Disclaimer: Most of the characters and situations in this story belong to Marvel Comics, Fairview Entertainment, Dark Blades Films, and other entities, and I do not have permission to borrow them. No infringement is intended in any way, and this story is not for profit. All others belong to me, and if you want to borrow them, you have to ask me first. Any errors are mine, all mine, no you can't have any.

Cincoflex gave me a challenge. You know what happens when she does that...

Note: Rhodey's card does exist, sort of. The link is on my site.

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Pepper hesitated a long moment before setting the envelope on Tony's workbench. It was definitely crossing a line, and while lines had been crossed before, she wasn't at all sure what the consequences would be this time.

But...it felt right. And now, six months after his return from captivity, an acknowledgment seemed in order.

An acknowledgment of what, Pepper wasn't quite able to articulate, even in her mind's own privacy. But she left the card where she'd put it and headed back upstairs, careful not to wake Tony where he lay snoring softly on his battered couch.

He'd find it in the morning.


2006

"Holy shit, how many of these are there?" Tony collapsed onto the other end of the couch and stared at the stacks of cards Pepper was sorting.

"At last count, eighty-three." As Tony picked one up, she made a mental note as to its proper location; odds were he wouldn't put it back where he'd found it.

Tony flipped it open. "Best wishes for the holidays and a happy new year. Signed, the Orkuts. Do I even know these people?"

Pepper sliced open another envelope and set the paper knife aside. "I believe Dr. Orkut was a joint patent holder with your father."

Tony snorted and scooped up a handful, paging through them. "All the blessings of the season. Merry Christmas. Celebrate. Happy holidays. Merry dies natalis solis...invicti...what the hell?"

He held up the card, which showed a shocked-looking cartoon bull being menaced by a hamster with a knife. "You'll have to ask Rhodey," Pepper said, scribbling in her notebook. "It's from him."

"Ye-ah." Tony set the cards down. "Why do these people send me Christmas cards? I don't send them cards, do I?"

"Actually, your cards went out last week, on the tenth," Pepper answered, adding another name to next year's list. "You had a tree theme this year."

Tony slumped back against the cushions. "Don't do that. It only encourages them." When she didn't answer, he sighed and waved at the piles. "What are these?"

Clearly he was bored. Pepper set down her clipboard, a little bored herself and willing to distract him for a bit. "The biggest stack is cards from business contacts. The second is family friends." Most of them friends of his parents, in fact, rather than Tony himself. "The third is the one I give you to answer."

The third stack was the smallest, but it contained cards from people he genuinely cared about, such as Rhodey and Obadiah. Pepper still had to bully him into writing messages in the cards, most years, but at least those contained a personal touch.

Tony picked up the third stack and started reading, and Pepper opened another envelope. It was a strange task, in a way--Tony got so many, but ignored the vast majority of them, and she could see why. Christmas greetings from board members and competing companies were business tradition, but rather empty gestures.

"You get any?" he asked abruptly after a few minutes of silence had passed. Pepper slid a card back into its envelope.

"A few." She wasn't about to mention that she had no family left to receive cards from, or send to for that matter. There was no card from her in the pile of personal ones, but that was because she always left hers on the piano on Christmas Eve.

She never got one in return, but it was always gone when she came back on the 26th, so she knew he at least picked it up. He did usually remember to get her a present, though, if he wasn't too drunk, and it was always expensive and beautiful and just this side of inappropriate. Pepper had long since realized there was no point in arguing.

Tony finished reading and put the cards down, squaring them as precisely as possible given that they were different sizes. "Christmas," he mused. "Why do people send Christmas cards and not, say, Thanksgiving? Or Fourth of July?" He scratched his jaw. "Arbor Day?"

"Some people do send Thanksgiving cards," she replied absently, slipping her thumb into a bulgy card so as not to set off the obnoxious audio device inside. "I don't think the card industry has convinced anyone to do Arbor Day yet, though."

She wasn't quite successful; the card began a plinky recital of "Jingle Bells". Pepper glanced quickly at the message and name, and snapped the card shut, cutting off the tune. Tony sat up, though, eyes alight. "Hey, what was that? Let me see."

With a soundless sigh, Pepper handed it over. Tony immediately opened the card, listening with every evidence of fascination, and Pepper set her teeth to endure as he spent the next few minutes playing with it, opening and closing the card and snickering as it started over. Finally he pulled it to pieces, and she relaxed; the noise disappeared as he disassembled the device itself.

"New Year's no, unless it's a combo," he said idly. "What's the next holiday?"

"Martin Luther King, Jr.'s birthday, and no," Pepper replied.

"President's Day, no, Valentine's Day yes." Tony snickered once more, playing with the microchip. "Do you get a lot of valentines, Potts?"

