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Pepper's Place

Keeping track of myself... and Tony

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An Iron Man Christmas Carol: A Love Story (3.1 of 6)
Title: An Iron Man Christmas Carol: A Love Story (3 of 6)
Author: v_pepperpotts
Rating: PG-13 for now, but likely an optional NC-17 chapter at the end.
Spoilers: Set loosely between movies one and two
Summary: For the its_always_been Holiday challenge and the prompt: 'Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future'. A story in which Tony is visited by some unexpected friends, and discovers that love is more important than he thought.

This was the chapter that wouldn't END! 34 pages, and it wanted to be longer! Hopefully it makes sense and I didn't ramble on about nothing, and most of all, I hope you all enjoy it and that it was worth the wait. Thanks, everyone! Also. note - 2 parts this time!

I do not own Iron Man nor any of the characters therein. Neither do I own ‘A Christmas Carol’, or its characters, all of which were created by Mr. Charles Dickens, in 1843. Several times I took lines directly from the text of ‘A Christmas Carol’, or updated a line and kept the content the same, but this in no way is intended to imply ownership. Ieyboth thank him for the story and inspiration, and offer my sincerest apologies for mangling his work. Any errors to the body of this text are my own. Thanks for all the reviews!

Stave the First
Stave the Second

Wikipedia entry for and picture of Sunset from Stave the Second>
Sunset Bain’s dress from Stave the Second (in gold)>
The dress Pepper wore at the Christmas party in Stave the Second (in green)>

The dress worn by the ‘special guest’ in Stave the Third>

An Iron Man Christmas Carol ~
A Love Story

Stave the Third

In which the protagonist of our story is visited by the second of three spirits, and learns what really makes the world go ‘round.

The first thing Tony did once he realized he was back home again was to run into his closet and grope around on the top shelf for the baseball bat he knew was there. He would have preferred one of the gauntlets, but that would have meant going down several flights of stairs and crossing to the other side of the house. As embarrassing as it was to admit he was shaken, Tony was a little too on edge to leave the safety of his bedroom.

Tony locked his bedroom door. He double-checked it. The two spirits he’d already seen hadn’t needed an unlocked door to get in, but the act made him feel better anyway. It did him the same good as the baseball bat or the gauntlet against… things that could walk through walls.

Because it had to be things - didn’t it? Not really the ghost of Yinsen and the ghost of his father, come back to give him advice. The idea of Yinsen advising him from beyond the grave was at least reasonable. Tony had no trouble believing that his fallen friend would provide supernatural assistance if he could – but his father? That was where reality started to erode for Tony.

Howard Stark had never advised his son with anything – not in that way. Oh, he’d tell Tony ’Keep your nose to the grindstone,’ and, ’Opportunity is not a lengthy visitor,’ or ’Don’t lay claim to a virtue you don’t possess if you want to keep the respect of your friends.’ But the idea of his father coming from beyond the grave to give him romantic advice? It was laughable. There were only two times in his life Tony could ever remember his father taking an interest in who he was dating.

The first time had been when Tony was still a teenager. Her name was Meredith McCall, and she was his very first girlfriend. She turned out to also be the daughter of one of Howard Stark and Stark Industries main competitors. Both of their fathers accused the other of trying to plant a spy in their family, and without talking to the teenagers at all, both were sent to school of opposite ends of the country. Tony had run into Merideth once, years later. She was still beautiful, but now happily married, with children of her own. Tony had purposefully lost the contact information she’d given him. Not even he was selfish enough to destroy a good thing.

The second, unsurprisingly, was when a young, naïve, Tony let an older woman seduce, use, and trick him into giving her the security codes to Stark Industries, allowing her to brake in and steal a great many of their prototypes. When, a year after the robbery, the same woman who’d broken young Tony’s heart nearly a year ago founded Baintronics, using some new prototypes that were strangely familiar, Howard Stark had cared a whole lot about his son’s relationship.

Now that he was thinking about it, Tony was even more skeptical. For a man with rather weak religious views, the idea of visiting spirits was disturbing. He had seen magic – knew it existed – so he was able to at least concede that there were… ‘things’ out there he couldn’t explain or even understand… just as there were also those out there with the ability to manipulate people’s minds.

The way it stood, there were three possibilities. One: Ghosts existed, were haunting him in order to… he still wasn’t sure about that. Get him to tell Pepper he loved her? Also in this scenario, Tony’s father was one of the guiding spirits come to help him with his love life. There were far too many parts of that scenario requiring an enormous amount of faith on his part, and thus seemed impossible.

Two: He’d somehow been drugged and was hallucinating, seeing these people and scenes from his past while his subconscious mind dwelt on Pepper, which it often did. But then who was behind it, and to what end? To get information? To make him their puppet?

