops and his merry henchmen. The only thing that got me through was the thought of you and what you'd be wearing when I got home." He quickly glances from her face to her body, "What are you wearing, by the way?"

The blanket covering her is unabashedly yanked away, and the only protest she makes is a shriek of surprise.

He actually groans and his face contorts in pain, pleasure, or a mixture of both – who knows which one it is– because, god, he loves when she wears his clothes. Especially when she chooses to do it in a scantily clad fashion. She's wearing his Black Sabbath shirt, which hangs loose on her body, but her legs are bare, and long, and it's like they're speaking to him in nothing short of a teasing tone.

"I'm cold now." She grumbles playfully.

"I know a few ways of making heat."

"You're incorrigible." She's up and off the bed before he can pull another trick on her, silently beckoning him to the en suite bathroom with a chuckle and a wave of her hand. He follows behind and finds her fishing through the medicine cabinet, pulling out a bunch of supplies that he is all too familiar with at this point.

"Before you torture me with rubbing alcohol…" his words trail off and get lost in the sound of running water as he turns the faucet in the shower. He walks up behind her, wrapping his arms around her waist and burying his nose in the curve between her neck and shoulder. "Join me, Potts?"

"Tony…"

The way she says it is something between a whine of exasperation and temptation, and he can't help but grin against her skin, loving that he can get her going so easily.

"Will you be serious for five seconds?" The words may be said with irritation, but her body betrays her when she reaches over her shoulder to weave her fingers into his hair.

"I'm dead serious." His voice drops an octave.

"You're bleeding and you're going to be in even worse pain in the morning."

He grumbles under his breath and lets go of her, silently admitting the truth to her words. He grabs a towel as she continues to stand with her back to him and her head bowed. When she relaxes her stance, their gaze meets in the mirror in front of them. She smiles in that sad way that's not really a smile, but more of a forced tug at her lips, as if she's trying to reassure herself. It's when she turns around to face him again that he sees the tears in her eyes.

"Hey…" he whispers, gently running his hands down her arms in a weak attempt to comfort her. "It's nothing. We'll patch me up and I'll be good as new."

"That's not it." Her voice wavers, and he feels like an asshole because he's the reason she's feeling this way. She takes a washcloth from the linen shelf that's conveniently next to them and runs it under the sink faucet for a second. The way she moves is in a manner bordering on frantic.

"What is it? Help me understand, here. Please."

Silence is the only thing between them as she dabs the washcloth against the cuts on his torso and he does nothing but watch the careful movement of her hands. When she presses against the gash on his forehead, however, he flinches and takes a half step back. She tosses the cloth to the counter and stares at him intently.

"Imagine what it would be like for you… if you were the one who stayed behind and worried." She sounds less mournful and more agitated now. "I am always terrified that one day you're going to go out in that suit and not come back."

The tears in her eyes begin to run freely down her face and he thinks that in all the moments he's hated himself, this has to rank at least relatively high on the list. He wants to pull her into his arms and tell her that he's fine and she's fine and that everything is just fine… but clearly if she's in this state right now, it's anything but.

"Pepper, god, don't say that…" He brushes her hair from her face with his fingers, cups her face with his palm and rests his forehead lightly against hers. Her breath is shaky against his chin. "I'm sorry."

His whisper is so low that he doesn't know if she hears it, but her hand latches on to his, holding them in place against her cheek for a moment before she pulls away just enough to look him in the eye again.

"I'm sorry. I just-" She cuts herself off, searching for words, "I am proud of you, you know… and of who you are and what you do. But when you come home like this-" she gestures at his body and his wounds, "you have to understand how hard it is to see proof that you're throwing yourself into life threatening situations daily. It makes all that fear that I have when you're not here very real."

There's a beat of silence.

"I mustn't be too good at this relationship stuff." He mumbles.

"What?"

"Well if you don't understand why you don't need to worry, I must be pretty bad at this."

He looks at her with a question in his eyes, just for a second, because he honestly doesn't know why she doesn't get it. He does know, though, that he is not the most romantically articulate of men. He prefers action to words; and so he takes her petite hand in his and places it flat against his bare chest, to the left of his glowing reactor, over his heart.

"This thing may be keeping the shrapnel out of my heart," he taps his index against the metal edge, "but there's only one thing that keeps me alive when I'm out there."

"Tony, I can't-" She tries to interrupt him and pull away but he steps closer to her, placing his hands gently on her hips and cornering her against the counter behind them.

"No, Pepper… I love you."

He has her attention now, because he doesn't use those words often. It's not that he doesn't feel them often, but more that his mouth and his crazed heart have never been able to communicate well. He's always shown her how he feels in little ways: by coming out of his shop in the middle of a project just to find her and steal a kiss, by going against her routine and making sure Jarvis lets her sleep in after a long night, by practically losing his hair in a couple of minor kitchen fires when attempting to sneakily make her breakfast. He loves her, of course he does, and he always thought that she just knew it. Pepper, after all, always seems to know everything.

Judging by the look on her face, she needs the words from time to time. Her lips part as if she's about to say something, but he shakes his head as if to say wait, let me finish.

"I'm always going to fight like hell to come home." He emphasizes each word to make sure she hears them.

"You flew a nuclear missile into the other end of space not that long ago."

"And I came back, didn't I?" The shrug of his shoulders is nonchalant, but his lopsided grin borders on showing sheepishness.

"Not funny." She smiles in spite of herself. He captures her in a kiss, cradling her face in between his hands and relishing in the way she melts into it. Her lips are a breath away from his when they break and she whispers, "You're not so bad at the relationship stuff."

"No?" A chuckle comes from somewhere within the depths of his throat while he leans in again. "I thought I was going to have to program Jarvis to coach me on matters of romance."

It's when she giggles and her smile reaches her eyes that he knows everything's okay.

"I will work on the whole coming home bleeding habit though."

She mouths a thank you before stepping away from him and disrobing as he gapes at her open mouthed. Her stare is expectant and playful.

"Well? Are you joining me or what?" She steps into the still-running shower, eying him in amusement as he fumbles with the button of his pants and practically trips on his way over to her. He ignores his bruised muscles as they scream with his quick movements. Her arms are around him as soon as he's close enough, and for a moment they just stand there: their bodies pressed together under the steady, wet heat of the water beating down on them. Their hands don't wander, and he reserves any titillating commentary that may be drifting to the forefront of his mind. The closeness is enough.

"I love you too, you know." She whispers into his neck.

And that, too, is enough.


This is my first venture into Iron Man fic - let me know what you think?