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. All others are mine, particularly Cedric, and if you want to borrow them, you have to ask me first. No infringement is intended in any way, and this story is not for profit. Any errors are mine, all mine, no you can't have any.
More Christmas fluff. Cincoflex is the best of betas and the best of friends, and I owe this one to her!
The Toys for Tots Website is not very good, but if you want to emulate Tony (on a smaller scale, of course) you can start there.
Tony Stark was thinking snow.
Not skiing, not mountaintops high above his warm seacoast; no, he was thinking whole vistas of snow, fields and forests whitened, blinding in the sun or glittering under the moon, or even silently growing as more flakes floated down. A strange thought, perhaps, for a man who made his home where it never froze, and who had sworn off cold after spending three months trying to keep warm in a mountain's heart. But a random word had set him pondering, and now his mind spun in, focusing beyond his mental landscape to the crystals that made it up.
He knew the principles behind the formation of snowflakes, and had a pretty decent grounding in the weather that formed them. Now he tilted back his office chair and let his mind work on the idea of snow, each flake individual and beautiful. On the conditions required to create them, the variations that nature offered, the possibilities.
It had been Cedric's fault, in the end. Tony hadn't meant to eavesdrop, and certainly there was nothing private in his office manager's idle conversation with Pepper. All they'd been doing was discussing the upcoming holiday season, and Pepper had remarked in passing that she missed seeing snow now and then.
Sometimes it was hard for Tony to remember that she had grown up on the East Coast, where snow was a not infrequent event. It wasn't that he hadn't experienced the stuff himself; as a child he'd lived for a time in New York City, and he still remembered its winters. And he'd seen it in other times and places, enjoyed romping in it--the snow sculpture contests in college had been a highlight of his time there.
But for the past decade or so the closest he got was the occasional trip to a winter resort, and usually only when the weather was fine. He encountered it sometimes during his missions, but it was more of a complicating factor than anything else--a threat to visibility.
But Pepper's words, with their hint of wistfulness, had sparked him. If Pepper missed snow, then by all means she should have some. And while Tony would gladly sweep her up and fly her anywhere she wanted, Canada, New England, Switzerland, Mongolia--Antarctica if those weren't enough--she wouldn't let him.
He sighed, and spun slowly around to look out over the Stark Industries campus. The cleanup after the arc reactor blowout had finally been finished, though they were still running the place on the backup generators; the new reactor was still in production, which was not exactly sped by Tony's constant improvements to the plans. But the place looked shipshape once more, ready for its new directions.
That was satisfactory. Tony's relationship with his personal assistant, however, was not.
He didn't know what to do. Tony figured he'd made himself pretty clear the day of his explosive press conference, and to his guilty dismay Pepper had made herself clear right back. But he didn't know how to make his dereliction up to her. An apology wasn't going to be enough, but he had no clue how to proceed.
Tony Stark was an expert in wooing a woman's body. He had no idea how to woo a woman's heart.
Still, he liked to hope that he was making progress, as blind as he was. He'd tried to cut down on the cruder innuendo, though there was no way he was ever going to stop teasing Pepper. And he'd started paying more attention. Tony didn't know how to have a relationship, but he figured practice wouldn't hurt. And so he indulged himself, doing what he wanted to do--making her stop work when she was exhausted, making sure she ate, making her smile whenever possible. It was a strange sensation, wanting to take care of someone. He'd never felt that way before.
Well, once, but he didn't like to think about that newborn protective instinct so quickly snuffed.
He wanted to care for Pepper, to cherish her the way she deserved. And while she often looked puzzled at his actions, she usually let him do it.
However, that didn't include carrying her off for a Christmas in the snow somewhere.
So if you can't take her to the snow, bring the snow to her.
Slowly Tony began to grin. Spinning his chair back around, he woke his computer and began roughing out schematics.
"Sign all the flagged pages," Pepper said, setting down a sheaf of papers on Tony's desk. "And Shanaya in Programming wants to double-confirm with you about the holiday party."
