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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 (3.2 of 6) (Edited, Revised, and COMPLETED!)
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v_pepperpotts
Title: An Iron Man Christmas Carol: A Love Story (3.2 of 6)
Author: v_pepperpotts
Rating: PG-13, with an optional NC-17 chapter 6.
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.

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 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!



Disclaimer: I’m sure it goes without saying that the artwork mentioned in this stave is more than likely in a museum or private collection somewhere, making it impossible for either Tony, Pepper, or myself to own it. However, that’s why we call this fantasy. If I had a particular painting in mind when I referenced it, I’ve linked it below. On a final note, if you haven’t already, for whatever reason, I highly recommend looking into the artwork of female artists during the renaissance in general, and Sophonisba Anguissola in particular – one of only a handful of women to be renowned as a master artist during the renaissance. These were highly respected, admired, and sought after women, in a time when their less talented sisters were still virtual slaves.


Stave the First
Stave the Second
Stave the Third (part 1)

An Iron Man Christmas Carol ~
A Love Story


Stave the Third (part 2)

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


[Cont...]

He was there with his wife, whom Tony only had a vague memory of meeting on that one, fateful trip. Brandon’s laugh was familiar though, like something from a long forgotten dream, and Tony absently looked around for Rhodey as he added to his mother, “I haven’t been able to think about these guys without thinking about my parents death,” he murmured, straightening as he spotted his best friend. “Besides, they do just fine without me. See?”

Maria hummed noncommittally, as Rhodey climbed over the end of a loveseat to an empty space and put the tray of miniature hot links he’d been carrying down on the coffee table. “Careful,” he warned in a serious voice. “When they say hot, they ain’t joking.”

“See Jennifer, I bet you Tony Stark wouldn’t touch such pedestrian food as this if you paid him,” a blond man said to a brunette diagonal from him.

An Indian man shook his head, looking up. “That isn’t fair, Randall; I’m sure Tony wouldn’t be so picky… if there were a beautiful woman to feed it to him.”

The group laughed. Tony watched silently, his face impassive.

“Hey!” Rhodey, cut in with a grin, once their laughter had died down. “Chris, man, not cool. You’re all entitled to your opinions about Tony, but honestly; you don’t even know the guy anymore. Tony’s my best friend, and although he can be… difficult,” there was a titter from the group. “Sometimes,” Rhodey tagged on firmly. “He’s got a good heart, and I know he’s got my back.”

Tony’s head drooped a little, looking down at his feet.

“Are you alright?” His mother asked.

“I was just thinking,” he muttered. “It’s once a year, and it’s not like he ever asks me to do anything else like this for him. I should have told him I’d go. At least for a while.”

Maria looked like the Mona Lisa when she smiled. “Not everyone still has family after their family dies. Rhodey may not be of your blood, but the love you and he bear for one another is a natural affection felt between family members. It is this storge which makes you brothers; this rare affection that allows you to accept one another’s faults more easily, because you are a clan of your own making.

“So why hasn’t he come in so many years, Rhodey?” Another man with brown hair, and a long nose, asked.

Rhodey shook his head. “I don’t know, Marcus. He hasn’t told me yet. I suspect it has something to do with the same reason he stopped celebration Christmas, but he’s keeping quiet on that, too. Till he decides to tell me…” he shrugged.

“Is it a girl?” One of the wives leaned forward.

“Hey, right!” Her husband, a stocky redhead looked up from the sausage he was eating. “Didn’t he get all emotional and broody over that one girl who dumped him? What was her name… Sunday?”

Randall shook his head. “No, it was Sunset. And man, if she’d done to me what she did to Tony, I’d have been emotional and broody, too.” To his wife, Jennifer, he said, “Gorgeous woman, right? Older than him, but this is Tony Stark. Somehow, she gets him to tell her the security codes to his dad’s company, then drops him cold. A week later, there’s a break in, and a year later, she’s opening a company with some of the stolen prototypes from his pop’s company.”

Jennifer’s mouth hung open in what could only be called horror. “Oh, how terrible! Well, its no wonder he’s a man-whore!”

The room exploded with laughter and Jennifer turned dark purple with embarrassment.

“I didn’t mean it quite like… I just meant that he… goes out with a lot of women,” she stammered lamely.”

Rhodey shook his head. “No, he doesn’t,” he corrected, still laughing. “He sleeps with a lot of women. The only ‘out’ he goes with them is ‘out’ of the club, to the limo; then ‘out’ of the limo, to the house.”

Still red, but feeling a little vindicated, at least, Jennifer said, “But still… it makes sense, doesn’t it? If someone had done something like that to me, I would have a hell of a hard time trusting anyone every again.”

