A/N: Merry Christmas, to any and all who celebrate it! I started this last year, but didn't finish it in time... so here you are now! Many, many thanks to Cardxiv for beta reading this for me. You're my hero! :D
Warnings: Some non-explicit vulgar humor. Takes place between IM1 and IM2.
Disclaimer: I own nothing.
It isn't that Pepper doesn't like snow. She likes to look at it on television, sure, or if there's a picture of snowfall she'll stop to admire the glittering drifts of it. But it's been so long since she's seen it in person that she can't help but feel a little inconvenienced when she leaves her apartment on December first and the ground is coated in a thin layer of white.
This is Malibu, mind you. It hasn't snowed here in over fifty years, so she has all the reason in the world to be a little confused by its sudden presence in the drive, all over her car, flecking the impeccably spotless black of her suit like lint or dandruff. This isn't normal. She probably should have checked the weather channel before leaving the house, though admittedly there isn't usually much reason to. Sunny skies are among the usual forecast, and even the occasional rain shower is easily dealt with via the small umbrella that she carries in her purse.
Pepper turns her head to the sky and revels at the twirling flakes as they swirl down from above. So intrigued by the unusual phenomenon that she fails to remember that four-inch, open-toe heels are not the best footwear for this weather, Pepper takes a few steps forward with her eyes on the sky, hits a patch of ice, and winds up on her ass.
The man checking his mailbox a next door bursts into laughter as Pepper's coffee thermos goes in one direction and her notebook soars in the other, sending papers flying every which way like gargantuan snowflakes. He doesn't stop laughing as Pepper comes-to a moment later, blinking snow out of her eyes and swearing and tugging at her skirt so that Malibu doesn't have to see the bruise already beginning to form on her upper thigh. Red-faced, she almost slips and falls again as she scrambles to pick up the escaped papers, the mug, and the last remaining shards of her dignity. The man clutches at his sides with laughter, unfazed when she gives him the finger on her way inside. The sound of his gasping howls follows her until she slams the door to her apartment.
By the time she pulls up to the Stark mansion, she's ten minutes late for work and has swapped her sopping skirt for a pair of pinstriped pants so that Tony can't justify his staring at her legs by pointing out the bruise. Of course, Tony won't realize that she's late, but the idea of being off schedule irks her nonetheless. The last time she was late was when she came down with the flu, and even then she'd only lost five minutes.
Pepper climbs out of the Audi and onto the snow-dusted ground, careful this time to look before she steps. She slides a little in her heels but catches herself on the car door, clutching her leather-bound Stark Industries folder to her chest with her free arm to prevent another tragic paper spill. In her hurry to get inside, she almost doesn't notice the change in scenery; halfway up the front walk, a flash of light catches her eye and she turns, curious, to get a better look.
On the center of the mansion's lawn stands a single deer. A deer shaped from wire and outlined with white Christmas lights. Pepper stares as its head mechanically moves up and down, as if eating the snowy grass, and can find no words.
She discovers Tony beneath a car in his garage.
"Might I ask why there's an animated reindeer on your front lawn?" she asks his lower half, which sticks familiarly out from under the hotrod.
"What reindeer?" His voice sounds muffled by the hunk of metal between them.
"The one out front, Tony. It's covered in lights."
A pause follows, and then Tony emerges from under the car. "You don't like my Christmas reindeer?"
She raises her eyebrows and bites her cheek as Tony brushes the hair off his forehead, thereby smearing a line of dark grease across his face.
"No, it's lovely," she says, shuffling back to allow her boss room as he clambers to his feet. "I was just wondering why it's there, that's all."
Tony crosses the room towards the simmering coffee pot. He grabs two mugs from the shelf and pours them each a cup of the delightful, energy-bearing solution before he turns around again. "It snowed today, on December first, for the first time in fifty years. Don't you feel a little Christmas magic there, Potts?"
She doesn't, not particularly. The only things she really feels right now are her throbbing backside and her frostbitten toes, but she doesn't bother to further question Tony's strange behavior. He hasn't celebrated Christmas since she's known him—the holidays have always been a somewhat somber affair for the both of them, given that Tony's parents passed away right around New Year's. If he's feeling festive, then she'll let him have his fun. It can't hurt.
