The Best Gifts Aren't Bought

By Elizabeth Bathory

After two long days of working non-stop without sleep, then two back to back missions which took him over Hell on earth for three and a half days only to crash on the couch in his workshop for nearly thirty-six hours, it was no wonder that Tony Stark had not the first clue what day it was, never mind the time or time zone.

Tony groaned as he sat up on his couch and rubbed his eyes. Most of his body still hurt from taking out two rather large weapons depots in the Middle East and he hadn't totally bounced back yet. "Jarvis? What time is it?" he said through a yawn.

"It is 3:37 in the afternoon, sir," the AI dutifully responded. "I am glad to see that you have finally awakened. Ms. Potts was having me monitor your vitals to be sure you were still alive after you were out for eighteen hours. She also asked me to wish you a Merry Christmas."

"I may have slept like the dead but I was certainly not dead," Tony said with a snort before the second part registered in his head. "Did you just say Merry Christmas? What day is it?" he rasped out as a bit of panic started to slip into his voice."

"It is December twenty-fourth, sir…Christmas Eve." Jarvis responded.

Tony's stomach sank and his heart came into his throat. He had one damn tradition that he stuck to every year and he had missed it because he was over the Arabian Desert. "Jarvis, why the hell didn't you tell me when it was the twenty-first? You know damn well I have standing plans every year then." He growled.

"Considering you were some where over Pakistan at the time, there wasn't much that could be done. The mission was not expected to take as long as it did. My recordings back at the mansion picked up some distress from Ms. Potts on that date when you were not home."

Things were going from bad to worse. Tony knew he was shit with dates but Tony never forgot the anniversary of his parents' death. Since the first one, he never did not go to their gravesite for his own way of showing them how much he had loved them and still missed them. Missing the anniversary hurt almost as much as losing them all over again. Everyone who was close to him knew this, especially Pepper and Rhodey. He wanted to be angry at someone and find someone to blame for missing the anniversary but the only person he could blame was himself. "Is Pepper still here?" Tony asked with a harsh edge to his voice.

"Yes sir. She is working in the living room."

"Tell her I want to talk to her. I'll be right up." Tony ground out as he pulled his shirt on and headed up the stairs.

Pepper had been trying to finish the last of the messages that needed dealing with before the holiday break when Jarvis informed her that Mr. Stark had wished to speak with her. Tony never said anything like that at all. He just blurted out what was on his mind. He never told her that he needed to talk to her and this set up a lot of warnings in Pepper's mind. "Is something wrong, Mr. Stark?" Pepper asked cautiously as she saw Tony coming up from the stairs.

"Go home, Potts," Tony said sharply and without the humor that was usually in his voice.

"Excuse me? Did I do something wrong?"

"It's a damn holiday. Go home, Potts. I'm giving you the rest of the day off." Tony stated, still with that edge to his voice that most people did not mess with. He realized that as he was telling her to leave that he might be ruining any chance he has at getting her, but he is hurting to much to care. At this moment, he wanted desperately to be alone in the misery that was threatening to swallow him.

Pepper was now certain something was not right and she knew very well that it was not a good state to leave Tony in alone but it was the tone he was using which made her shut her laptop. "Will that be all, Mr. Stark?" she asked quietly but professionally.

"That will be all, Ms. Potts." Tony replied almost robotically before turning to head back down to the garage without even a glance back. He couldn't turn back because it hurt too much to do so and he did not want Pepper to see it. He had let his parents down in a sense by not being there for the anniversary but being Iron Man instead and because it was Christmas Eve and the woman he loved listened to him and left.

Pepper sighed deeply as she grabbed her bag. He asked her to leave but he never said for how long.

Once Tony had received word that Pepper had left the house, he opened up his liquor cabinet. The first thing he did was to pull out a bottle of Bowmore 40 Year Old single malt scotch and pour nearly a quarter of the bottle straight down his throat before grabbing a glass with some ice. There was only one way that Tony knew at the moment to deal with pain that ran this deep and that was to get drunk out of his skull as quickly as possible.

Tony took the bottle and the glass and headed back to the living room where he ordered Jarvis to kill the lights and start the fire. As he sat down on the couch with the double scotch in his hand, Tony remembered this was how he was used to spending Christmas – alone and in a semi-state of ever present grief and sadness as his memories assault him full force.