Three: was tied in with number two, and was very simple – someone was fucking with him. He didn’t know how – drugs, hypnotism; maybe someone had managed to hack into J.A.R.V.I.S., and these visions were nothing more than projections and suggestion. If this was the case, someone was attacking in a very unusual, but effectively rattling, sort of way.

“J.A.R.V.I.S.?” he called out to see if the A.I. was still unresponsive. The house remained silent. “Shit.” Tony sat in one of the chairs in the sitting area of his bedroom, baseball bat in hand, and waited nervously. He thought about Pepper, about the Christmas party where he’d behaved like an animal toward one of only two people in the world that trusted him. He thought about the douchebag she’d been dating (he was going to have to look Roger up one day soon and… well, he didn’t know what yet. He was ten years too late to beat an apology out of him for what he’d said to Pepper. Or to continue beating it out of him.)

He thought about the forgiveness that had come so easily to her, even though she was still furious with him. Pepper hadn’t even been on the clock that night, but she’d still taken care of him, even after his behavior and even though Rhodey could easily have taken him home. She’d even stayed awhile to make sure he didn’t asphyxiate in his sleep. Tony didn’t know a single person who would have cared enough to do that for him after all that had happened. Why did Pepper?

Tony leaned back and closed his eyes, listening intently to the sounds of the house, and remembered the very small signs in Pepper that betrayed an attraction to him. That wasn’t all that remarkable, except that it was Pepper, and that she had never given into the lure of that attraction. Maybe he was wrong – maybe somewhere along the way, Pepper had stopped being attracted to him? The idea hurt his vanity, but it would explain a lot.

Then there was the expression of affection she’d allowed herself while his back was turned and when she knew he’d never remember anything the next morning. It frightened him. Tony wanted Pepper to love him, because he loved her. But if she did love him, there were so many things that could go wrong, not the least of which, was him.

To admit to her that he was in love with her, Tony would be committing a crime against whatever better man Pepper might have found if he hadn’t stepped in. He would be performing an act so selfish and so covetous that it would top every other narcissistic thing he had ever done.

It wasn’t usually in his nature to care if he were being selfish or not, but there was Pepper to consider. No matter what either of them felt, would it be selfish of him to have her, knowing there was someone better for her out there somewhere?

Because Tony knew that if he ever had her all to himself, he would never be able to let her go again.

He fell asleep without intending to, thoughts of Pepper circling in his mind. The baseball bat rested between his legs with one of hands wrapped around it. Tony might have slept for minutes or hours when something caused him to awaken with a start. His hands immediately tightened around the baseball bat as he leapt to his feet, lifting it to swing if someone attacked. When no one did, Tony glanced at the clock.

Just before he’d fallen asleep, it had been approximately five minutes till two o’clock in the morning. Now, the glowing display read midnight. “What the Hell?” This was all a dream; it had to be just a bad dream, and if he shut his eyes and ignored everything around him for the rest of the night, everything would go back to normal. Maybe if he took a sleeping pill…

Expectantly, Tony waited as the minutes crept up to… and then past one o’clock. He sat in the chair again, feeling with each flicker of changing numbers that he was counting down to his own execution. Five minutes. Ten minutes. Fifteen minutes. Maybe he really had dreamt of Yinsen and his father. He should go back to bed. Whatever had brought on this infestation of ghosts, imagined or not, had clearly withdrawn. Right? He would have imagined that punctuality among spirits was a mandate.

At twenty till the hour, Tony finally realized that there was light slipping into his room through the space beneath the door. He also realized that it had been there for some time. In the five full minutes he sat staring at it, Tony decided that it wasn’t his imagination, and that the light seemed alive. It pooled uniformly just inside the door, but within that pool lights seemed to dance, like tadpoles in a pond.

At one-thirty in the morning, Tony stood up and slowly walked to the door. He opened it and stepped out into the illuminated hallway. Tightly clutching the baseball bat.

The light, he discovered, came from candles; hundreds of red and gold candles in every shape and size that covered every conceivable surface. Tony didn’t know what to think. Standing there outside his room, he suddenly heard the familiar strain of ’Merry Christmas Darling’, by The Carpenter’s. It stuck in his mind; he knew this particular song was significant, but he could think how. Not when said music shouldn’t even be there, nor the army of candles.

Tony descended the stairs slowly, following the music and the clearly marked path lined with tea lights, downstairs and into his living room. Here, more candles held back the darkness, in such great numbers that it could have been day. A fire as large as his fireplace had ever held was blazing as well, and the room was comfortably warm.

In the very center of the room covering tables, the piano, and ever other flat surface not already claimed by a candle, were arrangements of food, chocolates, and other items that it took a few minutes to process what they were amid the gorgeous display. Bottles of wine and champagne sat in crystal buckets on golden stands, condensation frosting the glass. Further from the fireplace, a pair of ice-carved swans, their neck entwined to form a heart, glistened in the light.

