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.
"What on earth is this 'decoration project', and why did you have to completely screw up my schedule to fit it in?" was Pepper's demand on Monday morning when she arrived in his office, and Tony grinned at her. She had brought him espresso anyway, and he took the cup with a flourish.
"Hey, I just omitted the middleman, so to speak--usually I just don't show up to things. This way you know ahead of time." Actually, he'd been careful--the stuff he'd moved was nothing that couldn't be rescheduled. There was no point in making her actually furious.
And she seemed more exasperated than anything else. As he drank, Tony wondered if he'd been too good lately.
Pepper sighed, and took the cup back when he handed it to her. "All right, but what is it? Do I need to call anyone?"
"No. All you need to do is come home with me this afternoon." Tony leaned back in his chair. "It shouldn't take all that long." Though he hoped to stretch it out as long as possible.
"If you're planning on giving your house a makeover I will need to call someone," she muttered, but Tony ignored the statement since it didn't seem to require an answer.
"Four o'clock," he told her. "Don't be late."
That won him an eye-roll, because he was hardly the punctual type, and Tony just smirked back and got on with the business of the day. He even made all his meetings, just to sweeten Pepper's temper.
He was waiting in the limo when she came out of the building at four on the dot and slid into the car beside him. "Nice. I was sure Crichton was going to waylay you in the lobby."
"He tried," Pepper said dryly, smoothing her slacks with an automatic gesture. "But the nice thing about being on the phone a lot is that no one can tell when you're not actually having a conversation."
Tony snickered. The vice president of marketing was notoriously long-winded, and when he'd seen the man moving towards Pepper Tony had begun thinking of ways to rescue her, but she obviously had everything under control.
"So are you going to tell me what you're plotting?" she asked as the limo pulled away.
"Nope." Tony reached for the Scotch decanter, ignoring the slight narrowing of her eyes. It was the first drink he'd had all day and he was off the clock. "You'll just have to be patient."
He poured himself a measure, not offering her any. He had, the first couple of years she'd worked for him, but she never accepted, though she would occasionally have a glass of wine if they ate together. It was one of the things about her that left him both frustrated and admiring.
Pepper's mouth quirked, but she settled herself into the corner of the seat, crossing her legs and brushing back a strand of hair. When she didn't immediately reach for her BlackBerry, Tony raised a brow. "Is your phone broken?"
"Nope," she said serenely. And nothing more.
That made him suspicious, but he was hardly going to give her the satisfaction of asking, so Tony sipped his drink and they rode in a semi-comfortable silence to his house.
The sun was setting when they arrived, which gave them a magnificent view out the windows. Tony slung his coat onto the couch and started rolling up his sleeves. "Jarvis, playlist N, please."
Soft piano carols began to play. Tony went over to the boxes still stacked by the tree and lifted one, laying it carefully on the couch. "Come over here and pick an ornament, Potts. This tree isn't going to decorate itself."
Pepper obediently came closer, but her brows were drawn together. "This is your project? But--"
He glanced over his shoulder at her. "You did such a great job with the lights--obviously you need to help me finish the job."
Emotions flickered over her face, too fast for him to quite make them out, but in the end she smiled, soft with an edge of wistfulness. "You could have just asked, Tony."
She stepped forward and chose a blown glass sphere, one tinted rosy-red, and Tony straightened, feeling a little guilty. But I didn't know if you would say yes.
Still, she'd agreed, and that was the important thing. Tony picked out a star made of straw and went around the tree to hang it. "Judging from the light layout, we're going to have a conflict in decorating styles," he said, peering through the branches at her.
Pepper laughed, and picked another out of the box. "I don't think so. Symmetry is one thing when all the ornaments are one style, but for something like this--" She waved a hand at the box. "--They're meant to go where they look best."
Her words warmed him somehow. Tony came back around the tree--and blushed a little when he saw what she was holding. The heavy little snowman's colors were faded, now, and its carroty nose missing the tip, but he definitely remembered it.
Pepper held it up by its loop, smiling. "I'm sure there's a story behind this one."
Tony sighed, and took it from her gently. "Salt-water dough and watercolor paints, and a broken leg. I think my mom thought she was going to go nuts before I got my cast off."