Three hours had gone by before Pepper got back to the mansion. She had gone back to her apartment to change into a sweatshirt and leggings and picked up a pizza for her and Tony to make sure he ate something and then headed back to the mansion to pick up the pieces of whatever may be left of her boss. When Jarvis let her in, the smell of alcohol quickly hit her nose and Pepper regretted for being gone for so long since it meant that Tony had hit the bottle and he hit it hard.

"I thought I told you to go home," Tony growled darkly from the fire lit living room as he took another sip from the glass in his hand.

"I did go home…to get changed. You didn't say that I had to stay there. I spend more of my time here than my apartment anyway." Pepper said as she set the pizza in the kitchen. "And I brought back dinner."

"I have already had dinner," Tony said smartly as he pointed to the half filled bottle of scotch on the table.

"That is not dinner, Tony." Pepper said as she set two slices of pizza down in front of Tony on a paper plate on the table and then sat down next to him on the couch.

Tony didn't look up when Pepper sat down next to him but he did put down his glass and pick up one of the slices of pizza. Sometimes scotch and pizza could compliment each other. "Why are you here anyway?" he asked in between bites but the hard edge was still there. "I told you to leave."

"I can't leave you alone like this," Pepper said gently.

"Ever think that I wanted to be left alone?" Tony snapped back quickly.

"Not when I can see the pain of loss in your eyes so very plainly." Pepper tells him gently but firmly as she places a hand on his. "I know it well and from seeing in my own eyes every time when I looked in a mirror when I thought I lost you." Then Pepper took a deep breath to focus herself because she knew very well she was in for a battle. "I am not leaving you right now no matter what."

"Then you are in for a very long night with very poor company," Tony said as he threw back his scotch with one swallow and refilled the glass.

"I wish you would talk to me. You haven't drank this much since you got back. Something has to be very wrong for you to this." Pepper commented.

Tony pulled his hand away from hers and got up from the couch, walking over to the window with his drink in his hand. He gazed out the window with his back to Pepper as he took another sip. "You know damn well what is bothering me. Why the hell do I have to say it?"

"Because for too long it has been bottled inside you because you feel you have to deal with this alone. Remember, we are each other has. I care about you too much to let you drown in sorrow and booze. I want you to talk to me, Tony." Pepper urged gently.

Tony sighed again before taking another sip of the scotch in his hand. He doesn't want to say it but his mouth wasn't taking orders from his brain any longer. His breaking heart had taken over.

"After my parents' funeral, I flew back to New York one more time because Christmas and Thanksgiving were always in New York because even thought it might not have always happened, my parents wanted me to have a chance to see snow that wasn't on the top of a ski slope." Tony started quietly as he continued to look out the window and away from Pepper. There was no way he wanted her to see the tears welling in his eyes that he was fighting desperately not to let fall.

"It was the first Christmas that the house had ever been silent. Every year for as long as I could remember, my mother had always thrown one of the biggest Christmas parties on Christmas Eve that you could imagine. She loved it because it was the only one where a benefit wasn't involved, just family and friends. The house was filled for hours, usually until one or two in the morning. Everyone was always so happy…drinking, eating, laughing, talking, kids running everywhere playing and sharing the holiday with each other.

"She had decorated the house for Christmas right after Thanksgiving and when they died, the party was quickly cancelled. No one thought I could handle throwing it alone and no one wanted it to be another somber memorial. So on Christmas Eve, I was alone in my parents' house with my butler and housekeeper. I couldn't bear the silence of the empty house that should have been filled with joy so I went to bed. My butler, Edwin, had put all the gifts under the tree. He thought he had just put mine out but there were ones for my parents as well."

Tony took another sip from his scotch as if he needed liquid courage to continue. His tears were slowly making tracks down his face which Pepper could see in his reflection of the glass of the window.

"When Christmas morning came, I really couldn't even care about the gifts. Edwin encouraged me to open them because that would have been what my parents wanted me to do. I did my best to try to be happy for what I got but I couldn't."

As the story progressed, it was getting harder and harder for Tony to continue talking. The tears he was fighting were making his voice catch and made him fight to choose the right words on how to say what he wanted to say. His shoulders were shaking as he tried desperately to hide it.

