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Keeping track of myself... and Tony

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An Iron Man Christmas Carol: A Love Story (2 of 6) (Edited, Revised, and COMPLETED!)
Always her
Title: An Iron Man Christmas Carol: A Love Story (2 of 6)
Author: v_pepperpotts
Rating: PG-13, with an optional NC-17 chapter 6. This chapter contains rather graphic sexual references.
Spoilers: Set loosely between movies one and two
Summary: Started for the 2010 For the its_always_been Holiday challenge and the prompt: 'Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future' but I was kicked in the ass by the Ghost of Bipolar Disorders and didn’t finish. This is the edited and completed version. A story in which Tony is visited by some unexpected friends, and discovers that love is more important than he thought.

I do not own Iron Man, nor the characters. Several times I either took lines directly from the text of that book, or updated a line, keeping the content the same, but this in no way is intended to imply ownership of either the book or characters, who were created by Mr. Charles Dickens in 1843. I both 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

An Iron Man Christmas Carol ~
A Love Story

Stave the Second

In which the protagonist of our story is visited by the first of three spirits, and is reminded of his past mistakes.

He woke suddenly, and the illuminated numbers floating on the bedroom wall told him that it was midnight.

The house was silent and Tony wasn’t sure what had woken him, but he was about to get out of bed when he remembered Yinsen, and his promise of three ghostly visitors.

The first, Yinsen had said, would come at one o’clock, and Tony frowned, looking again at the glowing numbers. It had been after midnight already when he’d gone to sleep – hadn’t it? Maybe he had dreamt the whole episode, and had just been working too hard lately. That was possible. Maybe the holidays were stirring up strange things in his mind because why would Yinsen, or anyone, come to him from beyond the grave to discuss his relationship with Pepper? It seemed ridiculous.

More likely, it was Tony’s subconscious mind translating his own desires into some sense of urgency, his need for Pepper heightened by his want. He lay there as the minutes ticked past, thinking about Yinsen, and what such a dream could have possibly meant. He wanted Pepper, there was no question about that. That he loved her, he was certain. But there were men better than he who actually deserved someone as good as she was, whereas Tony knew he didn’t.

A quarter past the hour – what if, as he sometimes suspected, Pepper loved him, too?

Half past the hour – If she loved him, did she also want him? The two weren’t mutually exclusive. Could she want to be with him?

A quarter till – Even if she did love him, she still deserved better and must think so herself, since she’d never said anything. Right?

As the hour itself approached, Tony grew still, listening intently to the darkness around him. At 12:59, he began to feel foolish. Nothing was going to happen, he had imagined the whole thing. He should probably think about drinking less so that things like thi-

“If you had listened to me when you were young, you would never have started drinking in the first place. I did warn you about our family’s penchant for substance abuse.”

Tony held his breath. He wanted to turn and look at the speaker, but he was filled with a conflicting mixture of hope and dread at the sound of that familiar voice, one he hadn’t heard since he was twenty-one years old.

“Well, what are you waiting for? Get up; we’ve got a lot to accomplish, and not much time to do it.”

Turning his head in the direction of the voice, Tony saw what he hadn’t hoped to expect. Howard Anthony Stark stood looking out of the large windows on one side of Tony’s bedroom. From the rotunda at the topmost level of the mansion, one could see far out into the Pacific from three-quarters of the round, and on a clear day, all the way to Los Angeles in the remaining quarter. His father was staring out of the eastward-facing section and even in his shock, Tony was curious to know what had captured his attention.

Standing slowly Tony stared at his father, having a hard time believing what was before his eyes. “Dad?” He stepped closer to see him better.

Howard turned to look at his son, his face without expression as his eyes scanned Tony’s figure. “Close your mouth, son, you’ll catch flies,” he said mildly. “In spite of your drinking, you appear to be in good health. It would seem that girl is good for you in many ways.”

Tony’s mouth snapped shut. Feeling ten-years old again, he moved even closer to his ghostly father. “So, you’re the spirit I was told to expect?” he asked, ignoring his father’s reference to Pepper.

“Yes,” Howard nodded. “My appearing here would be a sizable coincidence if I wasn’t, wouldn’t it? I’m your Ghost of Christmas Past. Come along; we’ve a lot to see.”

“I don’t understand,” Tony shook his head, thinking back to Yinsen and trying to make sense of his haunting. “Why are you here? Not that it isn’t good to see you, but- “

Howard gave his son a tolerant smirk. “Your welfare, of course.”

The expression on his father’s face, and the almost condescending tone of his voice stiffened Tony’s spine; an autonomic reflex of old habit. He scowled. “It’s a little late to be worried about that now, isn’t it? The lost sleep would do me better.”

“Your reclamation then.” Howard gave Tony a censuring look without verbally commenting on his son’s attitude. Get a move on, Anthony.” He made an impatient gesture, and after another defiant moment, Tony came to his father’s side.

“Alright, alright. What is it we have to do?” Tony was careful not to touch his father, unsure whether it would have disturbed him more if the man were tangible, or not.

Howard shook his head. “Not ‘we’, son – you. It’s what you have to do that’s important. I’m only here to show you.”

Frowning in confusion, Tony followed the spirit toward the balcony door. “Fine. What are you showing me?” Howard didn’t immediately answer, looking down over the side of the balcony to the beach below, then to the sky above them.