There were tiered stands of chocolates and truffles, so artfully arranged you were loath to take one and mar the work. In a golden bowl with protruding handles, oysters on the half shell sat ready to eat. Apples were piled and stacked into pyramids in several places, and vases of red roses and white roses loomed in such great numbers, that anyone else wanting roses wouldn’t be able to find any in those colors for three counties.

There were beautiful bottles of perfume peeking out here and there, waiting to be discovered amongst the verdure of lettuce leaves, bunches of celery, sheaves of asparagus, bananas, tomatoes, and maple leaves stuck in at strategic spots. On heart-shaped pillows, diamond and gold jewelry sparkled brightly.

Beautiful lace and silk lingerie cascaded over some of the mountains of fruit. In the middle of a pile of hand-blown glass hearts, a single teddy bear held court. An enormous golden cage, shaped like a cube, housed pairs of lovebirds and turtledoves.

And at the front of this assemblage, playing a golden harp as she sang, sat Tony’s mother.

The baseball bat fell out of his hands, hitting the carpet with a dull thud. Then, Tony went completely still. Before, he’d been desperate to believe that his experiences of this evening were nothing but a dream - at worse, indigestion. Yinsen had disturbed him; Howard Stark had shaken him. But his mother…

Tony couldn’t look away from her. As a boy, he’d thought she was an angel. Even as he grew into a teenager and then a young man, he’d always thought that his mother was an unparalleled beauty. First generation Italian, Maria Collins Carbonell Stark was the proverbial ‘great woman’ behind the ‘great man’, Howard Anthony Stark, Jr. Though she didn’t work outside the house, Maria had been known for her charity work, for the events she organized to raise money for so many of them, and the notoriety her name and social status gave, which she used freely and openly to bring in support for her various projects.

While his father was building weapons for the government, Maria was opening new homeless shelters, and starting programs designed to get people cleaned up, trained, and into either schools or jobs. But while Tony had always been in the way when his father was home, when he sat off to the side, quietly taking apart toy trains and fire engines to use for parts elsewhere, his mother sat at her little desk, making phone calls to even more famous acquaintances, and barely seemed to notice him at all, at first.

There was no question that his mother had shown him much more affection than his father. Howard Stark pushed Tony constantly to be his best, and his disappointment when Tony didn’t live up to his standards had been a motivating force for him his entire life. He had thought his father hated him, while he knew his mother loved him - she was just very busy. Staying out of his father’s way, he had always ended up in the same place, or rather, with the same person. At least, until he had disturbed her, too.

Truthfully, if he’d been in anyone’s way as a boy, it had been their family butler Jarvis’. Jarvis had never treated Tony as though he were a nuisance, letting him tag along as he cleaned the house, did laundry, cooked, or any number of chores. By the time Tony was in high school, he spent most of his time in the garage inventing when he was at home. Otherwise, if he wasn’t sleeping, eating, or reading, he still went straight to Jarvis.

Tony had once asked Jarvis why the older British man loved him more than his own parents seemed to? With sad eye, Jarvis had assured Tony that his parents loved him, but both were “the kind of people who can never sit still.” Tony didn’t know that this was any better – that his parents loved him, but didn’t have time to slow down and be parents.

Even so, Tony had worshipped his mother. The times when she did slow down enough to remember to spend time with her son were some of the happiest memories from Tony’s childhood. He was devastated at the loss of his father, but it was his mother for whom he’d cried at the double funeral after the plane crash that left him an orphan. He was much more like his father than his mother, but whenever he met people who had known them, they would all say, without fail, that he looked exactly like his mother.

Tony remembered he and his father sitting on the floor in front of the Christmas tree in their pajamas, slippers, and robes, as they examined the mysterious collection of parts in one box from Howard to Tony, and another from Tony to Howard, trying to discern what they would be once assembled, and eager to finish correctly before his father did. The memory of those Christmases with his dad, teasing, arguing, and challenging each other in a way they never did the rest of the year were the best memories he had of his father. Even so, it was his mother Tony associated Christmas with.

The entire month of December, his mother became another person. She still did her charity work, but somehow she worked harder than even so that she could decorate the Christmas trees personally. Jarvis did the main house decorating, but Maria had always found an excuse to take a break to help him. Christmas was the only time of the year that his mother cooked. She made gingerbread men, sheets and sheets of cookies, breads, fudge, brownies, toffee, and even candied and caramel apples.

