A/n: A little New Years fic to wrap up the holidays. Enjoy!

Disclaimer: I own nothing and make no profit.


Business Trip Holiday

December 29

This is the first sign of trouble:

Pepper is sitting in her office with a stack of complaints from the faculty drop box when Tony appears in the doorway. At first she pretends not to notice his arrival, keeping her head bent towards the foremost complaint on her memo sheet (a tongue-in-cheek notice about the benefits of sexual harassment; she's not actually reading the thing but she's fairly sure who wrote it), but after a few seconds she has to acknowledge him. His presence has a way of filling not only the space of the room but the very air as well, in such a way that he makes himself rather hard to ignore. One deep breath later, she lifts her head, brushing back a strand of loose hair from her otherwise no-nonsense up-do.

"Oh, Mr. Stark," she says, falsely surprised.

"Got any plans for New Years, Potts?"

"…At the moment...?"

Pepper looks about her office with some doubt. The place is modestly decorated for the holidays; in her not-so-spare time between Thanksgiving and Christmas, she's managed a two-foot tree with gentle white lights, a bit of tinsel that she knows will be a battle to clean up later, and a string of garland that droops across the front of her desk. Just a few nice touches. And although she's a good sport and tries to spark the feeling of Christmas cheer in everyone else, she hasn't really felt all that much of it herself whilst trucking about Stark Industries with a phone glued to one ear and big business whispering in the other. More so than her work schedule, the downer is that she never has plans for Christmas or New Years any more. Her last New Years was spent at home, alone, and the one before that was spent in a bar (not one of her classier years).

When Pepper tells him that no, she hasn't really got anything in mind, Tony gives her a solid nod. That's the second sign.

"Good. Because I've got a business conference in New York and I need you there."

In her years as PA, she's learned when to speak and when to simply raise her eyebrows. The latter will suffice this time despite her eagerness for details. Tony probably doesn't know them anyway—besides, she'd actually known about the conference beforehand. Although last she's heard, it's to take place on the third of January. When she asks him about it, he shrugs and says he'd gotten an email stating that the date's been changed to the days before and after New Years Eve and Day. Pepper pauses, allows the silence to pick at him for a few seconds, and finally consents to his proposition. What else can she do? Tony crosses his arms, leans a broad shoulder against the frame of the door, and gives her his "I owe you one, Potts" smile. Third sign.

She doesn't have plans anyway, and she's always wanted to see New York's giant Christmas tree.

xxx

Ten hours later, she's flying business class beside Tony, a glass of water in one hand as the plane begins to take off down the Mailbu runway. The fingers of her other hand, in the absence of her trusted Blackberry, tap some unnamed carol against the armrest of the seat. In an attempt to be more economically sound, Tony's set aside his personal jet for one of his own commercial airplanes and a fresh supply of rum. The press had loved it (the plane, not the rum), even if she hadn't been thrilled at the idea of potentially needing to do crowd control on a public plane. She shoots a quick glance at Tony, who likes to sit aisle-side to better talk to the flight attendants and is currently examining the 'sick bags' stashed in the seat, before she turns to the window. Outside the sun is shining, an eighty-five degree afternoon just days before New Years. Pepper closes her eyes, and when she opens them again three hours later, Tony is watching the in-flight Christmas movie with all too much concentration and snow is beating on the window outside.

They check into the Mandarin Oriental New York near midnight after a taxi ride in which Pepper holds on to the "oh shit!" bar on the ceiling in a white-knuckled grip for fear of dying from the craziness of city traffic. The hotel is a beautiful Five-Star tucked right onto the corner of Central Park. Pepper takes a walk through their suite, having declined the offer for a tour. The room is decorated to suit its oriental name, complete with gigantic marble bathtub and in-room bar. The living room is spotless and completely furnished, there's a pair of wrapped chocolates on the kitchen counter with a note from the cleaning personnel. There is only one bedroom.

"The place is booked solid for New Years," Pepper says, when Tony points out this little detail.

"I could bribe someone out of their room," he offers.

