The Man in the Red Suit

Pepper received the invitation to sit on Stark Industries' Annual Holiday Celebration Planning Committee in January of 2008.

The committee had been struck in response to the woefully underwhelming turnout at SI's 2007 Annual Holiday Celebration (known in more pedestrian circles as an office Christmas party). The lack of attendance had apparently engendered serious, serious concern about morale in the organization. It was decided that representatives from each of the ten major divisions of SI were needed, along with a non-voting chair.

Pepper was also invited to attend the meetings, with the goal of speaking for Tony's interests and ensuring that the plans met with his approval—after all, he was the one footing the bill for the whole shindig.

Pepper had never been big on Christmas; she had no immediate family, and wasn't particularly concerned with religious observances. During the holidays, she usually travelled, or worked quietly in the deserted offices of the executive tower.

Her first instinct was to delegate the job—Pepper had a very finely-tuned schedule, and was successful in her work due in large part to her excellent instincts—but in the end, her sense of duty had triumphed over various other senses, including that of the common variety.

Tony went missing in February.

Pepper skipped a few committee meetings.

By the time the dust had settled and her schedule was relatively back on track, it was the middle of June, Iron Man was practically old news, and the party planning was going full steam.

The major decisions, such as date and location, had been made, pending the final touch of the CEO's autopen: the Celebration would take place on the Friday before Christmas, at a hip converted warehouse in Malibu that frequently hosted large holiday parties for various A-list celebrities. Pepper heartily approved of the venue, with its parquet floors and exposed brick and timber; she knew Tony wouldn't particularly care about the location, as long as there was food and a bar, and music.

Pepper attended her second-ever AHCPC meeting in July, the topic of which was entertainment. The arc reactor hadn't yet been completely repaired, and as a result, power to some of the buildings on the SI campus was limited. The central air wasn't working as well as it would have ordinarily; the conference room was sweltering, and the group was fractious, as a result of which they spent the better part of a sultry July evening debating the relative merits of a live band versus a DJ. Pepper had never seen a group of reasonably intelligent adults get so worked up over something so trivial.

Things very nearly ended in tears, but Team Pre-Recorded Music finally triumphed. Pepper was a bit put out: Top 40 wasn't really Tony's style—which meant he probably wouldn't dance. The party isn't for him, Pepper reminded herself sternly. It's a gift to the employees. He needs to learn not to be so self-centered.

If she were perfectly honest with herself, Pepper's disappointment wasn't all on Tony's behalf. Still, it was probably best to avoid another situation like the Firefighters' Fund benefit. She knew Tony well enough to know that his overture that night had more to do with scotch and a slinky dress, and the residual thrill of his first armoured flight, than with any genuine romantic inclination towards his PA. He'd been in high spirits, and she'd been convenient, that was all—and she'd very nearly fallen for it.

She was even more convenient, now that Iron Man was on the scene; it was important to remember that, and keep those boundaries firmly in place.

In August, members of a terrorist cell in Indonesia knocked Tony right out of the sky with one of his own extremely efficient missiles. The irony would have been amusing, if not for the fact that he wound up trapped under two tons of debris at the bottom of the ocean for almost nine hours as a result. The recent upgrades he'd made to the armour for sustained high-altitude flight kept him safe, but he came out of it with a pretty bad case of the bends.

Pepper missed the August meeting of the AHCPC because she was on the phone, trying to arrange hyperbaric oxygen therapy through a local military hospital.

The September meeting was—thankfully—air-conditioned, and focused on the question of whether or not children were to be invited to the Holiday Celebration. Pepper seemed to be in the minority, in that she felt the party should be an adults-only event. She knew there would be at least one individual in attendance who couldn't be counted on to keep things G-rated.

Pepper was also in the minority in that she was the only member of the committee who wasn't married with kids. The decision was unanimous, and Pepper was gracious in defeat.

In October, Tony accidentally defibrillated himself while trying to jump-start the Audi from his RT. At least, that appeared to be the situation when Pepper found him lying on the floor of the darkened workshop, unconscious and shirtless, with wires running from the centre of his chest to the car's engine.

His pulse seemed strong, and the RT was still running, but he was definitely out cold, and she didn't dare disconnect anything. The ambulance was already en route by the time he came around.

"That was… unpleasant," he observed, in a tone of voice generally reserved for when the bartender mixed up his drink order. "How long was I out?"

"What the hell is wrong with you?" Pepper demanded, dimly aware that her own voice had risen to a piercing screech.

"Less shouting, please." He was holding his skull in both hands as though it was liable to shatter. "It was just a little experiment."

"You could have killed yourself, Tony!"

"And deprive you of the satisfaction of this moment? Never." He sat up, unhooked the leads that connected him to the car, and tossed them over his shoulder.

Pepper felt herself starting to tremble, as her pent-up adrenaline released.

"Come on. Are you kidding me? I wouldn't do that to you." Before she knew quite what was happening, he'd pulled her to his chest and enfolded her in a hug.

Pepper closed her eyes, took deep breaths, and willed herself to stop shivering—which only seemed to have the reverse effect. It wasn't just that he'd very nearly shocked himself into oblivion while she was just a few feet away; it was the three months he'd simply vanished from her life, and the night she'd almost vaporized him with the push of a button, and the total disregard he seemed to have for his own safety, with or without the armour.