They sit down on the couch with cups of coffee so she can begin to tell him about the day's forthcoming labors. She doesn't dignify his question with a response when he asks why the papers in her leather notebook are all damp and stuck together.
On December second, the only indication that it ever snowed at all is the blackening bruise developing on the back of Pepper's leg. It spans from her mid thigh all the way up to her left butt cheek from where she hit the ground, and she spends a solid ten minutes gawking and poking at it in her full-length mirror before coming to the grim conclusion that she'll be wearing pants for at least a month.
To her surprise, there's another deer out on in front of Tony's mansion, though he's turned off the mechanism that makes their heads move and craned their necks so that they seem to be staring at one another from across the lawn. This time Pepper smiles to herself, shaking her head at her boss's impulsive and unexpected spirit. It's cute, if nothing else.
Today he's not in the garage, which in itself is somewhat surprising. Instead she wanders into the living room to find that he's pushed all the furniture against the walls in order to clear a space in the corner, where he's currently standing with his fists perched thoughtfully on his hips.
"Tony?" she begins as she rounds the corner. He'd mentioned something about building a launch tunnel for the suit a month ago, and since then she's been waiting apprehensively for him to blast a hole in the roof.
But when he turns around, all he feels the need to say is, "I'm getting Christmas tree."
Her eyebrows fly up her forehead. "Really?"
"Yup. I'm gonna put it right here."
"Okay." After years of useless debate, she's learned to just go with it. "Do you mind if I ask what's caused your change of heart? I've been with you for almost ten years and you have never done the Christmas thing."
Besides the drunken company parties and the sleeping with red-stockinged hookers topped with Santa hats, of course.
He shrugs, turning away again and staring into the empty space as if to determine just how tall of a tree he can fit into the room.
"It's my first Christmas since Afghanistan," he intones, quietly. "I've been trying to live a better life since then… not to waste it. The suit is helping out on a global level, but I thought my personal life could use a little work." He looks at her over his shoulder. "You know what I mean?"
When Pepper pulls the Audi up to the curb outside of Tony's mansion on December third, she nearly has a heart attack. The two reindeer from yesterday are still out on the lawn, but Tony has rearranged their positioning once more. One of the deer stands in its same spot, but the other one is standing behind it, mounted up on its companion's back in a blatantly sexual pose. Off to the left, a smaller fawn has appeared. The result of the deer's breeding, no doubt.
Pepper stares, her mouth agape. The deer—or buck, she really should say—moves its mechanical head up and down at a regular interval from where it rests atop its motionless partner, a mockery of the original design's purpose. Pepper feels oddly as if she's been mocked, too, though she's not entirely sure why.
Aghast, she storms into the house with her brazen boss's name sharp on her tongue, but she stops mid-step when she sees that a mass of green has taken over the living room. Tony had wanted a tree, but she hadn't expected him to be so prompt about it, and nor had she expected him to buy the biggest tree that he could possibly fit into the room—a little too big, even, she notes with a wince as the top branches scrape across the high ceiling. Poor Happy Hogan, who has inevitably been recruited to assist in setting up the tree without prior notice, stands half-invisible beneath a sea of green bristles, his sunglasses askew on the crown of his head.
The two men stop rotating the tree when they realize that Pepper has entered the room. Tony beams at her, and though she thinks he looks oddly endearing with pine needles all in his hair, she doesn't smile back.
"Tony, you can't leave those deer out there on your lawn like that."
"Sure I can, they're just deer. It's natural. Nothing wrong with a little procreation, Potts. You should try it some—whoa! Careful, Hap."
Tony darts back over to help Happy steady the tree when he notices the latter of the two beginning to stumble under the weight of it. Needles rain down on the pair while Pepper watches and wonders how much it will cost to get the tree sap out of the carpet. Once they've managed to keep the entire thing from toppling over, Tony shoots Pepper a falsely apologetic look.
