An Iron Man Christmas Carol ~

A Love Story

Stave the First

In which the protagonist of our story, Master Anthony Stark, is visited by an old friend.

His parents were dead, to begin with. That was the main reason Tony Stark had not celebrated Christmas, outside of Stark Industries holiday parties (which he never seemed able to avoid), since the death of his parents nearly fifteen years earlier.

He had nothing against Christmas, per se. Once upon a time, it had been his favorite holiday. But, as he was quick to suggest when the topic arose, Christmas was for families and now, Tony had none. He didn't even have that many friends to recommend him, and the friends he did have were (in a bit of irony that never escaped him) somehow also on his payroll.

California's greatest concession to the season had arrived early Christmas Eve morning in the form of a rainstorm that brought a low fog in from off the ocean. It crowded in at the windows, prematurely darkening their Malibu rooms and, as Pepper had described it in a fit of seasonal joy, gave the impression of snow piled against the windowpanes.

They had been inside all day – Tony in his lab and Pepper mostly in her office, canceling afternoon meetings and appointments. California was a place where even the threat of inclement weather could send people searching for cover, and though he knew Pepper wasn't overly concerned with the rain and fog herself, she knew two very important truths: First, that Californians became a little frantic whenever the weather turned to anything but the usual sunshine, and second, that Californians couldn't drive in the rain.

Pleased for the respite from meetings, Tony relished the excuse to burrow deeply into his real work – upgrading, testing, and creating to his heart's content. Pepper interrupted only once with soup, a sandwich, and an apple, then left him alone.

He didn't notice when Pepper returned to collect his dishes. In fact, he noticed nothing outside of his work as the hours passed, until a voice at his elbow drew his attention by the simple virtue of not being Pepper's.

"You gonna work through Christmas, or you thinking you might grace someone who's not a robot with your presence?" Rhodey stood with his usual military bearing beside Tony's workbench, an easy smile on his face.

Tony answered him, returning his attention to his work. "Jealous of the 'bots, Platypus? I'm touched. I bet if you asked nice, Dummy'd let you hold the fire extinguisher for a while."

"Cute, Tony," Rhody thumped his fist against Tony's bicep, making sure not to cause his friend to electrocute himself, or him. "Look, I know you've got this mental block thing about celebrating the holidays, but I'm still gonna invite you to my place Christmas day."

"Flattering, but then I'll feel obligated to put out, and that would just be awkward."

"I'm serious." Rhodey circled the worktable until he was directly in front of Tony, who was carefully examining the wiring of what looked like a coffeemaker. "I've been in touch with some of the old crowd from M.I.T. on Facebook. They've all friended you, which you'd know if you bothered to check it."

He didn't bother looking up. "Pass me the pliers? Uh… needle nose." Tony picked up a short length of wire sitting nearby, at the ready. "I usually let Pep handle all that stuff. Saves me the hassle." Which was only partly true. Tony could charm and Tony could inspire and Tony could flirt, but when it came to regular everyday interactions with other people - that was one of the few places in which he continuously missed the mark.

Besides, he suspected Pepper kept him away from social networking websites to keep him from getting into more trouble than usual with the people he found there.

"Well, you can make it up to them by coming over to my place for Christmas brunch." Rhodey found the pliers Tony needed and passed them over. "We're all getting together for a few hours to catch up. It'd be a shame not to have you there."

"Brunch?" Tony raised an incredulous eyebrow, pausing long enough in this work to give his friend a look. "Sounds like little old ladies at a tea party, to me. No thanks."

"Tony, you can't just sit around here all day, getting loaded and operating heavy machinery. It's stupid, for one," Rhodey said, clearly exasperated. "For another, it's dangerous. You're not exactly a young man anymore."

Tony grimaced at the reminder of his age. "Actually, as it turns out, I can. You celebrate Christmas in your way, Platypus, and let me celebrate it in mine," he said, replacing wires inside the coffee maker. "And I don't always just sit around the house; Last year I vacationed in Cabo."