Pepper's dimples deepened. "How old were you?"
He rolled the snowman between his fingers, matching his thumb to the much smaller print on the figurine's backside. "Six. We were visiting my grandparents, so I didn't have a workshop to play in, but Grandma pulled a few things together."
Pepper bent to the box and came up with a bow-legged reindeer of the same vintage. "How many of these will we find?"
Tony hung the snowman up with care, remembering. "At least half a dozen, I think. I'm not sure how many survived."
Slowly they emptied the boxes, weighing branches with glass and ceramic treasures, carved wood, the obligatory popsicle-stick-and-glitter creation. Some Tony told Pepper about, and she even shared a couple of stories with him, glimpses of the same simple, secure joy he remembered.
When it came to the upper branches, though, they ran into a problem. "How did you do this before?" Tony asked, not quite standing on tiptoe to hang a china angel on a branch over his head. A good quarter of the tree was firmly out of their reach.
"The decorating service handled it. With a stepladder, I believe." Pepper stood back, looking up at the bare top. Her hair was hanging in wisps and she'd taken off her jacket too, though she still wore her shoes. Tony wanted to go over to her and either brush the wisps out of her eyes, or take down her hair altogether.
"I probably have a stepladder somewhere...but...I have a better idea." Grinning, Tony tapped the table console. "Dummy, get up here."
A few minutes later, the robot was carefully lifting ornaments into place at Pepper's direction. Tony let her handle it; she had more patience than he did, and the task wasn't simple given that Dummy only had one arm. But the bare space filled out nicely as they emptied the boxes.
A few of the ornaments turned out to be broken, despite the care taken in storage, and those Tony set aside; some could be repaired, possibly. There were crystal icicles and silver snowflakes, and even a few old strands of tinsel, but when they were finished the tree still looked a little bare.
"I still need more," Tony muttered, resting his hands on his hips and staring up at the tree. It glittered and twinkled in the overhead lights; they'd turned on the light strings about halfway through the process, and despite the gaps it looked magnificent.
"You can go shopping tomorrow," Pepper pointed out. She stretched a little, yawning, and Tony watched out of the corner of his eye, knowing that if he turned and leered full-on she would get self-conscious.
"I suppose." The idea of doing it by himself didn't really appeal. Tony lidded the boxes and stacked them on the end of the couch, realizing that he still didn't know where in storage they'd been.
"Hey, you forgot one." Pepper picked up the big gold-and-crystal star that Tony had set aside earlier.
"Oh, right." Tony regarded it. The tree-topper had always been the last item to go up, the finishing touch, and he debated waiting until he had more ornaments. Nah. It's part of the ritual. "Want to put that up?"
"On the top? I can't reach that high."
"Sure you can." Tony beckoned Dummy over and made him lower his arm. "Here."
"Tony--" Pepper looked less than thrilled.
"Dummy can't handle my weight," Tony lied, taking her elbow and tugging her closer. "And he can't plug the star in. Come on, Potts, don't tell me you're scared of heights."
She huffed, and eyed the 'bot skeptically. Dummy chirped at her, and her expression eased towards a smile. "Oh, all right--but if I fall, Mr. Stark, I'm landing on you."
"My pleasure," Tony replied, smirking to make her blush and taking the star. "Now swing your leg over--"
Pepper settled gingerly across Dummy's arm as though straddling a horse, gripping the collar behind his pincers with one hand and taking the star back with the other. "It's a good thing for you I'm wearing slacks tonight," she muttered.
That's a matter of opinion, Tony didn't say, though he had to admit that while slacks concealed her legs they did showcase her ass much better than a skirt. "Ready? Okay, Dummy, take her up."
The 'bot slowly raised his arm, lifting Pepper into the air. She squeaked and clutched harder, wobbling slightly, but then laughed. As soon as she was level with the top of the tree, Dummy scooted slowly closer, bringing her within range of the top.
Tony kept half his attention on her, and half on Dummy; he knew the robot's specs within micrometers, and Pepper's weight wasn't enough to unbalance Dummy even with his arm at full extension, but as an engineer Tony knew to plan for the unexpected.