Chris nodded gesturing to Jennifer. “She’s got a point, Rhod. In fact, I’m surprised he’s kept you around so long. You must be the only person in the world he trusts. You’ve practically been inseparable since M.I.T., and Stark was just a baby then!”

“You calling us old, Hale?” Rhodey threw a balled up napkin Chris’s direction, with a grin.

“Wait a minute,” Brandon’s wife, Claudia, shifted her glass from one hand to the other. “I remember reading about a girl Stark has had for years and is really protective of. I remember, it was in one of those trashy tabloids you should never believe, but then the very next week, the paper printed a retraction letter. I thought, ‘now, why print a retraction letter in a trashy tabloid unless something hit a little too close to the truth?’ Her name was unusual… Pepe, or something… Poppy.”

All heads turned as one to Rhodey who was obviously not a good poker player. When it became clear that there actual was something to tell, his guests urged him on, pleading for something.

Rhodey sighed, folding his arms. “Pepper,” he said. “Her name is Pepper. She’s his personal assistant.”

“Pepper!” Claudia repeated excitedly. “That’s what it was. She’s his assistant, so, they’re lovers as well? How does she deal with his womanizing? Or is that just a front to protect her?”

“Hey, hey, hey, no, no, no.” Rhodey put his hands up, palms out, to slow her down. “Alright, look. Any of this ends up on the news, or in the papers, I’m gonna figure out which one of you did it, track your ass down, and haul it to Gitmo on terrorism charges. We clear?” Everyone nodded. “These are people I love and respect, and if they get hurt, I get hurt. Which means y’all get hurt. Got it?” They nodded again.

Rubbing the back of his head, Rhodey searched for what to say that wouldn’t be betraying his friendship with Tony and Pepper. “Okay, so Pepper’s been Tony’s P.A. for about ten years now. They are not, nor have they ever been lovers, but they are best friends. Which is good, because they work an ungodly amount of hours together.”

Marcus raised an eyebrow. “He’s in the paper with three or four different women every week, and that’s just on average. So why hasn’t he bagged this one yet? Is she a dog, or something?”

“Oh, hell no,” Rhodey laughed. Disappearing into the next room for a minute, he returned holding an eight-and-a-half by eleven-inch picture frame. “This is Tony, Pepper, my date Suzanne, and I at the Stark Industries Halloween party just this past October.” He handed it to Marcus, and everyone moved closer to see.

Tony looked over the heads of the assemblage to see which photo of them it was, and smiled to himself. The picture had been taken near the beginning of the evening, when they were all still neatly put together, and sober. Pepper had clearly arranged their costumes, which were matching, and of excellent quality. Starting on the left, Suzanne and Rhodey smiled into the camera, dressed as Betty and Barney Rubble, his arm around her waist.

In the middle, dressed as Wilma Flintstone, Pepper’s mouth and eyes were open wide with outrageous laughter at something Tony, on her right, had just said. Dressed as a tousle-haired Fred Flintstone, Tony met her gaze and smirked back at Pepper. Her side against his front, his arms were around her waist, resting on her far hip, casually. For a candid shot, it couldn’t have been a better picture if it had been posed and staged.

“They’re not dating?” Claudia clarified, to which Rhodey shook his head. Turning the picture around she pointed to Tony’s face. “We are looking at the same picture, right? Tell me I’m not the only one who sees this.” She looked to the others for support.

Desiring to support his wife, Brandon took the picture from her again and frowned at it. “… they seem very… close,” he said after a moment.

“Proprietary,” Jennifer, a psychologist, interjected. “Both the way he’s holding her and the way he’s looking at her, are a message to all other men there that she belongs to him and is therefore, not to be touched. Rhodey, do you know if anyone spoke to or flirted with her that evening?”

Rhodey thought hard. “I wasn’t with her the entire time – she was working for a lot of it, but to be honest, I don’t really remember Pepper getting hit on at any of the parties we’ve been at together. If Tony takes a woman home with him, she calls a cab, or gets a ride elsewhere, if the car is gone or doesn’t come back. If Tony doesn’t take someone home, she goes back to the mansion with him, gets everything settled for the night, and then, if she doesn’t have any work to do, she goes home herself.”

Everyone stared at Rhodey with a mixture of unreadable expressions. Jennifer cleared her throat. “Friends, you say,” she said quietly. “Very, very, good friends, I say. If not more.”

They looked to Rhodey again, even Tony, who wasn’t sure what his friend would tell them.

Rubbing the back of his neck again, Rhodey shrugged. “I’m afraid that’s not my information to comment on, one way or the other,” he said. “At this point, nothing they did would surprise me, and if they did decide to become a couple, in any way – I would say that Tony’s the luckiest son-of-a-bitch I’ve ever known, and that Pepper is an angel and a saint, who couldn’t have found a man more devoted to her.”