"You mean you drank so much you can't remember how you ended up in Cabo – with four women, none of whom spoke English, or any language in common with one another. It took Pepper two days to trace your cell phone signal to where you'd lost it on the beach, and then find out which hotel you were in from there. This might all be fun and games to you, Tone, but she's the one cleaning up your messes. Have a little pity on her for once and spend Christmas with me."

Little provoked an emotional response from Tony more than the mention of his parents, Obadiah Stane, a certain three months in Afghanistan, or his personal assistant. He didn't answer right away, focusing on finishing his project and trying to relax the tic in his jaw. He reminded himself that Rhodey was his best friend and meant well, even if he wasn't always aware how his comments cut.

"What occurs between Ms. Potts and myself isn't any of your business, Jim." His voice was calm, but the use of his friend's given name was a clear indication of Tony's mood. Standing up, he turned the coffee maker over – it was easily recognizable now – and began putting the basket and pot back into their proper places. "I pay her a great deal of money to do what she does, and if she has anything to complain about, she will do so most vehemently on her own behalf."

"Yeah, well whatever you're paying her," Rhodey grumbled, backing off with a parting shot. "It's nowhere near what she deserves."

Tony snorted, a smirk playing across his mouth. "There, we're in agreement."

Leaning on the worktable, Rhody tried again. "Come on, man. Beer, food, old friends, and you can even sleep it off on my sleeper sofa."

His answer was delayed by the timely click-clack of Pepper's shoes as she came into the workshop.

"Good evening, Ms. Potts. A Happy Christmas to you as well."

"Thank you, J.A.R.V.I.S." The smile was apparent in Pepper's voice as she crossed the lab to where the two men were. No matter how busy she was, the holidays never failed to put her in a good mood.

Rhodey turned to Tony, pointing behind him to where Pepper was finishing her approach. "See that?" Rhodey said, eyebrows raised. "Even your robot major domo's got the holiday spirit. Hi, Pepper."

Pepper beat Tony to the punch. "J.A.R.V.I.S. isn't a robot, he's an A.I. – Just Another Rather Very Intelligent System. Hello, Rhodey. Trying to convince Tony not to be such a Scrooge? I wish you luck."

"It's like what would happen if your old Duke Nukem software taught itself tae bo, then explained it to you ad nauseum," Tony added, taking the glass coffee pot to the sink to fill.

Pepper rolled her eyes in Rhodey's direction. "Don't listen to him. J.A.R.V.I.S. is just an information system programmed to process and analyze data, essentially thinking for itself."

"Just?" Tony called back over the sound of the running water. He brought back the coffee pot, preparing it to perform its central function. "Excuse me, 'Just', an ingenious system that's given me the power to create virtual life?"

Her eye-roll this time involved a head roll and an exasperated huff. "I'm sorry, Rhodey, Tony thinks he's God again. He may need to be sedated, before his head swells any further." Pepper whirled back to Tony eyes narrowed. "What… are you doing with the coffee pot?"

"This?" Tony poured the water into the basket and placed the pot back underneath. The grin he shot Pepper's way was that of an eight-year old who'd just put together his first model car. "Oh, I just gave it a little upgrade. Now it'll make coffee twice as fast, and it'll self-regulate ground insertion into the basket." His grin widened and he leaned toward her, his expression and voice making the innocent question sound far more lascivious than it should have been. "You want a cup of coffee?"

"No. Thank you." Pepper deadpanned.

Rhodey watched their back and forth in silence, amused, as always.

"I need your signature," Pepper pressed on, her professional armor returned intact. "I'm going to put these in the mail on my way home, so if you could just not give me any trouble for, like, the next ten minutes till I'm out the door, it would be the best Christmas present ever."

Tony waved a hand in her direction, turning on the coffee maker. "In a minute." Ignoring Pepper's impatient sigh, he watched the machine jump to life with an almost silent whir of air, as coffee began to fall as though pressurized by air. Grinning like a mad man, he grabbed his empty mug and bounced on his toes excitedly for the thirty quick seconds it took to fill the glass pot.