"What's the matter?" Tony asked, flipping pages and scribbling hasty signatures. "We do this every year."
"And every year you up the budget by about twenty-five percent," Pepper noted with amusement. "Shanaya's a frugal soul. It makes her nervous."
Tony snorted. "I hate cheap parties. That reminds me, when are we scheduled to do the Toys for Tots thing?"
"December tenth." Pepper smiled. "Do you want to go to F.A.O. Schwartz again this year?"
"Nah, let's stay local for once." Tony looked up at her. "Make the usual arrangements--I don't care where, as long as it's big."
Her smile grew, and Tony grinned back. The annual expedition to a toy store was one they both loved. "You're coming along, right?" he added, just to make sure. "I can't pick out all the girly stuff myself."
"Of course." Pepper tapped the papers, and Tony went back to signing. "Are you asking Rhodey along this year?"
"Might as well if he's in town, he said something about taking leave." He glanced over the last few pages, decided they were fine, and signed them as well.
"I think that's later. He's planning on going home for Christmas, I believe." Pepper gathered up the papers.
"Good for him." Tony tossed the pen onto his desk and sat back, feeling slightly petulant. Rhodey used to invite Tony home with him on his infrequent leaves, but after the last time Rhodes' mother had declared that Tony was not welcome back, ever. He still felt a little embarrassed about that one, even if he couldn't remember all the details, though he'd had Pepper send a very lavish apology bouquet. "When's the party again?"
"The nineteenth. And just so you know, I threw out the mistletoe headband you wore last year." Pepper's expression was a blend of humor and annoyance.
Tony smirked up at her. "Trust me, Ms. Potts, I'm a lot more discriminating now. There's only one lady I'd like to catch beneath the mistletoe."
As he'd expected, a crimson flush ran up Pepper's neck to her cheeks. She cleared her throat. "Will that be all, Mr. Stark?"
"That will be all," he allowed, delighted, and let her retreat. The mere fact that she couldn't seem to riposte his more pointed flirting any more gave him hope.
Christmas. Tony tugged at his tie, in lieu of tapping his arc reactor, and thought. Stark Industries threw huge holiday parties every year for all its employees, closing everything down on Friday afternoon so everyone could attend, and the biggest one was at Headquarters. In the past Tony had occasionally dropped in at one of the others somewhere around the world, but this year he intended to be on the spot, to snag a dance with Pepper. More than one, if he was sneaky enough.
Christmas is supposed to be romantic, right? Tony wondered if he could use the season to lure her closer to him. He'd buy her a beautiful dress, bring her hot cocoa with candy canes stuck in it, let her pick out the Christmas tree she always insisted on putting up in his living room...
He wondered abruptly what had happened to the ornaments that had decorated the trees of his childhood. After his parents' death Tony had pretty much given up personally celebrating the holiday--he went to parties, sure, and had Pepper send out cards and gifts, but he usually spent Christmas either blind drunk or working so hard in the workshop that he forgot what day it was.
The tree Pepper ordered was always beautifully decorated with a perfect, impersonal array of color-matched baubles, never the same from year to year. But when his mother was alive, the tree was crowded with ornaments that meant something--heirlooms, some of them, but others just fun or sentimental or beautiful.
In fact, Tony remembered with a start, she used to take him out every year to some store and have him pick out the one he liked best, never showing impatience when it took him time to choose, or arguing with his decision. And his father would wire the tree with the lights before they decorated it, a sparkling array that twinkled in patterns and sequences--Tony had designed a timer at age twelve that would let him program just about any pattern he liked. Though his mother hadn't been amused when he'd had it spelling out rude words...
Tony shook his head, smiling at the memory. It was bittersweet; it had been a long time since he'd let himself think about those Christmases. He'd made a point of avoiding the actual holiday since his parents' deaths, he realized, though he hadn't always been conscious of it. And he didn't even know where those ornaments were, though he was sure Pepper had them listed on an inventory somewhere.