“Wait,” Tony stopped in the doorway. “We’re not going out that way, are we? People have predicted I’ll fall over a balcony, but if that’s the way I’m gonna go, I’d rather not do it sober – it’s slightly less embarrassing.”

“Just take my hand, you’ll be fine,” Howard said, sounding more scornful than reassuring. “And I’ve already told you what I’m here to show you: Christmas past.”

“Great,” Tony grumbled. “Thanks for clearing that up.” He stepped outside, still uncertain, and looked from his father’s outstretched hand to his face once. “Really?” Tony asked incredulously before reluctantly taking his hand.

Howard Stark only smirked in response before they were taken up by what seemed like a tornado, sucking them up into the stillness of the eye. They were flying, but it was unlike any mode of air travel Tony had done before, fast and dizzying, but still at the same time, and occasionally he could pick out landmarks below them, randomly, like images in a magic-eye picture.

Then it was all over. Before Tony had time to react, he and his father were standing on a paved road amid hulking, Colonial-style, brick buildings. There were only a handful of people moving carefully over the icy walkways on their way to more large buildings stretching away from them.

Calls of Merry Christmas echoed off banks of snow, pushed to one side by early morning snowplows, and as Tony looked around, he realized he knew this place; he knew these people.

“It’s M.I.T.,” he breathed, stunned. “It’s M.I.T. from when I went to school here.” The hair and clothing of the few people nearby bespoke an earlier time than the one they’d left, and a flyer taped to a lamppost confirmed that it was one in which a seventeen-year old Tony had just begun two Master’s programs, which he would complete two years later.

As Tony looked around in amazement, Howard watched his son. He ignored the uncharacteristic tears that had risen emotively in Tony’s eyes. “You usually came home for Christmas,” he said. “Except for one year. This one.”

Nodding absently, Tony thought back to the year he’d stayed on campus for Christmas. “You and mom went to Venice,” he said without looking at his father. He wiped his tears away roughly with the palm of his hand. “I told myself I was giving you the opportunity to go by not coming home, but you would have gone with or without me.”

Howard didn’t confirm or deny. “You had your own reasons.” When Tony nodded again, frowning at the ground, Howard said, “Where would you be right now?”

With a tightness in his chest, Tony started walking. “One of only three places,” he answered.

The library was an enormous building, its shape reminiscent of the White House. Two wings, east and west, flanked a taller, domed building. The shelves and paneling inside were a dark, high-gloss oak, and reflected the warm orange glow from the desktop Tiffany lamps scattered around the room.

On a leather, overstuffed chair to one side of the central rotunda, a teenaged Tony Stark sat with his feet pulled up under him, surrounded by half a dozen textbooks. One lay open on his lap, and he was reading so intently, it explained why the normally fidgety boy was completely still, all except one hand, in which a pen twirled between quick fingers.

Stopping suddenly, the older Tony moved to hide behind one of the square pillars supporting the balcony of the upper story.

“What are you doing?”

“I don’t want them to seem me. Isn’t there some rule about that?”

Howard rolled his eyes, grabbing Tony’s arm and pulling him out. “These are just shadows of things that have already happened. We’re just here to watch, like a movie. They can neither see us nor hear us.”

Yanking his arm out of his father’s hand, Tony glared mildly before returning his attention to his younger self. A circle of young men sitting on chairs and couches in the center of the room had drawn the attention of a librarian, who asked them to quiet down. One of their number stood up and stretched before making his way over to where Tony sat.

“Hey, Tone!” a young James Rhodes called out, earning another “shhh” from the librarian. He waved in apology and lowered his voice. “Hey, roomie – why don’t you come sit with us? You wanna study yourself to death, hey, that’s your choice. But you got the rest of the year for that shit; right now, you should give it a rest. At least on Christmas, man!”

Tony didn’t even look up. “Sorry, Platypus, no can do. I’ve got two degree programs to finish, and I’d like to get out of school before I’m old enough to drink.”

Rhodey shook his head, perching on the arm of Tony’s chair, making him shift to accommodate him. “Look, I get it. You’re an overachiever, and a genius. Even here in a school full of overachieving geniuses, you’re in a class all your own. But at least be man enough to admit the real reason you’re so gung-ho about getting ahead on your studies.”

Looking up at last, Tony raised an eyebrow in a pale reflection of the sardonic expression it would grow into in later years. “And what, pray tell, would that be?”

The tight knot returned to the older Tony’s chest, and he turned to look at the door, the same moment that Rhodey looked the same direction.

“Speak of the devil,” Rhodey murmured, making the younger Tony look, too. A young woman had entered, wearing a knee-length gold sheath of a dress with spaghetti straps. A fur-lined short jacket and matching hat protected her from the cold outside, and the high-heeled boots she looked all but poured into, were also lined with fur.

At the sight of her, the younger Tony lit up, an enormous, almost worshipful expression on his face. “Sunset,” he called to her quietly.

The older Tony wasn’t as thrilled. “Sunset,” he echoed his younger self in a much harsher voice. He turned to his father, angrily. “This is what we came here to see? Sunset Bain? I already know what I did wrong there – I started liking her in the first place.”

“You didn’t like her,” Howard corrected. “You loved her.”

Setting his jaw, Tony didn’t answer. His face said it all.

Sunset turned at the sound of her name and smiled at the sigh of the young Tony. She was clearly older than him by about five years, but didn’t hesitate to pluck the book out of Tony’s hands and seat herself in his lap. Trailing a sculpted, French manicured nail along his jaw, she cooed to him in a buttery warm voice. “Anthony. I was hoping I’d find you here. Can I convince you to have dinner with me?”