"Sure you don't want?" Tony waggled both the mug and his eyebrows in their direction, making Rhodey grimace.

To her credit, Pepper remained stone-faced as she pushed the papers under his nose again. "Arrows. Sign. Now."

She had entered his personal space, and Tony took that as an invitation to further invade hers. "Just one sip," he murmured cheekily, the mug at even level with her papers. "Tell me I'm a genius, and I'll do whatever you want."

They stood toe-to-toe against each other and Rhodey could practically hear the wheels turning in Pepper's head as she considered her options, making certain she wasn't stepping into something involuntarily. Tony didn't back down, and didn't lose the lopsided grin that had disarmed any number of women.

Taking the mug from his hand, Pepper maintained eye contact with Tony as she took a sip. If the liquid was too hot, her face betrayed no sign of it. After a moment she handed it back, answering his questioning eyebrow with a nod. "It's perfect," she intoned, honestly, but she was not to be deterred. "Now sign."

"Ah, ah, ah," Tony wheedled, taking a sip of his own and setting the mug aside. "Am I a genius, or am I a genius?"

To Rhodey's continuing surprise, something resembling amused affection flickered over Pepper's features.

"Yes, Tony, you're a genius. You know you're a genius, and you know that I know you're a genius. You're also obstinate, infantile, and a pain in my ass." Holding up her pen and giving him her patented professional smile, she nodded her head toward the papers.

Taking the pen, Tony let his fingers linger over hers a moment longer than necessary, his eyes traveling down her body as his smile grew. "I certainly could be," he drawled, but bent over the papers to sign at the places she'd marked for him. "Kinky, Potts. I didn't know you had it in you. Well," he handed her the papers and pen back. "So to speak."

Pepper wooshed back toward the stairs without missing a beat. "There are a lot of things about me you don't know, Mr. Stark. Will that be all?"

Tony gaped at her for a moment before recovering and responding smoothly, "For now, Ms. Potts. That will be all." She was out the door before he finished speaking. He didn't turn away until the sound of her heels faded up the stairs.

Shaking his head, Rhodey chuckled. "Man, you guys are something else."

The grin faded from Tony's face immediately and he turned away to start cleaning up from the coffee maker project he'd been fiddling with. "I don't know what you mean," he answered smoothly.

"Yeah, you do." Rhodey helped him move components until the worktable was clear again, and the torso of the Iron Man armor was being lowered within reach. "You like her." Seeing Tony about to respond, Rhodey cut him off. "And not the way you like other women; all women."

Tony disappeared under the armor without comment, and Rhodey moved closer. "You like her so much that in ten years, you've never made a move on her, let alone gotten her into bed with you. And we both know you could do it," he added.

"Pepper's different." His voice was muffled through the wires that separated them. "I need her; not even I'm foolish enough ruin that.

"And you're wrong." He reached toward the table for a wrench. "I've come on to Pepper lots of times."

"Lots of times? General flirting doesn't count."

"… alright, a couple times, then," Tony amended. "I've made a couple serious pass at Pepper, mostly drunk, but she shot me down." He seemed disgruntled, even embarrassed about it.

Rhodey made a face. Tony drunk could range anywhere from charming to downright irritating. "Okay; what exactly have you say to her?"

Tony shifted his weight uncomfortably and didn't answer for a minute. "The usual stuff: 'You have amazing legs, what time do they open?' 'I'm thinking with my dick right now, you wanna blow my mind?' 'That's a nice dress, think I could get into it?' 'If we are what we eat, I could be you by morning…"

Rhodey cringed. "Do those lines ever actually work? No wonder Pepper was freaked out." There were times when being Tony Stark's best friend was more of a job than a privilege. "You're not gonna get a girl like Pepper with shit like that, my friend. You gotta bring your A game."

