Title: Gift

Author: ZionAngel

Rating: PG-13

Length: 2,517 words

Summary: When he needs her most, Pepper gives everything of herself to him.

AN: This is pretty much complete and total emotional fluff. The idea came to me while avoiding an awful assignment, and I just couldn't let it go. I'm hoping the emotional tone in this is as strong as it was in my head. This hasn't been edited except for spelling and stuff. I wrote it using the glorious tool that is Write or Die (a huge life saver, really), so I was really pushing to get it done, so I'm not sure if it's up to my usual caliber. Reviews are much appreciated!

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Tony sits alone in the dark, the soft sound of the rain against the windows in the background as he stares at the fire before him. He has a drink in his hand, a glass half-full with scotch. He hasn't taken a sip since he sat down, and he's beginning to wonder why he even poured the drink in he first place. He's beginning to wonder why he even began this night in the first place. He doesn't know what was different about tonight, if it was the fact that he's another year older with what feels like nothing to show for it, if it's the fact that he hasn't slept with a woman in over a year, if the stress of too many obligations is getting to him, what it is. He doesn't know, only knows that something was wrong. Somehow, for any one of a million reasons or no reason at all, he stood in the middle of that party tonight, surrounded by a hundred guests or more, and felt utterly, deeply alone. He felt sad, and empty, and even after he left the party, slipped out a side door, the feelings followed him, home and into this room, and linger around him like a smoke he can't escape. He has no explanation for it. Maybe it's the accumulation of weeks or months or even years of a life he should have known would come back to haunt him. Whatever it is, in this moment, he thinks he could very easily wallow away in this room, shrinking smaller and smaller in this cloud of loneliness and sorrow until he withers away into nothing.

His thoughts drift to Pepper. She was there, of course, but there were so many people, and she got away from him somehow, and each time he managed to find her, desperate for just a brief dance, a chance to hold her close and see her smile, she always seemed to be talking to someone else. Laughing with someone else. Dancing with someone else. Always smiling. And he couldn't bring himself to bother her, to pull her away and frighten the smile away with the sadness she would no doubt see in his eyes. So finally, he gave up, and just slipped away, leaving out the back door of the club.

He's been sitting here, in the dark room, ever since he got home, and he's had no idea how to lift his own spirits, and no motivation even if he did.

He hears the faint rush of the door creeping open after a while, but he pays little attention. He's started to drift away, and he's quite certain he's on the edge of a dream now. The glass in his hand is warm now. Low footfalls cross the carpet. A shape moves on the side of his vision, and he looks up.

He sees Pepper, her silhouette illuminated by the dim firelight, and even if it is only his mind's illusion, the sight is beautiful, and he wishes it could be real. It's a nice dream, at the very least.

She moves again, one slow step and then another. The light of the fireplace illuminates her, and her dress and hair cling to her just a bit, damp from the rain. He remembers the beauty of her face, the sweetness of her, more than he actually sees it. Another step, and another, and his mind registers that this does not feel like a dream. More steps, and she's standing just a few feet away from him, staring so intensely, and he realizes that the woman standing before him is real, not a figment of a lonely imagination.

He wonders what she's doing here, why she followed him, what she wants him to say or do. He can't form the words to ask. Pepper stands before him, watching him, staring for one long, slow second after another. He stares back, watching what he can see of her eyes, unsure what else there is to do.

She doesn't seem angry that he left the party early, nor disappointed that he didn't thank any of the guests for coming. His eyes adjust to the light a bit more, and her eyes only look solemn. Still, she does not speak.

He can only imagine it is hours later when she finally moves, when she tilts her head the other way. She slips one foot out of its heel, then the other, leaving them to stand side-by-side on the floor without her. She takes three steps, bare feet muffled in the carpet.

She bends her left leg first, nestling her knee between his leg and the arm of the chair. Balancing with her fingers just beside his, she lifts her other leg, and settles it snugly beside his. She takes the glass from his hand, sets it on the end table. All the while, her eyes stay connected with his, never leaving, and he makes no move, no reaction, save for the sudden racing of his heart and his quick breaths. She settles down, resting her weight on his legs.

He doesn't understand what she's doing, or why, but some little voice whispers in his ear, compelling him to go along with it, let her do as she pleases, and see where she takes him. And he doesn't mind listening to that voice, because Pepper is here, with him, sitting in his lap, close enough to touch and see and breathe in.

The glow of the arc reactor reaches through his shirt, brushing her face, and he can finally see her clearly enough. Still, though, he can't decipher her emotions, save the confidence assurance that they are good emotions, ones he need not fear from her.

What he sees in her eyes is something warm, open, inviting. Comforting.

Pepper leans in close, and cups his face in her soft hands. They're warm, despite coming in from the rain, and her touch is strong, gentle. Her head tilts to the side, and she stares at him, as she did before, but with something different behind the gaze. His heart flutters wildly in his chest, and any hope of speech is tied up in his throat. Her eyes, her lips, her cheeks, all dusted with freckles, only barely visible in the light, are so beautiful. They've always been beautiful - he just so rarely gets the opportunity to admire them so closely. But it's her eyes, their smoky blue color, the way they can express any emotion, that are the most beautiful. They are perfect, a perfect match to the heart of the wonderful woman to whom they belong. And he wants that. Wants her. He wants her heart, all for his own, and he would so gladly give her every last fragment of his in return.

And while he's still transfixed by her beauty, lost in her eyes, they slip closed, and she leans forward so, so slowly, until her lips brush against his.