The younger Tony grinned, looking more like his older self than he had since they’d first spotted him. “For you, darling? I’d go anywhere you wanted me to.”

Both the younger Rhodey and the older Tony rolled their eyes. Howard remained quiet, watching the scene unfold.

“I was so hoping you’d say that, baby.” Sunset’s voice lowered seductively, and she leaned in to kiss him, holding his head in place by pressing two hands worth of her fingers into his hair.

Rhodey cleared his throat and got up. “I’ll leave you kids to it. Curfew’s still at eleven, roomie.”

Sunset smiled as she broke the kiss, but she never turned to look at Rhodey. “I’ll have baby home in time for his bedtime story, Mother,” she said lightly, using her thumb to clean the transferred lipstick from Tony’s mouth. “Don’t fret.”

Seeing that Tony wasn’t going to respond, Rhodey returned to his original group, shaking his head.

Howard turned his attention from the younger Tony to the elder. “You loved her,” he repeated.

The older Tony watched his younger self grimly as Sunset coaxed him to his feet and let him gather his books. “Yes, I loved her. She wasn’t the first girl I loved, but Sunset was… my first great love. I would have done anything for her.”

“You practically did,” Howard commented heavily.

Closing his eyes, Tony took a deep breath even as his jaw set in anger. “Yes. I did. I was much more naïve then. Stupider. I trusted her completely. People say I’m paranoid, but I learned that lesson well, thanks to Sunset.”

Tony looked at his dad, a child-like vulnerability entering his eyes. “You know, to this day, I can’t remember how it came up – giving her your security codes for Stark Industries. We were talking about trust… I think she said something about… my giving her your codes was a sign that I really trusted her. That she could only marry me if she felt that I trusted her as much as she trusted me.” He was quiet for a moment. “I never told you I proposed to her, did I?”

“No, you didn’t.” Howard said. “What did she say?”

“She didn’t,” Tony watched his younger self walk with Sunset toward the exit. “A few days after I gave her the codes, she broke up with me. Couldn’t give me a reason, just… ‘It’s over’. It was just a couple days later that Stark Industries was robbed. I should have thought of Sunset right away, but,” looking at his father, Tony shrugged. “The company was your deal then, not mine, and I was already back at school, nursing a broken heart. I would never have believed Sunset was responsible for the thefts.”

“When did you find out?”

Tony sighed heavily. “When Baintronics opened a year later.” As the young couple left library, Tony turned toward his father. “What was the point of showing me this? It’s only reminded me that no one is trustworthy enough to let into your life close enough that they can see the real you. They’ll only exploit you.”

“Even Pepper?” Howard challenged.

Opening his mouth to respond automatically, Tony stopped as he actually considered the question. “No,” he said quietly after a moment. “It’s not just the length of time we’ve worked together; I… I know Pepper.”

Howard nodded as if he knew some deep philosophical secret. “In fact, of all the people you know, she’s the only one you trust completely, isn’t she?”

Tony didn’t answer. He didn’t have to.

“After Sunset, you started to change,” Howard said. “You stopped studying for tests, you started drinking, and you began your campaign to sleep with every woman you met.”

“I was seventeen,” Tony said with a glare. “And I was in college. It was a time of experimentation.”

“That you’ve never grown out of.” Howard said sternly.

Facing his father, Tony’s eyes flashed angrily. “Alright, so what? I still got the highest marks in my graduating class, and if I want to get wasted, the only person I’m hurting is myself. I never drank and drove then, and I never lied to the women I slept with – I made no promises I knew I wouldn’t keep, and they knew what they were getting into when they got into my bed. It’s the same policy I abide by now.”

Do they really understand most of them will only have a few hours with you before being sent away? You loved Sunset, but you let her betrayal poison you.” Howard said. “You built a wall around your heart that no one could get into, and turned into a selfish, alcoholic, billionaire playboy, who cares about nothing and no one but himself.”

Tony stared hard at his father for a long moment. “I’m done. Take me home.” He walked past Howard toward the same door his younger self had just left through.

Howard shook his head. “We aren’t done yet.” Grabbing Tony’s arm, once again they were swept up into the eerie stillness, like the center of a tornado, as the world passed rapidly beneath them.

Before Tony could protest, Howard was releasing his arm, sending him spiraling into a wall. Recovering himself, Tony turned angrily toward his father and stopped short when he saw where they were.

People surrounded them on all sides, dressed to the nines and nearly elbow to elbow with one another. At one end of the room on an elevated platform, a live band played everything from classical to hip-hop, with familiar Christmas tunes interspersed. Couples danced in the front portion of the room, while the back half was given over to a bar, buffet, and series of smaller tables, where more guests congregated to talk.

“It’s Stark Industries,” Tony said, more to himself than his father.

Howard responded anyway. “Yes; ten years ago, to be exact. Do you know why we’re here?”

Tony had been on the verge of asking that himself. “No, I-“

He stopped short, seeing Pepper, ten years younger than he’d last seen her, being led off the dance floor by a tall man with sandy blond hair. The man pulled her by the hand, heading Tony and Howard’s direction.

Pepper’s red hair was piled atop her head, the golden hues catching the lights. She was dressed in a deep green, sleeveless, charmeuse gown with braided detail that swept just under her breasts in an empire waist, then up around her neck in a sweetheart halter neckline. Both the bust and length of the gown were pleated, and beneath the skirt, a pair of gold, open-toed shoes peeked out as she walked. In her ears, she wore a simple pair of pearl stud earrings, but they weren’t necessary to make her any more beautiful, or elegant.