"A few," she said again, keeping her voice easy. It really depended on who she was dating at the time, but she wasn't about to go into detail--Tony could be such a nine-year-old sometimes.

"Ooh, mysterious." He dropped the mangled device onto the table, in between the piles. "You know, I've never gotten a valentine."

That made her blink. Pepper looked up at him, puzzled, because he got a handful every year. Granted, they were from strangers who nurtured crushes, but--

"I'm not talking about the nutjobs." Tony waved that off. "I mean, I have never in my life received a valentine from someone I actually know."

That seemed a little odd to Pepper, but perhaps the private schools he'd attended as a child hadn't done the class valentine exchange she remembered. "Well," she said cautiously, "your lifestyle isn't exactly conducive to valentines."

"True." He yawned. "And that's just the way I like it."

Pushing to his feet, he picked up the personal ones, then picked through his original stack until he found the one with the bull. "Jarvis?" he asked, wandering off towards the stairs. "What do a cow and a hamster have to do with Christmas?"

If Jarvis answered, Pepper didn't hear him.


2009

The mansion was silent on the morning of February 14. It was Saturday, but that made little difference; Pepper usually spent at least a third of her weekend working, if not longer.

"Jarvis, where is Tony?" she asked, heading for her home office and wondering if he'd taken off for the East Coast and another Avengers meeting. I wish he'd go to SI meetings that willingly--

"He is testing the engine of his latest acquisition," Jarvis replied. "He said to inform you that he will be home for lunch."

Pepper shook her head slightly and plugged her laptop in. Tony was far more likely to not turn up until dinner--if then. "I could have done this from home," she muttered.

Jarvis didn't reply. Pepper gave a mental shrug and booted up her machine, already focusing on the tasks ahead of her. E-mail triage, for instance, would take at least forty-five minutes...

But a part of her was still wondering uneasily about Tony's reaction to the card she'd left him the night before. It had been something of an impulse, and not one she would have considered the year before, but somehow the fact that he'd never received a genuine valentine seemed sad to Pepper. Everyone needs to know that they're important to someone, once in a while.

It had taken her a little searching to find a card she considered appropriate--in other words, a card from one friend to another. Certainly not that of a lover, or even a potential lover. His half-serious proposition was months in the past, and he'd never said another word.

Pepper's sensible side had written it off as impulse on his part. But she still wished that he'd been serious.

Tony still hadn't returned by noon, but deep in work, Pepper didn't notice until her phone rang. It was Tony's ringtone.

She scooped it up without taking her eyes from the screen in front of her. "Yes, Mr. Stark?"

"This thing crapped out on me," he said. "Blown gasket, I think. Grab your keys and come get me."

Pepper would have argued, but she knew that Happy was off for the weekend--she'd scheduled his vacation time herself. Slightly annoyed, she consigned a good two hours of the afternoon to loss. "Where are you?"

Ten minutes later she was parking her Audi just to the right of the small classic convertible, which was situated on a scenic overlook up the coast. The view was spectacular, and Pepper thought as she climbed out of her car that the parking job of his was a bit too neat--but then, this was Tony Stark. If anyone could wrestle a dying car into just the angle he wanted, Tony could.

He was still sitting in the driver's seat, wearing a suit but no tie, the shirt open at his throat. It wasn't quite his usual Saturday outfit, but Pepper paid it no mind. "Still no luck?" Pepper asked as she approached.

He shook his head, and leaned over to open the passenger door. "Have a seat."

Pepper obeyed, sliding into the low seat with ease and automatically closing the door after her. The top was down, and the breeze off the ocean ruffled her hair gently.

Tony was silent for a few minutes, apparently taking in the view; he was squinting slightly, his sunglasses tossed on the dash. Finally he sighed, and reached into his breast pocket. When his hand came out, it was holding a familiar envelope.

Pepper froze. All of a sudden her little gesture seemed way too huge, too significant. Tony's face was blank, almost grim, and she wondered wildly if she'd just blown their relationship--professional or friendly or both--out of the water.

Tony tapped the envelope nervously against his thigh. Pepper almost opened her mouth to apologize, but then closed it again, a wave of stubbornness firming her resolve. If he wants to fire me, he'll have to say it out loud. She lifted her chin and stared out to sea.

Warm fingers touched her cheek, turning her face back to him, and Tony's wide dark gaze caught hers. "You know, Potts, I was beginning to think you were going to make me wait forever."

The words were teasing, but his tone was soft and shaky. And then his hand was sliding into her hair and his lips were on hers, a tender, eager caress that spoke of a hungry soul.

In that instant of surprise, Pepper thought about trying to explain that she'd just meant the card to be a friendly gesture--

Screw it. Some things, he doesn't need to know.

She leaned closer and kissed him with all her heart. And as Tony pulled her into his lap and kept on kissing her, Pepper figured her heart was safe.

End.