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.

Sort of an unChristmas story. *shrug* No real explanation.


I hate Christmas.

It was an old thought, worn smooth by repetition, and Pepper barely registered herself thinking it any longer. It persisted through about midday on the twenty-fourth, turning up from time to time like a pebble in the back of her head, and then disappeared as soon as her boss was safely, or at least firmly, occupied with whatever extravagant holiday party he'd chosen.

Then Pepper would go home, actually shut off her phone, and get caught up on her reading. Within thirty-six hours she was back on the job, but in the meantime she had her own space, which was carefully, entirely Christmas-free. And if she had a tiny, lingering sense of resentment that she was trapped in her apartment for that day and a half, it was a small price to pay for peace.

"Where are you going for the holiday?" she asked Tony a week beforehand, preoccupied with schedules and corporate jets. "Is it overseas? Because your passport--"

"Haven't decided," Tony grunted, bent backward at an awkward angle as he peered up into the torso of the Iron Man suit, hanging in its hemicorporectic glory over his workbench. "Hand me the wrench, the big one."

Pepper scooped it up and set it in his groping fingers. "You currently have sixteen invitations on file, and I expect at least another five before the week's out."

Tony sighed, muffled by the armor. "I don't think I'm in a party mood this year." He cranked something into place with a probably unnecessary flourish, then ducked out of the suit and straightened, eyes taking on a familiar gleam. "Unless you come with me."

"We've discussed this," Pepper said, not having to feign a touch of weariness. "What are the two days I have off each year?"

"Christmas Day and the first day of spring, yeah, yeah." Tony waved the wrench. "I'm not talking about work, Potts, I'm talking about a party. Having fun, you know? Good booze, good food, maybe a little mistletoe..."

You lost me at mistletoe. Pepper eyed him dryly. "Tony, I hate to break it to you, but whenever I attend a party with you it turns out to be a working event." Which he knew perfectly well anyway. Somebody had to stay sober, and either she was herding him or she was making business contacts.

"So maybe it's time to change that." Tony leaned back against the workbench, fiddling with the wrench and meeting her eyes with a steadiness that made her uneasy. "Max Zerich is holding his annual pool party and you know the catering is fabulous. Strictly a non-working event. I won't even make you wear a bikini...unless you want to."

His leer was familiar, and put Pepper back on solid footing. "Thank you, but no. I have plans." Firm ones, in fact. She ignored the disappointed look in Tony's eyes. "Just let me know when you make up your mind, unless you want to do your own packing."

"You make it sound like I'm incapable of picking out socks," he grumbled, a bit petulantly, turning back to the armor.

"You are. Or do I need to remind you about the time you had me air-drop your suitcase in Gstaad?"

"There was a freaking blizzard, Potts. I was out of underwear."

Pepper didn't bother to reply.

It wasn't that she could ignore the holiday entirely. Pepper had to deal with Tony's Christmas card list, for one thing, and his gift list, and his schedule, though mercifully he never threw a party. The holiday was too close to the anniversary of his parents' deaths, and he seemed to take the opportunity to numb himself using whatever was handy. Sometimes, trying to clean up the aftermath, Pepper wondered if she shouldn't tag along just to keep an eye on him, but she really needed the day for her own mental health, and anyway he was a grown man. If he really wanted to get plastered and end up in the tabloids mostly nude, that was his right.

Besides, she could understand the need. Just because her coping method was quieter and less self-destructive didn't mean it didn't exist.

Over the next week her mind kept drifting back to Tony's invitation, and while she shook the memory off each time, it persisted. His careless flirting was routine--Pepper was pretty sure he couldn't not flirt--but he kept issuing those half-serious invitations.

And only to her. She'd definitely noticed that.

She wasn't sure if the "half" part was deliberate. It gave her a graceful exit, at least, a way to turn him down, and it let him out too, but he did keep asking, and Pepper just didn't know what to make of it.

Of him.

Tony Stark didn't do relationships. But if he was looking for his usual one-night stand, there were plenty of women out there who would be happy to accede. Pepper sometimes wondered if it was his arc implant that worried him, but frankly someone as creative and experienced as Tony could find a way around that, she was sure.

So why was he still asking her?

And why was she so damned tempted to say yes?

Pepper wasn't even sure why she hesitated any more, except that he was only half-serious, and she liked her job, and she was a prudent soul. Temptation's last name might be Stark, but she couldn't risk so much on a wistful look and a quirky smile.

Even when it did seem sometimes that she already had all the responsibilities of a relationship with him, and none of the delights.