She took Tony’s breath away.

Tony had known from the first moment he laid eyes on her that Virginia Potts was a beautiful woman. Looking at her now though, he had to question his sanity for not falling in love with her sooner.

“She’s beautiful,” he breathed quietly.

Howard was watching Pepper as well as she and her companion stopped no more than three feet away from them. “She is,” he agreed. “Not your usual type though, is she?”

Tony raised an eyebrow, glancing from Pepper back to his father. “I wasn’t aware I had a ‘type’. I’m not exactly selective.”

“No,” Howard nodded. “You’re hardly picky. But this young lady is different in one very important way.”

Before Tony could inquire further, he heard Pepper’s voice raised in frustration. He tuned into her conversation with the young man.

“I’ve told you a hundred times, Roger, there is nothing going on between Mr. Stark and I,” Pepper said, placating. She was trying to remain calm and reasonable, but Tony had known her long enough to recognize the glint of temper in her eyes. “Let’s just go now, alright? We can talk about this more in private.”

Roger wasn’t to be deterred. “I’m not blind, Ginny,” he argued. “I saw the way he was looking at you when the two of you went to welcome the guests. He stared at your ass more than he looked at the audience.”

“He’s drunk,” Pepper had turned slightly pink with embarrassment, something her companion clearly noticed. “You know his reputation, and I’ve told you how he can be sometimes.”

“Then why do you stay?” Roger wrapped a hand around her upper arm. “We’ve been dating for two years, and until you got your promotion six months ago, everything was wonderful. But since you started working for Tony Stark, you’ve changed, Gin. I used to be the most important part of your life; now you work fifteen hours a day, sometimes more. You always answer the phone when Stark calls you, no matter if we’re on a date, or if it’s three o’clock in the morning, or if we’re about to have sex!”

Roger raised a hand to stop Pepper from interrupting when she opened her mouth to reply. “Let me finish. I love you, Ginny. But I can’t help feeling like Stark is purposefully monopolizing your attention to get in between you and me.”

“That’s crazy!” Pepper protested. “Roger, I know I’ve been incredibly busy in my new job lately, but being Mr. Stark’s assistant isn’t easy. He’s got a million and ten things going at once, and he hired me to keep track of all of it so that he can focus on what keeps his business afloat: the creation of the new weapons and all the hundreds of other things he’s famous for.

“I stay because I find the work rewarding, and Mr. Stark needs someone he can trust to help run his business. It doesn’t mean that there’s anything more than that going on.” Extracting her arm from his grasp, Pepper took Roger’s hand. “I’m just an employee – nothing more. I would think you, of all people, could understand late hours.”

“Yes, but I’m an attorney. I’m keeping people out of jail, not typing memos.”

“Are you saying your job’s more important than mine? That just because your job is more prestigious, you’re entitled to be devoted to it, but since I’m just a ‘glorified secretary’, I’m not?”

“I never said that,” Roger snapped. “I’m sure the work you do is very important, I just don’t see why it takes up every minute of your day.” Roger made a sour face. “He even gave you a nickname; what does he call you, Penny? Poppy?”

“Pepper,” she huffed, patience waning. “I can’t make apologies for who he is,” she said, her voice dangerously quiet. “Only for what I do. I’m sorry I’ve been working so much, and that we don’t get to see one another as often, but I love my job, and it’s important to me. Maybe it isn’t glamorous, or easy, but I work so hard at it because it matters to me.

“Mr. Stark is my employer,” she continued. “We work closely together, and maybe we could even be considered friends, but that’s all.”

Roger stared at her for a moment. “I don’t get why it’s so important,” he said easily. “The man uses you – he works you like a dog, and makes you do things a personal slave would do.”

“That isn’t true,” Pepper said through her teeth. “I don’t do anything against my will, and he would never make me. He’s really a good man, beneath the façade, but helping him doesn’t mean we’re-“

Pepper stopped suddenly and once more, Tony found himself faced with a younger version of himself. This time though, he couldn’t remember the scene being enacted before him. Tony frowned as he watched himself stumble drunkenly past Pepper and her date, stop short, then swerve back around to accost his assistant.

“Pepper,” the drunken Tony slurred. “You’re looking… very sexy. Come dance with me.”

Pepper looked between her boss and her boyfriend, alarmed. “Um. Mr. Stark, I don’t think- “

“Come on.” Tony didn’t appear to have even heard Pepper’s protest, taking her by the hand and drawing her across the room to the dance floor. Pepper looked back at Roger a little helplessly, holding up one finger to say she’d sort this out and be back in a minute.

The older Tony groaned; this wouldn’t be good. He wanted to see what Roger would do, but he was equally curious about this moment with Pepper he couldn’t remember. Fortunately, he didn’t have to choose. After a surprised pause, Roger followed Tony and Pepper to the dance floor, stopping fifteen feet away to watch as Tony pulled Pepper against him, dancing with his arms low around her waist, their faces only inches apart.

Tony and his father moved closer to the couple, keeping an eye on Roger, but eager to hear the dancing couple’s exchange.

“ –isn’t a good idea,” Pepper was saying, one hand on Tony’s shoulder, but the other against his chest as if to push him away. “Please let me return to my date before…” she hesitated, not sure of the best thing to say. “Before my boyfriend gets more upset.”