"I don't think that's necessary, as long as you can behave yourself."

His eyebrows shoot up toward his hairline. Pepper looks at her watch, then consequently sighs and tells him she'll just find a spot in one of the many other places in their suite. It wouldn't be the first time that they've shared a suite and she's slept on the floor. She ends up in the bed when Tony insists that he'll crash on one of the many love seats, all of which she knows are far too short to house his outstretched limbs. When Pepper tries to re-locate the kitchen at four in the morning for a glass of water, she finds Tony sound asleep in the gigantic marble bathtub, a pillow tucked under his arm and a blanket draped over his fully-extended form.

xxx

December 30

When Pepper awakes the next morning and slips the complimentary robe and slippers on over her pajamas, Tony is already awake, showered, and sitting at the mini bar with a newspaper and a cup of coffee (untainted, so he claims). She pointedly asks him how the couch was, and he replies with a smirk that it was the best sleep of his life, although she can't help but notice the way he keeps rubbing his stiff neck. Pepper enjoys her complimentary breakfast without comment, staring idly out the window at the lovely view of the snow-embedded Central Park.

Tony picks up a pair of keys in the lobby for a car he's apparently rented.

"What about being more economically sound?" she deadpans as he leads her to the front of the building, where a sparkling silver Porsche is awaiting their arrival.

"What about it?" he responds, opening the passenger seat and gesturing for her to climb in. She barely has time to shoot him a glare before he presses a hand to her shoulder and smilingly guides her into the car.

The meeting is nearly ten hours long, punctuated only by lunch. By the end of it, Pepper is sure she's lost all the feeling in her legs from having sat for such a long period of time. Who'd have known that doing so much nothing could put one's muscles in such a sour mood? And poor Tony still has to stay for another three hours with the top guys to discuss the actual hands-on designing process —she'd thought that he might just shoot himself halfway through, because even if nobody else recognizes the looming destruction in Tony's "I'm really bored" face, she does. Maybe, Pepper thinks as she rises from the conference table at last, she'll even take a bath in that fancy tub, since she knows that Tony won't be around for a little while. He offers her the car on her way past him, but she wants absolutely nothing to do with driving in the city, and she can always take a bus if she needs to escape from the cold. After their lunch of Chinese take-out, she can use a little walk, so she slips on her jacket and makes her way out the door. The fading sound of her heels on the tile leaves Tony to face the executives alone.

The snow on the ground has, for the most part, melted into icy puddles all along the roadside. Pepper pulls her light jacket more tightly about her waist and lowers her head against a breeze. There is a part of her that had imagined New York City in the holiday season to be a magical, winter wonderland. A sugar-frosted Mailbu, only more whimsical and spirited. But no, as far as she can see, there's not a gingerbread in sight. The sun is high in the sky and all the Christmas lights are out. She hasn't even seen the big tree yet. Maybe they've taken it down already.

About half a mile into her walk, Pepper realizes just how cold it is to walk in open-toed shoes. Normally she'd just suck it up and keep marching, but halfway there she becomes sidetracked by the tantalizing scent of a chocolate shop. At first she makes a bold and brave attempt to pass the store, but a backwards glance catches the sight of some other woman in the store, who apparently is buying gourmet hot chocolate. Pepper feels her lips tighten into a resigned line before the backtracks into the store. Grudgingly she forks over eight dollars and heads out the door again, sipping the frothy drink. Unfortunately, her spending doesn't end there. First she is sidetracked by one of the jackets hanging in a window (her light jacket really isn't cutting it), then by a pair of really lovely socks in a store near Central Park (her toes are going to be cold, especially since she plans on making Tony sleep in the bed tonight and she thus doesn't know where she'll end up), then by a pair of earrings (she's beginning to run out of excuses). Not even the invulnerable Ms. Potts is strong enough to withstand the explosion of shopping opportunity that resides in New York City, especially when Tony pays her enough to feed a family of six. By the time she shuffles through the doorway with shopping bags dangling from her arms like Christmas tree ornaments, Tony is already sitting on the couch with his tie dangling loose around his neck. He has his feet propped on the coffee table.