"Pepper, can we have this conversation some other time?" Tony asks. "I'm a little busy at the moment."
She sighs, leaves a copy of today's meeting schedule under his coffee mug (that way she knows he'll see it), and heads off to the main office, where she might actually be able to get a little work done.
By December seventh, there are two sets of deer fornicating on Tony's front lawn while three fawns stand around in a semi-circle and watch.
By December tenth, either the paparazzi or the residents of the houses nearby have noticed that ten deer have made their home at the Stark Mansion. This is also the day where Tony makes a pointed observation:
"Did you burn all your skirts in some sort of hormone-induced, feminist rampage? I may or may not be going through 'Potts Leg Withdrawal'."
Sipping on his third cup of coffee, he brushes right past Pepper and the newspaper she's trying to maneuver into his hand as he walks by. It's the latest print of the Malibu Bugle, with an image of Tony's copulating reindeer above the fold, their white lights shining even in the black and white photo. The headline reads: "HOLIDAY DISTORTION AT THE STARK MANOR".
"Tony, look at the newspaper," she says tersely. "This is getting out of hand. You're lucky most people think that you're just having a laugh. There are a few in here who seem to think you've lost your mind. One woman threatened to get PETA involved. Do we really need to add animal cruelty to the list of S.I. offenses?"
But Tony just shakes his head and takes a final swig of coffee. "I don't see what's wrong with it." He dismisses her worries without even sparing a glance at the article. Later, she'll find the image clipped from the paper and tacked up on the wall in his garage, but for now all she can do is roll her eyes and try not to wince when she sits down on the hard kitchen chair. That bruise, good God it hurts.
And so it goes, just the same. Every day Pepper arrives at Tony's place to discover another reindeer out front, usually a fawn as the previous days' "grow up" into bigger deer. The yard is beginning to look smaller and smaller, and by the twenty-second there's one blocking her way up the front walk.
But the deer are not the only barricade. People from all over have taken to driving past the Stark Mansion to get a better look. They take snap shots, the kids dangle out of the cars windows and point and laugh at the absurd number of Christmas reindeer, a few people have even boldly tried to get past the gates. Since the article Pepper has had to up the security all around. She's not sure if she's enabling Tony's behavior by keeping people out. He might calm down a little if she were to yield to the roadblock and let tourists run amok in the yard.
Yet even Pepper, with her sore bottom and her sudden intake of PR duties, can't help but laugh while Happy guides her expressionlessly through the mob and up to the house. She takes a moment to examine the reindeer standing on the walkway before heading into the house, thanking Happy at the door before leaving him and the rest of security to fight off the mob.
When she eventually makes her way down to the garage after setting up shop by the tree in the living room, Tony wastes no time in asking her if she has plans for Christmas Eve and Day. Part of her would like to be annoyed because of the obvious trap he's setting, for he knows that she has nothing to do for Christmas, but the little tiny twinge of Christmas cheer that still lingers from her walk up the front path keeps the feeling at bay. Instead she gives him an appraising look and responds that no, she doesn't currently have any plans.
"Well, I think we might as well spend it here," Tony suggests, and as she opens her mouth to object, he adds, "Look, neither of us is really all that into the Holiday garbage. I know that, you know that. So why don't we just be scrooges together instead of being scrooges alone? It seems to make a lot more sense to me."
Pepper thinks of the tiny Christmas tree she has on her desk at Stark Industries, thinks back on all the Christmases where she either sat alone or acted as the awkward woman out by joining some friend and their family for the holidays. And then she realizes that a part of her wants to spend Christmas with Tony—not out of self-pity or her thoroughly suppressed feelings, but rather out of dread at the prospect of spending another Christmas alone.
Tony, interpreting her expression, shakes his head. "No funny stuff, I promise. We'll just get some Chinese takeout and watch the clock tick down or something. Maybe light my tree on fire. It'll be fun."
Pepper agrees before her common sense can prompt her to do otherwise.