Two days before Christmas Pepper began her preparations, the little ritual that she never named as such. She dug up the books she hadn't had time to read, and piled them by her couch. She went to the grocery store and stocked up on fresh food and laundry detergent. And, as ever, she hesitated a long time in the pharmacy section.

It had been years since she'd had to resort to the sleep aids to get through the day, but the memory never left.

In the end, though, she didn't choose anything. No alcohol, either. The last thing she needed was anything resembling a wake.

On Christmas Eve she drove to Tony's house instead of the office--he never went in to work that day--and finished up the last few tasks that needed his attention. In past years he'd often started his drinking by then, but she couldn't even smell booze on him this time.

"No party?" she asked as she shuffled the contracts into their folder, trying not to notice the way his eyes lingered on her thoughtfully.

"I might head over to Zerich's later." Tony capped the pen he'd been signing with and dropped it on his workbench. "Hey, Potts, what do you do on Christmas? I've always wondered."

Pepper took silent leave to doubt his last sentence, but just shrugged. "Laundry."

He blinked, opened his mouth, and then closed it. Pepper tucked the folder under her arm. "Will that be all, Mr. Stark?"

He regarded her a long moment, then shook his head minutely. "That will be all, Miss Potts."

Pepper didn't sleep well, but she didn't expect to. Nevertheless, she got up late and dawdled over breakfast before cracking open the third paperback in the stack. She'd finished the first two the evening before.

Pepper knew that her stubborn avoidance of the day was not exactly the best way to deal with her issues, but there was a good reason she was a match for Tony's obstinacy, and her strength of will was generally an asset. So she read, and drank tea, and eventually started a load of laundry, not touching the radio, the TV, or the laptop.

She was folding shirts when the knock came on her door.

Out of sheer astonishment, she went to answer it, expecting one of the neighbors she barely knew, or someone who had the wrong apartment. The sight of her boss with a grocery bag in one arm was enough to leave her speechless.

He frowned thoughtfully at the t-shirt in her hand. "You know, Potts, I thought you were kidding."

She stared as Tony pushed past into her hallway. He was wearing jeans and an old sweatshirt, and the sight of him pausing on the threshold of her living room let her find her tongue. "I'm sorry, did I say you could come in?"

He ignored her sarcasm. "Nice place."

The sincerity in his tone took her aback. Out of sheer habit Pepper closed and locked the door, then put her hands on her hips and glared at him. "Dare I ask?"

Tony set the bag down on her coffee table and grinned at her. "I got lonely. We have chips, dip, and Pop-Tarts, I hope you like strawberry. Oh, and Twizzlers." He patted the bag.

Pepper squinted at him; he seemed more like an absurd dream than a reality, because Tony Stark definitely did not belong in her apartment, interrupting her privacy. "Tony, I take two days off per year. Two days in which I have no work at all. Two days. And you have to come and barge in?"

She cut the words off, aware that her voice was rising, and appalled by it. This was Tony--annoying, endearing, but basically harmless. Yes, he was uninvited, but that was no reason to be cruel.

He didn't seem upset, though; sobered, but not angry, his mouth quirking. "I looked you up."

"...What?" The words didn't make any sense.

"Well, to be more precise, I had Jarvis do it." He bent and started unpacking the bag, laying out Pop-Tarts and a big crackly bag of chips on the table. "When you said I was all you had, I didn't know you meant it."

A cold chill ran down her spine at the memory of that argument, of the admission she hadn't planned on making. "So?" she said, keeping her voice level.

"So. Nobody should be alone on Christmas." He straightened, watching her warily. "And that includes both of us."

Pepper squeezed her eyes shut, taking a deep breath and letting it out slowly, summoning calm. "Tony. I appreciate the thought, I really do. But I don't celebrate Christmas." She opened her eyes again. "Besides which, you've got a dozen options for the day."

"And I'd rather be here." He was going to be determined, Pepper realized with dismay. His quiet immobility was rare, but when he chose it there was little point in fighting him. "I realize I haven't been much of a friend in the past, Pepper, but I'd like to start."

We aren't friends, she wanted to tell him, except it wasn't precisely true, though she couldn't quite define what they were. Not lovers, not just boss and employee--there was no precise definition.

And while she could, if she tried, get rid of him, it would damage their unspoken relationship and take way more effort than she felt she could supply. Tony was watching her, eyes a little wide, silently waiting, and Pepper threw up her hands, one of which still gripped the clean shirt.

"All right. Whatever. No TV, no radio, and you find your own amusement. I'm going to go finish this."

Pepper whirled and stomped off to her laundry nook, exasperated beyond belief and cursing herself for giving in to that hint of vulnerability in Tony's face.

"I don't have anyone but you, Pepper."