“Boyfriend?” the younger Tony rumbled, one hand moving steadily in the direction of Pepper’s ass. “I didn’t know you were seeing anyone, Ms. Potts. That might make things difficult when you come home with me tonight.”

“Mr. Stark,” Pepper said sternly, grabbing Tony’s wrist and relocating his hand back up to her hip. “I’m not going home with you, and you know it.”

Tony’s grin was lazy and seductive. Turning his face in toward her neck, he didn’t make contact with Pepper’s skin, but he was close enough that the warmth of his breath caressed it for him.

To the older Tony’s surprise, Pepper’s eyes fluttered closed and she shuddered at the feel of his breath, so briefly that if he hadn’t been watching her so closely, Tony would have missed it. Not twenty feet away, Roger’s scowl deepened, as if he had noticed it too.

“You’re gorgeous,” younger Tony murmured, inhaling her scent. “I want to lick every inch of your body; I bet you taste fantastic. Mm…” his eyes fell closed as he thought about it. Pepper jumped as his suddenly very prominent erection brushed against her thigh.

Inhaling a quick breath, Pepper put both her hands on Tony’s shoulders and stepped back out of the circle of his arms. “That’s enough,” she said firmly. “There are scores of women here who’d take you up on your offer. Why don’t you go find one of them?”

Younger Tony wrapped large hands around Pepper’s wrists and tugged her against him again, putting her arms around his neck. He ignored her question. “Kiss me… I know you want to, Pepper. You owe me at least that.”

Pepper pushed him arm-length again, but he didn’t release her. Her eyes flashed angrily. “What the hell does that mean?”

“Your promotion,” Pepper was holding herself so stiffly that Tony couldn’t pull her against him again. He settled instead for trying to run his hands over her body. “You’re making four times what you were making in Accounting. You get to travel with me all over the world. Some of the most powerful, and famous people in the world know your name, and you owe it all to me.”

“Oh, God…” Older Tony covered his face with his hands.

They were no longer dancing, if that’s what their slow, awkward shuffle had been called. Pepper managed to fend off Tony’s wandering hands with her own more dexterous ones, but with her attention focused on doing that, Tony was easily able to start backing her toward one of the darker corners of the room.

“And, I can think of a number of ways you can pay me back,” Tony continued in a husky voice. He stumbled a little, nearly falling into Pepper, but she had lifted her hands to push him away again, and caught his weight. Tony recovered his footing, but made no effort to draw back from the proximity his trip had brought them to. Pepper’s gasp made him chuckle. “You owe it to me to let me show you how. It’ll be fun. You do like fun, don’t you, Ms. Potts?”

Tony drew in, aiming for a deep, if inebriated kiss. Though he was drunk, Pepper had seen drunken Tony kiss enough times to know that it still would have been mind shattering – due to what amounted to an enormous amount of practice in becoming a World Class lover – and for just a moment, it looked as though Pepper was going to let him do it. Her eyes fluttered closed and she took in a deep, anticipatory breath – but then her eyes opened, and there was no mistaking the fury in them.

With a surprising amount of strength, Pepper held her ground and pushed him away, and when she spoke, her voice was steely. “Stop it, Tony. You’re wasted.” She gathered up her dress so she wouldn’t step on it. “And I quit.”

Staring at her in shock, Tony abruptly burst into slightly hysterical laughter. “You can’t quit. I don’t accept.”

Throughout their exchange, Tony and Pepper had managed to draw little attention to themselves. Those who had looked their way with curiosity were employees, and therefore familiar with both their boss’s inebriated antics, and the rumors about he and his assistant. It wasn’t until a series of things happened in quick succession, though, that the attention of the entire room turned to them.

First, the band chose that moment to take a break, so there was no music masking the sound of Pepper’s hand as it made contact with Tony’s face. Before his head had time to snap back, Tony was forcibly turned around to face a seething Roger, whose punch sent him staggering back into Pepper. She caught him again, her anger suddenly focused not on Tony, but her boyfriend.

“Roger!” she exclaimed in outrage, not moving until Tony had recovered his feet, rubbing his jaw. Stepping between the two men, she lowered her voice to address her boyfriend. “Everything’s under control, I can fight my own battles, just, please, stay out of this. For me.”

Before he could respond, Rhodey appeared from the crowd, still moving at a gallop from running down the stairs from the second story. Just as Pepper had done, he kept his voice modulated low enough so that it could be heard by their small circle of people, but would not extend to anyone else over the din of speculative conversation and budding gossip. He’d run this drill before. “What the hell is going on here?”

“Tony’s drunk,” Pepper commented simply, only looking away from Roger for a second to give Rhodey a look that communicated much more than her words.

Roger was not of a mind to keep his voice low. “Drunk?” he roared angrily, reducing the crowd’s noise considerably. Ignoring Rhodey completely, he kept all his attention on Pepper and the man behind her. “He was practically mauling you! Why the hell are you protecting him?”

“I’m not protecting him, I’ve got it under control,” she ground out through her teeth, looking quickly to see how many eyes were focused on them. All of them were. Pepper lowered her voice further. “I appreciate your concern, Roger, but I can handle Mr. Stark on my own.”

Tony, despite the pain in his jaw, which he was rubbing with one hand, was smirking at Roger like the proverbial cat who’d found the cream. “She’s going to handle me,” he taunted, not caring in the least who overheard them. “Which means I’ll be handling her.” He snaked his arms around Pepper’s waist from behind, splaying his hands across her stomach as his mouth automatically dove for her neck.