"I couldn't open theirs though…I never could…"

Pepper saw how much Tony was struggling with every word and it was breaking her heart to watch any longer. She got up off the couch and laid a gentle hand on his shoulder as she eased the glass from his fingers and set it down on the floor before bringing her hand tenderly to his cheek and easing his face around so he looked at her. "You don't have to be alone anymore. I am not going anywhere."

As soon as the words hit Tony's ears, he crumbled. He wrapped his arms around Pepper's waist as he buried his head in her neck and let the harsh sobs and torrent of tears he had been holding back fall freely.

Pepper held Tony close to her as she felt his sobs rip him to his core. Why did he feel he had to hold all of this back for so long until it was almost going to take him over? She didn't say anything. She just held him, supporting him when he needed it the most.

Neither one really knew how long they stayed like that but when Tony finally pulls back he's so emotionally drained he can barely move but he feels a little better, like the crack in his heart that was made by his parents' premature death healed just a bit.

When Pepper felt him move she took that as her cue and helped back to the couch to try to get him comfortable. He looked like he had just been run over and she could tell how much it had taken out of him. Tony needed to have someone take care of him now more than ever and that was something he was denied for a very long time. "Can I get you anything?"

"Maybe a slice of pizza," Tony said softly as he quickly scrubbed the last of the tears away from his face. "Jarvis? Can you throw a movie on for us?"

"What would you like to watch, sir?"

"How about Lethal Weapon?" Tony said as he made room for Pepper on the couch next to him and moved the blanket he had pulled around him so she could snuggle up next to him if she was so inclined to do.

"This isn't a very Christmassy movie, Tony," Pepper said with a small smile as she handed him a slice of pizza that she had warmed up for him and sat down, curling into his shoulder under the blanket with him.

"It's set during Christmas time. What more do you want? Red nosed reindeer? Rudolph can't blow shit up like Martin Riggs." Tony said in between bites as he relaxed a little as the movie started.

As the movie played, the emotional purging finally caught up with Tony fully and he started to nod off. When he stopped fighting it, Tony shifted a little bit so his head was resting on one of the arm cushions and it wasn't long before he was fast asleep. Pepper, who had made herself comfortable against Tony's shoulder, soon followed him into dream land when she felt his body relax into the limpness of sleep.

It was just past seven when Pepper awoke on Christmas morning. Despite the awkward position that she and Tony had managed to fall asleep in, she had slept relatively well. When Pepper noticed that tony was still quite soundly asleep, she moved as cautiously as she could in order not to wake him. The biggest obstacle was getting over his legs without knocking into him. Once she was clear of that, Pepper replaced the blanket around Tony to ward off the early morning chill.

Tony shifted only slightly when the blanket was moved but quickly snuggled back into it, snoring lightly as he fell back to deeper sleep, causing Pepper to smile as she watched him.

"Good morning, Ms. Potts. Merry Christmas." Jarvis stated.

"Good morning Jarvis and same to you." Pepper whispered as she pulled a bag that she had been hiding in her office for some time down to the living room. "Jarvis? Do you think you could come up with a Christmas tree? Gifts belong under the tree."

"I believe I have a holographic image of a Christmas tree in my memory. Where would you like it?"

"In the living room so Tony will see it when he wakes up." Pepper whispered.

By the time she had come back downstairs, a seven foot fully decorated and lit tree had appeared in the corner of the living room so realistic that she swore she smelled pine. She placed one small gift and one larger one under the tree and then went into the kitchen to start breakfast for her and Tony.

As quietly as she could, Pepper rummaged through Tony's kitchen to see what she could make with what he had on hand. She luckily managed to find Bisquick, mixed frozen berries, chocolate syrup and whipped cream and got an idea. Pepper knew very well what Tony's favorites were and what better to help bring up his spirits even more than pancakes with all his favorite toppings. She smiled to herself as she put on the coffee and got to work, letting the smell wake up Tony.

Tony stirred slowly on the couch as something hit his senses but he wasn't sure what. He cracked his eyes open to see a twinkling Christmas tree with two gifts underneath in his living room and to find the spot next to him empty. All night, he had felt Pepper sleeping on his shoulder and when he woke up she was gone. Was it all just a dream or was this some cruel twist on reality?

"Jarvis, who told you to put a tree up?" Tony asked through a yawn as his chest started to ache all over again.

"I did," Pepper interjected from the kitchen before Jarvis could answer. "I needed someplace to put your presents." She added as she stepped out with Tony's coffee mug in her hands.