But the more she shook, the tighter he held her, and she knew that if she didn't pull it together soon, she was liable to say something she wouldn't be able to take back.

"The paramedics have arrived, Ms. Potts," announced JARVIS. "I have granted them full access to the house, as per your instructions."

"You'd better lie down," she told him, quickly wiping her eyes on the back of her hand. "The EMS told me not to move you."

Tony stretched out on the concrete, folding his hands behind his head. "If anything's going to give me a heart attack," he remarked, "it's those killer legs of yours."

"I'll try to be more responsible with them in future," she replied soberly, before standing up to wave the paramedics over.

When the AHCPC convened in November, the question of decorations was raised. As was the custom in such situations, the word "tasteful" was immediately deployed, but there seemed to be some confusion over what precisely "tasteful" entailed. Privately, Pepper thought taste was a bit much to expect from this particular group, although she was far too polite to ever say as much out loud.

"I have one proviso," she announced, briskly. She was hoping to get this one under the radar while the others were still arguing about precisely how much tinsel was too much. "No mistletoe."

Everyone in the room stopped talking. "None at all?" squeaked Angie from HR.

Pepper shook her head. It was, first and foremost, a PR move: her boss had certainly cleaned up his act of late, but given the apparent dry spell he was in, it made sense not to throw him in the path of temptation if she could help it. Putting Tony Stark in a room full of young women in cocktail dresses was already a bit like locking a wolverine in the paddock with the sheep; adding mistletoe into the mix would be equivalent to slathering the lambs in barbecue sauce.

"There'll be kids around, and it's a poisonous plant. It's an accident waiting to happen. Not only that, but the potential for sexual harassment lawsuits—"

"Couldn't we just have a few designated mistletoe areas?" interjected Angie plaintively. "If people were willing to sign a waiver, or something?"

Pepper shook her head. "Sorry," she said, not feeling particularly apologetic. "I can raise the issue with Mr. Stark, if you'd like, but I don't expect he'd feel differently about the matter." Which was a bare-faced lie, of course, but she said it with enough authority that no one in the group questioned her, although Pepper could have sworn she saw Angie mouth the word grinch.

By the time December rolled around, two facts had become absolutely clear to Pepper Potts:

One, that her feelings for Tony Stark were making her life infinitely more complicated than it needed to be.

And, two, that she hated Christmas.

Tony loved Christmas. He always had.

As a child, he would spend hours helping his mother bake and decorate gingerbread men, or listening with increasing skepticism to his father's elaborate scientific explanations of Santa's circumnavigation of the globe.

As a teenager, he had taken an almost sadistic delight in wrapping presents, camouflaging the seams of the printed paper with meticulous matching of patterns and skillful applications of double-sided tape and ribbon. His parents would sit under the tree on Christmas morning and puzzle over Tony's gifts, turning them in every direction, trying in vain to find a point of entry.

Now, as an adult, the calendar ticking over to December never failed to put a certain spring in Tony's step. He loved the pageantry, the parties, and the outlandish munificence the season invariably brought. He loved that women everywhere were suddenly wearing lingerie and Santa hats and asking him if he'd been a good boy. He loved that people brought baking to the office and left it unattended for long stretches of time, and that he could drink in the middle of the day without anyone shooting him disapproving looks. And he still loved giving people surprising presents, even if he didn't usually wrap them himself these days.

After all, he had an assistant for that sort of thing.

"Any plans for the holidays?" he asked Pepper, one cloudy morning in December. They were in Tony's Audi, for a change, careening along the PCH at an indecent speed. Happy followed behind in the Bentley, at a somewhat more sedate pace.

"Nope," Pepper deadpanned, thumbs flying over the keyboard of her Blackberry.

"What do you want for Christmas?"

"A clause in my contract that says I never again have to be a passenger in any vehicle driven or piloted by you." She was in the middle of mediating an increasingly hostile e-mail exchange about tree toppers.

"Come on. Anything you want. Consider me your own personal Santa Claus."

She made a disgusted noise and threw the phone into her handbag. "Don't talk to me about Christmas, Tony," she snapped. "I've had it up to here with Christmas right now."

Tony laughed, pushing his sunglasses up onto his head. "Oh, right, you're on the Christmas party planning thing this year."

"Annual Holiday Celebration," she corrected, through gritted teeth.

"Yuh-huh. How's that going? I don't have to do anything, do I?" He had a vague memory of Obadiah making a speech, or something, at the end of the party. Tony was usually pretty shipwrecked by that point in the evening. "I mean, apart from sign off on the expenses."

Pepper glared pointedly.


"You have to give the toast."

The CEO's toast had been a Stark Industries Christmas tradition since the days of Tony's father; the responsibility had fallen to Obadiah Stane in recent years. For all his private failings, Stane had been well-liked at Stark Industries, and his passing had shocked and saddened many of the employees who knew him. It was absolutely crucial that Tony give a speech that would strike the right note.

"I put it on your calendar over a month ago," she added.

He gave a dismissive wave. "You do it."

"You're already committed."

"How'd that happen?"

"I committed you."

Tony flicked his turn signal on for about a half-second before banking hard towards the exit ramp. "That was pretty short-sighted of you. I'm busy that night."

"Doing what?" She was willing to bet he didn't even know which night they were talking about.