Jarvis cooked Christmas Day, but Christmas Eve, Maria Stark would cook a traditional Christmas Eve dinner from southern Italy, where her parents had grown up. Being a day of abstinence for Catholics, and therefore not an appropriate day for meat, all the dishes contained fish. The la vigilia Napoletana was the traditional seven-fish dinner, consisting of roasted eel, baccala, baked fish, lobster, vermicelli with clams and anchovies, and caponata di pesce – a fish salad.

For one day, Tony was able to have the family he prayed for at night. For one day, his parents weren’t too busy, or distracted, and for many years, Christmas was the best day of his year, and the best holiday, too. Even after his dad had packed him up and sent him off to boarding school, Christmases at home were mandatory, and never worth missing.

The year Tony was informed that his parents’ had died in a plane crash, Tony had gotten drunk and stayed in bed until New Year. Each year there after was a variation on that basic theme, with Tony unable to face Christmas without his parents, but his mother most of all.

And now here she was, sitting in his living room and looking every inch the angel he’d always thought her. She was gorgeous in a sleeveless dress of red silk, with a pattern of green snowflakes winding around her and up over one shoulder to the front like an ivy vine. Maria’s fingers stilled over the strings, the fading sound filling the large room. Tony wasn’t able to find his tongue until after the reverberations echoed too softly to be heard.

“…I didn’t know you knew how to play the harp,” was the first thing out of his mouth. Tony would have winced, except he still couldn’t move. That one sentence had taken the wind out of him.

She had been watching him watch her, waiting, with a patience she’d never possessed in life, for him to gather his wits. With a beatific smile that made the corners of her eyes crinkle, Maria laughed musically. “I didn’t,” she confessed, placing the harp on the floor. “I’ve had a lot of time in the last fifteen years. You know I hate to be bored.”

Tony choked on an incredulous laugh, her voice filling him with a sweet pain that tightened his chest. The familiarity of her speech pattern was familiar, too – something he’d never thought about before. He staggered forward slowly, not aware of moving until he was across the floor, standing in front of her. Tony fell to his knees, his eyes locked on his mother’s face, wanting to believe, but not having believed in anything for so long, expect maybe Iron Man.

Tentatively, he lifted a hand to the woman’s cheek, brushing the backs of his fingers along the prominent bone there. Maria’s skin wasn’t warm like that of a living person, but neither was it cold, or unpleasant. Soft and solid at the same time, reminding him of feathers, and clouds, and flower petals, her skin was nonetheless tangible, though it proved nothing.

It was her eyes that convinced him. Tony had inherited his mother’s deep chocolate-brown eyes and long eyelashes – two of his many admired traits. Kneeling in front of her, Tony was eye-level with Maria, and in her eyes, he found something he’d forgotten all about: he saw mischief. He was like his father in so many ways that he hadn’t much thought about where certain aspects of his personality came from. It seemed obvious now. Howard Stark had a dry sense of humor, and wasn’t the kind of person you’d expect to see horsing around.

But Maria was. No, she had been. Tony could clearly remember her laughter, the twinkle in her eyes as she teased his father until he couldn’t help laughing, too. It was the same twinkle that was in her eyes now as she waited, more patiently than she ever had, for him to complete his inspection.

“Mom?” Tony whispered in a voice barely loud enough to be heard.

His mother’s spirit heard him. “I am the living spirit of your mother, who’s been gone these twelve years.” Her accent was light – just enough to give her voice a musical quality; something else he’d almost forgotten.

He opened his mouth again, but no words came out. Instead a sob rose in his chest, and his eyes shone with tears that began sliding down his face. Embarrassed, Tony buried his face in his mother’s lap and, Oh, God, her scent. Maria Stark had worn a perfume that reminded her son of honeysuckles. He sobbed again, smelling it for the first time in more than a decade, and then there was nothing he could do to prevent the tears.

“Oh, Antony,” Maria pronounced her son’s name in the style of his namesake, the ancient Roman General Mark Antony. “Antony, Antony… don’t cry, amore mio. We do enough of that when we are sad. And,” she continued, “today is no time for sadness.” Kissing him on the back of the head, Maria Stark ran a hand affectionately through her son’s hair, for just a moment, a hint of sadness in her own eyes. “Come, figlio mio, and let us go out into the world and see who needs us.”

From the spot atop his head where Maria had kissed him, Tony felt a warmth seep down like yolk from a broken egg. It filled him quickly to his toes, and he felt an urge to smile, which he didn’t fight. Standing up and offering his hands to his mother to help her up, Tony took another look around his living room.

“Out there? Not to sound more narcissistic than usual, but isn’t all this supposed to be about me?” Tony’s eyes moved with curiosity over the displays of candy, fruit, lingerie, jewelry… in fact, everything he could see had a romantic or at least aphrodisiacal connotation. “What is all this?”

Maria picked out a piece of dark chocolate with an orange center and took a bite. “Mmm. This, Antony, is the Feast of Philia. That is, the Feast of Love and Friendship Between Friends, Family, Community, and Lovers.’ Sadly, it is something you have almost completely forgotten about.”