But this year he wanted to celebrate. He wanted to celebrate with Pepper. To share Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, with someone special, to maybe even start a new tradition or two.
Maybe we can buy a couple of ornaments.
"Yeah, sure, I'll come along," Rhodes said around a mouthful of pulled pork. His eyes were hidden by his sunglasses, but he was pleased, Tony could tell. "It's always a blast stripping the shelves."
"Good. Pepper's making the arrangements, you can get the details from her." Tony sipped his beer and shoved with one foot, hitching himself back up the hood of the limo. The view wasn't bad--the car was pointed towards the beach, and the eye candy was worth seeing despite the coolness of the season. Though Tony found that his eyes kept searching the crowd of scantily-clad beachgoers for a tall redhead...
Lunch together had been Rhodey's suggestion, but Tony had voted for the barbecue stand, and it hadn't taken much to convince Rhodes. Tony knew that the footmarks they were leaving on the shiny hood of the limo would be gone by sundown, polished away by Happy's diligence, but the chauffeur wasn't a fusser and was currently standing a few yards away, calmly eating his own sandwich. Hogan appreciated good barbecue as much as his employer did.
"You going home for Christmas?" Tony asked casually.
Rhodes nodded, and reached for a napkin. "Got it all arranged. Try to avoid having a crisis, will you? I hate it when they call me back."
Tony snorted and picked up his sandwich again, not rising to the bait. "Relax, I have plans."
"Yeah?" Rhodes regarded him with mild interest. "Let me guess, the Firan triplets are throwing a party in Paris again?"
"You still jealous about that?" Tony took a bite and chewed, remembering the glamorous trio of French blondes whose fêtes were the high water mark of the Paris ultra-wealthy. Tony had let them captivate him for three whole days a few years back, though he couldn't remember where he'd ended up celebrating New Year's afterwards.
"Not my type." Rhodes rolled his eyes. "So what are your plans?"
Tony swallowed, and decided that Rhodey's propensity to tease him was outweighed by his need for advice. "Pepper."
Rhodes paused with his beer halfway to his mouth and regarded Tony for a long moment. "You serious?" he said finally.
"Deadly." Tony poked at his sandwich, not quite willing to meet his old friend's eyes.
"No, I mean serious serious. Because if you just want to treat her like a fling--"
"Give me some credit," Tony said, irritated. "Pepper is--Pepper is the best thing that's ever happened to me. She's...everything. I just need to convince her."
Rhodes laughed. "Yeah, sure, that's all. No, I get you, and I thought you'd never wake up and smell the coffee, but are you sure she's into you that way? I mean, she rides your ass all day. If there ever was any mystery, it's gone."
Tony remembered the time she'd almost kissed him, her blushes, her reddened eyes when he'd come home. The way the air between them hummed with sweet tension when they got too close. "Yeah. I'm sure."
"Okay, then, go for it." Rhodes leaned over and punched him on the shoulder. "'Bout time. Just be careful, Tony."
"Thanks for your permission, Dad," Tony snarked, and drank some more beer.
"I guess I won't ask her if she wants to come with me, then," Rhodes went on. "She was saying she wanted to do something different for Christmas this year, and my sisters like her."
"Yeah, I appreciate that." Tony sighed. "The thing is, I don't really know how to do this."
He expected Rhodes to mock him genially, but instead his friend nodded. "I'm not surprised. You've never been serious before, have you?"
Tony just shrugged, and kept eating. The wind was picking up, and he didn't feel like having a genuine sand-wich.
Rhodes crumpled his napkin. "First time for everything, I suppose."
Tony swallowed and kept his eyes on the beach. He was never going to hear the end of this. "Any advice?"
"What, me?" Rhodes snickered. "Based on what? It's not like my record's all that great."
Tony blinked at this. He hadn't really thought about it, but Rhodey was right; the colonel had had a few long-term relationships, but nothing that had really panned out. Rhodes went on. "All I can tell you is, don't do what you'd do for any other woman."