"You think I haven't tried charming?" Tony was getting tired of this conversation. In truth, he had tried every trick in his bag to get Pepper to notice him, but she seemed immune to the charms that had scored him so many others.

Rhodey shook his head. "Man, you just don't get it. You're treating this like a game, and it's not. You gotta stop being a player and start just being Tony; that's who she's really gonna want."

Tony glared at him from around the suit. "And when did you become Ms. Lonely-Hearts?" Rhodey didn't know what he was talking about.

Flipping him off, Rhodey changed the subject. "Alright, I gotta head out and do some shopping for tomorrow. Are you sure you won't join us for brunch? I gotta keg with your name on it."

"A keg?" Tony was already starting to tune him out, becoming absorbed in his work. "Too pedestrian. Call me when you've upgraded to scotch, then we might have a deal."

Rhodey started a path toward the door, his disappointment palpable. Before making the exit, he stopped and came back. "I'm gonna say two things before I go. One: Whatever your deal is with Christmas, you have got to get over it, man, or one day you're gonna end up a sad, lonely man getting pity fucks like Hugh Heffner."

Surprised at his harshness, Tony, bent to look under the Iron Man's innards. "Don't besmirch the Heff. He's a living legend; an institution." Curious, despite himself, Tony asked. "Alright… what's number two?"

Without a word, Rhodey headed for the door again. It was just as he reached the keypad to punch in his code that he answered. "You're gonna lose her to someone quicker on the draw than you if you don't get off your ass and tell her."

"Tell her what?" Tony called through the glass door as it slowly swung shut behind Rhodey's Air Force blues.

"You know."

Tony frowned, pushing lightly against the armor so that it swung in its rig. He did know what Rhodey meant, but it was something he tried ardently not to think about, when he could help it.

Tony had never been a stupid man, but he was, on occasion, selectively obtuse. It had taken him less than a week to realize that Pepper was indispensable if Stark Industries was going to succeed with Tony at the helm. It had taken him a few months to acknowledge that although he was capable of caring for himself, Pepper did it so much more efficiently than he did.

He'd never bothered to learn how to run a business. Pepper had taught him that, throwing him to the wolves, but jumping right in after him to keep him from wandering too far from the path. In their first year of business after Pepper had been given the promotion of a lifetime, Stark Industries' stock rose 15%, and the company's charitable contributions were unrivaled by any of the other multi-billion dollar corporations.

On top of that, he was eating more regularly, sleeping more than usual, and without having the smaller details of his life to worry about, was working and producing more than ever. It took him no more than a month to acknowledge that she wasn't just indispensable, she was vital.

Tony had never seriously tried to get her into his bed, beyond a few, usually drunken, attempts for the simple reason that he respected her. Pepper Potts, he believed, was in a class of her own, far above the women he used and discarded like tissue. They meant nothing to him, but Pepper had, over the years, become his friend, his advisor, his partner in many ways, as well as his personal and executive assistant.

He'd only realized that he might be in love with her while his head was being held underwater, and it was her voice calling him away from the shadowy fingers of death reaching for him. It was her face he remembered while being beaten and tortured, and that had kept him going even when his chest felt like it was on fire, and his muscles screamed for respite.

And it had been her who entered his mind when Yinsen had called him, "the man who has everything, and nothing."

After Afghanistan, he'd had to reprioritize a lot of things. Wanting her was no question. He'd always wanted her to some extent or another, and he could go on with their flirting that never went anywhere, so long as he had another outlet for his… frustrations. Needing her wasn't new either, as he'd allowed himself to become dependent on her years ago. It was the continuous ache in his chest that had nothing to do with the miniature arc reactor that gave him trouble. Or rather, his new awareness of said ache.

He thought he could get by with her as they were – on all levels – because the truth of the matter was, no matter how much Tony wanted her for himself, no matter how much he continuously discovered that he loved her, he knew better than anyone that Pepper deserved so much more than him.