Not true, she told herself furiously. He has Rhodey. He has Happy. He has an entire company at his beck and call.

But she knew what he'd meant, and the knowledge was not comfortable.

By the time she'd put away her laundry and started another load, epper had calmed down somewhat. Tony, she could handle. Even the murmur of the TV when she came back to the living room was hardly annoying.

He was sprawled on her couch, and barely glanced over his shoulder at her. "You didn't say no movies."

He'd found her DVD of The Dark Crystal, it seemed. Not something Pepper would have thought he'd enjoy, but if it kept him occupied she wasn't going to argue. Rounding the couch, she sat down at the other end, and Tony held out a tub of sour cream dip without taking his eyes from the screen.

Sighing, she took it.

Six hours and three movies later, she was full of junk food and astonished at how quickly the day had passed. Tony had just kept picking out DVDs, and their conversation had been limited to commenting on the films and a twenty-minute break while they argued the moral questions in Starman. Now the light was fading outside the windows, and the laundry was done.

He'd even helped her with that, balling socks in neat pairs and then juggling them to make her laugh. Though she'd laughed harder when he dropped them.

Tony had his feet up on the coffee table and his arms spread out along the back of the couch, and Pepper had her legs curled under her and the taste of artificial strawberry lingering in her mouth. The credits of Wall-E were rolling past, the soundtrack turned low.

"I know why I hate Christmas," Tony said casually, as if continuing a conversation. "But why do you hate it?"

Pepper tried to take offense at the question, but she was too relaxed and full; all she could manage was a sigh. "If you 'looked me up', then you know."

Tony tilted his head back to look up at the ceiling. "Christina Louisa Potts, died December 25th, 1994. Timothy Potts, died December 25th 1995."

She turned one hand up in lieu of answer. Tony looked back down, turning towards her. "Yeah, okay, that sucks big time, but I know you, Pepper. You're not the type to mourn so long."

Pepper grimaced. "I'm not mourning."

His brows went up, and he waited, and Pepper looked away, sighing again. "I swear, if you treat me differently because of this, you'll regret it."

Tony waved two fingers towards his temple, a lazy salute. "I won't. Scout's honor."

She closed her eyes. "Did your research tell you how they died?"

"Your mom died of cancer," came his cautious voice. "That's it."

Pepper laughed without humor. "Yeah. It took her two years, but she finally made it." She shook her head, eyes still shut. "It was a relief by then."

She became aware that his thumb was stroking the muscle that connected her neck to her shoulder, and almost shrugged it away, but she was suddenly too tired. "My father lasted a year. Then I came home for Christmas and found him with his brains blown out all over the living room."

Tony didn't start, but the oath that whispered past his lips was not something she ever wanted to hear him say in public. Pepper knew she could have phrased her revelation more gently, but she wasn't minded to be gentle at the moment. Tony had come uninvited and asked the question; he would just have to deal with the answer.

"Did he..." The question trailed off, and Pepper smiled grimly.

"Oh yes. He even left me a note to explain himself. He knew I would find him, you see."

The hand at her neck slid away, and she opened her eyes to see Tony's fists clenching. "He did that to you. On purpose?"

Pepper hitched up one shoulder, resigned. "To be fair, he really died when Mom did; it just took him that long to catch up." She leaned her head back against the couch cushions. "I don't think he was capable of feeling anything but loss by then."

"Fuck fair." Pepper rolled her head around to look at him straight on; Tony's face was creased with an anger she very rarely saw. "That was inhuman."

And it wasn't just fury in his eyes; it was recognition, a painful fellow-feeling. Maybe that's why I could tell him. Because while Tony's parents' deaths had been due to accident, he'd been in the car too, and he'd witnessed the effects of high-velocity physics meeting fragile flesh.

Pepper pursed her lips, all the acknowledgment she could manage at the moment. She felt drained. The initial agony had passed long ago, but every year Christmas brought the same confused mix of emotion, blunted only slightly by time--anger, hurt, betrayal.

Bitter loneliness.

It was, she reflected tiredly, probably a large part of the reason she was willing to devote so much of her life to her work--i.e., Tony Stark. It gave her purpose, and someone who needed her; someone who valued her.

Because in the end, stupid as she knew it was, she felt like she'd failed her father somehow, by not being enough to keep him alive.

Tony let out a long breath, and then Pepper felt him touch her hand where it lay on the couch, his fingers lacing into hers. Normally she would pull away, but the grip of his hand felt like that of the friend he was claiming to be--not even trying to comfort, just an acknowledgment of shared experience.

So she let her fingers curl slowly around his, and they just sat in a silence that was, oddly enough, peaceful.