She shows up at exactly eight on Christmas Eve and for some reason feels strange when she lets herself into the house, as if she should ring the doorbell and wait to be welcomed in. Tony is waiting for her in the foyer, dressed in black slacks and a red button-up shirt that she's only ever seen him wear once, at a Christmas party in Vegas three years ago.
"Pep, I thought we agreed not to get each other gifts," he says in a falsely reprimanding voice.
Pepper has her purse in one hand and a tray of gingerbread cookies balanced precariously on the other, but no boxes or bags in wrapping paper. She states as much as she maneuvers into the entrance, closing the door behind her with her foot without dropping any of her items.
"So what you're saying is…when you slipped into that little number, you didn't have me in mind?" he jests. "Not even a little?"
Pepper casts a look downwards at her emerald sweater dress, then looks back to her boss and rolls her eyes. After much debate, she'd decided that she could dress up a little, as long as the dress came down almost to her knees and she wore black stockings to hide her now healing bruise.
"As much as it may surprise you, Mr. Stark, I did not wear this for your benefit."
"I am surprised. You know how much I've missed your fabulous legs during their mystery leave of absence, Miss Potts."
"And I'm sure you'd hate for me to go home and change into something else," she counters with a smirk, "so I'd recommend not commenting on it."
He salutes her, snapping to attention. "Of course not, ma'am."
Tony drops the salute and they both grin, he stepping forward to take the try from her hand and bring it to the living room. She follows, and the only sound that follows them is the click-clack of her four-inch heels on the polished floor.
They put ornaments from Tony's basement on the tree, watch A Charlie Brown Christmas, for which Tony has a soft spot, and for dinner eat Chinese food out of the carton. She politely declines a glass of wine but accepts eggnog under the condition that it's untainted, while Tony pours himself a few fingers of liquor to chase down the chicken teriyaki. By the time the clock strikes midnight and Jarvis wishes them both a Merry Christmas, Pepper finds herself nearly giddy with a warm combination of happiness and exhaustion. It's a nice alternative to sitting at home with a bottle of wine and a grouchy frown. She and Tony sit on adjacent recliners, he with a scotch balanced on one knee while she nibbles on the foot of a gingerbread man.
When the clock strikes Christmas, though, Tony's on his feet in a flash and snatching up his jacket from the coat tree. Pepper, alarmed, snaps up and has to grab the edge of the coffee table to keep from knocking it over with her feet.
"Tony, what's wrong?"
"It's Christmas, Potts!"
Tony turns around to look at his wide-eyed and alarmed PA, where she sits with a glass of eggnog in one hand and a half-eaten cookie on her lap. She looks no less confused after his three word explanation than she had beforehand.
"And there's only twenty four reindeer on my front lawn!"
"Oh." Pepper lets that one sink in for a moment before frowning up at her boss. "Tony, it's freezing outside! And I don't have a coat, so maybe this is a project for—"
Tony cuts her off. "Pepper, I have a freaking plethora of coats. If coats were food, I could solve world hunger. Literally."
"Yes, well my heels sink into the grass when I walk on it—"
"I have shoes."
This time Pepper can't help but laugh, because the situation is funny more than it is exasperating, and it's far too late at night (or, rather, too early in the morning) for her brain to be running at full speed.
"Tony," she says, smiling at his childish excitement, "Your feet are gigantic."
"Too bad. You're coming with me whether you like it or not, and unless you'd like me to pick you up and carry you, I'd kick off those shoes and head for the door."
Eh, why not? Pepper shrugs and sets her glass aside, bends over double to slip off her high heels, and allows Tony to slip one of his overlarge jackets over her shoulders. Then she slips into a pair of his old dress shoes, feeling rather silly as she shuffles clumsily down the hallway, and follows Tony out the door.
The weather forecast had predicted low forties for tonight. Pepper believes it, for when the night air hits her bare neck she gasps and tugs up the collar of Tony's jacket, hiding her frozen fingers within its long arms. Tony, unperturbed by the cold, is already halfway across the yard.
He has Jarvis open up a door that looks like just another part of the outer wall, and disappears momentarily into a huge storage area before emerging with what looks like a folded-up tangle of wires and lights. When he gestures for Pepper to come over, she does, marveling with every step that she can rock the tallest heels but can't manage a pair of flat, oversized shoes.