Tony cast about for a moment before replying, "I… don't actually care enough to make up an excuse. The toast was Dad's thing. It's cheesy and it's boring. I'm not doing it."

He cranked up the stereo, signalling an end to the discussion.

Pepper reached over and turned the volume right back down again.

"You know what I'd really like for Christmas?" she asked, softly, but with a hint of steel behind it.

"Jewellery?" Tony had either failed to detect the edge in her tone, or was deliberately ignoring it.


"Plasma TV?"


"New set of wheels? The '09 Audis are pretty sweet. We could stop by the dealership and take a test drive—"

He had his free arm slung over Pepper's seat, in such a way that she had to keep her spine completely rigid in order to avoid the back of her neck brushing against his hand. She resented this, just as she resented his relentlessly cheery mood, and the supreme indifference with which he had just offered to buy her a car. Like everything Tony did for his devoted underlings, it was unfailingly generous, but only as long as it didn't cost him any real effort.

"What I'd like," she snapped, "would be for you to show up to work on time, and fulfill your obligations, and not make any more messes that I have to clean up. In short, Tony, I'd like you to grow up and act like a CEO."

She was expecting an argument, or a clever retort, but all he said was, "Oh."

Then he removed the arm, replaced the sunglasses, and turned his attention back to the road. They drove the rest of the way without speaking.

That was Monday.

Tuesday afternoon, the question of food and drink was the subject of the committee's longest meeting ever. They pored over a selection of catering menus provided by the venue; everything ranging from fast food to fine dining was represented. To Pepper, it all looked delicious—but she was apparently the only one.

After they had determined that it was going to be a fat-free, peanut-free, meat-free, nitrate-free, flavour-free Annual Holiday Celebration, Clarice from Finance and Administration tabled the suggestion that the party should also be dry. "If we're going to have the kids there, I mean," she added.

There were nods around the room.

Pepper wracked her brain for a more polite version of the phrase snowball's chance in hell. "I don't know how Mr. Stark would feel about that," she said finally. It was bad enough that most of Tony's favourite foods were verboten; she felt that axing the bar was pushing it. He was a superhero, not a saint. She wondered if they were deliberately trying to keep him away.

Clarice and Angie exchanged dire looks.

"Maybe we could just limit the drinks to one each?" suggested Ron from Maintenance. "For the toast? We could issue drink tickets, or something."

At the mention of the toast, Pepper felt her stomach contract. She wasn't looking forward to telling the Committee that there wouldn't be one from Tony this year. She knew that the majority of them thought of him as a playboy slacker who was more interested in tinkering with his gadgets than running the company.

"There would have to be two drink tickets per employee, for spouses," Angie pointed out.

The thought of an extra gin and tonic all to herself kept Pepper from voicing the obvious objection to that statement.

As for her boss, as long as the bar was stocked, she knew he would find a way. Tony rarely deigned to acknowledge limitations—his own, other people's, or those of the laws of physics.

"Young Mr. Stark is giving the toast this year, correct?" inquired Clarice, archly.

Pepper's cheeks burned—out of annoyance, rather than embarrassment. Clarice had been with the company since before Tony was appointed, and the meaning behind her words was crystal clear: the current Mr. Stark couldn't hold a candle to his old man.

"It's been on his calendar for months." The statement wasn't technically a lie. "We were discussing it just the other morning."

"Wonderful." Clarice showed her teeth politely. "I look forward to it."

On Thursday morning, at yet another AHCPC meeting, the topic of Santa Claus arose.

It had come to the attention of the Committee that there was a demand among the employees who were bringing their children to have some form of entertainment, and commissioning a Santa for the evening was deemed to be the most effective approach.

There was a lengthy debate as to whether Santa could be considered religious or secular, and whether it would be better to hire a professional Santa or call for a volunteer within the company. The names of a couple of potential candidates were floated and shot down.

Then Pepper heard herself say, "What about Mr. Stark?"


"He doesn't really fit the body type," Pepper continued, "but I think he'd enjoy doing it." She couldn't help but feel a twinge of guilt over her comment to Tony the other morning. It wasn't his fault this party planning was driving her bonkers. "He loves Christmas," she added.

"Of course he does," muttered Clarice. "He's rich."

"And single," added Ron dolefully. Ron had three children—all girls—and Pepper had heard through the grapevine that his wife was expecting twins.

"Actually," said Stephen from R & D, "that's a great idea. Except I don't think he should play Santa. I think the kids would get more of a kick out of it if he came dressed up as Iron Man. And by 'kids,' I mean me and everyone else in the lab," he added jokingly.

There were noises of delighted assent around the table. As far as Pepper could recall, it was the first time the entire committee had agreed on anything that quickly.

"He could still hand out the presents and do everything that Santa would usually do."

"He could wear a Santa hat—he's already red, anyhow."

"I think more kids actually recognize Iron Man than Santa Claus these days," Angie observed.

Pepper prayed that Tony never had the opportunity to read the minutes from this meeting. That kind of ego stroking, he did not need.

As if they'd timed it, every head in the room swiveled simultaneously in Pepper's direction. Eleven pairs of eyes regarded her expectantly.

"Can you arrange that, Pepper?" asked Stephen.

Pepper, ever the diplomat, said exactly what she always said in these sorts of situations: "I'll see what I can do."