Tony squinted at him. "Oh, yeah, that's clear."
"No, I mean--Pepper's Pepper. She's a lot more solid than your usual type. Whatever you do for her, it's got to mean something." Rhodes finished his beer. "Besides, she orders all the stuff you give your girls. You gotta be different."
"Yeah, that much I got." Tony wanted Pepper to know she wasn't like his other, casual conquests. And even he could see that giving her the same sort of expensive, meaningless bauble was a very bad idea.
I just don't know what I should give her. Because he wanted to give her something. Hell, he wanted to give her everything, most importantly himself, if she could be persuaded to take him. Guess I have to start smaller than that.
Thoughtfully, he looked out to sea.
The big Toys 'R Us store was closed for the evening, but all its lights were still on. Tony straightened out of the limo and looked up at the tall windows, grinning in anticipation. "Where's the truck?"
Pepper, also smiling, let Happy help her out of the vehicle. "At the loading dock. It got here five minutes ago."
"There you are." Rhodey came striding over to them, looking informal in jeans and a sweatshirt instead of his uniform. "We ready?"
"Let's go." Tony started towards the store, glancing back over his shoulder. "Coming, Hogan?"
"Soon as I lock up, sir," the chauffeur said, closing the limo doors.
"Don't forget the cart." Tony glanced over at Pepper, who was tucking her BlackBerry into her pocket. She too was less formally dressed, in dark slacks and a soft green sweater, and her shoes had chunky heels instead of narrow ones. Excitement made her eyes starry, and Tony took a moment to admire her.
The store's manager was waiting to open the door for them, his glee barely contained behind a professional demeanor. "Mr. Stark, it's an honor."
Tony shook his hand, smiling. "I hope Ms. Potts gave you enough warning. I don't want to leave you without any stock."
"Oh yes, we have three deliveries coming tomorrow." The manager waved expansively at the store. "I've got four cashiers ready."
"Good, good." Tony swept towards the aisles. "Let's get started."
The routine was familiar. Pepper grabbed a cart, and the three of them started at one end of the huge store. They bypassed the baby stuff, but all the other aisles were on their map, each section gone through thoroughly and with great enjoyment. Tony was likely to dump in anything that caught his fancy, while Rhodey put more thought into it and Pepper sometimes quietly removed things from the cart as the guys dropped them in, but for the most part it was a toy extravaganza, with Hogan trading full carts for empty ones and taking each load to a waiting cashier.
"I don't know," Rhodey said doubtfully as he and Tony examined a robot dinosaur. "It looks kind of...wimpy."
"It's a planteater, platypus, it's supposed to be wimpy." Tony held up the box, peering at the contents through its plastic window. "I could design something better than this in ten minutes, but it's pretty cool anyway."
Rhodey snorted and plucked the box from Tony's hands, dumping it into the cart, and Tony maneuvered the cart flush with the shelf so he could shove a dozen more boxes in with one sweep of his arm. "Hey, where'd Pepper go?" He raised his voice. "Pepper?"
"I'm in the bike section," she called back, and Tony pushed the cart around the end of the aisle. She stood before the racks of two-wheelers, staring up at the ones hung above her head.
"Want me to get one of the employees?" Rhodey offered, and Pepper smiled over her shoulder.
"Yeah, I think that's a good idea." She made a quick note on her BlackBerry, and Tony abandoned the cart to slip up and peer over her shoulder.
"How many are you going for this year?" he asked.
Pepper frowned judiciously. "I'm not sure, I want to ask the manager if they're getting more in tomorrow--there's no point in leaving some poor kid disappointed Christmas morning because we cleaned out the stock."
As if summoned, the manager appeared at her other elbow; Tony suspected him of hovering one aisle to eavesdrop in a fit of profit ecstasy. "Actually, yes we are, Ms. Potts." His smile was smarmy, and Tony suspected that he would cheerfully lie if it would please her, but he wasn't showing any signs of falsehood.
