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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 (5 of 6) (Edited, Revised, and COMPLETED!)
My heart
Title: An Iron Man Christmas Carol: A Love Story (5 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.

Sorry it took so long, guys - hope it's worth the wait!

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
Stave the Second
Stave the Third (part 1)
Stave the Third (part 2)
Stave the Fourth

An Iron Man Christmas Carol ~
A Love Story

Stave the Fifth

In which the protagonist of our story gets a second chance to make things right.

The pressure in Tony’s suit grew unbearable as he and Stane were dragged deeper into the lake. There had to be a bottom somewhere, but it felt like they were sinking on and on without end. He tried to struggle away from Stane, but the Iron Monger kept a death grip on him in spite of the holes in his suit, which had to mean water was seeping in.

There was only one chance, and it was risky. Despite the battle, Stane was his guide. Maybe he should just trust…

The image of Pepper being attacked by the Iron Monger appeared in his head, and he remembered Stane telling him not too long ago, what he would have done to Pepper, had Tony stayed dead.

’Hell no.’

Using all of the energy he had remaining in his suit, Tony fired off both of the repulsor beams in his boots, shooting upward and away from Stane as fast and as powerfully as possible. Leaving boots and helmet for last, he began manually stripping the armor from his body – a process that was difficult and slow without tools. Water began to fill the cavities as pieces of the shell fell away, making Tony work faster before the level climbed up over his mouth and nose.

As the momentum from the repulsor blasts began to die, Tony kicked off the boots. Looking upward, he tried to get a reading on how much further off the surface was, because it had to be close. They couldn’t have sunk that far.

What the HUD display showed made Tony’s stomach tighten with ice-cold fear. According to his sensors, there was no surface. The lake continued to rise above him into infinity with no end in sight.

Water was already beginning to fill the helmet, but he wasn’t ready to give up just yet. Kicking powerfully, Tony shot upward, desperate to get up, to get out, to get home and get to Pepper. It was a fight against the pull of the water, and he didn’t realize his nose was almost completely submerged along with his mouth until he drew in a deep pull of air and water came with it.

Taking a last, slow breath before he no longer could, Tony kept the helmet on until the water obscured his vision too and it became more of a hindrance than an aid. Yanking it off, he pushed it to one side and ignoring the burn beginning in his lungs, gave another big kick.

His vision blurred, and Tony realized he’d stopped swimming, floating instead, just drifting with the water’s flow. He wanted to scream; he almost did, but at the last moment, his oxygen deprived mind remembered why that would be a bad idea.

He’d lost his sense of direction; not sure if he was swimming up or down, Tony used the last of his energy to kick again, each stroke weaker than the last, but he managed to keep himself going longer than he thought he would by silently chanting the mantra, ’Pepper, Pepper, Pepper…’.

When he finally couldn’t hold off any longer, and water filled his lungs as he gasped for air, Pepper’s face was the last thought in his head.

Tony’s body spasmed in its’ death throes…

…and he jerked awake in his bed, sitting up fast and gasping for the air he needed.

He could have spent hours just breathing – something else Tony now realized he’d taken for granted far too long.

’Good morning, Mr. Stark. The time is six-oh-eight a.m. on December the twenty-fifth, two thousand ten. Happy Christmas, sir. The temperature is currently at fifty-one degrees Fahrenheit, with highs at fifty-seven and lows at forty-eight degrees. Rain is expected starting in the afternoon, with visibility…’

J.A.R.V.I.S. was working again. J.A.R.V.I.S. was working again. “J.A.R.V.I.S!” Tony interrupted the A.I.’s usual morning spiel. “Did you take the night off while the house turned into Grand Central Station, man?”

J.A.R.V.I.S. stopped. He sounded offended. ’I’m sorry, Mr. Stark, I’m afraid I don’t understand the question. I haven’t “been” anywhere, sir.’

“Never mind,” Tony put his feet on the floor, sliding them into his slippers. “Run a diagnostic on yourself and let me know if you find any abnormalities. What day did you say it was?” He had another moment to wonder, again, if he’d dreamt the whole thing.

’It’s Christmas Day, sir.’

Tony went completely still, the words of Yinsen, his father, his mother, even Stane, running through his head. Part of him wanted to believe that none of it was real, that it was just a very strange nightmare, but as he got out of bed and went to look out the window at the still darkened world beyond, a few things occurred to him.