However, Dummy operated exactly as he should, moving Pepper into the tree until her toes were buried in branches. She leaned forward precariously, wrapping her legs around the 'bot's arm, and fastened the star to the topmost branch, precisely upright. Then she plugged it into the light string, and it burst into glittering light.
"Nice!" Tony applauded below, and Pepper grinned down at him. Her cheeks were flushed with effort and laughter; absolutely kissable.
She patted Dummy's pincers. "Down, please," she said, and Dummy reversed direction, backing away from the tree and lowering her carefully down. As her feet touched the floor, Tony held out a hand, and Pepper took it, letting him help her off the 'bot.
The vision of pulling her close and taking that kiss was sudden and vivid, and Tony felt his fingers tightening on Pepper's. She glanced at him, startled, and the air around them thickened, making the space between them seem to shrink.
Tony couldn't take his eyes from Pepper's lips. He'd been fascinated by countless women, but none of them had enticed him the way Pepper's quiet beauty did, deepened as it was by the compassionate, tender soul of her. At the moment all he wanted was a taste of her--just to know.
Just to know.
Pepper made a small gasping noise, and pulled her fingers free. "Thank you, Dummy," she said hurriedly, whirling away to pat the 'bot one more time. Dummy whirred, sounding pleased, and Tony took a breath and tried to slow his pulse.
"You're going to give me a complex if you keep teasing me like that, Potts," he said in a low voice, pitching it towards amusement. As much as he wanted to push the issue, his instincts were telling him it wasn't yet time.
She huffed, lingering with her back to him, but he could see her ears pinkening. "Your ego is hardly that fragile, Mr. Stark."
Wanna bet? Tony's lips twisted. "How about dinner?" he said instead. "I'm starving."
"Oh--" Pepper glanced at her watch, turning back around, and her brows went up. "Is it that late?"
"Getting there. La Miche is open late tonight, though." Tony tried to look hopeful. "Or we could just get delivery if you'd rather."
She hesitated, and he coaxed. "Come on, Pepper, I don't want to eat alone tonight. Have mercy."
Her smile was slow and wry. "All right. Delivery."
"Great!" Tony pointed at the window, and Jarvis cued up La Miche's menu. "Pick what you want and Jarvis'll call it in."
He wasn't sure if she stayed out of pity for him, but Tony wasn't going to argue. The food was excellent and the company was better, and they ate in the living room so they could enjoy the tree, trading stories of Christmases growing up. It was an odd feeling when Tony thought about it; first, he'd spent so long deliberately not thinking about his family and the happier times, and second, he was hardly in the habit of talking about his past to anyone. Obadiah had been the only one, and--
The less said about Obadiah, the better.
But it felt good to share with Pepper. And to listen to her; Tony knew the framework of her past, her father gone before she could remember him, her mother lost to cancer the year she'd started working for Tony, but he didn't know the details. And he wanted to.
Her childhood had been good, he deduced from her stories--not anywhere near the lap of luxury that his own had been, but Pepper had been happy. Tony wondered if she had photos anywhere, and if she could be persuaded to let him see them.
And when she went home, leaving him with the lights twinkling on the tree, Tony felt that the evening had been a success.
He had it all planned out. The snow, the gift, the words--though the latter were the weak point, Tony had to admit. Glibness came easily for him when it was business, or getting laid, but this was important, and that made it so much harder.
But he had to try.
So he summoned casual when Pepper came down to say goodbye the next evening, dropping off a last stack of papers. "Hey, I meant to ask--what are you doing for Christmas? 'Cause I was wondering if you'd like--I mean, I don't have anything planned, and..."
He made himself look at her. Pepper was staring at him in surprise. "I thought you were going to that party in Aspen."
Tony shrugged. "I'm just not in the mood this year, I guess."
Pepper bit her lip. "Well--I'm sorry, Tony, but I'm going to Boston. I, um, there's some family friends I haven't seen in years, and they always ask if I want to come out."
"Oh." His chest ached. Out of all the reactions he'd considered, the fact that she might have plans already had never occurred to him. He almost blurted out But you never have plans, but managed to keep the words back just in time. "Well. Do you--do you need the jet?"
