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. Any errors are mine, all mine, no you can't have any.

Thanks to several readers for suggesting a sequel, drat you. :P And especial thanks to Laura27md for Rhodey's resolution! I never would have thought of that.

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He was nervous.

Tony didn't like to admit it, but it was true. It wasn't as though he'd never been nervous before, either, but most recently his nerves had concerned his personal assistant in one way or another, and it was no different now.

Nervous and hopeful.

He looked around his living room, but as usual everything was in place; it was, after all, why he paid a housekeeper a large salary to come by several times a week. The sun was reddening the ocean outside the windows, and Jarvis was under orders to route all calls directly to voice mail.

He had only to wait. And Tony hated waiting.

The whole thing had been something of an impulse, to start with. He'd been trying to get Pepper to take him seriously for weeks if not months, but without much success. He'd thought Christmas might be a good opportunity to be a little more...blatant, but that had fallen through.

Laundry. Good grief, Potts.

Tony still wondered whether he'd ever have found out Pepper's secret if he hadn't stuffed her full of processed sugar and carbohydrates first.

Going over there had been an impulse; stopping to get goodies first had been salting his odds, because he figured an uninvited guest stood a better chance of being admitted if he came bearing food.

She'd nearly run him off anyway, but in the end he'd made it into Pepper's sanctuary. And her secret.

He still wanted to kill her father, never mind that the man was dead already.

But in the end, it had worked out pretty well. True, Tony wanted Pepper in his bed, and not just for one night, either, but he wanted her as a friend just as strongly. And it had come to his attention in recent months that while he already considered her one, he hadn't been much of a friend in return.

He saw no reason to take the goals sequentially.

So he'd pushed his luck--as usual--

"Tony."

He almost kept going, afraid of her wrath even as his skin still tingled from the softness of her hair, but in the end he turned, steeling himself for whatever consequences she saw fit to deliver.

Pepper's tongue flicked out to wet her lips, and he realized with a start that she was apprehensive, not mad. Her eyes were wary. "What are you doing for New Year's Eve?"

He couldn't stop the smile that spread over his face. "Anything you want, Potts," he told her. "Anything at all."

And while a hundred possibilities had occurred to him, from flying to New York City to her choice of parties, Pepper had chosen this--dinner at his place, with Pepper supplying the food.

And with Rhodey.

It wasn't quite the date he'd hoped for, but Tony told himself to be patient. In fact-- He smiled, considering her addition of a third party. I'll bet I'm not the only one who's nervous.

And it occurred to him, on the heels of that realization, that maybe Pepper had no more idea of what she was doing than he did.

Tony shook his head at his faint reflection in the window. "Improvising is my forte, Potts," he murmured. "You're the organized one."

A pretty good match, when he thought about it. But I knew that already.

"Ms. Potts has arrived," Jarvis announced. A video from one of the front drive cameras flashed up on the window, Pepper turning away from her car with both hands occupied with containers of some sort.

"Nice." Tony went to hold open the door for her.

Pepper smiled when she saw him, a little uncertain but genuine. "Oh, thank you."

"What did you bring?" he asked affably as she passed him, admiring the way her jeans hugged her hips.

"Food," she shot back with a grin. "It needs to go in the oven."

She kept going, but Tony waited, seeing Rhodey's truck coming up the drive. It was a nice evening, cool but not too chilly, and Tony decided that they might as well eat out on the patio if Pepper agreed.

Rhodey slammed his door and jogged up the steps, looking uncharacteristically casual in jeans of his own and a blue MIT sweatshirt that looked just about as old as Tony's. Over his shoulder, though, was a garment bag.

"You're not staying?" Tony asked as Rhodey ducked inside.

"Nah, I have to be back on base by twenty-three hundred, but Pepper said she was making lasagna and I can't miss that."

"Ooh," Tony said appreciatively, closing the door behind them both. He'd only been graced with the dish a couple of times--as Pepper often said, feeding him might be part of her job description but cooking wasn't--and it was always a memorable experience.

"This is nice," Rhodey added as they passed through the living room. "I was expecting you to go to some massive shindig this year and leave the two of us all by our lonesomes. If you didn't drag Pepper along with you, that is."

Tony blinked at his friend as Rhodey headed into the nearest guest room to hang up his bag. "What, you two do New Year's together?"

"When you're not around, yeah," Rhodey said, emerging and rolling up his sleeves. "Kind of a tradition, except this year she told me you were supplying the beer."