One, whatever else was true, Tony could no longer deny that he was in love with Pepper Potts. He didn’t know if they were both destined to end up dead if he continued to say nothing, but if there was a chance that his stupidity would lead to her death, he needed to man up. He understood one thing very clearly: Tony knew why his future self would drink himself to death; living without Pepper just wasn’t an option.

Two, he… didn’t actually want to deny it anymore. He knew it meant an end to the carousel of women, and that he’d have to work through a lot of things before his past experiences with monogamy didn’t scare him from it. But he wanted Pepper, and not just in a physical way. He wanted her to be the woman who grew old with him, should he be so lucky, and he wanted to be the last man to make her heart beat faster. Tony wanted all of that, and he was terrified by how much he wanted it. But ghost or dream - that was what last night had been about… right?

Which led to number three; that if he was going to finally tell Pepper that he loved her, there was no time like the present. The longer he sat on it, the more chances he’d have to miss his opportunity, or talk himself out of it. Besides – if what his mother showed him were true, then today was the day Jesse was going to kiss his Pepper. Tony was not going to let that happen. Today was his day.

The wonder of the night just past washed over him and Tony felt a sudden euphoria flood his chest, like the water he’d just dreamt – it had been a dream, hadn’t it? – he’d been swimming though just minutes before.

Opening the door to his bedroom, Tony tore though the house, searching for remnants of his dream; some sign that his mother had actually been there and was not just a figment of his overworked, fevered imagination.

The food, jewelry, lingerie, birds, chocolates, candles – everything from before that had accompanied her presence were now gone, as much a phantom as his mother had been. There was the chair she had sat in while playing one of her favorite Christmas songs on the harp, clad in a beautiful dress of crimson and green. Now the chair stood vacant, and Tony’s memory of her there was so tangible that the fact that she was not where he’d hoped she’d be made him want to cry.

Sitting in her place and looking slowly around the room at the piano, at the fireplace ledge, and all the other surfaces that had only hours ago in his memory been laden with symbols of love, Tony’s hand dropped to his side and brushed against something hard and unfamiliar.

He kept his living spaces Spartan - clutter-free except for the lab, and he knew exactly what and where everything in his house was.

But Tony did not know was what he was touching or why it was there, until he lifted it from where it was tucked beneath the chair and lifted it onto his lap - where he saw that it was a wooden harp… his mother’s, to be exact.

Shaky fingers traced the gilt frame for exactly three seconds before Tony leapt to his feet, the harp placed delicately on the chair behind him for later consideration. The man of the house raced back up the stairs to his room, scrambling bodily over the bed for his cell phone and then hurtled into the closet, dialing awkwardly with one hand as he pulled on clothes with the other. His voice occasionally became muffled as he attempted to make plans for the day ahead, not well versed in doing so for himself, but determined that everything must be set up perfectly if he were going to do this right.

At the last minute, he remembered something else. “J.A.R.V.I.S., can you tell me where the nearest liquor store is that’s open today?” It was still early enough, he had plenty of time.

’There’s a Beverages & More on La Sal Boulevard at 3rd Street, Mr. Stark..’

“Great.” Grabbing a jacket, Tony jogged down to the lab and hopped in the Audi V8. He had one duty to fulfill before turning all of his attention to wooing Pepper, and it would require copious amounts of beer.

Rhodey wasn’t sure what surprised him most: that it was Tony knocking at his door just as brunch began, or that he had a keg of fine, imported ale on either side of him.

Tony looked slightly abashed, even putting his hands in his pockets and tucking his head. “Does the invite still stand? I thought about it, and I… I mean…” he took a deep breath. “I’d really like to celebrate with you guys for a while, if that’s okay.”

Still stunned, Rhodey grinned and offered his best friend a hand, pulling Tony into a backslapping hug. “I see no reason why it wouldn’t be.” Grabbing one of the kegs to help carry them to the kitchen, Rhodey called into the other room where the guests were gathered, “Hey, guess who decided to show after all? Though he’s foisting on us some a’ that fancy imported beer. Drink up, everybody; I don’t want none of this rich stuff around making my modest, domestic brews feel self-conscious or inferior.”

Happier than he imagined he would be at seeing and being received by old friends and being introduced to their wives, Tony paused a moment to retort, “Don’t blame me if your beer has identity problems, Platypus. You’re the one who can’t tell the difference between a stout and a lager. How are they supposed to know what they are if you don’t?”

The guests laughed as Rhodey sputtered a protest, but no one heard it.