He gives her an appraising look when he glances away from Mad Money to find his PA laden with shopping bags.

"Why Pepper, I thought you'd been kidnapped. I was absolutely terrified," he says, in the least terrified tone she's ever heard.

"I was. By a monster greater than myself, regrettably." She makes a valiant attempt at lifting her arms to show him what she means, but finds that she can barely raise them at all. It's amazing to her that she even made it up the ice-caked stairs to the building. "I probably could have used a good rescuing. Or a phone call. Some sort of urgent emergency to tear me away from this self destruction."

Tony bursts into laughter that may or may be the loose, genuinely relaxed laugh that only accompanies a glass of scotch and a good meal.

"I figured if you really had been kidnapped, you'd want me to stick to business, so I've been listening to my friend Jim instead," he says as he points to the wall-mounted flatscreen, where Jim Cramer is shouting up at the angled camera with a stack of papers in one shaking fist.

Pepper turns her attention to the yelling man for a brief moment. "I hope he's not looking like that about Stark Industries."

"Not today. We were up twenty points when the Dow Jones closed."

"Good. How was the meeting?"

Setting down her bags on the floor and stepping out of her heels, Pepper takes her time in crossing the ornately-decorated room to sit down in a seat adjacent to Tony's. She doesn't mind that he's surveying her with that look he usually reserves for flight attendants and waitresses (or at least she pretends not to), or that suddenly she can't remember the last two hours of her life. Did Tony even have a meeting today? He must have, but something about the way he's looking at her has wiped her mind entirely blank. She blinks and tears her eyes from his. Oh yes, here comes her memory. She even manages a small smile.

Talk about your fleeting, weird moments. She wonders briefly if this ever happens to other PA's and their multi-billionaire playboy-superhero-boss combos. Hmm…

"Boring," replies Tony, reaching his arms over his head. He yawns, stretching his upward until she sees him visibly shudder. Next he runs his hands over his head, reaches over and takes a sip of whatever he's been drinking. It doesn't look like it's having much of an effect on him, whatever it is. Not that that means anything at all, with his tolerance. Tony holds up his hands about three inches apart in front of his face. "I was about this close to gouging my eyes out with my pen."

"Sounds invigorating."

"I take it you're too tired from your latest… endeavor…" He nods to her shopping bag explosion. "...to go very far?"

"What was your first clue?"

"Well for starters, you took your shoes off at the door. If that's not an indicator that you're out of work mode, I don't know what is. How about we grab some dinner?"

Pepper can't help but smile. "What did you have in mind, Tony? Something Italian?"

Oh God. Normally she screens all sentences for possible suggestive openings before she says anything at all to Tony, but her radar is down and out today. She bites her tongue and hopes that her expression hasn't changed. 'We don't need to go out to have Italian, Potts,' he half expects her to say. 'I've got all you need, right… here…'

If he notices the accidental bait, Tony doesn't take it. "There's a place half a block from here that I heard one of the guys yabbering about after the meeting. This place called 'Pure Thai' on fifty-first and ninth. Says it's pretty good."

She groans and lets her head fall back against the beige cushion of the chair, glad to have been rescued by the "yabbering" stranger. "I don't know if I can walk that far," she laughs. "It's a good thing I bought those flats, I guess."

"Flats? Who needs 'em." Tony is already on his feet, and before she knows what's happening he's scooped her up and is carrying her towards the door.

"Tony—!"

Of all the unprofessional things to do… not to mention that he's just scared the crap out of her. Pepper does her best to hold back a squeak and instead demands to be set back down. Toby obliges once he reaches the door, setting her lightly on her bare feet. In turn, she slips on the polished wood floor and can only save herself from certain doom and humiliation by grabbing on to his arm. Her other hand somehow ends up on his arc reactor, though she's not really sure how, or why it happened to land on this particular spot. She wouldn't put it past him to have put a magnet on it, in which case the watch on her hand is what really did all the leading.