Tony was examining a satin negligee, and turned around with a slight frown. “That’s not true, I have…” he thought about it. “…lovers. I have lovers.”

“Antony, you have let the wounds from your past close you off from other people.” She had to say it, even if it was nothing her son didn’t already know. “You trust no one, you have no friends, and unless there’s alcohol involved, your ‘community’ thinks of you as an eccentric playboy. And don’t get me started on your lovers.”

“Two friends. I have two really good friends,” Tony contradicted triumphantly. Ah-ha! Three, if you count Happy. I have three good friends, whom I…” he had to think about it. “Yep, whom I trust implicitly. I could give a flying fu- I could care less what my community thinks about me, whoever they are.

“As for the lovers,” Tony frowned, opening one of the bottles of champagne and pouring two glasses, one of which he offered his mother. He couldn’t look at her as he spoke. “They’re a means to an end, that’s all; a way to… blow off steam without the hassle of dating someone exclusively and having to acclimate her to my living space, and to my lifestyle. Eventually, she gets tired of the missed dates and off-limits places, and then it’s all been a waste of time anyway.”

Accepting the champagne glass, Maria cast a dark look at her son’s before taking a sip. “Mm. I’d forgotten how much I enjoy champagne.” She took another sip. “You’re speaking about these women as if they’re dogs, do you realize? You need to ‘train’ them where they can and cannot go. The lab is off limits, the bedroom, kitchen, and other common areas are not. The offices are forbidden, but the pool is acceptable. There aren’t many women who would put up with you, Antony.”

Maria shook her head. “But aren’t you forgetting someone? Someone who is ‘acclimated’ to you, to whom nothing is off-limits, and who knows you well enough to forgive your forgetfulness? Why do you cast true love aside in exchange for meaningless trysts with women whose names you cannot even remember? I know you, figlio mio, you have always had great and passionate love in your heart. We’re going to find it again.”

Taking Tony’s glass from his hand and putting it with hers on the table, she clucked her tongue. “I tried so hard to teach you about your father’s alcoholism so that you would avoid that mistake. That man would get out of control; I always hoped it wouldn’t get you, too.” Reaching up to kiss his cheek, forcing him to bend a little, Maria took a portion of her dress’s skirt in her fingers and offered it to Tony.

“Touch my dress, Antony. Let’s find your passion.”

Tony frowned, looking uncertain now that they’d reached this part of the proceedings, but after meeting his mother’s eyes again and seeing the solid confidence there, he reached out and took the soft material from her.

They moved different than Tony had with his father. Then, there had been some physical experience involved – a churning upward, somehow propelling through the sky to their destination far in his past. This time, as soon as he took the material from his mother’s hand, there was a flash of light all around them, not blinding, but appearing to contain every color in the spectrum without being muddy.

He recognized where they were immediately. A twenty-one mile strip of costal beaches, Malibu was thirty-six miles outside of Central Los Angeles, and one of California’s rare gems. Comprised mostly of beaches, national parks, and seaside cliffs, the total number of residents according to the last census was 12,575. Nearly 200 of those residents were celebrities from all aspects of the entertainment industry, from Dinah Ross to Mel Brooks. Like Tony, the majority lived in mansions way off the beaten path along the Pacific Coast Highway, and with the exception of paparazzi, were relatively lucky to be able to go out in public without much harassment.

The Malibu Country Mart was a large outdoor boutique mall, which also included a playground and picnic area, public art, and various eateries. It was a popular spot for all locals, but the increasingly upscale retail shopping made it a particular favorite for local celebrities. Even on Christmas Day, the center had a good crowd of people either shopping, or with their families at the playground and adjacent park.

Looking around at his neighbors, Tony was a little surprised to realize he only recognized a few of them. Some were employees of his he happened to recognize, and others people he’d worked with through Pepperdine University and Hughes Research Laboratories – Stark Industries biggest local competitor.

It didn’t surprise him that the majority of familiar faces were those he’d seen in movies more often than he’d spoken to them. He spotted the star of his favorite Christmas movie (his one and only concession to the season); an actress he’d been seen in public with and slept with more than once, though there was never anything serious going on; and an heiress he wouldn’t sleep with if you paid him.

None of them saw him of course, though it took Tony a minute to remember that. When he’d taken in crowd before them, Tony turned to find out what he was supposed to be doing here. Only Maria wasn’t there. Panicking, though he figured it was pointless to worry about spirits, Tony moved through the people, keeping his eyes peeled for any sign of his mother.