He stayed only three hours, and was genuinely disappointed when the time came for him to go. Rhodey wanted to know what was so urgent that he had to leave so early for, and Tony only needed to say, “Pepper”, for his best friend to understand completely.

“Say no more, folks,” Rhodey fielded complaints for him. “You see before you a man on a serious mission. He’s off to woo a lady.” Rhodey twisted around to see Tony, where he was putting on his jacket. “You are going to woo her now, aren’t you? Please, God, finally?”

“Yes, yes,” Tony groused. His hand on the knob, he turned one more time, smirking at Rhodey. “But you don’t have to call me God. Tony’ll do.” And with a wink, he was out the door to the sounds of their friends plying Rhodey for information on Pepper.

Tony stood on Pepper’s doorstep a full minute before gathering the courage to ring the bell. It was the point of no return for him, here with little more than wood separating them. He’d resolved himself to the course of action he’d set for the day, and he had no doubts. What he did have was the incredibly vulnerable need to do this right, and while Tony considered himself a master at the game of seduction, he was almost a complete novice in the art of love and romance.

He was so lost in his thoughts that it surprised him when Pepper answered the door, though now he vaguely remembered pressing the button to announce himself.

She looked as radiant as Tony remembered her from his first visit, with his mother. The red of her dress was exactly his favorite color, and though she couldn’t have known he was coming, a part of him wished that she’d worn it just for him.

“Tony?” Pepper’s brow furrowed lightly, the way it always did when she was concerned. “Are you okay? Is everything alright?”

Tony smiled, trying not to fidget. From behind his back he drew a bouquet of blood red roses and milky white Asiatic lilies, holding them up like some sort of peace offering.

“Hi,” he exhaled, giving her a crooked, boyish smile. “Merry Christmas.”

Pepper looked startled, but she opened the door wider, accepting the flowers with a curious tilt of her head. “Merry Christmas,” she returned automatically, then looked up at him with a faint blush. “They’re beautiful, Tony. Thank you.” Wracking her brain, she tried to figure out a way to ask ‘what are you doing here?’ without sounding rude.

Not that she wasn’t glad to see him.

Fortunately, Tony spared her the effort. “I was hoping… I know I interrupted when you were offering… and I was an asshole…”

Pepper slowly raised an eyebrow, but remained quiet as he fumbled for words.

Tony frowned, frustrated by his inability to find the words he needed. He huffed a sigh and tried again. “If the offer still stands, I was hoping you’d allow me to spend Christmas with you.”

Surprised yet again, it took a few seconds longer for a smile to brighten her face than usual. “The offer still stands,” Pepper told him. “I’m just about to go volunteer at the Kitchen for a few hours, but after that…” she hesitated, looking at him. “Unless you want to come with me.”

Tony’s smile was blinding. “I’d love to. Are you ready to go now? Your chariot awaits.” He made a formal, shallow bow.

Feeling a little like she’d dropped through a rabbit hole, Pepper grinned, both at his agreement, and his show of gallantry. She hadn’t really expected him to say yes, although she wasn’t sure why. Tony did a great deal of charity work, so it wasn’t really unusual that he would agree.

Maybe it was because it was Christmas Day, a day he normally hibernated through, yet here he was, asking for her company and agreeing to do something with her, so completely at odds with his usual activities for that day. He could have been at home in his lab, or out somewhere with any number of women.

But he was in her home still waiting for an answer, so Pepper turned and grabbed her coat saying as she did, “Yes, I’m ready.”

Tony helped her into her coat while she continued to study him suspiciously and then led the way back outside, waiting while she locked the door.

“It’s not very far,” she told him. “You don’t have to drive, I usually just walk down the bea-“ Pepper stopped abruptly as she turned around, staring at the street beyond Tony.

In front of her house, there was a deep red carriage designed to look like a sleigh. A man in full livery, including a dark green coat with tails, shiny gold buttons and a top hat, stood next to the sleigh, obviously waiting to perform his duty.

Beside him, harnessed and attached to reigns of green leather adorned with bells, were a team of four white horses. Ebony blinders obscured anything happening on either side of them to prevent nervousness, and for the moment they simply waited, proud and happy to be outside.

Tony waited with far more patience than he usually showed, for her to say something.

Stunned, seconds ticked by before Pepper finally turned to meet Tony’s eyes. “It’s beautiful,” she breathed. “Amazing.”

Having grown up in Connecticut, it had taken Pepper a long time to adjust to Christmas without snow, or even any perceptible change in the seasons. Somehow, surfing on Christmas didn’t have the same magic for her as making snowmen and snow angels, and drinking hot cocoa and cider to fight off the chill afterward.