Pepper shook her head; she never let him provide her with transportation unless it was for business, but he kept trying. "I have tickets for tomorrow."
Tony swallowed, unbearably disappointed at the destruction of his plot. "Well, have a good flight then."
He turned away to his keyboard, knowing he sounded petty, but he hurt. Romantic intentions aside, he didn't want to be alone on Christmas, and it felt like Pepper was abandoning him.
"Tony--" She stopped, but he kept typing, not wanting to see her face. Pity, annoyance, resignation--whatever her expression, he was afraid he'd say something unforgivable.
"I'll be back on Friday," Pepper said at last, her voice low, and Tony heard her heels tapping away, back to the door. He didn't stop typing until the door clonked shut, until he knew she was gone back upstairs.
The lines of code on the screen before him, when he finally looked, were an old program in BASIC, one he hadn't thought about in years. The sight of it made his lips twist, and on impulse he ran it.
The left side of the screen immediately filled with one repeated word, scrolling upward without pause.
Pepper was quiet and formal the next day at the office, and Tony was formal right back, in between all the last-minute tasks of gearing up for a four-day weekend. There wasn't a lot of time, anyway, and she was leaving early for the airport.
He debated all day, veering between bitterness and sorrow, and finally ran downstairs fifteen minutes before she was scheduled to leave and broke into her car. The little package looked forlorn on the passenger seat despite the springy ribbon he'd found, but Tony trusted that she'd see it anyway, and the note he'd attached.
Merry Christmas, Pepper. Don't open until tomorrow.
Then, unable to wish her a good holiday face to face, Tony took the coward's route and called Happy to drive him home.
His house was quiet when he got there, and seemed dark despite the lowering sun. Tony turned on the tree lights, but all they did was remind him of decorating it with Pepper. The gaps seemed bigger, and he realized that they had never managed to go out and find new ornaments.
Miserable, Tony turned his back on the tree and wandered downstairs, considering his options without much interest. He could go out--there wouldn't be much open in Malibu on Christmas Eve night, but Las Vegas wasn't far and that city never slept. But he'd told Happy to take the night off and he didn't feel like driving.
He could take the jet and go to Aspen after all. But that didn't have any appeal either--the noise and churn of a party made his nerves rasp just thinking about it. Tony was sure he could find someone beautiful and willing to take his mind off of things, but he didn't want to be distracted.
I want Pepper. If I can't have her--
Dispiritedly Tony reminded himself that he might still be able to win her. Just because his Christmas plans had crashed and burned didn't mean she wasn't interested.
Sighing, he slumped onto a stool and contemplated the third option, the one that had gotten him through quite a few Christmases already. Liquor was familiar, and if he drank enough the hurt would at least be muffled somewhat--
"Sir," Jarvis said, making Tony jump slightly. "The calculation for Project Snowfall is complete."
"Huh. Bring it up," Tony said, distracted. The graphic that appeared on the terminal nearest him was not what he had in mind, and he frowned at it. "This isn't right."
"Some adjustment is needed to achieve the effect you intended," Jarvis agreed.
For lack of anything else to do, Tony decided to fix it. Maybe I can use it next year, he thought without much pleasure.
It took time, and it was a distraction, so he kept at it, reworking the program over and over until the simulation fit what he'd originally had in mind. Jarvis was dubious, but Tony ignored him; physics wasn't as immutable as people liked to think it was, and he'd found his way around it before.
Finally it was finished, and Tony tapped the keyboard one last time, rubbing the back of his neck with his other hand. "Run it again, let's see if it works."
"Will do." Jarvis fell silent, and Tony pushed away from the workbench, sighing. There were a few bottles of whiskey in the little kitchen area, and he went to fetch one, figuring he deserved a drink after all that work.
Do you really think this is going to happen? he asked himself sourly as he poured. She turned you down cold. What makes you think she's changed her mind?