Tony's eyes went wide with shock and relief when he heard Pepper's voice. He had honestly thought she had left and when his brain kicked in further, he caught the addictive aroma of coffee and something else that made his stomach growl. It was then that he remembered everything that had happened the night before, everything that Pepper did for him.

"Thank you," Tony said quietly as he bowed his head, not able to look at her out of embarrassment. He had poured his heart on the table the night before and now didn't know how to deal with it.

"What for?" Pepper asked gently as she came further into the living room.

How could he phrase this? Tony had so much to thank her for and he didn't think he could do it without losing it. "For everything," Tony whispered.

Just those few small words touched Pepper so deeply that she didn't know how to react. "Any time, Tony…any time," she told him with a smile as she pressed his coffee into his hands before going back into the kitchen to get the two plates of pancakes for them.

Tony's head lifted when he smelled what was coming in for him and a big smile lit up his face. Pancakes with fruit, chocolate syrup and whipped cream was his favorite breakfast and Pepper knew that as well as his mother did which took him off the hook of having to explain just why he is thankful for her and he appreciated that.

After being pleasantly filled up by breakfast, Tony leaned back on the couch with his second cup of coffee and started looking over at the tree. "Your tree is missing something, Pepper."

Pepper looked a little confused as she looked over at the tree. "Something is missing?" she asked quizzically.

Tony gave her a smirk and got up from the couch and went down to his workshop only to come up a few minutes later carrying a bright red and green gift bag. "It was missing this," he said as he handed her the bag.

Pepper cautiously opened the bag. Tony never remembered her birthday and he managed to get her a Christmas gift. This somewhat worried her. She opened the bag and pulled out a wind chime of sorts that was like eight spirals melded together with various small crystals that acted as prisms and balls of Venetian glass floating in between the metal. "Tony, this is beautiful. Where did you buy this?"

"I didn't buy it. I made it." Tony said proudly. "Not everything I do down in my workshop deals with cars and my suit." He added with a laugh. "The metal is gold titanium alloy and I picked up the crystals in New York."

"How about the glass balls? Where did you get them?"

"Venice," Tony said as simply as anything as Pepper seemed to stop breathing. "I made a stop over."

"Show off," Pepper chided him. "But thank you. It's beautiful." She said with a warm smile before grabbing the two gifts under the tree and handed them to Tony.

Tony eyed the two gifts, one significantly smaller than the other. As was tradition, he saved the larger one with the card for last and opened the smaller one. He revealed a video game and he smirked. "Hey Jarvis…you owe me a rematch. I still can't believe you beat me in Tetris."

"I still say I was within the parameters of the game." Jarvis insisted.

Then Tony went to the larger box. It was his parents' tradition to put the card on the most special of the gifts they gave him so he knew to open it last so he was curious if Pepper did the same. He carefully opened the large box and found a large, beautiful patchwork quilt inside. He pulled it out of the box and admired the work that went into it and was very impressed. "This is amazing, Pepper. What antique store did you buy it in?" he asked as he wrapped it around himself.

"I didn't buy it, Tony," Pepper said softly. "Apparently we both went for homemade gifts this year."

"When did you have time to make something like this? I thought I work you thirty hours out of every twenty-four." Tony said jokingly.

"Well…" Pepper started but hesitated to try to find the right words. "I had a lot of time on my hands when I was only working nine to five at the office and I had to keep myself busy or I would have gone crazy." She said softly as she looked into his eyes.

"You made this while I was in Afghanistan?" Tony asked somberly.

Pepper nodded. "After I had started it, I decided that I wanted to give it to you. For me, as long as I kept working on it, I had hope for you to come back so I could give it to you."

As Tony heard the story and wrapped himself up in the quilt, it was almost like he could feel the love and hope that went into it that was a beacon for him to come home to. "You never gave up on me…" he whispered, not totally trusting his voice.

"Not even when they told me to." Pepper said. "You are all I have too, you know."

"If it wasn't for you, I would have spent another Christmas alone with Jack, Johnny and Jose. Thank you for all of this." Tony said sincerely.

"I am sorry I didn't do this sooner." Pepper admitted.

Tony waved her off and opened the quilt as an invitation for her to join him again. "I have another Christmas movie in mind for us," he said with a smile. "Jarvis, throw on Die Hard."

Pepper just sighed as she curled up against his shoulder again and wrapped the quilt around both of them as they watched the movie.