Whipping around to face him, Pepper needed to lean back so that her face wasn’t too close to his. Of course, this pushed up her breasts up between them, and Tony grinned like an idiot, openly staring at her chest.

“Enough.” Pepper snapped firmly at Tony, and maybe it was the familiar business-like quality of her voice that made him cease moving. His eyes met hers and for the first time that night, she saw in them the part of Tony he never intended anyone to see, even her. That she so readily recognized it was tribute, both to her observational skills, and the stunning amount of patience she had for him.

The tension drained from her shoulders as her anger settled into something less potent. Taking his hands from her back, she stepped out of the circle of his arms and away from him. For a moment, Tony stared at her like a lost little boy. He was still incredibly drunk, but it looked as though Pepper’s voice had injected a little reality to their situation.

Opening his mouth to speak, Tony never got the chance to. Roger stormed over to Pepper and grabbed her hand, giving it a sharp tug.

“We’re leaving,” he demanded, attempting to pull her away. “Now.”

Pepper tried to pull her hand away, no more amused at being manhandled by Roger than she had been by Tony. “Not yet,” she answered firmly. “I have to make sure Mr. Stark is taken care of, first.” Turning to Rhodey to ask him to see Tony safely home, she was interrupted by Roger as well as he pulled her around to face him, his expression a twisted rictus of jealous and anger.

“You’ve been lying to me,” He growled in a voice that grew steadily louder. The effects of his own drinking, making his eyes shiny. Pepper’s eyes widened in surprise. “You are fucking your boss, aren’t you?” Another ripple of noise wound it’s way around the room. “So, does he use you when there’s no other pussy to be found? Is that why he calls you at all hours? Or is he paying you to take care of those needs, too? That would explain how you afford your apartment – I’d wondered about that. Does he pay for that and keep you there till he needs an emergency slut?”

Absolutely turning red with embarrassment and rage, Pepper had tears in her eyes by the time Roger was done. Before she could respond though, a voice came from behind her, sounding even angrier than she felt.

“Hey!” Tony stepped around Pepper to get in Roger’s face. “You don’t speak to her that way. Who do you think you fucking are, insinuating things like that about Pepper like she’s just some whore? What kind of man are you?” He looked around for another scotch, figuring he was going to need one.

Roger pushed Tony hard in the chest, following after him the few feet he traveled. “How I talk to Virginia is none of your damn business, Stark. In the six months since she started working for you, I haven’t seen her once on a weeknight before eleven o’clock. I’m not stupid – what else would keep her ‘at work’ fifteen hours a day, unless she’s tucking you in at night and getting some action? I know she’s a great lay, but she certainly hasn’t been getting it from me lately.”

Pepper’s horrified gasp and surge forward were all but lost beneath the flurry of noise and action that was Tony Stark. Letting out a roar that the Celts would have described as a battle cry, he leapt at Roger, taking him to the ground. The other man tried to fight back, but the berserker rage animating Tony gave Roger no opening.

Practically sitting on Roger’s chest, Tony slammed a fist into the prone man’s face hard enough that Roger’s head snapped right as it was pounded into the floor. Someone in the room screamed and people everywhere started talking, some excitedly, some distressed.

Spinning around, Pepper made eye contact with one of the band members and raised her hand in a signal for the music to resume immediately. The drummer got the message and soon a swing-style rendition of ’Jingle Bell Rock’ filled the room.

In the meanwhile, Rhodey had thrown himself on Tony, struggling to pull him off of Roger before any real damage was done. Tony eventually staggered to his feet, panting and still battling feebly against Rhodey’s grip.

“Let me go, Platypus,” Tony huffed, staring daggers at Roger. He was sweating profusely. “This isn’t your fight.”

Rhodey held firm. “It’s not yours either, Tone. Let’s just calm down and we can sort this all out rationally.” At last Tony went limp, and Rhodey released the arms he’d had pinned in back.

Without hesitation, Tony turned around and threw a mean left hook at Rhodey.

Roger sat up slowly, blood gushing from his nose. ”I’m gonna sue your ass off, Stark!” He threatened thickly, his words distorted by an obviously broken nose and possibly a fractured jaw.

“Of course you’d want my ass,” Tony replied cheekily.

As Roger tried to struggle to his feet, Tony wiped the sweat and blood flecks from his face and turned around to look for Pepper.

He was met with a punch in the face from Rhodey, who hit Tony, then adjusted his jacket, calmly. Looking to Pepper, who was standing out of the way, shock written on her face as she muttered to herself, calculating how much they’d be spending in repairs, clean up, doctors bills, lawyer’s fees and settlements.

“Can’t deal with spin tonight,” she said with a heavy sigh. Watching Tony recover from getting punched, she stepped in front of him, just as he was making for Rhodey with clenched fists.

“That’s enough,” she said, so softly that no one but Tony could have heard her.

Blinking down at her in confusion, Tony dropped his hands to his sides, quiescent again.

“I’m gonna call in Happy to take him home,” Rhodey said quietly to Pepper, who nodded.

She didn’t even glance at Roger as she told Rhodey, “I’ll make sure he gets back safely; if you don’t mind settling things here?”