The touch is soft at first, not nearly enough, and for all that he wants more, he can't move a muscle. Whether out of shock, confusion, fear of scaring her away, or simply awe, he cannot move a single muscle, not even to breathe. As she presses her lips more firmly against his, in tiny increments only noticeable once they have passed, he realizes that this gentle kiss is the most profound expression of love he has ever experienced.

There is no doubt in his mind, none at all, that that is what this is. That she is telling him she loves him. He has no fear that this is some act of pity, some favor she's doing to try and get him to shape up and put on a brave face. No, something about the way she's kissing him, so soft and sweet, completely giving and not the least bit demanding, something makes him sure. She loves him. He knows it.

And as her hands slide down to his neck, he feels something else, something beyond her physical touch and the kisses she places to either side of his mouth. He feels something that his scientific mind can't quite process, something no instrument could measure but that he knows is real, knows is coming from her. It's deeper than a touch. He wonders if, maybe, what he feels is a gift straight from her heart to his. But she kisses him a bit harder, her tongue brushing his lower lip, and he forgets to worry about it, and for now he is content to simply accept the pure euphoria he feels.

She kisses a trail across his cheek, up to his forehead, down his neck, and all the while her fingers play with the little hairs at the back of his neck, a light pressure that feels incredible. He sighs as she kisses his throat, working the knot from his tie and undoing a few buttons on his shirt. He breathes in the scent of her hair, the scent of strawberries and cool rain, and he wants to smell that intoxicating scent every day for the rest of his life.

His hands move on their own, running over her hips, sliding up her back, with nothing meant by it safe the simple pleasure of touching her. When his hands reach her shoulder blades, he feels the flutter of her heart through his fingertips, fast and strong. Just for a moment, he thinks the beat of her heart might just be in sync with his own, but before he can tell she's kissing his mouth again, a deeper kiss this time as she slowly nudges his tongue with hers. He lets her in gratefully, reveling in the feeling of it.

Through it all, she asks nothing of him, she expects nothing in return for her love. There is no pressure on him to impress her or perform or kiss her in turn any more than he wants to. She asks only that he open himself to her, and accept everything she has to give him. With no pressure, he leans back further in the chair, taking her with him, and just lets her kiss him as she pleases, savoring the slow, intense kiss and the little ways she touches him.

He holds her, keeping his arms around her, but he doesn't feel the deep, desperate need to cling to her as he sometimes has in the past. He isn't afraid that she'll leave, abandon him when he needs her most because she doesn't have it in her to care for him, or lacks the desire. Just as surely as he now knows she loves him - or maybe because he knows it - he knows she will not leave him, no matter what he needs of her, no matter how much he has to rely on her for his sanity and his humanity. With her love comes a promise, a vow, to stand by him for better or worse, as long as he'll accept the love and support she has to give.

Even as the minutes pass them by, the sensations of her kiss and her body, his desire to touch, do not turn into something different. He does not feel even the slightest hint of a need to slip her clothes off, one piece at a time, and make love to her. This, his heart and body seem to realize, is the most perfect physical expression of love she could give him, these simple, innocent touches and sensual kisses. His body seems to know that sex, that kind of intense physical pleasure would drown out the less intense but still wonderful pleasure he feels just as things are now, muddle the emotions he feels now. All he wants to do, all he ever wants to do until the world itself ends, is stay in this chair with Pepper straddling his lap, loving her and being loved by her in a way he never even imagined was possible. He's quite certain this is the most incredible thing he's ever felt, and he would gladly stay here forever.

He loves her back, slowly, showing his love in return but still letting her guide the kiss. He does not return them as intensely as she does, and his hands do not touch with as much intent to express emotion as hers do, caressing his neck and shoulders and chest. He doesn't even try to show his love in return through his actions, only does what feels right, what his body tells him will be best to savor the feeling of it. But despite that, he knows that even with his languished effort, in his attempt to savor it, she understands what it means, that he loves her down to the very core of his soul, just as she does.

The rest of the world falls away, and for all he knows, hours could be passing long into the night as they stay with each other. He is mesmerized by the experience, consumed by it body, heart and soul. He cannot remember any other time in his life that he has ever felt this way, felt so completely and unconditionally loved, so safe and welcome. The rest of the world and all its troubles fall away in her arms. For these few precious moments, he does not worry at all of what danger may call him into battle tomorrow, what difficulties the company will face, what personal troubles may befall him. And somewhere, deep in the back of his mind, a tiny part of him knows that even if he did think of such things, they would not be nearly so daunting and frightening as they would have been months or weeks or mere hours ago. Pepper's presence, somehow, puts things into perspective gives some indestructible sense of security, that whatever happens he'll make it through, and she'll be at his side the whole way, fighting with him or holding him in her arms when all is said and done.

When it is over and she pulls away, the rain has stopped, and the gas fireplace has shut off automatically. The world around them is silent, dark, and all he can hear is the soft sounds of their heavy breathing, their faces illuminated by the glow of the exposed arc reactor. His lips are a little sore, and his eyes are heavy. Pepper's shining eyes seem the same.

He feels like he should say something to her - thank her for this gift, speak the words they both know, something. But the words will not come. Pepper, though, just stares at him, still asking nothing of him. Her fingers stroke his cheek. She doesn't smile, but her eyes are so utterly happy, peaceful and loving, serene, and he knows that words would be meaningless in expressing what he feels - what they both feel.

She stands, taking his hand in hers. She guides him to his bedroom, still without a word, and they crawl into bed together, and they sleep soundly in each other's arms.