He was a billionaire; he could give her anything she desired, that his money could buy, and he'd give her everything she wanted if she'd let him. He knew that he was capable of loving her until the day he died. But his reputation, his bouts of selfishness, thoughtlessness, and obsession, his dangerous lifestyle – Pepper deserved someone who wasn't likely to die on her when she least expected it. The way his parents had.

The way her parents had.

So, in a rare burst of consideration, Tony did little more than flirt, linger too long over their touches, and indulge in every opportunity he was able to get close to her. It was masochism of the most psychological kind, but like a flagellant monk, his suffering felt more like penance for the impurity of his thoughts concerning Pepper, and for the fact that he felt only a little guilty for them.

He came out of his reverie when Pepper returned to the workshop, moving more slowly this time. That meant she was checking out for the day, a loss he felt almost physically whenever she left his house.

"I got those contracts sent off, cleared our e-mail as best I could, and put the new parts order through. Do you need anything else before I go?"

Tony imagined, or thought he imagined, that without Rhodey in the room, she came much nearer to him. He didn't want her to leave just yet, but had no real idea for how to get her to stay. "No, Ms. Potts, you've slaved enough for one day. Why don't you sign out, then join me for martinis and a backrub?"

She moved around the lab, picking up dishes and other debris that had accumulated during the day. Without stopping, Pepper made certain her smile had disappeared before she turned around. "I'm not giving you a backrub, Tony," she said, putting a little exasperation into her tone. "Will that be all, Mr. Stark?"

Before he could answer, she was already walking toward the door. "I didn't say the backrub was for me." His ribbing provoked no reaction, spurring him on. "So we're still on for the martinis then? You didn't say no to that." Still no answer, and she had reached the door. "That will be all, Ms. Potts. We'll continue this later."

"I shiver with anticipation," Pepper deadpanned as the door opened for her pneumatically. Stopping, her hand on the glass, she turned back, expression serious. "Tony… are you sure you want to spend Christmas alone again? I know it's not… I know you don't like to celebrate because it reminds you of your parents, but if you like, you're welcome to-"

First Rhodey's lecture, now this – and from the last person on earth he wanted feeling sorry for him. Tony's expression clouded, and he turned back to the armor, his back to her. "Jesus, Pepper, you're off work, you don't need to mollycoddle me in the little free time you get." The spark of irritation flared briefly into a smoldering anger, one that had lurked beneath the surface since his parents' death.

"I'm going to go out. Get drunk. Find something hot and cute – maybe in a blonde, or a redhead… or both." His grin was tight and didn't touch his eyes. "Then I'll spend my night jingling some bells, bringing a little joy to someone's world, and, of course, making the faithful come.

"I don't need you to entertain me, Pep," he turned back to his work. "I can do just fine without your pity." He felt bad about it as soon as the words were out, but pride kept his back to her.

Pepper pursed her lips, counting to ten while her temper flared. "Good night, Mr. Stark." As she disappeared up the stairs, she called back one last time. "Don't forget to deck your halls; wouldn't want you to catch a bug between the holidays."

He listened to the sound of her heels until the door closed, muffling them. "Shit." The wrench he was holding crashed into the far wall and clattered against the ceramic tile floor. Running a hand through his hair, he stared at the armor, wishing for some emergency that would let him blow off some steam. With no alert on his phone to fulfill his request, Tony decided to give up for the moment.

A drink sounded like a far better idea just now.

As he neared the door of his workshop, the lights created distorted reflections on the glass, swirling as he walked closer and closer. But then suddenly, the play of light and shadow seemed to coalesce into a more orderly shape, and Tony stopped, staring.

In a second, it was gone, and Tony shook his head. For a moment, he thought he'd seen the image of Yinsen's face staring back at him from the shiny, delusory surface.

Rubbing his eyes with the heels of his palms, Tony hauled himself up to the kitchen, hoping either alcohol or sleep would dull his senses. He dug around in the back of the cupboard where he kept his hard liquor, and discovered he had one bottle of scotch left. That just might be enough but if not, he could always start on the vodka and get just as stinking drunk as he wanted to.