He looked like he wanted to protest her going home with Tony after his behavior toward her, but his innate trust in Pepper’s intelligence and her expertise on all matters Tony, silenced Rhodey. “No, I don’t mind. Just tell me what I’ve gotta do and…” he glanced at his best friend who was staring at the floor and wobbling in place. “Make sure he doesn’t choke on his own vomit.”

“You’re going home with him?” Roger shrieked, drawing attention toward them again.

Pepper looked at him without expression, her business mask keeping her held together for the moment. She didn’t answer, instead putting a hand on Tony’s back as Rhodey went to summon their driver and saying quietly, “Come on, Mr. Stark. Let’s get you home.”

She put her arm around his waist to help him walk steadily, and Tony, instead of bracing himself with an arm across his assistant’s shoulders, slung his low around her waist like they were on a date, not in the middle of a PR nightmare.

“Knew you couldn’t resist,” he mumbled to Pepper as they headed for the exit. “I’m going to eat you out until dawn; see how many times I can make you come before I’m even inside you.”

“Oh, shut up,” Pepper grumbled. The soft, quick intake of breath and even softer flush that crept down her décolletage before she spoke though, said something completely different.

The older Tony and his spectral father watched Tony and Pepper leave, his expression hard with anger, embarrassment, and shame. “I… don’t remember any of that,” he admitted, following his younger self to see him herded into his limo. “It’s not the first thing I’ve forgotten things while drunk though, and it wasn’t the last.”

“No,” Howard agreed, now focused entirely on the man at his side. “But this one is significant, for several reasons. Can you tell me why?”

Resisting the urge to retort sharply about not having been a student for many years, Tony went over everything again in his mind, searching for something that would have drawn them here to witness this. “I’ve only made a few serious attempt to sleep with Pepper – or so I thought. This is one I can’t remember.” He made a face. “I’m far better at seduction when I’m sober. Or at least, more sober.”

“Hm,” was Howard’s only comment. “You saw the way she responded to you a few times? In spite of the fact that she was unequivocally saying ‘no’?”

“Yes,” he couldn’t help feeling smug. “She wanted me.”

“But she turned you down,” Howard pointed out. “Even though she was attracted to you and even though you were making an ass of yourself – she even chose to take care of you instead of the man she’d been dating for two years. But in ten years, she has never faltered on that point and given in. Why would she deny herself what she wants and could easily have?”

Tony tried to be offended at his father’s insinuation that he was easy, but even he had to admit that he was accurate. His expression darkened again and he stared at the party continuing around them, pensively. “I know that I’m not good enough for her,” he eventually responded. “Even if she has wanted me all this time, she obviously feels she deserves better, and she’s right.”

Howard looked at him in silence for a moment, a faint smile on his lips like he knew an impressive secret. “She’s very patient with you,” was all he said.

“Not usually,” Tony snorted. “She can be frightening when she’s truly angry, but when she’s all riled up she’s stunning.”

“Isn’t she patient with you?” The shadows of the past flickered once more to images without sound of Pepper slapping him one minute, exasperated forgiveness in her eyes the next.

Not looking at his father, Tony stared at the ground. “It’s her job to take care of me,” he said.

“It almost wasn’t after this night.”

Tony lifted his head quickly. “You’re right; she quit.” He frowned. “I wonder why she didn’t leave? Anyone else… well, anyone else would have quit within the first two weeks. After my… extraordinarily shameful behavior, why did she stay?”

Howard’s smile grew. “Come. We have one shadow more.”

“I don’t think I can stand anymore of these sort of memories,” Tony said, going to his father nonetheless. “Besides, I know better than anyone that physical attraction isn’t love; I’m not going to pursue something more with her based on just that.” He hesitated to continue. “I don’t want sex with Pepper. Well, no, I mean, of course I want to have sex with Pepper, but I don’t want just sex. I want her; all of her. I’m not a saint, I’d take whatever she was willing to give, but none of that is enough if her heart isn’t part of the deal. It would just hurt too much. She’s worth much more than one night, no matter how fantastic it is.

Holding out his hand to his son, Howard said nothing, but he was still smiling.

They didn’t travel far. When Tony looked around to get his bearing, he found that they were in the bedroom of his Malibu mansion, and judging by the clothing, it was the same night. Frowning, Tony glanced curiously at his father, who kept his eyes trained on the other pair.

Pepper led Tony to his dresser and made sure he was steady before leaving his side, heading for the bathroom. “Get undressed,” she ordered. The younger Tony smirked but he’d barely opened his mouth when Pepper called out in the same flat voice, “And you can keep whatever lewd comments you’re about to make to yourself, Mr. Stark.” Tony shut his mouth again, but he continued to smirk.

The sound of water from the shower drifted into the room, and Pepper came out a moment later. Looking at Tony, who was still standing where she’d left him, she sighed. Going to him, she began unbuttoning his shirt. “I know you can do this by yourself,” she said with a scowl. “You’ve practically made it an art form. How on earth were you planning on getting anything done if you couldn’t even – nevermind, don’t answer that.”

Pepper undressed him methodically, her expression never changing from the familiar all-business look she wore. Tony stood there passively, letting her work without interference. Ignoring the predictable erection, Pepper took him by the hand and led him into the bathroom, all but pushing him into the shower.

The Tony watching the scene noted the steam pouring out of the bathroom door, and broke into a small smile. This was not an unfamiliar situation for them. Over the last ten years, Pepper had done this very thing numerous times, both when he was drunk, and when he was so injured or tired after going out in the Iron Man armor that he couldn’t move. But it was the knowledge that even after only six months of working for him, Pepper had already noted something as simple as the water temperature Tony preferred, that touched him.