Tony jumped, feeling a hand on his arm, but turned to see his mother looking up from the picture.

“It’s time to go,” she said. “We’ve still much to see.”

Stepping away from the party, this time Tony held out his hand to her.


“They’re right, you know,” Maria told him. “She’s beautiful.”

Tony looked at her quietly for a long time. “I was so used to... something else; something less authentic. Pepper’s the real deal… and I almost missed it.”

“You still might.” Giving him a sympathetic smile, Maria took Tony’s hand, and the world changed again. A burst of cold air swirled around and through them. Rising, they twirled to a stop in the quiet of Tony’s lab.

Realizing he was back in his workshop, Tony frowned in confusion. He looked at everything, searching for an explanation as to why they were here. “Alright, I give. Is this the end of the tour?”

“Not quite,” Maria laughed. “There’s a kind of love where the object of your desire is all that you can think about. Your world circles them just as much as your mind does. You are always striving to spend time with them, and you feel you could never be happy without them.” Grinning, she untwisted one of the straps of his muscle shirt.

“What in your life do you feel this way about, figlio mio?

At first he thought it was a trick question, except not all of those criteria fit what he at first assumed… then he got it. Or thought he did. It was an odd answer for a lesson on love.

“Go ahead, say what’s in your head right now.”

“…Iron Man,” he finally breathed out, bracing himself for censure. “Iron Man – I think about it all the time; everything I do is either for the Iron Man, or is going on in my head while my hands are with something else. When I have to leave the lab for meetings, sleep, anything, all I want is to get back in the garage. I know, now that I’ve had this experience in my life, that if I ever had to let this go, I would never be completely happy again; I’d always miss it too much.” He thought about it again for a second, then nodded. “Yep. Iron Man.”

“Exactly,” Maria clasped her hands in front of her. “Show me?”

Tony didn’t understand the request; not right away. Staring at her, when Maria’s eyes flicked over to where the suit was suspended, his own eyes opened wide in understanding, then delight. “Oh!” Looking at the suit, a slow smile began to form. “Right! Yes, of course!”

He hurried over, waking up computers with a wave of his hands and grabbed the pieces of the under suit to put on. Tony felt giddy. Like a ten-year old boy eagerly showing his mother a model rocket he’d built, or a birdcage made from popsicle sticks. “Dummy! You! It’s launch time, boys. Time to get old Shellhead out for some exercise.”

The robots addressed began preparing the suit-up gantry in its special room off to the side; a routine they’d performed many times over by now. Looking up, he waved Maria over. “Boys, this is mom. Mom, these are the boys.” He nodded to Dummy, then You. “I built these two chuckleheads in college, and the rest later. It’s good you got to see them now, because Dummy might have to be repurposed as a hat rack if he doesn’t stop trying to cuddle with me whenever I say, ‘closer’.”

With a laugh, Maria came to see the robots at work. “Where did he learn that, I wonder?”

Tony snorted. “Certainly not from me. Pep thinks he’s been watching ‘40s movies when we aren’t in here and picked it up then. Things like that happen with him once in a while. He’s very impressionable.”

The under suit was on and the robots all appeared to be in place and ready. Tony walked onto the grid-marked platform and grinned excitedly at his mother. “You ready?”

When Maria nodded, Tony gave the command for the robots to do their thing. Instantly, the floor beneath his feet split. Some levels rising, some folding outward to reveal further robotic components, and one, just before him, holding the large red shoes of the Iron Man suit. Tony stepped into them. Arms in front and back brought up the well-padded shells of the leg armor, fitting the halves together, then ratcheting and screwing them into place.

From the ceiling, circular barrel arms came down, meeting Tony’s up-stretched arms fitting the first half of the gauntlet on from fingers to elbow, then extenders descended, pulling the rest of the arm-piece up to his shoulder. Shoulder blades, side plates; from above came the chest plate, back plate, and housing for the RT. Everything tightened into place and the barrel arms released him to drop a little. Last of all, the two halves of the head brace came forward, making up the jaw and supporting his head beneath the mask, which was now closing over his face.

Making her way over to him, Maria examined the suit closely. “And, this is what powers it?” she put her hand over the glowing RT in his chest.

He nodded once, solemnly. ”Necessity is the mother of all invention”, he said in Iron Man’s mechanical voice. “We already had the technology, just not in an easily usable format. Then… Afghanistan.” Walking over to his workbench, he looked down at some of his blueprints sitting there from when he’d been working on he suit this afternoon. “You should have seen how quickly I invented this,” he tapped the disc in his chest. “When I needed it to save my life. The applications I’ve been able to put it to since then are endless – only, I’m unwilling to let anyone else get their hands on this technology. It’s too dangerous.”