He really had intended to go out, but now that urge was waning. Maybe the alcohol would restore his enthusiasm for it and he could go find himself some company for the early hours of Christmas morning. It wasn't that Tony wanted to be alone on Christmas, he just wanted to be with people who didn't know him; people who wouldn't look at him with pity, or even sympathy. He couldn't take that, this night of all nights.

Adding ice and scotch to a glass, he practically threw back the first swig, closing his eyes at the smooth, warm slide of the liquid going down his throat. Like a security blanket, something comforting and familiar, the drink began to relax him, even with the first sip. Filling a bucket with ice and taking it, the bottle of scotch, and his glass with him, Tony went to his couch to recline while he drank the first few doses of his favorite medication.

There was a fire going in the round fireplace, set into one of the fat columns supporting the ceiling. Pepper must have lit it, or asked J.A.R.V.I.S. to do so, while she was working. The mental image of Pepper, his Pepper, in his home, and sitting before the fire while she did the work that kept his company going, caused him a twinge of regret, one that Tony accepted and let pass with more alcohol to dull the sharp edges. She was too important to him to lose.

This was no different from any other night where the inevitable thoughts about his assistant crept melancholically into his head in the late hours of the night. The scotch was the same label he always drank, ordered and restocked by Pepper as reliably as the rising sun. The weather was in no way unusual for the hour or time of year.

So, there was no immediate explanation for why Tony suddenly found himself staring back into the face of a man who had saved his life and then died in his arms in a cave in Afghanistan nearly one year ago.

Tony Stark, though he wasn't quite ready to admit it, was an alcoholic. But the few drinks he'd had over the last hour since leaving the workshop were nowhere near enough to render someone with his experience into a state of intoxication severe enough for him to be hallucinating.

Yet, there was no denying the existence of the serene face, with eyes older than his years would allow, looking at him with an expression of deepest concern. It was the same expression Yinsen had been wearing as they'd worked together to swap the car battery protecting his heart for the arc reactor that would change his life.

Leaping to his feet, the bottle of scotch was disturbed from where it rested in the crook of Tony's thighs, toppling to the floor where it bled its contents across the floor. In a blink, the face was gone and Tony was left staring into the flames, wide-eyed and panting in shock. Frantically, he scooped up the liquor bottle, tossing the remaining liquid onto the flames in a thoughtless attempt to douse it.

"Whoa!" He staggered backwards, catching the back of his knees on the couch and falling prone onto it as the fire bloomed outward in reaction to the alcohol. Grabbing up one of the large cushions, Tony charged the fire like a SWAT operative with a security shield. It took him a few minutes to beat the flames out, and by the time he collapsed back on the seat with the cushion on his lap – sooty, singed, and smoking – he was covered in ash and coughing from the smoke.

Rubbing a hand over his face, Tony stared at the fireplace where a few smoldering embers were still glowing red. "Dreaming," he rasped once he could breath. "Must've dozed off…." He didn't quite believe it – he'd seen far too many strange things to not believe that something could be happening here – but the image of Yinsen, whom he'd watched die in the desert in place of Tony himself, struck a nerve that he wasn't yet ready to face.

Pushing himself to his feet and tossing the ruined cushion aside, Tony looked around for the bottle of scotch before remembering its fate. Cursing to himself, he gave it up, deciding that a few hours sleep before he either went out or returned to work were in order. If he was hallucinating, and he certainly wasn't drunk enough for that, then sleep was the best answer.

Tony knew that he should strip and shower before getting into bed, but he couldn't work up the enthusiasm for the effort. Collapsing face first on the bed spread, not bothering to get under the covers, he toed his sneakers off, one at a time, and wiggled into a more comfortable position.