“What are you smiling about?” Howard asked.

Tony glance at his father, then back to where Pepper was now collecting the detritus of his suit and finding a clean pair of sweats for him to put on. “I was just reminded how much I rely on Pepper. I’ve never once heard her complain. I need to be more cooperative with her,” he added quietly to himself.

“She goes above and beyond the call of duty, doesn’t she?” Howard asked.

Nodding, Tony glanced at his father. “Daily, and I can’t understand why. I don’t know what I’d do without her, though. It’s better that we’ve never had sex. If I ever did anything to hurt her, I could lose her altogether.”

His father raised an eyebrow. “Don’t you know why she does it?”

Tony didn’t answer. The younger Tony came out of the bathroom, wrapped in a towel. He seemed a little more sober now, but was still unsteady on his feet.

Howard asked quietly, “If you had her, could you be faithful to her? She’d never settle for anything less.”

Tony was quiet, watching Pepper throw a pair of sweats to his younger self and ordering him to get dressed. To his great relief, the past him obeyed without question.

“I am capable of fidelity; and I would rather die than do anything to hurt Pepper,” Tony answered at last. “But I’m sure you know better than anyone how badly I can mess things up sometimes. It’s not worth the risk that I might do something stupid, and lose her completely.”

“So, you trust her more than you trust yourself.”

Pepper pulled back the covers on Tony’s bed and pointed at it without a word. Docilely, Tony crawled beneath the covers, plopping down heavily, face down on the bed as though he were too heavy to support himself anymore. He wiggled around for a minute and pulled off the sweat pants he’d just gotten into, tossing them to the corner of the room. The blankets were covering him completely in seconds, and Tony adjusted his position restlessly.

The older Tony nodded, still watching Pepper. “She’s always honest with me; I’m not. She’s had ample opportunity to cheat me, or betray me, or hurt me in any number of ways, and I’ve never found any reason to suggest she would.” He laughed with a bitter rush of air through his nose. “She’s the only person in my life who’s been consistently loyal and trustworthy. She’s–“ With a surprised blink, Tony froze. “She’s the only one who’s ever stayed; and whom I’ve never tried to get rid of.” He looked at his father. “I don’t think I understand.”

“Do you need anything before I go home, Mr. Stark?” Pepper stood beside the bed, looking more exhausted than the older Tony had ever seen her.

“Blow job,” Tony the younger murmured into the pillow, his hips dipping into the mattress for the friction needed to sooth his erection. He softly hummed a note of pleasure.

Pepper would have made an excellent poker player. “Good night, Mr. Stark.” She turned to go, when Tony’s hand shot out, gently grabbing hr wrist.

“Stay,” he asked softly, almost pleading, but in a voice more steady that it had been all night. Reaching for her hip, he ran on finger along the curve of her thigh. “Don’t leave me, Pep.” Sleep was starting to slur his speech even more than the alcohol. “I want you.”

She closed her eyes as he touched her, but captured his hand and calmly moved it away. “You don’t want me, Tony.” Though her face hadn’t changed, her expression was softer now. Sighing, she perched on the edge of his bed. “You only think you do because I’m the only woman here.”

His eyes closed, Tony nevertheless pouted at being denied physical contact. “Wanted you before, too. And there were lots of women there.”

Sighing again, she began to rub his back, soothing him into sleep. “You were drunk. You’re still drunk. Go to sleep, Tony.”



“…’m sorry. Please don’t quit.”

For once, Pepper’s face was open, and she looked at the back of his head with so much emotion that older Tony was staggered. He’d never seen that look on her face before.

Leaning forward to turn out the light, she kissed the back of his head. Her voice was unusually thick. “I won’t leave you, Tony,” she promised softly. “Just try to stop making it so hard for me.”

Tony was nearly asleep, reassured that Pepper would be coming back. Without a thought, he responded, “Always hard for you.”

Pepper looked at him for a long moment, finally whispering into the darkness, “It’s not enough.” Recalling herself, she looked warily at Tony to see if he’d heard her.

She needn’t have worried. Tony was out like a light. Standing up, Pepper leaned over and kissed the back of Tony’s head again, her expression, at last, affectionate. “Good night, Tony. Merry Christmas.”

Howard remained quiet throughout, only speaking as Pepper pulled up a chair to watch Tony sleep for a while, making certain he didn’t have any complications from the alcohol or fighting. “Are you certain things are better this way?”

Tony kept watching Pepper, at a loss for words. Had he understood her right? Had she just repeated the words he’d spoken about her – that sex wasn’t enough? “I would have broken her heart back then,” he admitted. “I cared about her – a lot more than any other woman, even – but I was too young, too stupid, and too closed off to have given her what she wanted and deserved.”

“So, for ten years you’ve marinated,” Howard said. “You’ve grown older, wiser, and learned to trust her more. Why are you still wasting time on any woman but her?”

He didn’t know the answer to that. Thinking it over, Tony finally replied, “It’s safer. My life is dangerous, and if someone went after her because of me… I couldn’t stand it. Or, I could hurt her, somehow. Maybe it’s just as well; the relationship we have is good. I can get sex elsewhere, but not what Pepper and I have. I don’t want to ruin that.”

Howard frowned. “I never figured you for a coward, son.”

With a gasp of air, Tony was back home and in bed. He looked around for his father, a retort hanging from his lips, but it was too late.