Friday was a very long day, at the end of a very long week, during which each member of the AHCPC had called or e-mailed her at least once to remind her that she had "promised" to secure the party's new main attraction. Pepper's patience was stretched tighter than a snare drum, and she was—shockingly—not even remotely in the mood to attend a long and technically dense quarterly briefing from the ballistics division.

The main reason she was attending was to ensure that Tony—who had insisted on moving the presentation twice to accommodate his schedule—didn't decide to take off early; the disadvantage to this was that she didn't get to take off early either. She had way too much to do to get ready for the party—and she hadn't even started on her own Christmas shopping.

Tony sauntered into the meeting—ten minutes early, no less—looking like a GQ cover-model and exuding his characteristic blend of insouciance and charm. His goatee was precisely trimmed and his hair just as artfully mussed; there wasn't a trace of grease under his fingernails. He'd chosen to pair a sleek grey suit (Hugo Boss) and tailored black shirt (Russell & Hodge) with an unfortunate red-and-white polyester reindeer necktie (Sears?) that Pepper could have sworn she'd thrown away in January. Every January. For the past three years.

To her amazement, Tony showed every sign of having prepared for the meeting. Without so much as a glance in Pepper's direction, he sat down at the table, opened up a copy of the report that was heavily annotated with his blocky draftsman's printing, and immediately and fully engaged with the presenters, firing off detailed technical questions and proposing solutions to problems that hadn't yet been anticipated. Everyone in the room except Pepper appeared to be taking notes as he spoke. He was authoritative, he was constructive—he was even witty.

When the lights went down for the first Powerpoint of the afternoon, Pepper pulled out her Blackberry and waited for the first text from Tony. It was as inevitable as the sunrise—he hated sitting still, he hated paying attention, he hated it when people just read off the slides without adding useful information, and he especially hated having to deal with any one of these things on a Friday afternoon.

She attended to a few urgent e-mails, deliberately ignoring the ones from the Committee that were threatening to damage her calm. She glanced across the table at Tony—and was astonished to find that he seemed to be paying rapt attention. His hand was resting on the conference table, and his fingers weren't drumming. He didn't appear to be twitching or fidgeting at all, as far as she could tell.

Pepper was both charmed and bewildered.

The presentation dragged on… and on… and on, and despite her best intentions, Pepper found herself unable to retain a single word of what was being said. She tried to focus her attention on the screen, but while her eyes watched the words sweep in and out of the frame, her brain was indulging in a brief but extremely detailed flight of fancy that involved pulling the fire alarm and dragging her boss by his superlatively tacky tie into the nearest supply closet.

It was a clear sign that she was overworked.

In order to distract herself, she did something that she had always sworn she would never do: she texted Tony first during a meeting.

Had a request for Iron Man to play Santa at the xmas party this year. Thoughts?

She watched as he fished his phone from the inner pocket of his suit jacket. He glanced down at it, smiled, and tapped the screen a few times.

I thought we were calling it the Annual Holiday Celebration now?

Pepper rolled her eyes. Very helpful, she replied. Thank you. Nice tie, by the way.

Thanks. It was my dad's. Nice legs.

She knew that this was the point in the exchange at which she should re-establish boundaries, and firmly discourage Tony from engaging in behaviour that could be interpreted as harassment.

But now, knowing the provenance of the tie, she felt bad for having mocked it. She felt that she owed him one, so to speak.

She wrote back, You can see them through the table? I didn't realize Iron Man had X-ray vision.

I was extrapolating from existing data, he replied.

Pepper placed the Blackberry on the table beside her, just out of easy reach. It was her own fault, she reminded herself sternly. When the red message light started blinking again, she ignored it and stared at the slideshow, hands folded primly in her lap.

She couldn't help noticing that ballistics was a branch of research that contained an extremely high quotient of naughty-sounding words.

Finally, feeling as though she were moving in slow motion, she reached over and picked up the phone again, glancing down at it casually, as if she were simply checking the time.

I'd be happy to give them a more thorough inspection.

She felt her cheeks warming.

It was at this point that Pepper made the grievous tactical error of glancing over at her boss. He was watching, and waiting—eyes dark and smouldering, wide mouth curved in a slight smirk. Pepper knew that look. That look spelled trouble with a capital T-O-N-Y.

Even worse, she found herself smiling back, peeking coyly at him through lowered lashes as she typed her response.

If you don't behave, you're going to get a lump of coal in your stocking.

I WAS behaving, he pointed out, until you started passing notes in class.

Then he politely raised his hand. "Max? Would you mind taking me through that last slide one more time?" He caught Pepper's eye again, and raised his eyebrows ever so slightly. "I'm sorry, but I got distracted." He drew the word out, in a way that she knew wasn't obvious to anyone else.

Thus chastened, Pepper slid the phone into her purse and didn't touch it again until long after the meeting was over. It wasn't until she was walking to her car that she retrieved it, and read Tony's final message:

Iron Man will be there with bells on. Let me know what you need me to do.

Pepper arrived at the office on Monday morning feeling remarkably refreshed and well-rested. This was primarily due to the fact that Tony had not called her once all weekend—an event that was entirely without precedent in her ten-year career as his personal assistant.

It was raining fiercely, and on the drive in, Pepper stopped off at Starbucks for a holiday indulgence. Apparently it wasn't an uncommon impulse: the place was bustling, even more so than usual, and Pepper had to line up to get her extra-hot peppermint mocha.