He was almost asleep when the noise began – the rolling, clattering rumble of assault rifles – S.I. G36K's, G36C's, AG36's, and S.I. UMP45's. Tony shot upright again, rolling into a sitting position and looking back at his bedroom door. As usual, he'd closed it, but the sounds of gunfire grew loud and louder as though approaching; as though a small militia were coming up the stairs toward his room.

The hair on the back of his neck stood on end. Tony wondered if he were having some kind of stroke, or a Post Traumatic Stress Disorder episode, like the soldiers he'd occasionally encountered who had never really left the jungles or deserts in which they'd served. He shivered with cold, even though he was still dressed and the room's temperature was carefully regulated by J.A.R.V.I.S.

'J.A.R.V.I.S.'

"Jarv," he whispered, never taking his eyes from the door. "Can you give me a visual on the staircase?" When nothing happened after a minute or so, he tried again. "Lights please, J.A.R.V.I.S.?" Again, nothing. Whatever was happening was also affecting his home's artificial intelligence system.

Getting out of bed, Tony looked around his room for something that could be used as a weapon. Except for the lab, most of the rooms in Tony's house were rather Spartan. The suit was downstairs, and Pepper kept everything so organized, that anything useful he might have carried up here, she would have almost immediately carried back down.

He finally grabbed the only thing he could think of to use practically as a weapon: a lamp with a heavy, rectangular base. Yanking the cord from the wall, he stood facing the door, ready to take whatever would come through it, head on.

What it was actually did come through the door, making Tony stagger backward in surprise, dropping the lamp. The figure was faint in the dim light of the room, but no matter how much he blinked to look again, there was no mistaking the small, deceptively strong figure of Ho Yinsen, the doctor who had committed an act so selfless that Tony would spend the rest of his life in repaying it.

Staring wide-eyed at the shape of his friend, his hero, Tony gaped, searching for something intelligent to say.

"Who… what the fuck are you?"

Yinsen's familiarly patient smile was like a punch to Tony's gut. "You are going to lose her, Anthony."

He'd heard the same words only a few hours before from Rhodey, but the surrealism of the situation, and the shock of not only seeing Yinsen, but hearing him speak, confused Tony. Frowning, he shook his head. "I don't… I… what?"

"You're going to lose her."

Closing his eyes, Tony rubbed the bridge of his nose. "This is ridiculous." He rolled back on his heels, turning to stagger a few steps away and distance himself from the situation. "This can't be happening."

"You doubt your senses?"

"Maybe I drank more than I thought. Or I've been inhaling more chemicals than normal today, I don't know." Tony was starting to feel a little panicky. "Maybe it was that fucking coffee from the coffee maker I was messing with, or Hell; for all I know, I could be passed out on a floor somewhere, and you the product of a brilliant, but far too often chemically altered, mind."

The door behind Yinsen burst open with a gust of wind, slamming back against the wall with enough force to crack the wall. A gale force hurricane knocked him off his feet, and Tony crab-walked to the safety of the bed, putting himself on the side furthest from the door. The air turned freezing cold, and Tony became aware of a high-pitched keening above the roar, chilling him to the bone.

"Okay! I got it! I got it, just… don't… just make it stop."

As quickly as it began, the wind and air ceased, and for the fourth time that evening, Tony found himself out of breath, gasping for more air. Trying to look composed, he got back to his feet, adjusting his shirt as though it were Armani silk instead of a dirty white muscle shirt.

"So. Yinsen." Tony stared, completely at a loss for words.

Somehow, Yinsen looked amused. "Do you remember what I told you, Anthony? The last thing I asked of you, in return for saving your life?"

The words came from his mouth without though, his voice rough with emotion. "Don't waste it," he answered quietly. "You told me not to waste the second chance I was being given."

Yinsen nodded, moving further into the room. Tony fought the urge to find a chair to offer the older man. He was balanced between approach and retreat, frozen perfectly in place in spite of his nature.

"I am disappointed," Yinsen said, stopping across the bed from Tony. "You have not been doing as I have asked."