He headed towards the kitchen, raising his voice. "Hey, Pepper, can I do anything?"

Tony stood still for a moment, trying to process the fact that his best friend and his...other best friend...had apparently been spending their holidays cozily together, right under his nose. His oblivious nose, demonstrably.

Not that his previous New Year's Eves had been all that conducive to clear thought, though. Champagne was usually only the start of the evening.

Nettled and not sure why, Tony followed Rhodey into the kitchen, where he was joking with Pepper and slicing a long loaf of bread. For a moment he indulged in paranoia, wondering if Pepper had invited Rhodey along because she was interested in him, not Tony.

Then he shook it off as best he could. Don't be an ass. Pepper isn't like that.

"Can I help too?" he asked humbly, earning him a look of slight surprise from Rhodey. Pepper just smiled, her hands occupied with the big glass dish she was unwrapping from foil.

"Sure, you can make up the garlic spread. The recipe's over there." She pointed with her chin to a rather stained index card on the counter.

Tony busied himself with peeling and crushing garlic, relaxing as the talk turned to the best Italian food. He argued on the side of professional chefs, describing meals he'd had in Italy itself, while Pepper contended that homemade was better. Rhodey didn't take a position, just grinning and commenting in support of one or the other as the mood struck him.

It reminded Tony of a few similar times in the past, when they were flying somewhere on his jet, the three of them--when they were out of range for Pepper's phone, and Rhodey had drunk enough to be relaxed, and Tony himself hadn't drunk too much. Or the occasional evening at his home, when there was a bowl game on and Rhodey brought the chips, and Pepper chose to slip off her shoes and root quietly for the underdog instead of going home.

Relaxed times, full of laughter and teasing and a simple camaraderie that Tony knew he hadn't appreciated properly at the time.

I can do better now.

The smell of the lasagna crept out to warm the room, blunting the sharp edge of the raw garlic, and they sat around the kitchen table with a beer each, still talking. "What's your New Year's resolution, Pepper?" Rhodey asked eventually.

She gave him a fond, slightly exasperated look. "You know I don't do resolutions."

He shrugged. "First time for everything."

"No resolutions, Potts? You keep breaking them?" Tony smirked at Pepper, who rolled her eyes.

"No. If I want to do something, I set a goal and do it. I don't see a need to schedule one for the beginning of the year."

"Very logical, Spock," Tony teased, making her sniff. He glanced over at Rhodey. "What about you, platypus?"

"To get you to make me one of those suits." Rhodey grinned confidently.

Tony snickered. "I don't know if you're ready for that kind of power."

"Try me." Rhodey sipped his beer and eyed Tony challengingly.

Pepper coughed. "If I can cut through this testosterone fog, the lasagna's almost ready."

"Great! Want to eat out on the patio?" Tony set down his bottle.

It was a moment's work to set the glass-topped table, and they sat down around Pepper's artistry, accompanied only by a few late moths attracted to the lights.

The food was, as expected, delicious, and Tony and Rhodey did full justice to it. Halfway through the meal Tony realized that Pepper was huddling in on herself, so he stripped off his own sweatshirt and passed it over to her while she was debating military funding with Rhodey. She took it with a grateful smile, and though it was overlarge on her Tony thought she looked adorable in it.

When the food was gone Rhodey glanced over at Pepper. "Ready?"

Tony looked from one to the other. "Ready for what?"

"We always watch Star Wars," Pepper explained. "Um...is that okay?"

Her sudden uncertainty made him want to reassure her. "As long as you're talking the original trilogy."

Rhodey snorted. "Gimme a break--what do you take us for?"

They left the dishes to sit.


Somehow Pepper ended up in the middle when they sat down on the long couch. Tony couldn't help watching out of the corner of his eye, but Pepper didn't seem to be any closer to Rhodey than she was to him. She just sat crosslegged on the cushion and watched the film with a little smile on her lips.

Rhodey had to leave right after Darth Vader killed Obi-Wan, and they paused the film as he returned from the guest room in his uniform.

"Looking good, Colonel," Tony told him with a smile. Rhodey straightened his jacket and gave them both a grin.

"Happy New Year," Pepper said, leaning up to kiss Rhodey's cheek. He gave her a hug, and Tony bit his lip, though the gesture looked more brotherly than anything else. Then he was gone.

"Hold on," Tony said as Pepper turned back towards the living room. "You didn't bring any dessert, did you?"