Maria was moving easily among the people as well when Tony caught up to her. From the golden rope belt looped around her waist, a large silver goblet hung. She lifted it now, and although it looked empty to Tony, when she reached in and withdrew her hand again, it was filled with tiny sparkling things that could have been glitter or diamonds. Once in a while she would stop next to someone and with a smile, she’d blow some of the dust into their faces.

The dust seemed particularly attracted to their eyes, catching the sunlight and beveling like the multi-faceted eyes of a spider. Tony wasn’t sure what was happening. Maria kept moving through the crowd, and Tony looked over the people she attended to, trying to find a connection.

“Alright, I give,” he called to her when she was halfway down the length of the mall. “What is it you’re doing? What am I supposed to be learning here?”

His mother stopped and turned to wait for him, smiling as though she had a particularly juicy secret. “I’m spreading a very special kind of Christmas cheer,” she explained, holding up the goblet for him to see.

“Okay,” he looked into the goblet, still not seeing anything in it. “What kind of Christmas cheer is that? I didn’t know there was more than one kind, and I definitely don’t see any rum in there.”

“Of course there’s more that one kind,” Maria gestured around them, giving him a reproachful look at the rum comment. “Not everyone needs the same things, Antony. Someone might need a reminder of all the people who’s lives they’ve touched, or someone else may need a blessing of patience to handle their children, their in-laws, and the Christmas dinner, all on what should be the happiest day of the year.”

“So what kind of cheer are you pushing?”

Maria rolled her eyes playfully. “Pay attention, mio figlio, il mio amore. The theme for today, is love.”

Looking behind him at all the people his mother had sprinkled her dust on, and finally saw the pattern. One couple who had been arguing, had found themselves under a sprig of mistletoe, and were now in each other arms, aware of no one but each other. A crying child was still crying, but now instead of dragging her along by the hand, her harried mother had crouched down to hug her daughter, taking the very small amount of time necessary to comfort her.

An elderly man was on his cell phone, a smile on his face. Complete strangers who had been walking with their heads down, avoiding eye contact, were now chatting like old friends over a broken shopping bag as they transferred the items into a re-useable cloth bag the stranger was giving him.

Here a woman decided to turn the tables and buy roses for her husband. Over there, a young man made a complete u-turn, backtracking to the jewelry store where a display of engagement rings in the window caught his eye. The instances were subtle, noticed in total by him because he knew whom to look at. But even so, the people who hadn’t been gifted with some of Maria’s dust were noticing some of the individual instances of love and kindness, were reminded it was Christmas day – a time when miraculously, everyone seemed nicer, more helpful, more loving. Even these people left the market with heightened spirits.

Tony watched, fascinated, but still not sure what this was all about.

Maria seemed to know this. Looping her arm through his, she led him toward the playground where a few children climbed the slides still damp with morning dew and laughed deep, full-bellied laughs that were contagious to their parents. “Why don’t you celebrate Christmas anymore, Antony?”

A little uncomfortable, Tony gave a half-shrug. “After you and dad were gone, there just didn’t seem to be any point,” he mumbled quietly. “It hurt too much to think about.”

“So you’ve spent the intervening years attempting to drown your pain in scotch.” There was a hint of reprove, but it didn’t last long. The spirit of Christmas was too strong in her.

A few sets of parents hovered outside the concrete perimeter of the park with cups of coffee in hand, watching their children play together as though they’d known one another all their lives. Tony had been too erratic a friend for most of the kindergarten set. He loved to play tag in jungle gyms like the one in front of them, laughing and throwing himself through the colored tubes as fast as he could manage. But it was just as likely that in the very next second, he would have abandoned the game without explanation to go dig in the sand by himself, lamenting to Jarvis the lack of an adequate water supply that would enable him to construct castles.

Children had given up on Tony rather quickly, and he was too busy studying quantum physics to mind. Staring at the tableau of happy couples keeping watch over their children, Tony frown as a realization struck him.

“You and dad never took me to places like this, did you.” It wasn’t a question. Tony had gone many, many places with his parents for business or charity functions, meetings, or to inspect one of Stark Industries satellite offices around the world. He’d always like those one’s best. “Jarvis did, until I lost interest. I guess you guys were too busy for stuff like that, too.” It was an interesting perspective of his childhood he hadn’t considered before.

Maria laughed. “Can you imaging your father and I in a place like this?”

Considering it was an upscale neighborhood in Malibu, the park was well equipped and well maintained. There was nothing wrong with it that Tony could see, but he knew what she meant. He pictured his impatient father on one of the earliest cell phone prototypes, standing as far back from the dust as he could so that his pants wouldn’t get dirty. If he could have managed it, Howard Stark would have even carried along a drink.

He chuckled. “I can see dad now, already in his next meeting and shouting into that monstrosity of a phone, surrounded by the scent of peppermint schnapps.”