Taking off the helmet, Tony turned it around to looking into its face with a fond smile. “The Iron Man is my crowning achievement,” he said. “The most important thing I’ve ever created. It’s the first thing I’ve ever invented that I’m honestly, sincerely, proud of.”

“Eros is the type of love most commonly associated with romance,” Maria said. “And while it usually is, it doesn’t have to be sexual in nature. It’s that head-over-heels feeling. It is passion and longing; a unending desire to be together. It is an appreciation of physical beauty, and a contributor to an understanding of spiritual truth.” With a smile, Maria reached for his hand. “Eros usually changes from one form of love to another within eighteen to twenty-four months, and if it is meant to last, it will survive this transition. You have a great deal of passion in you, figlio mio. It’s the one type of love you have no trouble with… except for one thing.”

Helmet tucked under one arm, Tony frowned at his mother as he reached his hand out for hers. “What one thing is that?”

Taking her hand in his his gauntlet-covered one, the world moved again, Tony’s lab melting like a watercolor painting beneath an open tap. Things bulged one way, then the other, and finally Tony and Maria settled down in the middle of an entrance court within a loft-style condo, all done up for Christmas.

“You don’t let things develop, even when they should.” She answered his question “For example, have you ever been here?”

Tony stepped away from his mother, looking around at the unfamiliar furnishings, sleek, but with an old-world elegance. Twenty feet overhead, a wrought iron railing, stained a light pink, wrapped around the outer edge of the upper story. Beneath that, at the center of the house was an open French-country kitchen, and far beyond that out the back French doors was a swimming pool-cum-lagoon. The floor was completely tiled with stone on the ground floor, yet still looked homey and comfortable, and classic.

“No,” Tony said after studying what of the condo he could see. “Should I have? Who’s is it?”

Maria grinned, going to examine some of the Renaissance era art on the wall. “Who’s could it be?”

Brow furrowed, Tony looked around again. The art on the walls stood out to him. He’d seen it before, though that wasn’t much of a surprise. He often flipped through art catalogues and chose things that appealed to him, leaving Pepper to assess the value and curate. He wasn’t ignorant, by any means, but unless a work of art was particularly outstanding to him, Tony wasn’t inclined to remember it. He walked around the left side of the main floor, where he hadn’t been able to look earlier. There was a guest room on this side, along with a full bathroom, a sauna, and a steam room.

Opening the door to the bathroom, he looked inside, and was met with a wall of aromas, all of them feminine, and all of them familiar. Going inside, he looked at the bottles and jars and sprays set out on the beaten metal shelf, just about the level of his hip. Picking them up at random, he unscrewed the caps and inhaled the scents, smiling to himself almost instantly. He knew where they were. The citrus, honeysuckle, and vanilla combination belonged to no other woman than Pepper Potts.

Returning to where his mother was examining a painting by female Renaissance artist, Sophonisba Anguissola, Tony announced, “This is Pepper’s home.”

Without looking away, Maria nodded with a smile. “Yes. She has excellent taste in Italian art. All of her choices here are exquisite.”

“They’re mine, actually,” Tony mumbled offhandedly. “Not that she didn’t pick them. We were sent one of Anguissola’s paintings as part of a bigger order, by mistake. Pepper knew what it was the minute she saw it and was practically in raptures, so I didn’t send it back.” The painting on the opposing wall was a lesser-known da Vinci, a piece he’d gotten her as a thank-you gift not long after becoming Iron Man.

“I got her to tell me which paintings were her favorite, ordered what I could, then once they arrived I told her to curate them, but hang them at her place.” Tony looked around, a smile on his face hovering between smug and pleased. “I guess she did. Where is Pepper, actually? I assume we’re here to see her?”

“To some extent, yes,” Maria led him around to the right where a flight of stone stairs led to the second floor. Looking over his shoulder with a playful grin, she added, “This is all about teaching you to embrace your feelings of love.”

Tony made a face. “Mom,” he protested, feeling his cheeks warm as they hadn’t in years. At the top of the stairs they turned, and the first door on the right led into the master suite. It was a large room with a sitting area containing a television, coffee table, love seat and chairs. The floor was still stone, but rugs offered some protection against the cold. A section of the floor rose in a platform, and a king-size, four-poster bed held center stage. The bed was heavy walnut, intricately carved by hand with intricate rosebuds. The bedding was a rich wine color, and a long strip of pale gauze wound around the crossbars on each side.

Pepper wasn’t in bed, though it was still warm from her body. He was debating peeking into the bathroom, when the door opened and Pepper came out with her hair in a ponytail, wearing only a matching black lace bra and panty set, and a white satin bathrobe.