Her nimble fingers are quick to jump from the reactor as if the glowing blue has somehow burned through his buttoned-up shirt and into the nerves of her hand, almost sending her back a second time into a less explainable slip. Tony is unperturbed as usual—nay, he barely notices the gesture in his effort to keep her from winding up on the floor.

Once she's taken a step or two away from her boss, who has exchanged surveying Pepper for adjusting the red silk tie around his neck, Pepper busies herself by crouching down on knees still aching from her trek and digging through the bags littering the floor, in hopes that when she stands up, she can blame her scarlet face on her head being bent low into a mountain of stuff. Somewhere in the sea of Dolce and Gabbana she finds her new shoes waiting, the red clearance tag still attached at the toe, just waiting to be torn off and thrown aside.

"Red. How very you," he jibes with more than just a hint of amused sarcasm, eyeing her as she breaks the aforementioned tag and drops it into the sea of bags.

"Well, Tony, maybe you don't know me as well as you like to think you do."

"Please, Pep, I'm all ears."

She shoots him a silencing look before turning back to her flats.

The shirt under her suit jacket is red, as is the silver-embedded bracelet on her wrist. It had been her attempt at professional festiveness. The shoes will match perfectly fine, despite the fact that they are about four inches too short. Pepper slips them on, satisfied. Tony, having finished his tie, offers her an arm.

"Just look at us, Potts," he says, gesturing to her shoes and then his tie. "We're like Christmas billboards."

"I didn't know that red and black were Christmas colors," she replies, taking his arm as he opens the door.

"Oh, you know what I mean."

Pepper likes to think that she usually does.

xxx

December 31

Pepper wakes up on New Years Eve-Morning with a stiff neck and a soft groan. As she lays there in a blanket cocoon with her face half buried in the fluffy, featherstuffed pillow, she begins to contemplate the nature of irony. Dinner had been wonderful, like one of the simple fantasies she might have heard from one of Tony's pursuers. She would have believed their stories if she'd heard them, too. Conversation had been light and without stress from where they'd been tucked into a remote corner of the restaurant with only a small candlelit table between them. A few suggestive comments aside, he'd really been on his best behavior.

She pays for it now. It is only when Pepper hears a low chuckle that she opens her eyes and raises them to find Tony standing above her.

"I told you it was comfortable."

Pepper can count on one hand the number of times he's seen her a morning mess like this. Most of the times he can't even remember, as they'd been those nights where she'd parked herself on his couch after finding him on one of his drunken binges. Those mornings were usually grim on her part, poorly shaven on his. And from where she's tucked in, hoping that he can't tell that she's currently braless beneath her T-shirt and the down blanket, Pepper can see that this morning brings a cheerful, albeit unshaven and unshowered, Tony Stark. He's done her the favor of at least wearing pants this morning, though he stands shirtless and with a towel draped around his shoulders.

"Morning, Pepper," he greets her, rotating his arms for a good stretch. She can see the little details of his shoulder muscle as he turns his head from side to side. "How's your neck?"

With a morning yawn, Pepper heaves herself into an upright sitting position where she apparently went to sleep last night—the marble bathtub.

"I thought you said sleeping here was the best sleep of your life," she says with a scowl, rubbing her neck as if to make sure it's still attached to her head.

"I assumed you were still talking about the couch." After a few moments of watching her regain her surroundings, he gestures with a jerk of his thumb over his shoulder, where the door is open and waiting. "I've got to actually shower now, so you'll have to just skip on out for a few… unless you want to join me, of course. This shower can easily hold two, if not more."

The glint in his eye is just short of infuriating. Well-practiced and all too effective. Pepper responds by gathering the blanket up in her arms and rising to her feet in the tub, determinedly avoiding the itching desire to glance over to where the stand-up shower is waiting.

"Will that be all, Mr. Stark?"

Tony offers her one of his rarer smiles-the soft, genuine kind. "For now, Ms. Potts. That will be all."