Five movies and two more meals later, Tony started yawning again and was starting to get comfortable on the couch again for what would have been the third night in a row.

"Tony, why don't you go up to bed?" Pepper suggested as she saw his eyes starting to close. "You're exhausted and your bed will be far better for your back than the couch."

"I guess you're right," Tony said through a very big yawn. "This quilt is going right on my bed. Care to share with me?"

"I'll stay in the guest room, Tony." Pepper reminded him.

"Couldn't hurt to try. Offer will still stand even if you get cold." He said as he heaved himself off the couch. "Good night Pepper." He whispered as he kissed the top of her head.

"Merry Christmas, Tony." Pepper wished him as he headed upstairs.

"It was this time," Tony called back before ducking into his bedroom.

It was two hours later before Pepper felt tired enough to head up to bed. She had Jarvis lock everything down and turn off the lights as she headed up to the guest room. No sooner she had closed the door, she realized that she had nothing to sleep in here since she had taken a load of laundry home and not brought it back yet. Now she faced a dilemma. Did she wake up Tony to ask to borrow something or just try to sneak in his bedroom without him ever knowing?

She silently crept down to Tony's darkened room and pushed the door open. Since he was alone, he didn't shut the door all the way. From the door, she could hear his soft snoring and from that Pepper knew he was out and she might actually be able to get away with this.

Tiptoeing across the carpet to Tony's dresser, Pepper slowly opened it to pull out, ironically an Iron Maiden t-shirt. As she closed the drawer with just a bit too much noise, she heard Tony shift under the blankets and mumble something incoherent as he kicked his blankets off a bit. Knowing full well that Tony would get cold during the night, Pepper set the t-shirt down and crossed over to Tony's bedside to fix the blankets. As she approached, she could see that he was laying on his side with his arm draped over something. Pepper first thought it was a pillow but the soft blue light illuminated something that passed as fur. One thought popped into Pepper's mind but she quickly dismissed it as she left Tony's bedroom. There was no way he slept with a stuffed animal.

It wasn't even eight in the morning the next day when Pepper's BlackBerry started ringing. It was common practice to have all phone calls in the house forwarded to her when Tony was asleep otherwise Jarvis dealt with voicemail. But it was really no surprise when Pepper saw the caller ID who would be calling at such an early hour.

"Merry Christmas, Jim." Pepper said pleasantly as she answered the phone. "How was your holiday?"

"Pepper? Oh god…he must be worse than I thought if you're there." James Rhodes' voice stated from the other end of the phone. "How bad of oblivion did he drink himself into?"

"None at all," Pepper replied. "He hasn't had a drink since Christmas Eve."

"Pepper…I have spent holidays with Tony and I know very well how he deals with them. He usually drinks himself into a coma and wakes up two days later. Hence the friendly wake up call. Now…tell me…how bad is he that you already have to be there to pick up the pieces?"

"I am telling the truth. He hasn't had a drink since Christmas Eve. I have been here since then. He actually admitted to even enjoying the holiday a bit." Pepper stated.

"Are you sure you haven't been drinking?" Rhodey asked. "You do remember why Tony doesn't like Christmas?"

"Very well and I know the whole truth now right from Tony's own mouth," Pepper confirmed. "Albeit, it took a little prodding and stopping him after only half a bottle of scotch."

"He told you?" Rhodey asked incredulously. "How is he?"

Before Pepper could answer, Tony appeared at the top of the stairs. He had showered, shaved and came down nearly dressed in his best black suit, carrying his jacket, tie and shoes in his hand.

"I'll have to call you back later," Pepper said quickly as she hung up the phone so Tony had her attention as he approached.

"Can you tie this for me?" Tony asked softly. His voice was rough and straining to hold back a lot of emotion. "My hands are shaking too much to get it straight."

Those few words said everything to Pepper. Tony was going to his parents' graves like he would have had a few days earlier if Iron Man hadn't detained him. Silently, Pepper turned up Tony's collar on his shirt and started to fix his tie for him. "Would you like me to go with you?" she asked softly as she finished and helped him with his jacket.

"Please," Tony whispered, not trusting his voice much more than that as he put his shoes on.

"I'll drive. Just let me get my keys." Pepper said with a gentle smile as she grabbed her purse and her coat before taking Tony's hand to walk out to the car.