When he sees her, he sinks to his knees.
His tears leave streaks of pink flesh underneath the soot and grime covering him. His shoulder’s slump in towards his chest, his arms limp by his side as he waits for her to come to him. He trembles when she reaches out to touch him, those whiskey born eyes filled with tears. She’s not sure if they won, truly won, but he’s come home. His mind will be lost to the battle for hours, weeks often, but right now he is physically here with her.
“Hiya, Pep.” He sounds as if all the breath has escaped his lungs as he rasps her name, coming to lean into her before she can meet him all the way. He’s soaked in sweet but she can smell the blood his black shirt hides. It’ll stain her hands and clothes but she can just wash that all away. She can do little to wash her love for him away.
He nestles his face into the crook of her neck, his body going limp into her. She holds him close to her, running her fingers through his hair. She presses a kiss to his head,” hi, Tony.” He laughs, a softly choked sound muffled by her skin and his proximity. She closes the material of his shirt in her fist, willing him closer, to allow them to share her skin, and mend him well again. “You stink.”
She can feel his smile pressed into her flesh. The shift in his chest makes her stomach twist and she knows they need to break apart but she fears he’ll fall apart if she doesn’t hold him together. He laughs, his whole body trembling with the movement. She doesn’t share his amusement but his pain.
“Let’s wash you up.”
She knows what to follow is going to be nothing but pain. She will strip Tony to his boxers where she will measure how mentally presents he is by how many sexual comments he makes. Friday will have the water run the perfect temperature so that the water she uses to wipe the grime from Tony’s wounds doesn’t allow his brain to play any more tricks on him. If it’s too cold he’ll beg her to stop and she’ll have to talk him down from a Panic Attack. If he’s just a ghost sitting there then she’ll move with haste. Working as quickly as she can to get him wrapped up in sweats and in the bed.
She’s still not sure what today will bring.
“You never take my shirt off like we’re in a porno, do you not find me hot anymore?” He leans heavily into the sink, his voice hardly above a whisper but a taunting smile splayed across his lips. She gets his shirt over his head and he winces at the way he pulls at his tender side. She ignores his comment.
He hides a wince when she bends his left knee to work his pants off. “Y-You always pick the worst times to undress me-” a soft grunt of pain cuts him off and she frowns at her own roughness. She moves between his legs, cupping his chin in her hand until he opens his pinched eyes. “I-I’m okay. I promise.”
She nods her head and eyes his bruised torso. “A hot bath…” she meets his eyes, testing to see if he can handle a tub of water right now. He’s hurting and the last thing she wants to do is send him hallucinating or shakily trying to rationalize his way out of an old memory. A hot bath to soothe tensed muscles isn’t worth that.
He leans forward, once again leaning into her body. Trusting her to keep him from falling to the floor. He finds her hands between them and squeezes them. “I-I… Can you…” he pulls back to see her eyes,” I can’t do it… alone.”
She understands immediately what he means. The way his eyes tear with vulnerability because he’s in so much pain he wants the hot water wash over him but he’s afraid. Afraid of Afghanistan with deep-seated aquaphobia that therapist and anxiety medicine never really got rid of. She smiles and kisses him soft and short, cupping the back of his head to bring close. “Yes, Tony, I’ll take a bath with you.”
He smiles because she’s taken this harshly broken, needy moment and made it light. She’s made him feel like he isn’t bothering her but enticing her and he loves her all the more for it. She helps him to his feet, pulling him close.
Friday has already filled their private tub when they arrive. Pepper holds Tony closer, feeling the trembling in his hands that she can’t be sure is from adrenaline now wearing off or fear. She buys them time, hooking her thumb in Tony’s boxers, ready to really let him bathe but he shakes his head. His eyes darted to the tub and she releases her hold.
He’s afraid of being completely vulnerable in the water.
“I’ll get in first,” there’s something about seeing her in the water that always relaxes Tony. Forces his brain to see that there is no danger in the warm bubbling water. She toes out of her pants but keeps his loose shirt on her torso. She steps over the side, slowing her own haste to get in when he steps with her. His eyes are wide with fear for her.
She reaches her hand out, letting him take it, and slowing letting her other leg sink into the mass of bubbles. The warmth is nice, soothes her own fraying nerves. “It’s okay, Tony.” He nods but stands where he is. She remains standing as well. “Give me your hand.”
He looks dumbly at his left hand where it remains at his side. Slowly he raises his eyes to her, to the water, and back down again. “H-How high?”
She steps through the water, coming as close to him as she can. “The water’s to my knees, Tony. It’s warm, it’s gonna make you feel better.” There’s a fevered haze in the way he stands shivering, trembling against his will. He does, however, raise his other hand for her. “Come on, baby. It’s gonna make you feel better.”
He hesitantly comes to sit on the edge, his toes just touching the water.
“Tony, look at me.” She’s still standing right there with him. Pepper brushes his hair from his eyes,” would I let anything hurt you?” Tony shakes his head. “Do you trust me?”
Teary whiskey brown eyes meet hers. A tear slips down his cheek,” y-yes.”
She brushes it away with her finger. She takes a step away from him, their arms now awkwardly spread between them. “Come on then. I got you.”
He looks at her as he slowly sinks a leg into the water. Two more tears fall down his cheek but the second foot slides in beside it. She takes a tempered step closer, making sure her proximity doesn’t cause him to withdraw from the water completely.
Their fingers slip apart for just a moment and he reaches out with a shaky hand, panic blown wide his eyes. She’s quick to re-establish their contact and when his hand meets hers he lets out a grateful sob.