They swap after he finishes his shower, leaving Pepper standing in the warm bathroom with a fresh towel thrown over one shoulder and her toiletry bag dangling from her hand. A mist still clings to the mirror, though Tony had apparently cleared a spot with his hand to get a better look at his face. Pepper does her best to ignore the scent of his aftershave that hangs tantalizing and sweet in the air as she sheds her nightclothes and cranks the faucet all the way over. Rolling her eyes at her own train of thought, she steps into the shower and momentarily forgets all about Tony and his inviting smell as she slips on the bar of soap and nearly falls to her face.

Oh, that'd be a wonderful intervention for her boss to make—and a nice article in the paper, too. Billionaire rescues his naked, unconscious PA from the shower of their one-bedroom hotel suite on New Years Eve. Nice. Pepper curses her boss for leaving the soap lying around in the first place and commences with washing her hair under the pounding showerhead.

The next hours are spent, for the most part, lounging around. In this new thing called "down time", Pepper manages to answer all the emails on her inbox while Tony watches "Elf" on the in-room HBO service and laughs himself into tremors when Buddy is hit by a cab ("The yellow ones don't stop!"). She had rolled awake, surprisingly enough, around noon that morning, which leaves only a few hours until they need to head out to see the New Year's celebration (at least, she assumes they're going…).

Around four, Tony clicks off the television and announces that they're going out for the rest of the night.

"You might want to put on something a little warmer," he adds, gesturing to her jeans and long-sleeved shirt. "It can get pretty cold in the Big Apple."

It is cold. Luckily the notorious city wind has held off, but Pepper and Tony leave the hotel bundled up against the frosty conditions. Pepper's grateful for the previous day's shopping. In her burst of probably chocolate-induced enthusiasm she'd purchased more than enough to keep the both of them warm. And thus, New Year's Eve-Day finds boss and employee strolling down the crowded avenue with cups of coffee from the hotel lobby. Tony, who must have anticipated the weather better than Pepper, has a long black jacket, gloves, the whole nine yards. Walking along beside him is a pleasant experience. For once he's taking his time, unperturbed about the people rushing by with their heads bent low. Pepper supposes that he was probably wary about leaving Malibu without the Iron Man, but he's handling the absence of his alter ego quite well. A snow begins to fall all around them as they make their way down the street together, side by side.

Pepper feels his gloved hand nudge her side.

"Hey Pep, check it out…"

As Tony's right-hand woman, who deals with not only people but much of the advertising as well, Pepper is hardly surprised by billboards and magazine covers anymore. She's seen more ads than she can count, some of which even include her (usually lurking in the background of a candid shot). The sight of a staggeringly gigantic, moving Stark Industries billboard a hundred feet above them still evokes a feeling of overwhelming wonder. Tony's grinning self, complete with sunglasses and Armani tux, strolls onto the massive screen before them with his hands in his pockets. He struts over to where the Stark Industries logo is being lowered to the middle of the white-blanched background and leans his shoulder up against the side in a pose that Pepper knows all too well. Beside her, the actual Tony has stopped in the middle of the sidewalk to admire his larger self.

"How many bulbs you think that is?" he asks.

Pepper shakes her head, her eyes glued to the larger-than-life advertisement as ad-Tony makes another round across the screen. This ad is easily the biggest one in the Time's Square area, and the most impressive. "I have no idea."

"Yeah, me neither. But it's a lot." Suddenly his arm is being draped casually around her shoulder, and Pepper is pulled in towards Tony's side. She can actually feel his heartbeat with her ear pressed against the side of his chest like this. "That's how we do business, Pepper," he says as he points up to the ad. "How would you like to be on one of those?"

"I actually sort of like working behind the scenes, Boss, if you want to know the truth."

She gently eases herself out from under his arm, electing instead to grab his hand and give him a small tug forwards. Her face is frozen but grinning all the same. "Come on, I don't want to miss the show!"

Pepper and Tony dart across the street with the rest of the New Year's crowd, narrowly avoiding several cabs and a bus.