A half-hour later, Pepper was letting herself into Tony's office, wet umbrella in hand. She had a busy morning ahead of her, and she wanted to leave a couple of sticky-note reminders in the places he was most likely to look: the monitor, the framed photo of his parents, the mirror in his private bathroom.

"Good morning."

Pepper jumped, the umbrella sliding from her grasp and clattering to the floor. "Tony!" she yelped.

He was leaning back in his chair, feet propped up on the desk, keyboard in his lap. The cuffs of his pants had ridden up ever so slightly, exposing a pair of incredibly unfortunate socks. "Who were you expecting?" he asked, reasonably.

"No one."

He grinned. "Oh, now I get it. You were planning to use my office for a sordid rendezvous."

Pepper was suddenly, acutely aware of the fact that the two of them were entirely alone on the top floor of the executive offices tower. She felt her colour start to rise.

"Who's the lucky guy?" he persisted. "It's Rhodey, right?"

"I was just going to leave you a note," Pepper said, distantly. The socks were giving her a headache: they were an awful, pulsating shade of bright green, with a crude red-and-white candy cane motif, and so thick that his dress shoes appeared to be slightly distended. "I have no idea what you're talking about."

"There's no point in being coy about it, Potts. Don't think I haven't noticed that you're always bringing him coffee."

"Yes, when he's in meetings with you—"

"Methinks the lady doth protest too much…"

"—because I'm always bringing you coffee!" Pepper resisted the urge to correct Tony's misquotation.

"Yeah, but you get paid to bring me coffee," he replied, with an air of perplexing finality. "Speaking of which," he indicated the black-and-white paper cup in her hand, "is that for me?"

Pepper gaped at him. "You're joking, right? After all the times you've lectured me about how lattes are for schoolgirls and tourists?"

He stood up and sidled around the desk, moving towards her with a predatory gleam in his eye. "Smells good."

"I waited in line twenty minutes," she protested, clutching the latte protectively with both hands.

"Come on, Pepper, I need milk. I'm a growing boy."

"Absolutely not."

"What is that, peppermint? And chocolate?"

"Twenty. Minutes."

"Just a taste," he murmured, with a particularly winsome smile that made her want to agree to anything he asked. "I promise."

He cupped his warm hands over her chilled ones, calluses rasping against her knuckles. She could feel her grip start to slacken.

"Yeah, that's right…" he cooed, his gaze deep enough to drown in. "Come to daddy."

Pepper bit her lip, hard, and reminded herself that he was talking to the coffee.

She waited for him to take the cup—but instead he paused, his large, blunt fingers splayed over her tiny tapered ones.

"What?" asked Pepper, suspiciously.

"Your face is all red," he told her. "And you're freezing. You'd better hang onto this until you warm up." He gave her hands a quick squeeze before releasing them.

"What are you doing here so early, anyway?"

"Is it early?" He glanced at his watch. "I just came in to get a few of my thoughts down on paper for the Christmas toast."

Pepper touched his cheek with the back of her hand.

His eyes widened. "What are you doing?"

"Checking to see if you have a fever," she explained wryly. "One of us is clearly delirious."

Tony smiled, and leaned in close. Pepper didn't have time to think; she reacted instinctively, her eyes drifting closed.

He pressed his lips gently to her forehead, and held them there for a long moment before stepping away again.

Pepper opened her eyes, and let out a breath she hadn't realized she'd been holding. "What are you doing?" she whispered, fighting a feeling that was very close to panic. Maybe he really was sick. She hoped it wasn't anything contagious.

"Checking to see if you have a fever," Tony stage-whispered back, with an air of exaggerated patience—as though it were nothing out of the ordinary. As though kissing people on the forehead was something he did every day.

She wanted to scratch the bridge of her nose where his goatee had brushed against it—and that was the least incendiary of the impulses that occurred to her.

"The lips are more sensitive to changes in temperature than the hands," he explained, in a more normal tone of voice. "That's how my mom used to do it."

"She made the socks," Pepper surmised.

Tony beamed proudly. "Aren't they great?"

"You can tell they were made with a lot of love," said Pepper tactfully. "Do you really want one of these?" She gestured to the coffee—having remembered, belatedly, that it was in fact her job to cater to Mr. Stark's whims, no matter how irrational or ridiculous they might be.

"Nah. All that crap just dilutes the caffeine. Do I look like a schoolgirl to you? Although, if you don't want it—"

He made a grab for the cup, and she sidestepped into the doorway, out of his reach.

"Don't think I don't see what you're up to, Tony," she told him sternly.

"What am I up to, Pepper?"

The truth was, Pepper had absolutely no idea.

"Just knock it off," she said, adding a glare for good measure before exiting into the hall.

Tuesday morning found them seated on Tony's couch, reviewing his schedule for the week, when he suddenly announced that he was flying to New York to meet with the mayor's office about the Stark Expo. "They want to get this agreement hammered out before the holiday."

Pepper made a note of the pertinent details in her Blackberry calendar. "What time can I expect you at the airfield?" she asked briskly, still tapping away. She was already clearing her days, making a list of tasks that would need to be bumped up or delegated.

"I said I, Potts. Not we. I'm a big boy, I can buckle my own seatbelt."