"I have!" Finally jolted into motion, Tony moved around the bed to stand by Yinsen. "I've changed the whole focus of my company, I've been doing some real good for the world with the Iron Man thing. I'm practically a different person because of you. How can you say that?"

Yinsen shook his head. "You are still the man who has everything, and nothing. It is true you have made some incredible changes in your life, and that is excellent, and as it should be. But there is one area of your life in which you have abused and ignored what it right in front of you. You will lose her if you do not act, Anthony. That would be a mistake in very many ways."

Tony's first impulse was to do as he usually did and feign ignorance, but this was Yinsen – if he was really here, he had probably come a long way to speak to him. It was only fair he be honest, even if it was to his detriment. "I've tried," he protested quietly, feeling awkward. "She shot me down. Pepper deserves someone much better than me, anyway."

"Anthony," Yinsen said in a familiarly anticipating block. "It is not for you to say what she does or does not deserve. You are a stubborn man; it is not like you to give up on something you truly want after just one try. It will never do. You must try again, and again, if you have to, or more than just the two of you will suffer for it."

Frowning, Tony slowly sat down on the foot of his bed. "What if it's better for her if I just leave well enough alone? What if she'd be happier? Pep already devotes more of her time to me than is probably healthy, and a relationship would only increase the time she spends taking care of me." He shook his head. "No. I've thought about this a lot, Yinsen. She can do better than a neurotic mess like me."

Yinsen's frame seemed to swell, and the room grew colder. Tony felt a chill that had nothing to do with the temperature. The mysterious wind began to rise again, and Tony reached for a pillow, as though it would protect him.

"It is as I feared," Yinsen's voice deepened dramatically and returned to normal in the same moment, like sound echoing off mountains in to a valley. "Just as stubborn as ever you were. Very well – you leave me no choice."

"Um," Tony didn't like the sound of that. "No choice about what?"

"Tonight, you will be visited by three spirits," Yinsen said, his voice grim with purpose.

"I – " The pillow fell from Tony's hands to the floor. "Three spirits… I don't suppose you're talking about vodka, scotch, and rum, are you?" Yinsen continue to stare at him, and Tony ran a hand through his hair, blowing air between pursed lips. "Tonight, you said?"

"Expect the first spirit when the bell tolls one." A screen appeared on one of the windows – the digital read-out of an analogue clock, it's alarm set for and hour from now, at one o'clock. "Expect the second when the bell chimes two, and the last on the third hour of morning."

"Wait, they're coming one at a time?" Somehow this seemed the worse option. "What, there's no group rate?"

"Goodbye once more, Anthony. Remember that opportunity is not a lengthy visitor, and that every action has an equal and opposite reaction. You have been granted the remarkable gift of perspective in order to live the life the universe feels you deserve. Do not waste it, Anthony. For your sake, and hers, do not waste it."

Tony jumped as the room sprang to life, the stock ticker above his dresser shone luminescent, and the HUD screens displayed the time, temperature, and all the other information he wanted close at hand. Looking around, it took him a moment to realize that Yinsen was gone and once again, Tony was alone.

Almost.

"J.A.R.V.I.S.?"

"Yes, Mr. Stark?"

"You didn't note anything… anomalous happening in the past hour?"

"No, sir." The A.I. paused. "Are you quite all right, Anthony? I'm registering an elevated pulse, and – "

"Everything's fine." Tony rubbed his face hard. "Except I may be going crazy."

"Studies do show that persons with I.Q. levels in the highest percentile often suffer from mental disorders, ranging in degrees of severity from mild depression to acute schizophrenia –Michealangelo Buonarroti, Nikola Tesla, Howard Hughes – "

"Thank you, J.A.R.V.I.S., for that… inspiring vote of confidence. Lights out, please. I need to sleep some very weird things away."

"Of course, sir. Good night, and pleasant dreams."

Tony didn't answer, he was already asleep, with thoughts of visiting spirits buried far from his mind.