“And I in my chenille power suit taking furious notes on things I needed to get done. It’s a wonder Howard and I were ever even aware we had a son.”

It was hard for Tony to get a read on his mother’s emotions over things like this. She spoke about them easily, even with humor, which might have seemed callow, except for the notes of empathy in her voice and the sincere compassion in her eyes. Frustrated, and just a little bit impatient, he asked, “What is it I’m supposed to be seeing here?”

The park, the children, the parents snuggled together for warmth – none of this had been a part of Tony’s own childhood. It was like watching some idyllic vision of Hallmark cards brought to life, lacking only the heartfelt message on the inside. Ever the cynic about things he didn’t understand, the whole panorama around where they stood looked Stepford perfect. The only thing missing was a thick blanket of snow and a horse-drawn carriage to create a Christmas moment that would have made Currier and Ives weep.

Growling in frustration, he started to turn to his mother again, when he saw her.

She was no one Tony had ever seen before. He didn’t have much cause to spend time with children. But the pint-sized four-year old caught his attention because she had red hair, freckles, and the little shoes she’d placed neatly on the cement had very small heels.

The girl ran to her parents, and Tony looked up, almost fearfully. Neither of them were familiar to him. The father gave his daughter a dazzling smile, swooping the laughing child into his arms. Like Tony, he had dark hair and eyes, though no goatee. His wife– predictably but still amazing – had the same color hair as her daughter, and the same freckles, too.

Tony watched them quietly for a while. “That’s it, isn’t it?” An odd feeling settled in the pit of his stomach as he stared through the looking glass at his apparent doppelganger, and family. He was an only child; heir to a vast empire and multi-billion dollar fortune. For lack of kids of his own, everything Tony owned, once he’d died, would go to Pepper, with a few exceptions.

He’d thought about producing an heir the old-fashioned way, but the logistics were far too complicated, as things stood. None of the women with whom he’d be seen publicly were someone he’d want to be linked to for life, either in marriage, or joint-custody, if that; there was no telling if someone would use his lifestyle against him to gain sole-custody, and a healthy child support check.

Tony had never been entirely sure whether he wanted marriage and children or not, if the right circumstances arose. But even Tony didn’t really think of himself as someone capable of raising a kid, and marriage seemed to him a rather archaic social construct that was more trouble than it was worth, requiring a level of trust Tony had only ever bestowed on two people. Considering the circumstances, he figured marriage and family weren’t for him.

Now, watching the pint-sized girl in her father’s arms, smiling up at him with not just love, but adoration, something throbbed in Tony’s chest. The girl’s smile animated her whole face, and it was like the sun coming out from behind the clouds, so pure and clean it was. Tony continued staring as he asked, “Is this what you brought me here to see?”

Eyes traveling the same path as her sons, Maria’s eyes held sadness at odds with her happy smile. “No,” She told him. They had both lowered their voices in a pale reflection of reverence for the uncertain, unexpected portent of Tony’s future. “We are here to find, to witness, to enhance, and to create the Spirit of Christmas through the world’s most vital medium: love.”

He frowned in confusion, watching the family as they began walking toward the parking lot. “To be honest, this isn’t the kind of love I expected you spirits to be addressing.”

“Antony, amore mio, there is not one thing that occurs on earth that is not motivated by love, or passion, or both together,” she said, pleased that he was starting to see the puzzle pieces. “Love is the energy that powers the world, but there is not just one kind of love. All these forms of love are connected, and we are all connected by it.”

“Different kinds of love,” Tony repeated pensively. “How many kinds are there?”

Grinning, Maria held out her hand to her son. “It depends on whom you ask,” she explained. “You and I will see five. But you, my son, have more love in your life than you think, even though you try to hide from it. That is a good thing, for it means your salvation is within our grasp.”

“Salvation?” Tony frowned, taking his mother’s hand and moving closer. “Dad said that too. I don’t understand; what do I need salvation from?”

Hand in hand, Maria led Tony back through the mall, releasing him only when she needed to spread the dust of Christmas cheer. “No man or woman can survive without love, Antony,” she explained. “It is an emotional vacuum the universe abhors. In most circumstances like this, the man or woman shrivels and wastes away in the emotionless solitude they’ve created for their self.”

A bird in a nearby tree called, and was answered almost instantly by a like sound from the next tree over. Two birds appeared, chattering happily as they swooped and dove around each other, then disappeared in the distance. “Sometimes,” Maria continued, “ there are people like those birds – they fly so close together without touching that they begin to exude their own gravitational pull together.”

Tony opened his mouth to question further, but Maria continued without waiting.

“It is the job of gravity to pull things down; in order to not remain stuck within its sphere, things must be introduced to alter it.” She gestured around the park and on the streets. “These people out here are your community, Antony,” she said. “Perhaps some of them could even be friends. The family we saw might be yours; but unless you allows philia, into your life, you will have no community with whom to form friendships and loyalties.”