"Okay…" She tried not to let on that she was thrown, recovering with, "I'll do a quick pass through your closet. Do you think you'll be going out at all in the evenings?"

"Done. All done. 'My bags are packed, I'm ready to go…'" he sang.

Pepper put the phone down and stared at him, perplexed.

"Did I do something wrong?" she asked.

"What? No. Why?"

Pepper blushed. She was being an idiot. "I don't know. Never mind." For years, she'd been telling Tony that she didn't need to accompany him on every little trip, that it would be a more efficient use of her time to stay behind—and now that he was finally listening to her, she could hardly protest on the grounds that her feelings were hurt.

"It's nothing personal, Pepper—you're the only one I trust to mind the shop while I'm gone. JARVIS says the weather there is lousy right now, anyhow."

It was an impressive compliment, particularly from a man who rarely bothered with praise. But Pepper still felt a bit let down, for reasons she couldn't quite identify.

"Don't forget the party on Friday," she reminded him.

"I'll be back Thursday afternoon at the latest. I promise."

"Do you need me to read over your speech?"

"Nah. I got it."

He stood up, the light glancing off something shiny at his wrist. He was wearing ornate silver cufflinks, molded in the shape of snowmen.

"I thought you hated French cuffs," she remarked.

With a mocking smile, he asked, "Will that be all, Ms. Potts?"

He was out the door before she was able to formulate a suitable reply.

On Thursday, Happy and Pepper waited on the private airstrip for over six hours. They divided up the paper, then sat on the hood of the car and ate McDonald's while the sun slowly sank below the horizon. Then they sat in the car, Happy listening to Car Talk on NPR while Pepper did the sudoku with her feet up on the dash.

When Happy's phone buzzed, he and Pepper dove for it simultaneously. Pepper was quicker.

"Tony," she said breathlessly. "What's your ETA?"

The line was thick with static. "We're still on the tarmac," Tony shouted. "Freezing rain."

Pepper's heart sank. "What about the party?" she asked, already knowing what the answer was going to be.

He was fading in and out: "Snow—st another two feet—ole city's locked down."

"You promised." She couldn't quite keep the tone of accusation out of her voice. It wasn't that she wanted Tony to endanger himself—but he'd flown in the armour under far worse conditions than freezing rain without batting an eye. He was only being careful now all of a sudden because it suited him to stay in New York.

"Sorry," he said, with surprising sincerity. "If I don't see you—erry Christmas."

The line went dead.

Pepper slumped in her seat, defeated. It was time to wave the white flag; she'd been bested by the holiday.

She watched in silence as Happy gathered up the discarded burger wrappers and sports section, cramming everything into a plastic bag before pitching it all into the backseat.


Of course.

"Hap, you've done a little acting, haven't you?"

The ex-boxer grunted derisively. "That's a stretch. I did some used car commercials, back when I used to fight. And I guess I've been an extra in a couple movies, like everyone else in this town."

"And you like kids, right?"

"Sure. Why?"

He abruptly stilled when Pepper placed a hand on his arm.

"I need a big favour," she said, her voice low and urgent.

"Anything," he said fervently.

An hour later, Happy had cause to regret being so emphatic in his declaration.

"What if someone attacks me?" he asked. He was standing on the workshop's tracking pad, arms extended at his sides, while JARVIS scanned him with a pencil-thin blue beam.

"No one's going to attack you," said Pepper patiently. "It's a Christmas party."

"I believe the official term is Annual Holiday Celebration, Ms. Potts."

Pepper scowled.

"The boss gets attacked at parties all the time! What if—"

"Mr. Hogan, I must remind you once again to stand perfectly still throughout the imaging process," JARVIS interjected.

Happy put his feet back in the correct spots.

"I think 'all the time' is an exaggeration," said Pepper. "Don't you?"

"It's happened enough times that he needs a bodyguard. Can't I just wear a regular Santa suit?" he pleaded, as the scanning resumed.

"We've already advertised that Iron Man is going to be there. We don't want to disappoint the kids, right?"

Happy swallowed hard. "Right."

Pepper very much doubted Happy was really doing this for the kids. But that was his story, and they were both sticking to it.

The blue lights blinked out.

"We are ready to begin, Mr. Hogan," JARVIS announced, sounding slightly bored. "Please stand perfectly still for the duration of the procedure."

Plates of red and gold began to slide up out of the floor and engulf Happy's feet. Servos squeaked and panels clanked, and then robotic arms came down from the ceiling and up from the floor and Happy Hogan was suddenly gone, swallowed up by Iron Man.

JARVIS had managed to cobble together a costume out of various discarded pieces from the different iterations of Tony's armour. The makeshift Iron Man would be able to fly for short distances, and do a couple of other parlour tricks. JARVIS would control the armour during flight, and Happy would hand out the gifts and talk to the kids, with Pepper's assistance.

"How do I look?" he asked. The digital voice modulator was pitch-perfect—he sounded exactly like Tony. "Think I'm ready to go take on some bad guys?"

Pepper gave him a thumbs-up. "Absolutely."

Happy took a couple of steps, threw a clumsy one-two punch at empty air.

"This iteration of the armour does not include any proprietary technology, and therefore has very little defensive capability," JARVIS reminded them. "A combat engagement would be extremely ill-advised."

"Way to take the wind out of a guy's sails, Jarv," Happy grumbled, armour-plated shoulders sagging.