Maria made no effort to look away, openly scrutinizing the woman who had captured her son’s heart, even if he was, as yet, reluctant to act on it. Tony, with a surprised yelp, somersaulted heavily backwards over the bed in his suit and actually did try to look away, closing his eyes and knocking his head against part of the wall like a flagellant monk in penance.

Noting his effort with interest, Maria narrated for him. “She’s getting dressed… lovely red hair, Antony. My mother would have said that fairies had been dancing on her skin to leave so many freckles.” Something like a broken moan came from Tony. Maria continued. “She’s not skeletal, or so gaunt she’s ethereally gorgeous, and she’s certainly had no work done… she’s real. She isn’t trying be anything or anyone she isn’t.”

Tony had stopped banging his head, letting it hand as he just listened to his mother talk. “No,” he agreed. “Not even to me. Pepper doesn’t compromise herself for any reason. That’s one of the things that makes her invaluable. I always know where I stand with her, and she won’t say ‘yes’ just to please me.”

“She’s dressed now.”

He looked up to see Pepper pulling a brush through her curls, back in the bathroom. It looked like one of those days where she wouldn’t be taking the trouble to iron her hair. He rarely got to see her in color. At work, she stuck with more professional greys, whites, taupes, and other neutrals. Today she was wearing red; a red sheath of a dress, with a stylish bateau neckline and three-quarter length sleeves.

Tony liked her in red. He wanted to suggest she wear some gold jewelry to match the belt, but remembered that he wasn’t really there. It occurred to Tony that he had no idea where she was going today; what her plans were. She’d invited him to spend Christmas with her, and he… he’d been rude, actually. Downright mean. Embarrassed, he rubbed the back of his neck with one hand.

The doorbell chimed downstairs, and Pepper’s pretty face creased in confusion. Putting her brush and hairdryer back where they belonged, she slipped into the walk-in closet, emerging a minute later with a pair of red, five-inch, peep-toed stilettos. Carrying them down the stone stairs and across the floor, she looked through the spyhole first. Pepper still looked a little confused after she’d identified her visitor, but she wasn’t worried enough not to open the door.

The man who stood on the other side wore formal clothing, with the exception of a jacket, which he’d replaced with a well cared for leather one. He was older than Pepper by at least ten years, but he wore it well. He’d been wearing his hair cut close recently, but in his younger days, had been know for his incomparable locks. Tony recognized him right away; remembered partying with the guy before he’d cleaned up and gotten out of the scene eons ago. He even remembered, now that he thought about it, that Jesse Howell still lived in Malibu. What he wanted to know, was why said actor was currently on his P.A.’s doorstep.

“Jesse,” Pepper said pleasantly, stepping out to give him a hug. “Merry Christmas. I’m surprised to see you; are you going to the Kitchen today?”

Jesse flashed her the grin Tony knew he used on women he was trying to get into bed with.

“Yeah, I was just on my way over there now, and walked past your place on the beach,” he said, carelessly. “I wasn’t sure if you’d be coming or not, so I thought I’d knock and offer you a beachfront escort. If you’re ready,” he added, eyebrows raised over sparkling blue eyes.

“Um…” Pepper looked back behind her uncertainly, giving Tony a rush of pleasure that quickly died as she continued. “I just finished getting ready, and if we start walking now, we’ll get there just about on time, so… let me get my purse and jacket and lock up.” She went around to the closet to get her things, and though she hadn’t specifically invited Jesse in, she had left the door open, which he took as an invitation.

Peeking around each corner to see down the long sides of the first floor, Jesse left the artwork for last. He didn’t seem impressed with the Sophonisba Anguissola’s The Chess Game, Which Tony surprised himself by knowing was Pepper’s favorite.

“Isn’t it beautiful?” Pepper had returned and was now studying the painting with loving eyes. “It’s not mine really, it’s my bosses, but he was kind enough to let me pretend to own something so stunning.”

Jesse started to answer, then didn’t, looking from her to the painting again. “What is it about this painting you like so much?”

“Oh,” Pepper stepped closer and reached up as if to touch the canvas, but simply let her fingers caress the air above it. “A lot of things. I love how it’s an excellent example of photorealism, yet the figures are so rich and almost dream-like. I love the old nanny here in the upper corner; how she contrasts with the three cherubic faces of the artist’s sisters. I love the colors, and how she used so much paint.

“I love that humanism beginning in that era was starting to allow female artists to become internationally known, yet they were still constrained as to what they were allowed to paint, so they had to get creative. Self-portraits, portraits of family members, portraits on commission, scenes from the bible.” She shrugged. “I guess I like all the history; how it got from Sophonisba Anguissola’s villa in Renaissance Italy to my villa in modern day Malibu.