“I have friends,” Tony responded with a frown. “There were nearly 500 people at my last birthday party alone – and that’s not including the entertainers.”

Maria looked closely, penetratingly at her son. “Are they really friends, son? Philia is about equality among peers,” she explained. “Philia is the love on which friendship is cultivated. It is the virtuous love between friends, and the enjoyment in performing an activity together.

“It is not,” she added. “What you have with the women you ‘entertain’, or with the sycophantic society mob who calls you ‘friend’. Can you name the last five women who’ve shared your bed? Or the two men who came as guests, but drew you schematics for a phone that projects holographic images of the caller, on the back of a cocktail napkin, impressing not just you, but Ms. Potts so much that you to hire them on the spot without further interviews?”

Tony didn’t have to think about it, he just shook his head, knowing he didn’t have those answers. Unless she was a business contact, or someone he was genuinely interested in knowing better (or at least sleeping with more than once), Tony made no effort to remember a woman’s name after getting out of bed with her. Similarly, most men held no interest for him either, unless they related to his business, or Iron Man. To be fair, there were women in that category, too, but what it really meant was that every instance was situational, usually with the same result. And the new guys... were still the new guys. Pepper had their info, and he’d learn it by the time he needed to.

“Our world need heroes,” Maria said, taking her son’s hand. “But not all heroes need capes, or masks, or shiny, red and gold, metal suits. Sometimes, what the world needs… what your world needs, is just Antony.”

Everything around them begin to waver the minute Maria took Tony’s hand in her own. As the lights grew brighter, then sank low and dim again, her last couple of sentences became a tangible, viscous arrangement of letters swirling around them. By the times her voice grew quiet, the floating letters faded, and the lights returned to normal, Tony was catching his breath in the living room of a modest apartment, Maria at his side.

It took him a moment to recognize where they were; he’d only been there a handful of times since Rhodey had been transferred to the Los Angeles Air Force Base. Tony and his previous military liaisons had not always seen eye to eye. More accurately, Tony liked to fuck with said liaisons, because he thought it was funny. When it was somehow discovered that Mr. Stark’s best friend was not only in the service, but a Lieutenant Colonel with the USAF, it seemed like a match made in heaven.

And it was – as much as it could be. Rhodey could handle Tony, and Tony treated Rhodey with a little more respect than he had the other liaisons. Other than Tony’s insistence on working on his own timetable, not the military’s, both men seemed pleased with the arrangement.

It was impossible to tell how long Rhodey had been living in the one bedroom apartment just by looking at it. The place had come painted, furnished, and decorated – something Tony had teased him about each time he visited. The living room had nine-foot, vaulted-ceilings, and a working gas fireplace. The walls were colored moss green with white wainscoting along the top and bottom, but every other wooden surface – from doors and built-in bookcases, to the mantle, tables and chairs – was made from smooth, polished, walnut.

The furniture was in a medium-colored fawn microsuede, forming a horseshoe before the fireplace and television, end tables interspersed throughout. It was here that a group of eight men and women had gathered, beer or glasses of wine in hand.

“It’s Rhodey’s place,” Tony muttered needlessly, just as he didn’t need to look to his mother for confirmation.

“Your best friend?” she nodded in the affirmative, despite the question.

Tony nodded back. “We were roommates at M.I.T.,” he reminded her. “He acted as kind of a big brother to me. I was young, brilliant, famous, and fabulously wealthy,” he gave a short laugh. “There were tons of the young and brilliant set at M.I.T., but throw in the rich and famous part… there was only one other kid at school who was all four, but he mostly ignored everything. Rhodey introduced me to who he called, ‘the important people,’ took me along with him wherever he went – if it weren’t for Rhodey, I don’t think I would have left the room at all.”

Maria studied the group seated before them. Excluding Rhodey, there were five men in the group. Three of them had brought wives, with the host himself bringing their party to nine people. “These then, were your social group? Whatever happened to them?”

Tony frowned, not liking to remember. “We kept in touch after everyone graduated; for a few years, at least. Then…” the image of a blackened hunk of twisted metal, lying in a Jamaican sugar cane field. It was still smoking nearly twenty-four hours after the crash and large hoses had been sent for. No one hurried.

Noting the way his face became paralyzed with pain at the memory, Maria waited for him.

“I was with them; when I got the call about the plane crash,” Tony explained after several breathless moments. “Dad had said something about ‘wasting time’; you said something like ‘there still just kids’… I remember kissing you goodbye, and telling dad that, ‘I hoped he was real productive on his Jamaican holiday, then went to bed. I left for Brandon’s the next morning and by that evening…” he stopped, eyes searching out the one called Brandon.