Pepper laughed. This might actually work, she thought.

Friday evening, Pepper arrived at the venue hours ahead of time and secure one of the back maintenance rooms for Happy's exclusive use. The "green room," as she christened it, was barely larger than a cupboard, and fairly utilitarian—a couple of folding chairs, a laundry sink, a row of shelves housing various cleaning products—but it was quiet, and private, which made it ideal for whenever Happy needed a time-out.

Pepper ensured that she had the only key, and instructed JARVIS to page her over her Bluetooth earpiece whenever Happy needed assistance.

Iron Man arrived at the party right on schedule, rocketing into the room to thunderous applause and excited squeals from the kids. He installed himself in the corner of the main ballroom, beside the Christmas tree, and attended dutifully to the queue of kids lined up the entire length of one long wall.

Pepper, supervising from a distance, reflected that the event was almost certain to boost Tony's good PR: the majority of the parents had brought cameras, and she saw several people snapping pictures with their phones as well. Each child got a small toy, a candy cane, and a photo with the man in the red suit.

Happy wasn't as glib as Tony would have been, but he was good with the kids—he patiently coaxed smiles out of the shy ones, chatted easily with the talkative ones, and cheerfully answered questions as best he could.

Two hours in, when Happy took the first of his scheduled breaks, Pepper met him in the green room with a tumbler of ice water and a fresh cotton towel.

"Yowsa," said Happy under his breath, as Pepper unlatched the gold faceplate.

"Pardon?" she prompted.

"I said, 'you look very nice, Pepper.'"

Privately, Pepper agreed with him. Her hair was arranged in artful pincurls; eschewing the usual holiday black and jewel-tones, she'd opted for a classic shell-pink Dior gown, strapless, offset by a simple string of oyster-coloured pearls. "Thank you."

She held the tumbler up, aimed the straw at his lips. "So this is how the other half lives," Happy quipped. "Signing autographs, being served drinks by beautiful women… nice work if you can get it, right?" He drained the entire glass in seconds.

"How's it going?" asked Pepper.

There were bright spots of pink on the driver's cheeks, and his short hair was dripping wet. "Hot," he replied, somewhat redundantly, swabbing his face with the towel.

She crossed to the laundry sink and refilled the sweating tumbler; Happy drank it even more quickly than the first.

"It's like a friggin' furnace in this thing."

"I am doing what I can to regulate the suit's internal temperature," JARVIS remarked inside the helmet and in Pepper's earpiece. "But without a continuous power source, options are limited."

"It's not your fault, JARVIS," replied Pepper, who was perspiring more than usual herself. "The heat is on full blast in here, and there's zero ventilation. But you're doing great," she assured Happy, patting the armour in the approximate vicinity of his shoulder. "Both of you."

Outside, a group of kids had started chanting: "Iron Man! Iron Man! Iron Man!"

Happy sighed heavily.

"A hero's work is never done," said Pepper, and gave him a gentle but inexorable push towards the door.

"How am I supposed to go to the bathroom in this tin can?" asked Happy, when they met up for his second break. Even with the voice modulator, Pepper could hear a frantic edge in his tone. Probably all that water from earlier.

She frowned. "Actually, I'm not sure. Maybe you could ask JARVIS?"

There were a few seconds of silence, during which Happy stood with his head cocked slightly, presumably conversing with the AI inside his helmet. Then he nodded.

"So?" prompted Pepper.

Happy shook his head. "You don't wanna know," he said grimly, and walked out.

"Ms. Potts," said JARVIS in her ear, about fifteen minutes later. "Your presence is required."

"I'll be right there."

She fervently hoped Happy had managed to solve the bathroom situation on his own.

"What are you doing here?" she demanded.

Tony, immaculate in black tie, was seated in one of the folding chairs, one arm draped over the back. "Merry Christmas to you, too," he replied, grinning rakishly. "You look amazing, Potts. Why do you only ever dress like that when I'm not around?"

She was still too baffled by his sudden appearance to fully assimilate the compliment. "How did you get here?"

"I don't know if you were aware of this, Pepper, but Iron Man can fly."

There was a period of about five seconds, during which Pepper contemplated a variety of career-limiting moves. When she had calmed down enough to speak, she asked, "Why didn't you call and tell me you were coming?"

He shrugged. "I had this idea that I was going to turn up at the last minute and save the day. You know, Christmas miracle-style. Then I get here, all set to make my dramatic entrance, and I find out from JARVIS that—guess what? You don't even need me." His tone was light, but Pepper could sense a measure of honesty behind the words.

"That's not true." The thought of how much she needed Tony Stark scared her at times.

His gaze flicked up to her face. "No?"

Pepper wondered when the dance music outside had gotten so loud—she could feel the pounding base line reverberating through her entire body.

"No," she affirmed. "Of course we need you. Everyone here tonight is here because of you."

He smirked. "Clearly. So I'm stuck in a janitor's closet, missing my own party. I gotta say, Potts, not ideal."

"It's only for a few more minutes. As soon as Happy's finished giving out the presents, we'll get him out of here, and you can make as big an entrance as you like. I don't think he likes being Iron Man very much," she added.

"It's a heavy cross to bear," said Tony, gravely.

"Did you have time to finish your toast?"

Tony patted the breast pocket of his jacket. "Guaranteed all-ages appropriate."