"We'll take 'em all, then," Tony grinned, waving at the rows, and Pepper rolled her eyes.
"We will not. However--" As one of the store's workers came up, Pepper turned to him, and Tony grabbed the cart and moved on to the next aisle, still grinning.
It wasn't the absolute best three hours of Tony's year, but it was arguably among the top ten, and he enjoyed it to the hilt, making Pepper handle the doll aisle and ignoring her grumbles about the toy industry's conviction that pink was the only color for girls. She came out with a cart piled just as high as the others, anyway, and a smile hovering, and that was plenty.
Plucking a sparkly plastic tiara from the top of her heap, he placed it on her head, ignoring her batting hand, and smirked. "I hereby crown you Princess of the Pink Aisle."
Pepper, laughing, snatched up an equally sparkly wand and threatened him with it. "Careful, Mr. Stark, or I'll turn you into a toad."
"Then you'll just have to kiss me to turn me back." He leered genially at her and dropped a tiara onto his own head, which made her laugh harder. "What, not my style?"
Rhodey and Happy, rounding the corner of the aisle, took in this tableau. Rhodey snickered loudly, while Happy merely smirked slightly and swapped out Pepper's full cart for an empty one, trundling the fresh load away. "Is there something I should know about?" Rhodey asked.
"Yeah, I'm secretly the King of Malibu, and you're my court jester." Tony straightened the tiara, which was too small and hence tended to slip. "Pepper, do you think we can find him a cap and bells around here somewhere?"
"All right, that's enough." Rhodey grabbed the tiara from Tony's head. "I'm dethroning you before you think you can start inflicting taxes on people or something."
Tony swiped at him, and missed. "Revolution! The peasants are revolting!" Rhodey backed out of range, grinning, and Tony dove at him. "And I can vouch for the revolting part, platypus."
"Boys! I have a wand and I know how to use it." Pepper's voice was laughing but firm, and Tony glanced back from trying to reach the tiara where Rhodey held it out of reach. She was flushed with amusement, the cheap plastic rhinestones glittering on her hair and the wand upraised, and for an instant he was taken with the vision of her wearing a real one, with how true silver and genuine diamonds would grace her face and form, as they should be so ornamented.
"I don't want to be a toad," Tony said regretfully, lowering his reaching arm, and Rhodey sighed.
"Me neither." He tossed the tiara into the empty cart. "Race you to the sports aisle."
"Last one there has to buy the pizza." Tony took off, Rhodey pounding behind him, and they went to plunder the gloves and skates and balls, but the image of Pepper's shining hair adorned with jewels drifted to the back of Tony's mind and stayed there.
By the time they were done, the shelves looked like the aftermath of Black Friday, and the manager was all but incoherent with delight. The cashiers were grinning themselves, particularly after Tony asked them for recommendations, and the Stark Industries eighteen-wheeler backed up to the loading dock was nicely full. Tony plucked one of the robot dinosaurs from the last cart and swiped his card at each of the manned registers, then walked out with Rhodey and Pepper; Hogan had returned to the limo as soon as the last cart was delivered to the truck.
"Meet you at All-Night Dwight's?" Rhodey asked, and at Pepper's nod bumped fists with Tony and jogged off to his car. Tony sighed happily.
"That was a good one. Where's the food?"
"Here it comes." Pepper pointed to the car pulling up to the store. The magnetic sign on the door proclaimed it a delivery vehicle of the same Dwight's, and Tony nodded with satisfaction. It had been Pepper's suggestion originally, but it made sense to Tony; if he was going to have employees coming into the store outside of hours, it was only polite to offer them a calorie bonus. No one had yet turned down the pizza feast.
As they waited for Happy to bring the limo around, Tony reached over and took Pepper's hand, squeezing it gently. "Have I ever told you how much I appreciate you handling all the girly stuff for me, Potts?"
"Every year," she said, dimpling. "But it's always nice to hear it again." And to his delight, she didn't pull away, instead, letting her hand lie in his for the few seconds it took for the limo to reach them. Tony had to let go to open the door for her, and regretted it.