It was still a typical southern California day, but for just a moment, the familiar strain of ‘White Christmas’ drifted through her heart without the slightest hint of irony.

Tony watched her silently, his own heart tightening in his chest at the raw tenderness written all over her face. He hadn’t let himself consider what he would do if she didn’t love him in return, but in the span of her bated breath, he realized that to move on from this point without her was a far worse fate than the death he’d seen himself facing during the night.

Offering an arm, Tony gazed at her so intently that the pink in her cheeks moved down her throat and over her décolletage. His eyes followed the color exodus, but flicked back up to her eyes immediately.

“Ride with me?” he asked.

Something in his eyes broadcast his fear that she’d say no, and something else, right on the surface, caused a flutter of hope in her chest, like a caged bird. It was an emotion Pepper usually fought, along with several others, but right now she wasn’t thinking about that. Or anything else that didn’t have to do with Tony and a red sleigh.

“I’d love to.” Pepper said softly as she took his arm.

Emboldened by her acceptance, Tony turned slightly, cupping her cheek. A happy smile curved his lips, and the sincerity of it made Pepper’s breath catch in her throat. He slid his thumb along the ridge of her cheekbone, tempted to kiss her now, but held off.

Tony had kissed many women, but this would be his first time kissing Pepper, and he wanted it to be the kiss that turned all the clichés on their head. Her last first kiss; the one she’d always remember; the kiss by which all those before and after would be measured. He wanted it to be perfect, and he was willing to wait to make it so.

Covering the hand looped around his arm with his own hand, Tony led Pepper to the sleigh-shaped carriage. The driver had seen them coming, and stepped down to open the door and offer them a hand inside. Pepper thanked him with a shy smile, and Tony nodded, settling himself next to Pepper and spreading the faux fur blanket across their laps. The morning was cool and crisp, this close to the ocean, and though it wasn’t snowing, it was still perfect winter weather for snuggling. He put his arm around her, silently making the invitation.

The shelter wasn’t far, and Tony had given the address to the driver in advance, but he’d also instructed the man to take the scenic route. At first, Pepper seemed tense, unsure how to hold herself, so close to Tony, but as the cold began to seep further into her bones, she gradually succumbed to the lure of his body heat, leaning into him. Under the auspices of keeping her warm, Tony tightened his arm around her shoulders, rubbing her far bicep vigorously, and grinning at the shiver he was certain had nothing to do with the cold.

There was little conversation between them, and they made little eye contact, as though doing either would break the spell that had settled over them, and fantasy or not, neither wanted this thing that was happening to end.

By the time they got out of the Malibu hills, the sun was high and the weather much warmer, but neither Tony nor Pepper seemed inclined to pull out of the embraced they’d moved into on the ride down the Pacific Coast Highway, until they at last came to a stop in front of the church for which Tony had given the driver directions.

Pepper seemed more than a little surprised that Tony knew the destination of the place where she did her charity work, but Tony merely smiled cheekily and for once, she let him have his secrets.

He got down first from the carriage and offered her his hand and Pepper accepted it. Tony’s other hand came up to her waist to help her down and when she hit pavement, she found herself in his arms again. It was another moment in which he could have kissed her, yet Tony refrained once more. Instead, he wound a loose strand of hair around his finger and simply tucked it back behind her ear with the softest of smiles, reserved only for her.

Studying his face curiously, Pepper was going to ask what this was all about, when Jesse Howell appeared from the beach.

“Wow,” he said, eyes widening in surprise at the sight of the sleigh-carriage. “That’s something else.” His eyes darting from Pepper to Tony, who was grinning at him with unsuppressed glee, Jesse said to Pepper, “I stopped by your place on my way up the beach but I guess you were already gone.” He looked at Tony’s smug expression again. “Mind introducing me?”

“Oh!” Pepper turned the color of her dress and tried to step away from Tony, but he wasn’t having it; he just stepped in closer behind her, extending his hand out toward Jesse over her shoulder.

“Tony Stark,” he offered. He was tempted to put an arm around Pepper, or a hand on her waist, but he was struck by the sudden insight that something so proprietary would piss her off to no end.

Pepper was watching him closely and his instinct, for once, seemed to be right on the money. “Tony is my boss,” she told Jesse, smiling weakly between the two of them. “And my friend,” she added more confidently. “Tony, this is my friend Jesse Howell. Jesse is-“

“We’ve met, actually,” Tony interjected. “It’s been a long time, but we used to travel in the same circles, didn’t we Howell?”