"How've you been keeping all these deer lit, anyway?" she asks as she watches Tony set up the newest deer. He explains that he installed a miniature generator into every single deer, so that he wouldn't have to mess around with cords and outlets. Pepper nods, approving. "Clever. What do we do now?"
"We re-arrange them," Tony replies, and his breath hovers over the both of them in a temporary, cold-induced fog. "Since it's Christmas, we don't need the deer to be screwing because we don't need any more fawns."
Pepper finds herself feeling slightly juvenile as she follows Tony's lead and begins dismounting the reindeer from each other's backs. The cold bites at her fingers as she loops them around the wire and tugs, but thankfully the deer are lighter than she'd anticipated. She does have a little trouble when the up-and-down motion of one buck's neck catches on the hindquarters of a doe and she trips back in Tony's too-large shoes, but she manages to catch herself on a conveniently-placed fawn. She's begun to feel warm from the exercise and the effort it takes to carry two deer at a time. Pepper, after dropping another disassembled heap into the storage area, tugs at the collar of her sweater dress and sighs. Tony is working at twice the pace and seems largely unaffected, aside from his flushed cheeks.
Pepper shakes her head and shuffles out into the yard to pry another pair of deer apart. Her exhale rises up in a halo around her face. A grin tugs on her lips.
"Not at all, Tony," she answers, out of breath. "How many more?"
"Just a few. You get those two over there while I set up the last grown-up one, and then we're done."
"Oh thank God."
Five minutes later, a satisfied boom resides across the property as Tony slams door to the storage room. Together Tony and Pepper trudge back up the front walk and into the house, where Pepper peels Tony's jacket off of her shoulders and collapses backwards onto the couch. She brushes her straggled hair away from her face, toes off one shoe and then the other. A minute passes, and then the cushion gives with a fwoosh of air as Tony flops down beside her.
"Huh," he says, letting an arm fall around her shoulders. "That was fun."
Pepper's fingers are just beginning to thaw, and when she breathes she half expects a cloud of steam to rise from her aching lungs. The snow has long since melted away, but the cold lingered on to bite at their faces. The sharp sting may last for some time, but it, like the throbbing bruise, will melt away. It leaves a mark more emotional than physical. Pepper finds that she's okay with this, more so now than when she slipped and fell in the driveway. It could have something to do with the body warming her.
"It was," she agrees.
Pepper sidles deep into Tony's side, allowing him for the first time to pull her closer. She can see him in her peripheral vision, how the light of the Christmas reflects in the darkness of his eyes. Two sighs later, and his cheek is pressed against the top of her head, the pad of his thumb turning slow circles on her shoulder. Were it not almost one in the morning, she may have objected to such a gesture. But tonight she is stone sober save for the fading giddiness, warm except for her numb toes.
So this is Christmas spirit. It is not so much as she remembers, the frenzied shopping spree and five cups of coffee. It is not even so much the gift of giving, or the sense of joy that she is supposed to feel when watching the tree lights sparkle off of the garland. Pepper understands it now more than ever, as she slouches against her boss and doesn't even consider that Tony's yard will likely appear in the paper again tomorrow.
Christmas spirit is exactly, no more and no less, the feeling she gets when Tony whispers, "Thank you, Pepper."
His weight shifts as he shrugs one shoulder up and down, just once. "I think that, for a while, I was… I never should have survived in Afghanistan. But today, I'm genuinely glad that I did."
A long silence stretches out between them, and Pepper takes the time to let her eyes drift down to where his hand sits upon his knee. She reaches out and takes it in her own, folds her fingers beneath the palm of his hand, and squeezes.
"I know I was annoyed about it before," Pepper begins, "but the tree is really beautiful."
Tony's chuckle reverberates up through his ribcage and into her, both contagious and comforting in its density. He squeezes her fingers, pulls her closer still.
"Yeah," he says, and his voice is somewhere between a murmur and a sigh. "It really is."