Their very late dinner was a merry meal. All-Night Dwight's lived up to its name and in addition served good pizza, and they sat around one of the big tables and laughed, discussing the various toys and playing with the dinosaur. Tony borrowed a pen from Pepper and started scribbling notes on a paper napkin about possible improvements, and finally looked up to see Pepper and Rhodey in their annual post-toy-bash battle of the pinball machines.
Oh, this I've gotta watch.
He left his paper scraps behind and went over to the game nook. There were no other customers at this point in the very early morning, and the two servers behind the counter were occupying themselves with a book and a Game Boy, ignoring the whoops and pings coming from across the room.
Tony shoved his hands in his pockets and leaned against a vintage Ms. Pac-Man machine to observe. Rhodey and Pepper had a long-standing rivalry that they only exercised once a year, and it seemed to him that they stored up all their aggression for this moment, shouting insults at each other over the games' noise and laughing out loud. He grinned, and watched.
Rhodey had a fighter pilot's reflexes, of course, but Pepper had the edge in judging vectors, and Tony found his eyes straying to her more and more often. She was always beautiful to him, but bent over the machine, her cheeks flushed and her hair loose, she was enticing and adorable too. His libido wanted to go over and snuggle up behind her, but Tony told it to shut up for the moment, and simply enjoyed.
It was always a hard-fought battle. Tony knew he could join in if he wanted, but pinball had never been one of his passions, and anyway watching was more fun. Last year Rhodey had won, but as the points mounted Pepper drew ahead, ignoring Rhodey's trash talk and keeping her eyes fixed on the shining silver ball.
Then Rhodey shoved too hard against his machine, setting off the tilt alarm. The oath that came out of his mouth made Tony laugh. "It's a good thing there aren't any kids in here or you'd get us thrown out."
"Huh." Rhodey smacked the flippers one last, futile time, and pushed away with a huff. "Damn over-sensitive machine."
"You keep telling yourself that," Pepper taunted softly, never taking her gaze from her own game. She was already ahead in points, but she kept playing, hammering in the victory, and Rhodey grinned reluctantly, crossing his arms and watching her go.
She was definitely in the zone, Tony thought. The two of them limited themselves to three games apiece, winner best two out of three, but Pepper was taking her third game to a new height; the ball seemed to be under her complete control, always zipping exactly where she wanted it to go. Tony had seen it before, even experienced it; the timeless space where consciousness narrowed to the task at hand, and the brain sped up to encompass all its possibilities.
Pepper played for almost ten minutes more, finally hitting one flipper a fraction of a second too late and hissing as the ball slid past and into the depths of the machine. She straightened, blowing out a breath, and Tony applauded, Rhodey joining in.
"Seriously impressive, Potts!" Tony came closer as the machine rattled and rang, offering Pepper the opportunity to enter her initials in the score record. She hadn't broken the highest score--Tony suspected that belonged to one of the kind of players who played for hours every day--but she was third, far outstripping the fourth-place score.
She shook her head, laughing, and punched in her initials, then held out a hand to Rhodey. "Nice game."
He shook it, still grinning. "Just wait 'til next year, Miss Pepper."
Tony snickered. "Going to practice while you wait?"
Rhodey made a rude gesture in his direction, and Pepper laughed again and rubbed her wrist. Tony frowned. "Something wrong?"
"Nah, my hand cramped up. That's why that ball got past." Pepper didn't look concerned, but Tony reached out and took her hand in both of his, fingers rubbing at the tendons in her slender wrist. "Hey!"
"Hold still. Can't have you coming down with carpal tunnel syndrome, Potts."
"Yeah, you'd go nuts if you couldn't text," Rhodey put in, looking amused.
Pepper glared at them both and pulled her hand firmly from Tony's grasp. "Having won this year's round of pinball madness, I hereby declare the last slice of pizza mine," she said haughtily, and stalked away.
Snickering, the two men followed.