It was hard to tell just how much Jesse was taking in of what she was saying. “Including the part of its history where your boss gave it to you?” He asked. Looking around both corners, he counted twelve other paintings that looked to be in the same style as the first one. “Are all of these by the same artist?” He asked. “Did he pick them out for you or did you choose them yourself?”

She took him around quickly, pointing out the features. She had six Anguissolas – portraits, biblical scenes, and one sketch of a crying toddler with a crawfish attached to his finger. A couple of stormy shipwreck scenes, A few gorgeous Bellinis, and of course, her beloved da Vinci, La Scapigliata.

Portrait of the Artist’s Sister In The Garb Of A Nun was the first one we received, accidentally. Tony ordered the rest afterward and let me keep them here. All of the other pieces are ones that I either showed interest in, and he noticed, or I asked if I might hang them in my home. This one though,” Pepper smiled softly, taping the frame of the da Vinci gently, “is all mine. Things were so insane after Tony became Iron Man – not just work, but fielding press, publicity, the board – I thought I was going to either die from exhaustion or strangle Tony first, then die from exhaustion.

“One day I came to work and this was on an easel in my office. The note just said, ’I’d be lost without you.’

Jesse rolled his eyes, heading for the front door. “So, lines like that still actually work?”

Picking up her shoes, Pepper followed him, setting her alarm – very similar to the one protecting the Stark Manor – and locking the door. She frowned deeply at Jesse. “You don’t understand.” She paused, thinking. “Alright. If we were talking about any other woman, it probably would have been a line.”

“But it’s not with you?” He stopped to wait for her at the edge of the beach. “If he’s like that with everyone else, why wouldn’t he be like that with you?”

“He just wouldn’t,” Pepper insisted mildly, not really knowing how else to explain. “Mr. Stark is a lot of things, and I’ve seen sides of him most people never will, and he can definitely be… I don’t know, phony, if he wants to. But he’s never like that with me. In ten years, he never has been.”

“That you know,” Jesse muttered under his breath. He had taken off his own shoes and socks, too and they were walking on the firm wet sand above the tide line. Tony and Maria follow, curious to hear their conversation.

“No,” Pepper said firmly. “He never has.”

It was quiet for a few minutes. “So… I take it you two are pretty close?”

Pepper was never quite sure how to answer this question. She found that she usually gave the wrong one. “We’ve worked together under extreme circumstances for more than a decade. We’ve worked eighteen-hour days more often than not. We’ve saved each other from life-or-death situations… Yes, I’d say we’re close. Not in a physical way, but emotionally? Sure. It’s helped me understand him.”

Jesse nonchalantly grabbed Pepper’s hand, holding it loosely between them as they walked. “You and he have never…?”

“No,” Pepper laughed, looking at their hands uncertainly, but for the moment, not removing hers. “We haven’t. He’s my employer and… we’ve been ‘just friends’ too long, I guess. And I’m not a cheeseburger.”

“You’re not a what?” Jesse looked at her, laughing hard.

She blushed, but smiled. “I’m not a cheeseburger. I’m not something you can have on a whim and then forget about when you’re done, never to think about it again until you get another urge to have one.”

“I see,” Jesse nodded with mock solemnity. They stopped at the back door of a local church, which was operating this afternoon as a soup kitchen. The scent of Christmas dinner wafted out from inside. “So if you’re not a cheeseburger, Ms. Potts, what would you like to be?”

Letting go of his hand, Pepper finger combed her curls. “Water. Or if not water, something vital to life; something people think they need that makes life better, like coffee. But I guess I’d have no right to ask something like that. For me, my job would always come first. What most people don’t understand is that Tony is my job.”

Jesse was staring at her curiously. “When was the last time you had a serious boyfriend?”

Tony frowned darkly.

Pepper’s smile had faded and she started to head inside. “Eight and a half years. Coming in?”

Shaking his head, Jesse followed her.

“Asshole,” Tony muttered under his breath. “Who does he think he is?”

“Pepper handled him just fine,” Maria soothed.

“She shouldn’t have had to be questioned like that in the first place. He better not be working with the paparazzi, or-“

Maria laughed softly, putting a hand on her son’s shoulder. “Calm down, Antony, calm down. Let’s go in and watch.”

Tony grumbled, but obediently did as she said.

For the next few hours that flittered by in handfuls of minutes, Tony and his mother watched Pepper, Jesse, and several other volunteers serve Christmas dinner to hundreds to homeless or low-income residents. Other programs were there, passing out one gift each per child, and offering free medical and dental treatment for the day.