Pepper seemed a little surprised by that fact, which made Jesse more that a little nervous. He hadn’t tried to hide his party boy past from her, but he had certainly hoped to play down the similarities between himself and her employer, not to mention their age differences. Tony just smiled serenely.

“Yes, before I cleaned myself up, I spent a lot of time with the same people you hang out with, Mr. Stark,” Jesse commented finally. “But those days are long behind me now. I spend most of my free time down at the Taverna now. You ever go?”

Tony shrugged. “To be honest, I haven’t been going out as much lately either. I spend my spare time in the lab though, so no, no Taverna either.” He looked at Pepper. “Although I hope to spend even less time out with the old crowd than ever, so who knows where I’ll be spending my time?”

Surprised, Pepper blinked at Tony a few times before saying, “We should go inside, shouldn’t we?”

Grinning widely, Tony just nodded and made a grand, sweeping gesture for her to lead the way, then stepped in front of Jesse to follow after her.

Pepper always enjoyed watching Tony do charity work. It always reminded her to schedule him for more of it, as opposed to forcing him to sit through meetings or something else he hated.

Neither she nor Tony were particularly religious, but Pepper had been doing work through this church with various charities for years now. In fact, there were several charities here today besides the Kitchen. While Pepper, Tony, Jesse and several other member of their team served soup, bread and other food items to the less fortunate, another group had a Santa Claus passing out presents to children, and yet another was offering free medical and dental exams.

Tony never complained about this sort of work, just rolled up his sleeves and dug right in. Whenever he looked up, Pepper was watching him with an increasingly tender expression on her face, which only reminded him that there was an added benefit to the good work he was doing here today.

To Pepper’s mind though, there was one thing that separated Tony from the rest of the volunteers – even men like Jesse. Both men were celebrities in their own right – Tony a billionaire industrialist, a superhero whose face was on magazines in every newsstand throughout the world. Jesse was a T.V. star and a musician who was easily recognized on any street corner. Both of them had been asked for their autograph more than once today, and were more than happy to give to their public.

But when Jesse went on his breaks and to eat his own meal, he went to sit in the back along with the rest of the volunteers.

Tony grabbed a bowl of soup and a hunk of bread from the same table as the people they were serving were being fed from and sat down on the floor between two boys with a fire engine.

“Hey,” he said, casually. “What’re you guys, up to?”

“Tryin’ ta get this engine ta work,” one of the boys answered, his face screwed up in concentration.

Tony frowned at the engine in the boy’s hands, studying it. “Mind if I try?”

It was at that moment Pepper knew her days of hiding her affections for Tony were over.

Getting her own food, she went to sit on the floor with Tony and the children, her nice dress be damned. Tony grinned at her when she joined them, but quickly returned his attention to the two boys and the fire engine, which was proving troublesome. Pepper wasn’t surprised to see that he had produced a miniature tool kit from somewhere, it’s unzippered halves lay open with a vacant spot for the screw driver he now held in his hands.

“Here’s your problem,” he bent forward to show the boys the empty battery hub. “Looks like somebody forgot to hook you up with some batteries for this guy.”

Pepper frowned. “There weren’t any taped to the package?” she asked. That was usually the way organizations tried to arrange things for gifts that required batteries. It wasn’t right to expect low-income families to have to provide things like that for gifts they couldn’t afford in the first place. She exchanged a look with Tony.

He was way ahead of her. Standing up, Tony raised his voice above the din of the dining hall. Speaking to all the families, he stepped up onto a bench so that he could be seen better and said, “Excuse me, ladies and gentlemen! If I could have your attention for just one second, that would be much appreciated.”

He waited until the noise died down. “I’m afraid there’s been a terrible mistake. We’ve got a young man up here who was given a present that requires batteries, but did not come with any. Now, I know this is an easy thing to over look, so I was wondering if maybe this had happened to anyone else this year. Come on now, don’t be shy; tell me what size battery you need, and how many – Pep, can you take notes?”

There was a pause as if the room froze, and then suddenly people realized what was happening. Someone passed Pepper a notepad and pen and within minutes the two of them had taken a quick inventory of how many batteries in what sizes where needed to make the various Christmas presents work.

With great solemnity, Tony deputized the two boys whose fire engine he’d been playing with and the three of them made an emergency run in the sleigh-carriage to the nearest open store, returning with enough batteries to power everything that lacked them, twice over.