Pepper shook her head, and Tony grinned. "I want ice cream. You?"

"What kind?" Pepper asked, and Tony looped his arm through hers, an experiment.

"No idea, let's go see what the freezer holds."

She didn't pull away, and with a flush of warmth Tony led her back to the big kitchen. He had to let her go to open the freezer, but she stood right behind him to peer over his shoulder, so that was all right.

"Hmm, chocolate marshmallow, chocolate peanut butter, chocolate chocolate chip..." Tony rummaged among the cartons, and Pepper snickered.

"I sense a trend."

He wrinkled his nose at her and pulled out one in particular. "Butter pecan."

Pepper took it, lifted the lid, and tilted the carton towards him in mute proof. It was empty but for a mere scraping of ice cream in one corner, furred with ice crystals.

"Must have been Rhodey who put it back," Tony said instantly. "The man's constitutionally incapable of throwing anything out."

"Uh-huh, sure," Pepper said, a smirk curling her lips. "Remember who does your inventory, Mr. Stark."

"Hey, it might come in handy later!" Tony took the carton and lid, put the latter on the former, and sank it in the trash can across the room with a high-arcing toss. "Hah."

Pepper just shook her head and reached past him into the freezer. "Mint chip."

They ended up with one large bowl each, though Pepper's held only one kind of ice cream. Tony, bemoaning his lack of whipped cream, mixed three flavors and added caramel sauce, which made Pepper shudder.

"Sure you don't want any hot fudge?" he offered, waving the jar at her, but Pepper shook her head.

"I'm good. Come on, the Death Star's waiting."

Tony took longer than Pepper to finish his ice cream, but when he put the bowl on the table and sat back, licking his lips, Pepper sighed. He looked over at her, but she was still watching the film, and he turned his eyes back to the window where the movie was playing.

And was absolutely stunned when she slid over to lean against him.

Breathless, Tony lifted his arm and put it around Pepper's shoulders. She sighed again and snuggled closer, and Tony let his hand curl around her far shoulder and closed his eyes for a moment of delight.

It was strange, he thought absently as they watched the award ceremony at the end of the film; something so small giving him so much pleasure. But he'd wanted only one thing from the women he'd dated in the past. From Pepper, he wanted her trust; and her warm weight against him told him he was making progress at least.

Not to mention, looks like I was wrong about her and Rhodey. Tony felt a bit foolish for considering the thought, but then rationality didn't quite enter into it where Pepper was concerned.

"So which is your favorite?" Tony broke their silence as the credits began to run. "The farm boy or the bad boy?"

Pepper chuckled, not moving from the circle of his arm. "Actually, I always liked Ben best."

That made him blink, and for some reason think of Yinsen. "Not what I was expecting, I must say, Potts."

She shrugged easily. "He has a serenity...I guess I always envied that."

"Hmm." Tony laid his head back against the cushions; he was absurdly content, and Pepper seemed to be too. They were watching the list of special effects people scroll by when the sound dropped and Jarvis spoke.

"Sir, it is 11:59 p.m."

"Huh, already?" Tony had asked Jarvis to let them know when midnight arrived, but he hadn't realized it was that late. He glanced over at Pepper through the dimness. "Should I get the champagne?"

"Nah." She smiled at him. "I'm too comfortable to move."

He really wanted to kiss her, but settled for tightening the arm around her shoulders. Jarvis replaced the movie with a small display counting down the seconds, but before he could focus on it Pepper spoke again. "Do you have any New Year's resolutions, Tony?"

"Just one." At her inquiring look, he swallowed, and gave her the truth. "To get you to love me."

Surprise, shock even, flickered in her eyes, and Tony couldn't move, afraid he'd just blown all his chances. Then her mouth quirked, and she lifted one hand to his jaw.

Her lips were warm and so soft as they brushed across his, and as she started to pull away Tony shifted, catching her mouth for a deeper kiss, sweet and slow and running through his blood like liquid light.

When they parted, Pepper smiled at him, a little dazed, a little amused. "I don't think you'll break that one," she told him. "If you're careful."

"Pepper..." He honestly didn't know what to say. But then the counter flipped to zero, flashing, and the words came to him. "Happy New Year."

Her smile was absolutely the best way to start any year, he thought. "Happy New Year, Tony." She curled up against him. "I think it'll be a good one."

He held her close, and looked out the window at the stars and the sea and the brand new year.

And knew it would be.

End.