Pepper seemed to be well known there. Tony knew she didn’t attend church any more than he did, so she must find time to do other volunteer work than just this for some of the diners to know her name and greet her so warmly. To his displeasure, Jesse hovered around Pepper too, asking questions, inviting her on breaks, or simply stationing himself near her, especially whenever he was recognized and had to take a break to sign autographs.

When it was time for them to go, both said their goodbyes to diners and volunteers alike and returned to the beach, taking their shoes off once more. Jesse handed Pepper a CD jewel case, which she looked at curiously.

“What’s this?”

“Me,” Jesse grinned easily, taking her other hand and starting back down the beach. “Well, old me. This is that band I was in on that show back in the 80s-“

“Oh, right!” Pepper chuckled. “What were you guys called? ‘Johnny and the Reavers’?”

He smiled. “That was us. I sang and played lead guitar on most of those, but there are a few where I got to be on the drums, which is my thing.” Jesse played air drums.

“Then I look forward to listening. Thanks, Jesse.”

The rest of their walk was mostly quiet, a few comments here and there made about the water, or beach, or sky. They returned to Pepper’s villa in no time and after letting herself in, she turned around to thank Jesse for the escort.

She clearly hadn’t been expecting the kiss. Her eyes opened wide in surprise and she put a hand on his shoulder. Whether she intended to pull him closer or push him away wasn’t clear, even to her. In a minute it was over, and Jesse was looking down into her eyes to gauge her response. Pepper still looked a bit stunned, which wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. She hadn’t been kissed in a long, long, time.

“Go out with me – Taverna, on Civic Center. I like to go there on Fridays and play the congos, do some dancing…. What do you say?”

Pepper frowned, trying to force her brain to work again. “Friday? Um… I don’t know…” She looked inside guiltily.

Jesse grabbed her hand, and her attention. “Pepper. It’s a crime for a woman like you not to have a social life, just because your boss is demanding and needy. He can have you the other six days of this week; I just want part of the one.”

“…Okay,” Pepper nodded, staring at him. “I accept. But you should know, it’s very possible I’ll need to reschedule, and that’s if Mr. Stark doesn’t figure out I’m going on a date.

Raising an eyebrow, Jesse asked, “Why would he care about that? I though you guys weren’t –“

“Oh, we’re not,” she said, adding, “exactly,” under her breath. “But Tony is… let’s just say Tony doesn’t like sharing his toys.” She held up a hand. “And don’t bother pointing out what’s wrong with that sentence, I know. There’s just no better way to say it.”

Shaking his head, Jesse laughed and gave her a salute. “Hopefully I’ll see you Friday then. If I don’t hear from you, I’ll pick you up here about 6:30?”

“Sure, sounds good. Thanks, Jesse.”

She waited until he disappeared from view before shutting and securing the door again.

Tony was pacing back and forth while his mother watched in silence. He looked as though he would explode.

“What comes of this?” he finally asked in a loud burst.

Maria shook her head sympathetically. “My view of the future is limited. But I see both happiness and tragedy for her, and nothing but tragedy for you, if these shadows remain unaltered.”

Looking down at the Iron Man suit, Tony ran a hand over the RT unit on his chest. “You said it yourself, mom; ‘Eros doesn’t last beyond eighteen to twenty-four months’. It changes.”

“Is that what you think you have for Pepper?”

Tony frown. “What then?”

“You feel a great many kinds of love for Pepper, but what makes your feelings for Pepper unique, is that you feel Agape for her,” Maria explained. “This is a love that is thoughtful, unconditional, and self-sacrificing. It is the love that consumes; the highest, purest form of love there is.”

He nodded slowly. “That’s a good thing, right?”

“Yes, figlio mio, it is a good thing. It is the reason we are all here to see you tonight. It is not a love that everyone is privileged to feel.”

Tony turned away, thinking about her words, and nearly jumped when she put her hand on his shoulder.

“Come, Antony. Time grows short, and there is still much to see.”

The reminder that he would once again be losing his mother sobered Tony. “After this, I don’t know if I can stand any more,” he tried to joke weakly. Maria’s hand was reaching out again for his, and he took it, grasping it tightly, as if he could hold her here by a combination of his own will and strength.

They traveled, but they did not travel as before. Then they had been visiting specific places significant to Tony and his life. Now, it was as if someone were continuously plugging wrong addresses into their GPS and they were bouncing between locations, never stopping for more than a few minutes at each place.

Tony didn’t know how many places they had been before he began to realize the common thread between each of their stops.