The thoughts were poisonous and easy, overwhelming the memory of her blushes when he got too close, the way she'd yearned towards him before that aborted kiss...all of it seemed worthless in light of her decision to leave him behind on Christmas. The rational part of Tony's mind knew that it hadn't been deliberate--after all, they'd never spent a Christmas together before--but he was just too hurt and angry to care.
The beep of the stairwell door opening halted the rise of the glass to his lips. Tony set his drink down and pushed away from the counter, startled and wondering who was invading his space. Only three people had the access code, and two of them were out of town--
But it wasn't Happy. Pepper stood just inside the door, wearing a light raincoat over jeans and a blouse, and Tony's despondency vanished into worry at the sight of tears on her face. "Pepper? What's the matter, are you hurt?"
He strode towards her, alarmed. Pepper met his eyes, her own pink and puffy, her mouth in a trembling smile. "Tony--"
He reached for her hands, clasped in front of her, and she turned them up in his grip, opening her fingers to reveal...his Christmas gift.
The tiny arc reactor was a perfect miniature of his own chest piece, power distilled down yet again, and it glowed brightly on the slender silver chain. He'd created it for Pepper, just for her, giving her his heart in more ways than one, hoping that she'd understand. "You weren't supposed to open it until tomorrow," was all he could think of to say, staring down at the spark like a strayed star in the cup of her palm.
"Security--" Pepper swallowed. "Security had a fit at the airport, I had to open it to see--"
Tony winced. It hadn't even crossed his mind. "Fuck. You missed your flight, didn't you? I'm--"
The rest of his apology was lost as Pepper's lips landed on his, salty-sweet with her tears.
He almost didn't believe it, and then joy blossomed, sharp and unfamiliar. Tony pulled her close, pressing her hands to his chest, ignoring the hard lump of the necklace as he returned her kiss eagerly.
She tasted like mint, and something that could only be Pepper herself, and he knew he'd never get tired of that flavor. He almost protested when she pulled her hands free, but then they slid up to the nape of his neck, and that was better. Tony found her waist with his own palms, then her spine, and she melted against him. He couldn't stop kissing her, it was as vital as breath.
It took him a while to realize she was still crying, and Tony finally lifted his mouth from hers, worried anew. "Pepper," he managed, squeezing her when her eyes didn't open. "Pepper, are you--"
She shook her head, and fresh tears spilled when she looked at him. "I'm sorry," she whispered. "I didn't think you were serious, Tony, and I walked away."
His throat tightened, and he swallowed, trying to smile. "Can't blame you, really, it's not like I--" He reached up to touch her cheek, smearing away the moisture. All his anger seemed silly now that she was there, warm and real. "Will you stay? I really wanted to spend Christmas with you, Pepper."
In answer she kissed him again. Tony moaned happily, tangling his fingers in her hair, shivering as she teased him. And shivered again, and again, but she was too delicious, he couldn't focus on anything but the bliss of kissing Pepper.
He almost protested when she pulled away. "Tony, you're freezing," she said, frowning, and he blinked, suddenly aware that his workshop was cold and getting colder.
And at that moment, ridiculously perfect, it started to snow. Tiny flakes drifted down from the ceiling, and Tony began to laugh. "Hey, it worked!"
Pepper stared upward, mouth open in surprise. "How did you do that?" she asked, astonished, and on impulse Tony took the necklace from her, opening the catch so he could fasten it around her neck.
"Temperature, pressure, humidity--Jarvis," he explained, still grinning as he slid his hands back down her shoulders. The tiny reactor glittered just below the hollow of her throat. "You wanted snow, so..."
Pepper shook her head again, that trembling smile widening. "You did...this...for me?"
Tony shrugged. "I didn't think you'd let me take you to the snow."
Flakes were gathering on her hair and lashes, unbearably charming. Pepper reached up and gently brushed snow from his bangs, her fingers trailing down to linger on his jaw. Tony settled his hands on her waist and kissed her thumb as it passed over his lips.
"You're impossible," she told him softly, and the tenderness in her voice returned the lump to his throat. "Thank you."
"I try," he replied, reaching for cheeky but not sure he succeeded. Pepper's smile went wry.
"I noticed. Tony, it's beautiful, but your workshop is going to be soaked when it melts."