The credits finished and the DVD reverted to its menu, the same music quietly repeating itself with endless patience. Pepper heard Tony make a couple of the tiny noises that meant he was hesitating over words, but she knew what he was thinking, and cut him off.

"Remember, you promised not to treat me any differently." Looking over at him, she saw his brows go up, and she frowned quellingly. "It's old history, Tony."

"Says the woman who hides in her apartment all day," he muttered, though his fingers hadn't loosened on hers.

Pepper snickered sourly, compelled into honesty. "Coming from the man who usually drinks himself into a stupor over the holidays, that's not exactly compelling."

His mouth quirked. "Touché." And then his eyes met hers. "Please note, however, that I'm not drinking this year."

She glared at him. "Because somehow you're magically healed?"

She was ashamed of the words as soon as they left her lips, but again Tony didn't seem to take offense. "Nope. Because I wanted to spend it with you."

Astonished, Pepper opened her mouth, but before she could think of what to say Tony pulled their joined hands up and placed a quick, casual kiss on the back of hers, then let her go. "Now, since there's at least six hours left of the day that shall not be named, I vote for Chinese food and the first three of your Die Hard DVDs."

He was on his feet before she could blink, glancing back with a smile gone wicked. "I had no idea you had the hots for Bruce Willis, Potts. Bald guys turn you on?"

Pepper scooped up the nearest couch cushion and tossed it at him. Tony blocked it and bounced out of the room laughing, leaving her smiling despite herself.

By December 26th, Pepper's normally immaculate coffee table was covered in waxed cartons and soda cans, and Tony was sitting on the floor, legs extended and his back against the couch. Pepper had stretched out on the couch--Tony's head was just about at her hip--and she was blinking at the TV, half-asleep from the glut of carbohydrates while Tony ran on about guns, ammunition, and the impossibility of movie physics. She thought that was a bit hypocritical coming from a guy who flew around in a metal suit, but she was feeling too lazy to argue.

"...Seriously, they should at least double-check the velocity first, do you really think Bruce Willis is that hot, Pepper?" Tony asked, and it was years of catching his non sequiturs that let her answer easily.

"No, I think Alan Rickman is hot, but my friend gave me the box set."

The startled look he shot her had Pepper giggling. "What? It's the accent."

Tony shook his head in disgust, turning back towards the TV. "Remind me to not invite him to the next charity gala."

Pepper rolled her eyes and reached out to tousle his hair. It was an impulsive move, but Tony didn't make anything of it; all she saw was the corner of his mouth turning up.

When the last film was over, it was past one in the morning, and Pepper forced herself to sit up; she was due back at Tony's house in less than eight hours, and while she was used to running on little sleep, there were limits.

At her feet, Tony stretched and stood, a little stiffly, and Pepper reflected with a small pang that entropy was catching up to both of them. He offered her a hand, and Pepper let him pull her up off the couch. "I'd give you today off if I thought you'd take it," he said, looking hopeful.

Pepper laughed. "Life goes on, Mr. Stark. Even if you sleep in."

He sighed exaggeratedly and let her go, heading for the door.

As Tony unlocked the deadbolt, Pepper leaned on the wall next to the door. "Tony..."

He turned to look at her, and she smiled at him. "Thank you. This was the nicest December 25th I've spent since...well, since."

His return smile was wry. "Ditto." When she raised her brows disbelievingly, he shrugged. "Seriously."

Huh. Pepper thought about that, then patted his arm. "Well, you do make a good friend. When you put your mind to it."

Tony regarded her for a long moment, his expression soft and almost shy, and then his eyes got a gleam she recognized. Before she could slide away, he leaned in, bracing one arm on the wall behind her shoulder. "Just so you know," he breathed in her ear, "I don't want to be just friends."

The tickle of his breath made goosebumps rise on her skin, and Pepper found herself paralyzed. Tony rubbed his face against her hair, lightly, and she heard him suck in air as if inhaling her scent.

Then he straightened, lips skimming her temple. "Maybe next year we can find a tropical island that's never heard of Christmas." The smile was still there, though his eyes had gone serious again. "No strings attached."

And then he was out the door, closing it behind him. Pepper forced herself to move, wrenching it open again, but he was already halfway down the hall.

"Tony." Pepper almost didn't recognize her own voice, and she certainly didn't recognize the impulse that drove her, but it felt right, and that was more than she could say about a lot of her life lately.

We've both changed. Maybe it's time to stop behaving like we haven't.

Tony stopped and turned, and though his face was calm she could tell by the set of his shoulders that he was afraid he'd pushed too far.

Pepper licked her lips, and took the leap. "What are you doing for New Year's Eve?"

His smile was brilliant.