In Japan, a couple quietly eats dinner together. In Italy, a pair of young men walk hand in hand along the beach. In India, a young man finally spends his first moments alone with the woman he’s married, and discovers they both play the tanpura. The hands of two young ladies meet over apricots at a farmer’s market in Queens. A soldier in Afghanistan writes a letter to his wife and the son he’s never seen, back home. London teenagers go to the cinema, and in Paris, a young man proposes to a young lady.

They also saw mothers singing lullabies to their children, adults caring for their elderly parents, neighbors bringing soup to sick neighbors, or casseroles to those in mourning. A little girl on a playground gets into a fight protecting her younger brother from bullies. A college student buys a street person breakfast on his way to class, and another empties the change from the bottom of her purse into the guitar case of a street busker.

In Sweden, a young woman holds the door for an older woman, smiling hello. In Spain, a son calls his mother from school, just because he misses her. A blind old man laughs deep from his belly as a puppy licks his scratchy face. A toddler stumbled after a moth across the dry grass, reaching for it joyously. A man serenades his girl with just a ukulele beneath her balcony window.

And the kissing; oh, there was kissing of all kinds. Pecks on the cheek, dry taps on the lips, sweet presses of intention, passionate entanglements…

There were sweet little grandparents kissing amid the applause and tender laughter of their children and grandchildren, and sometimes, great-grandchildren. There were mothers and fathers wishing one another Merry Christmas while the kids played with their toys. There was a young boy noticing the girl he likes under the mistletoe and getting up the courage to kiss her. There were little girls catching and kissing little boys, and babies being kissed by family and friends.

Most of all, there were lovers, at various stages in their relationships, but all deeply, passionately in love, and unable to let each other go. Each image began to pass by faster and faster, no more than seconds before they were somewhere else, watching someone else. Faces began to blur together, and it seemed to Tony that he was no longer looking at strangers, but himself and Pepper in a kaleidoscope of color and light, pinks, and reds, and oranges.

They had been turning in a carousel for he didn’t know how long, but Tony stumbled and found himself facing his mother. She was shining with an ethereal light, shining like an inner fire, making her hair and robes look silver, and he realized only then that they were now both completely white. When he moved closer, he saw that the smooth skin of her face belong to a woman much, much, older than she had ever been.

Tony wanted to touch her face but now she looked angelic and she was beautiful and he loved her more than he ever had. He was terrified that after all the time he’d had with her today, that if he tried to stroke her cheek now, or take her hand, she wouldn’t really be there.

But either Maria sensed her son’s distress, or she felt the same anguish, for she rushed at him, throwing her arms around his waist. Her cheek fit perfectly over the RT. He wrapped his arms around her as well, kissing the crown of his mother’s head.

Tipping her head back so that he could see her face, Tony examined Maria’s features, drinking them in for what was likely to be the last time. His eyes shone brightly, though the only light came from Maria’s spirit. “You’re gorgeous, mom,” he said quietly. “You don’t know how much I’ve missed you; what I’d do to have you back…”

“Shhh... figlio mio. My time has come and gone – and is nearly done again. Remember all you’ve seen with me, Antony. Remember to embrace love, before it poisons you.”

Though Tony was listening, he was staring in curiosity at the robes his mother now wore. They bulged and puffed out awkwardly, as though… “Mom… do you have something under your robes?” He pointed with an embarrassingly shaky finger.

Maria’s robes came open along two side slits and out came two women, one on each side. They were scantily clad in bikinis, their faces made up to enhance their sharp, angular features, their hair pulled back tightly into pony tales. The result was that while they were each stunningly beautiful, each like a runway supermodel, they were so in a most frightening way.

Tony stared at them somewhere between fascination and horror. “What… who are they?”

“Listen to me carefully, son. If you do not act soon, there will be great sorrow. These two are your downfall.” The women went and wound themselves around various parts of Tony’s anatomy.

“What do you mean?” Tony asked, shrinking back from the women. “Mom?”

“Lies, and Infidelity,” Maria nodded first to one lady, then the other. “Will bring great sorrow to you, and the one you love most. Mind them both, but pay particular attention to the former, for if you avoid that one, the second’s threat is diminished.”
Maria started to back into the darkness, slowly fading away. “I love you, figlio mio; remember, I am always with you in your heart. You will never lose me there.”

“Mom?” Tony looked up quickly, struggling to extract himself from the women holding him. “Don’t leave yet, mom? Mom!”

But Maria was already gone, bleeding into the shadows like smoke and in a moment it was like she had never been there.

“Shit!” Tony felt irrationally angry. He’d lost her again, and he wanted to hit something hard.

Behind him, he heard a steady, ’Thud, Thud, Thud’ of something very large coming his way. Tony turned around slowly and watched as a large, heavily robed, figured, moved toward him. Beneath the dark emptiness of the cowl, the only thing visible was two, glowing red eyes.