Jesse was disgruntled. He’d had plans to romance Pepper that afternoon – or to kiss her, at least. But he knew his plans were futile as he watched her watch Tony Stark lift a small boy from the carriage with thick brown hair so messy it curled around his ears. The boy was carrying a plastic bag of batteries heavy enough to require both hands and his liquid brown eyes flashed with laughter in the exact same way as the man carrying him.

Pepper laughed as she watched the two of them, and in all the time Jesse had known her, he had never heard her sound quite so… happy; so hopeful.

“He’ll break your heart,” Jesse tried to warn her, to spare her what he considered inevitable agony.

Pepper’s smile didn’t falter, but she turned to him with eyes wide with innocence. “I have no idea what you’re talking about,” she fed him the official line. There was, of course, nothing going on between her and her employer… at least at the moment. If and when there was, they would figure out what to say to anyone and everyone then, but until that moment, it was her duty to maintain the status quo. However…

“But if I did know, and if there were anything to your speculations – I wouldn’t know that unless I tried, now would I?”

And with that, Pepper went to Tony’s side, where he had just returned the child to its’ mother and was now standing alone in the thinning crowd.

There were people all around them, but to Pepper, it felt as though they were standing alone in the middle of a rushing river. That was the only way to explain the movement all around them, as well as the sound. “That was a very noble thing you just did,” she said quietly.

Despite the noise, Tony heard her. He gave her a self-conscious half-shrug. “Couldn’t disappoint kids on Christmas,” he said. “Or you.”

“Let’s go home,” she heard herself suggesting, and by the hopeful, fearful look in his eyes, Pepper wondered if Tony was feeling just as lost and determined as she felt.

She took his hand.


“Do you mind?”

Pepper was surprised. “No, not at all. I didn’t have any plans, but…”

Tony’s palms were sweating. He was more nervous about this than any other part of his plan. “I’ve never done this before,” he confessed.

“I’ve seen you cook,” Pepper disagreed, soothingly.

“No, I mean… I’ve cooked – sort of.” Tony stood in the middle of Pepper’s kitchen, looking lost. “Just not like this. Not this actual meal.” He looked at her, his heart pounding in his chest.

“This is the meal my mother used to cook for us on Christmas Eve.” His voice was soft, and very subdued. Tony needed her to understand not just the importance of the meal to him, but the significance of his sharing it with her. “She never cooked on Christmas Day – she had Jarvis to do that, but she always cooked Christmas Eve dinner herself. I’m a little late, but I wanted to…” He smiled faintly and crookedly.

“I hope you like seafood.”

Pepper stood completely still throughout his explanation, one hand poised above her heart as she heard his words and finally understood exactly what he was telling her. Tears rose in her eyes as she crossed the room to stand in front of him, searching his eyes just as intently as he searched hers for his fate. Standing on tiptoe, she put her arms around his neck and gave him a moment to respond with his arms around her waist. Turning her head, Pepper leaned in to kiss him.

Now. He’d been waiting for his perfect moment, and it wasn’t going to get any better than this. It was so easy to tighten his arms around her and dip his head to take what was being offered. She was so sweet that he moaned softly, and it was as though he’d lived through several lifetimes in one night just to get to this moment with her right here. Tony knew many things, but he realized that the most important thing he knew, kissing Pepper, was that he was an idiot, and that he knew absolutely nothing if he’d been willing to let this - this - go. Now that he had it, he’d never be able to live without it again. Kissing her was like pressing a conch shell against his ear, and he wanted all of the good things he’d seen – her forever, marriage, a baby…

But for now, just Pepper, and Pepper’s mouth, her scent, her taste, and the feel of Pepper’s body against his.

Pepper’s breath was feathery against his face and he opened his eyes to see hers sharp and loving staring back at him. “We’ll make it together,” she whispered shakily, all but hanging from him, supported by his arms around her. It took him a minute to realize she was talking about the food and not with some prescient knowledge of the future. “It’ll be a new tradition.”

Tony’s smile was so bright it could have lit her villa on fire. “Merry Christmas, Pepper,” he said, brushing a hand through her hair affectionately. “I’m going to buy you another da Vinci; without you, I truly would be lost.”

Her own smile growing to match his, Pepper levered up to steal another kiss. She had always believed in Christmas miracles and somehow, she had gotten one of her very own. She didn’t know how or why, but she would be forever grateful for it. “Merry Christmas, Tony. And God bless us, everyone.”