"Look out," he shouts back at her over his shoulder at her stricken expression. "The yellow ones don't stop."

xxx

January 1

The door of one of the Mandarin Oriental's prime suites creaks open at half past one in the morning to the sound of hearty laughter. The moment feels like a well-constructed photograph. Pepper's head is tilted back in a full laugh that makes her eyes close and her hair spill askew across her snow-dusted shoulders. With one hand she tries to unfasten the buttons of her dark green pea coat while the other reaches blindly for the light switch. Tony, already loosening the tie around his neck, flips the lights on before she can find it.

The room is flooded with a mild, comfortable light that sends them into a frenzy of blinking. The last few hours have been a blur in Time's Square. Pepper isn't sure that she can even put two and two together at this point, it's so late—or early, however you want to look at it. All she knows is that when that ball lowered down to ground level at the stroke of midnight, every single couple within six miles of New York City was smooching in the confetti-strewn, artificially-lit street. Except when the cheers began to subside nearly an hour later, Tony and Pepper still stood in the middle of it all, side by side.

Pepper is fine with this, even thrilled that she could abstain from the temptation that had sidetracked several other women—drunken to the point of near unconsciousness, mostly—into more or less jumping her unperturbed employer. Now they stand in the suite with rosy cheeks and laughter just beginning to fade from their faces. Pepper finds herself suddenly on her guard once more. She follows Tony's figure in the corner of her eye as he shoulders his jacket off and hangs it on the back of the door. He's talking about one of the guys they'd run into during the celebratory chaos—some story about how he'd seen him before at an award ceremony, and the man had been so drunk that he'd toppled right off the stage with an award in his hand. Pepper allows herself in the moments where his back is turned to examine him from where he stands a few feet off to her left. It amazes her that she feels so thoroughly charmed, despite his (from what she can tell) innocent intentions. Not to say that she's never heard him speak like this, but for once she feels distinctly like a woman instead of a woman who also happens to be an employee, or the woman who mops Tony up after he comes crashing through the roof after a night in Baghdad.

Tony turns around, surveys her for a moment. "You look like an ice block."

Pepper takes a look at his flushed face and grins. "Speak for yourself."

One of Tony's eyebrows shoots up in a way that means he's been stricken with an idea of some sort—usually something dangerous, but Pepper has a feeling that he hasn't got explosives on the brain this time. Promptly he turns away and heads off.

She lets out a slow, long breath and rubs her freezing hands together. Now that they're out of the cold, her fingers seem to be defrosting rather painfully. During the chaos she hadn't thought so much about being cold as not being trampled by the crazy drunks in the street, but as the adrenaline begins to subside, she's left shivering in the doorway. Tony is wandering towards the bathroom, leaving Pepper there by herself to contemplate her frozen toes. She raises her hands to her mouth and puffs a breath of warm air against her fingertips. A moment later Tony calls her from the other room, and she can hear the sound of running water.

"Hey Pep, come here. And take off your shoes." His voice is completely neutral.

Pepper doesn't even ask. Quietly she slips out of her shoes and pulls her jacket off before hanging it next to Tony's on the door. Admittedly, it is against her better judgment to follow Tony into any domestic room past midnight, especially a room whose primary purpose is for getting naked. But Pepper does as her gut tells her and follows him without demur across the suite and into the bathroom, only to find that the large marble bathtub they'd been using as a bed is currently being filled. He's turned the faucets all the way to hot and rolled his slacks up to the knee.

Tony turns around and sees that she's staring at him with an uncharacteristically bemused expression. Straightening up, he jerks a thumb towards the tub. "Put your feet in. I'll be right back." When she raises her eyebrows at him, her gaze shifting from his face to his bare shins to the steaming tub, he adds, "No, this is not a creative ploy for me to get a better look at your legs. Though now that you mention it…"

"Very funny. Go get your… whatever it was you were getting."

His grin is unmistakable as he brushes past her towards the door. In this case she has two options, and the heat radiating from the running water is making it hard for her to say no. So Pepper takes the bait to his would-be stratagem and bends over to roll her pant leg up just above her knee. Once that's all settled, she sets a towel down on the edge of the tub and sits on it, swinging her legs over the edge and into the water.