“You’re doing so good,” she closes the distance completely and he falls into her embrace. “I’ve got you. I’ve got you.” He’s sobbing, holding her shirt for balance. She holds him close and sinks to her knees. He comes with her. “You’re okay.”
She can feel the muscles in his back loosen as he submerges his waist. She pulls him to her chest, sinking until they’re flush against one another and seated at the bottom of the tub. His head rests heavily against her chest, his right-hand remains in hers but his left opts to venture. She watches his trembling hand reach out and pop an overly large bubble.
She wordless drags a rag into the water, letting it soak up water and soap before bringing it to his body. He doesn’t move away from her as she gently rubs away the grime coating his skin. It’s sobering him up and she’s not sure if that’s a whole lot better.
“I’m sorry, Pep.” He’s shivering in her arms despite the warmth of the water. She knows it’s the adrenaline quickly leaving his system. He’s likely to start falling asleep in the tub if she can’t get him cleaned up quickly.
Some of his wounds are openly bleeding into the water as she washes the dirt out. He winces but doesn’t move out of her reach. She pauses in her movement,” for what?”
He opens his mouth and lets out a choked noise, wincing when she hits a rather painful gash. His voice returns shakily,” everything? I-I’m the reason we can’t have kids. The re-reason we can’t move from-from this stupid city. We-We can’t do an-any of the things you want because of me.” His chest heaves from the exertion. His eyes lazily looking up to her, even when he has to fight his own body to move.
She sighs deeply, continuing her gentle motions. He’s not entirely right. They can’t have a kid because they both have commitments. She’s working at SI at all hours day and night. He’s battling mental crisis every week and saving the world every day. Their hours are far from normal or controlled. So, yeah they can’t have kids because of him but they can’t have them because of her too. Hell, they don’t even have time to have sex to get pregnant. It’s so much more complicated than him.
She can’t express all of that anyway but then she stops. They’d never talked about having kids. Sure, there were brief comments about Tony’s fear of becoming his father but those were innuendos. They never stopped, never talked out what they wanted. “Tony…” she looks down at the mess of curls leaning against her. “Tony, do you… Do you want children?”
Peter doesn’t… Harley and Peter… They’re enough, most days, for her. They come trampling through her living room when her head is full of pictures of babies and they dirty her carpet and eat all her food. It’s like birth control. Then they kick and cuss and fight and then she finds then curled up with Tony on the sofa. Soft curls, blankets stacked high, and limbs tangled with Tony’s and her heart swells and God all she wants is babies. His babies.
Tony sits up, wincing at the muscles it pulls. He sits up, face pulled in pain but Pepper can’t misplace the pinch of insecurity. He wraps an arm around his torso, leaning into the side of the tub. “Pep, I…”
She leans between them, palming his scruffy cheek. “The answer is yes, from me. I want to have babies. With you.” She lets out a small sigh and a playful smile,” and we haven’t yet because we’re busy people. It’s not you any more than it’s me.”
Tony nods and she knows he’s testing her when he playfully asks,” would you want to start-”
“No I don’t want to start right now,” she smacks lightly at the hand he snakes through the water and under her shirt. “However,” she smiles when he doesn’t take her smack to heart and instead yawns sleepily. Those big brown eyes making him look small and child-like all curled up. “I would like to go to bed. You think you're up for some cuddling and Tylenol?”
He nods through another yawn. He stands up, leaning on the side of the wall and shivers. “Wait, one condition.” He offers her a hand up, his other pressed tightly to his chest.
She takes his hand and rolls her eyes and waits for him to answer her.
“I wanna be the little spoon.”
She looks at him now standing just outside of the bathtub. The bruises on his face are stronger more pronounced but his face has color. He’s got a towel wrapped around his shoulders, shaking underneath it in his soaking wet boxers. His hair is plastered to his face and chest. She can see the streaks of grey in his goatee, in his hair and she just smiles. “When aren’t you the little spoon, Tony?”
She pulls her wet shirt off, deciding to leave it on the bathroom floor for in the morning. They leave the bathroom, him hot on her heels. She walks right to his dresser, unhooking her bra and leaving it atop his dresser. She pulls out two shirts, tossing one to him. She grabs him a clean, dry pair of boxers and tosses those at his huddled figure, managing to smack his face and nearly knock him over.
In a dry shirt, she climbs into bed. Neither of them ever make it. She’ll clean the sheets each week, sometimes if he’s done something to anger her he’ll do it. It’s just that normally she goes to bed at ten or eleven and around three or four he’ll make his way up for bed too. Then she gets up for bed at six and he gets up whenever. Neither mind curling up in the mess of blankets.
It takes him a minute, she can hear him arguing with Friday, probably about medicine, and then the sound of his footsteps. The bed shifts and he makes a soft, displeased noise,” Hey, I thought I was gonna be the little spoon.”
She rolls over and opens her arms.
“Well, now I don’t wanna. I’m gonna feel silly. I don’t make you-”
She grabs the back of his knee under the sheets, pulling him closer until she can wrap an arm around him. They both know that proximity while he sleeps eases the nightmares. While cuddling is something that neither mind, not anymore, it’s better for both parties if they partake in it.
It takes no time at all for him to fall asleep. His soft snores lure her into the warmth of sleep as well. She takes a deep breath and hot tears slip out of her eyes. He hasn’t told her what happened today, what monsters he faced, but he will eventually. He’ll tell her he was shot, she can recognize the scattered bruising on his chest, and thrown around and nearly killed. But he’s survived again. By some twisted miracle he’s made it home and tomorrow he’ll get up and chase Harley and Peter around his garage like nothing happened but right now he’s asleep in her arms. He trusts she’ll keep him safe while he sleeps. Allowing him this one small comfort