"Eh, won't hurt anything..." Tony let the last word trail off against her cheekbone, making his way to her lips, but Pepper cut him short by turning to match their mouths once more. The little hungry sound she made had him wrapping her up in his embrace and forgetting about the snow entirely.
The tree was still magnificent when they finally made it back upstairs. Tony walked in from the kitchen, carefully balancing a mug in each hand, and leaned over the back of the sofa to give one to Pepper. "Here you go."
She reached up and took it, smiling at him, and Tony felt his heart turn to warm happy liquid. He came around the end of the couch and settled in next to her, putting an arm around her shoulders, and Pepper leaned against him with a sigh that spoke of contentment and began stirring the cocoa with the candy cane he'd stuck in the mug.
"We still need more ornaments," Tony murmured, not really caring at the moment. "You have some, right?"
Pepper snickered. "Yeah, but they're still in storage--I never did get around to putting up my tree."
Tony glanced at her, concerned, but her shrug was casual. "There didn't seem much point when I was going to be gone for Christmas."
"Hell, your friends," Tony said, squeezing his eyes shut. "I forgot--"
"It's okay. I called them on the way back from the airport." Pepper shrugged again. "We're not close; I don't think they'll be that hurt."
Tony sipped absently at his cocoa, letting his thumb rub small circles on her shoulder. It felt indescribably good just to be close to her, to share her space; it fed a hunger he'd only recently realized existed.
Pepper lifted a hand to touch the tiny arc reactor on its chain. "You can really plug this in?"
"Well, you can, yeah." Tony set down his mug so he could reach over and flip it around, and tapped the connector nub. He'd figured she'd realize the possibilities when she examined the back, and he'd been right. "If necessary. It doesn't put out as much power as the Mark II, but it'll do to keep me alive."
The little device gleamed between his fingers, and Tony grimaced. "I guess it's a little self-serving, but--"
Pepper wrapped her hand around his in a warm grip, enclosing his gift. "It's practical, Tony. And beautiful. Thank you."
Her other hand cupped his cheek to hold him still for her kiss, and in the midst of his hot delight Tony knew that she did understand.
He'd offered her his heart, and his life. And she had accepted them.
Pepper hummed against his lips, and broke the kiss. "I almost forgot--I have your present too."
Tony blinked, trying to corral his neurons. "Yeah?"
"Yeah." Pepper let him go and stood, moving her mug to the table in front of them. "I'll be right back."
Tony watched her go over to the piano and pick something up from the closed keyboard, and figured that she must have left it earlier. In his funk he simply hadn't noticed, though that was where he found her Christmas card each year.
Pepper's lips curved up, her cheeks flushing slightly as she returned. "It's not as, um, spectacular as yours, but..." She held out the small rectangular package.
Tony reached past it to tug on her wrist until she was settled next to him again, and only then did he take the gift. It meant something; Pepper gave him a card every year, but not a present, and he realized with a thrill that she had to have felt the change in their relationship too.
He slid a finger under the tape and popped it open, peeling off the paper with a deep curiosity. Tony knew he was a difficult problem when it came to gifts, and he really had no idea what she might have chosen.
The plain cardboard box beneath was easily opened, and the contents slid out into his hand. Tony grinned in astonished delight.
"Where the hell did you get this? It's so cool!" He held it up. The little Iron Man figurine was posed in flight configuration, head up and arms back. Dangling from one gauntlet was a miniscule wreath, presumably a Pepper touch.
"Not telling," Pepper said, completely pink now but smiling. "It's a start on filling up your tree, anyway."
He turned it over, examining the detail, and realizing as he did so what it meant.
It isn't just me she's accepting. It's Iron Man, too.
Closing his eyes, Tony exhaled, holding the knowledge like the treasure it was. I think I just got everything I ever wanted.
And then he opened them and grinned, and bounced to his feet, pulling her after him. "So hang it for me, Potts." He tugged her over to the tree.
With amused solemnity, Pepper took the ornament and slid its loop over a branch, front and center. It spun a little as she released it, dancing as though sailing the winds.
Yeah. Tony pulled her into his arms and kissed her smiling mouth, and knew there could be no better Christmas.