"Ah…Ouch." That feels really good.

She can hear Tony tinkering around in the other room, gathering what sounds suspiciously like glasses from the mini bar.

"…I mean, it wasn't like those crazy parties in Miami or anything, but I was pleased. There was something… different about it; I can't really put my finger on it but I liked it."

"Hmm…" Pepper rolls her eyes and watches her feet waft back and forth in the scalding water. The water sloshing around her ankles burns so good in the cold. It sends a calming shudder down her spine in the absence of Malibu weather. "Could be the absence of your usual liquid courage, Boss," she deadpans, loud enough for him to hear if he has his head shoved in the liquor cabinet.

His bare footsteps patter down the hallway until he arrives back in the bathroom. When she cranes her neck back to get a better look at him, she sees that he's already discarded his tie (on the floor somewhere, no doubt) in exchange for two crystal wine glasses and a dark bottle. Well, so much for "absence of liquid courage". Pepper decides it would be best not to roll her eyes a second time.

"Just a nightcap?" she finds herself asking, sounding nonplussed despite the significant arch of her brow.

Tony shrugs one shoulder in response. "Of sorts. Here—"

As he hands her the glasses, he finds a spot beside her on the towel. Pepper shuffles to the side to allow him room on the edge of the marble tub, and when he finally sticks his feet in the water he can't suppress a small sigh of relief. Pepper looks down at the two pairs of legs in the water. There's such dichotomy here that she can't help but be amused (and really glad that she'd remembered to shave this morning) rather than put off. Pepper's tiny feet are even more dwarfed by his than when they stand alone, and that's saying something. Her legs are long and slender, well-muscled from all that walking in heels and complete with freshly-manicured toes. He is much of the same, though there is a nasty, just-starting-to-heal gash just below his left knee and an even more gruesome bruise on the opposite shin. Trophies, no doubt, from his armored escapades.

What are the odds that she'd left Malibu only a few days ago thinking that it would be just another exasperating business trip? Lights, good (sober) company, shopping, even some peace of mind! If she didn't know any better, she'd accuse Tony of somehow doing all of this on purpose, just to spoil her. She wouldn't be surprised. He'd been really good, both to her and to himself, lately.

Tony pops the cork on the bottle, pours two glasses, and hands her one of them before setting the bottle aside. Pepper raises the brim to her nose, pauses, and finally takes a small sip. Champagne. She's not sure what kind, but it's definitely champagne. Having a supposed nightcap with Tony Stark can be dangerous, and she'd rather know what she's in for, because she's not one to take chances.

Or maybe she is, just by being this close to him, this secluded from the rest of New York.

Once he's settled in, Tony reaches across the tub and shuts off the faucets, leaving them in water about halfway up their shins that steams so heavily she has to unzip her sweatshirt and toss it towards the door. Tony leans over to the left and picks up a remote control. A second later, the bathroom is filled with a soft music.

"They're still playing Christmas music, I guess," he observes, sipping his drink.

Pepper nods. "You only get to hear it one season out of four, so I like to enjoy it while I can."

"Fair enough."

Now Tony turns so that he's facing her more directly. His knees bump into hers as he moves, he lifts the champagne glass so that the light hits the drink at just the right angle. The tiny bubbles within dance to the surface and burst. Pepper follows suit at his gesture, hesitantly.

"Here's to us, Potts, and a new year. Let's hope it's as successful as the last."

Because she can think of nothing more appropriate to add than what he's already articulated, she consents to the simple request and they drink their toast to the quiet sounds of I'll Be Home For Christmas.

Pepper tells herself that she's just going to sip the glass she has, but Tony goes for seconds and she finds herself following his example. Soon the only cold things in the room are the bottle of champagne and the two glasses, dotted with condensation in the warm room. Conversation comes as easily as math comes to the both of them. They talk about the city, they talk a little business and about the conference they have on the second of January. Pepper even becomes so daring as to bring up the Iron Man, so for a while he goes on about upgrading and how Jarvis can really use an upgrade because he's taken to calling Tony "Iron Sir".

"Which, while kind of catchy," Tony explains while Pepper chuckles into her hand, "is a little distracting."

Pepper sets her glass down on the broad marble edge of her seat and lets out a small sigh. Suddenly she feels as if she's been searching for so long for this feeling—she can't even begin to describe what it is, really—but hasn't been able to grasp the proximity of the answer until now. This is it. It's not the five-star hotel or the snow or the fact that she's warming up via footbath in this dimly-lit room. No, it goes beyond the material, even beyond the emotional. It all comes down to one single thing.

"Tony."

She begins slowly, turning her head so that her gaze is cast down towards the small space between them. Tony gives her a small 'hmm?' in response, and out of the corner of her eye she can see him as he raises his champagne glass to eye level, finishes it off in one swig, and shrugs as if unimpressed by the drink. Pepper sighs.

This time he actually turns towards her, his eyes inquiring and once she raises her chin to meet him. The look on his face doesn't make this any easier. Tentative, she rubs her forehead, sighs again—this time with a slight laugh.

"Tony, I don't even know how to say this… but I really enjoyed this business trip." She looks to him for help, but he only nods to urge her on. "I mean, it's been the most simple and—and stress-free trip I could have asked for. It's been like a vacation. And this could be the champagne talking, but I don't think I would have enjoyed it if you hadn't been here. I mean, it's not just all the things I've done these last few days. It's…you, Tony. And I'm happy."

She startles as Tony actually seeks her hand and clasps it between his own.

"If it's any consolation to you—" Tony smiles, running his thumb along the inside her of wrist, and Pepper knows that she's in trouble this time. "There is not a drop of alcohol in this champagne."

Pepper stares, dumbfounded, for only a split second before she leans in and all bets are off. Tony receives her with zero hesitation and much enthusiasm, letting go of her hand so she can use both to run her fingers through his hair. He's cradling her neck, edging the backs of his fingers over her cheek. And when they break apart seconds later, Pepper's eyes are as half-lidded as they had been on the balcony during the banquet, her heart is thrumming away just as fast. She can feel drops of sweat already percolating on the back of her neck, but it's no matter when she has so much else on her mind.

Swinging her legs out of the tub onto the bath rug, Pepper kisses him again fervently and breathes, "Remember that offer you made me this morning?"

Tony chuckles in amused surprise. "Are you sure you're going to call my bluff, Potts? Because that shower is only ten feet away and that sounds like an invitation I'd be an idiot to decline."

"What happens in New York…" She trails off with a shrug and a smirk. Her hands are itching, legs are shaking.

"Stays in New York," he agrees in all seriousness, punctuating his words with well-aimed kisses along her jawline. Then he pauses, his mouth hovering just above the curve of her jaw. "Until we get to Malibu, of course."

"Ugh, don't taunt me, Tony."

He stands up beside her on the mat, and a second later he's scooped her up and kissed her again. "As you wish."

xxx

January 2

"Thank you so much for coming all the way from California for this meeting, Mr. Stark, Ms. Potts. I understand how difficult it can be to get around the city during the holidays."

Pepper takes the broad man's hand and gives it a firm shake. "It's been a pleasure, Mr. Jacobs, trust me. But I have to wonder—why would we change the date from tomorrow to the days before and after New Years? It seems a little… I don't know… inconvenient."

The man gives her a confused look, then turns his head slightly to offer Tony the same expression. "I agree completely, but you'll have to ask your employer for the answer to that question. He's the one who insisted it be changed in the first place."

Pepper turns to Tony, mouth already slightly ajar and her hand still mid-handshake with the director of New York affairs. What she sees, though, is Tony with his head turned slightly away from her, his eyes cast towards the ceiling in a would-be innocent look; the smirk turned in the corner of his lips is unmistakable. Tony never ceases to surprise.

"Your office has some really lovely curtains, Mr. Jacobs," he throws out casually.

Mr. Jacobs is flummoxed. Pepper just shakes her head.

xxx

End.