Pepper could have kissed him. Metaphorically speaking, of course.

"I'll tell Happy to wrap it up. Do you need anything while you wait? Something to eat? A drink?"

"Vodka martini." His face was still solemn, but there was mischief in his dark eyes. "Extra dry, extra olives. Extra extra dirty."

Equally seriously, Pepper responded, "I'll see what I can do."

It took her a full five minutes to wade through the crowd to the bar, and another eight minutes to get Tony's drink and escort it safely through the press of bodies. Happy had a woman on his knee who looked like she was a little too old to be giving Santa her Christmas list, but he didn't look like he minded all that much. Pepper waved to get his attention, pointed at her wristwatch, and angled a thumb in the direction of the exit. Happy nodded: message received.

Pepper slipped into the maintenance room, which had now taken on the humid atmosphere of a sauna.

Tony was still there, tapping away furiously on his phone, so completely absorbed that he didn't even notice her entering. He'd removed his tuxedo jacket and draped it over his lap, and was sprawled out on one folding chair with his feet propped up on the other.

Pepper was suddenly struck by the extraordinary and entirely effortless grace of him. She admired him so much: his unflagging energy, his boundless creativity, and the utter conviction with which he inhabited his own skin.

In spite of the drastic loss and change that had been wrought on his life in the past year, he was still fighting—was still convinced, despite the preponderance of the evidence, that humanity at large had a value beyond price. He'd been miraculously restored to her, not just once, but many times over.

He would never be whole, and he would certainly never be perfect, but he was her fixed point, as immutable as the first law of thermodynamics, as constant as the stars. Predictably mercurial. Dependably undependable. Tony—her Tony.

And it was ridiculous to keep pretending she wasn't in love with him.

Finally admitting it, even if only to herself, was a kind of release; Pepper suddenly felt lighter and happier than she had in weeks. She hadn't had a drink all evening, but she felt giddy, intoxicated. She was ready to sing and dance and shout at the top of her lungs.

Instead, she touched his shoulder gently, and put the martini into his hand.

"Thanks," said Tony absently, without looking up—completely unaware that the entire world had just shifted on its axis, at least as far as one of them was concerned.

She leaned down, peered over his shoulder at the transparent screen. Schematics were scrolling by at a speed that made her feel a bit dizzy—although maybe it was the heat. She could tell Tony was feeling the effects as well: his thick black hair was sweat-damp. She wanted to sweep it back, rake her fingers through it.

A wisp of her hair brushed against his cheek, and he canted his head to the side, exposing the corded ridge of his neck. She contemplated biting it—not hard, of course. Just a little nip. His skin was dewy with perspiration, and she licked her lips as she wondered what it would taste like. He certainly smelled delectable: a heady combination of sweat, alcohol, expensive aftershave, and—a seasonal addition—peppermint and chocolate.

"What are you working on?" she asked, trying not to breathe him in too deeply.

"Just going over this fake Iron Man setup you guys put together." He sounded impressed. "Pretty slick. I might hang onto it. It would be useful to have a stunt double."

"For parties?"

"Sure. Parties, board meetings, court appearances. Alibis." He flicked the screen, extinguishing the backlight, and stowed the phone in his pocket. He tilted the chair back, tipping his head up to look at her, his smile intriguingly inverted. "So… we have a little problem here."

"We do?"

He pointed a finger in the direction of the air vent, waves of hot air shimmering above them.

"The heat? I know, I'm sorry, there isn't anything I can—"

"Not that."

He stood, and stepped behind her, moving close enough that his chin hovered over her bare shoulder. He pointed towards the ceiling, and she followed the sight-line of his arm to the overhead light fixture. Because she was looking directly into the light, it took her a second to identify the item in question: a cluster of pale berries and glossy green leaves, attached to the light fixture by a satiny blossom of ribbon.

"Ms. Potts, what is that?"

She heard herself say, in a surprisingly steady voice, "I believe it's mistletoe, Mr. Stark."

"I distinctly remember reading the minutes of the Annual Holiday Celebration Planning Committee meeting, in which it was specified that there was to be no mistletoe whatsoever on the premises. Is that correct?"

He was stroking the small of her back casually, carelessly—she wondered if he even realized he was doing it.

"Yes," affirmed Pepper. She felt dazed and feverish; she resisted the urge to mop the perspiration from her brow. Tony suddenly seemed to be occupying most of the space in the room.

"In fact, I believe the exact words used were 'an accident waiting to happen.'" His voice was pitched low, his breath hot against her cheek.

"Right." Craning her neck for so long was starting to make her lightheaded, but she didn't dare look away.

Regardless of how she felt, Tony Stark was still her boss, and she was still just his very convenient personal assistant. She knew she should back away, fend him off with defensive body language and a quick-witted retort. She knew this. But she couldn't seem to muster the determination to follow through.

A droplet of sweat trickled down the nape of her neck and traced the curve of her spine, landing right onto Tony's hand.

"What are we going to do about this?" he murmured, dangerously close to her ear.

"We could…" A series of increasingly elaborate and disastrous possibilities occurred to Pepper in a remarkably short period of time. "We should probably take it down," she observed.

"Good idea." He let go of her, and sprang onto the chair with an enthusiasm that Pepper couldn't help but find slightly insulting. Obviously, the heat was making her imagine things. Sexy things.

She shook her head in an effort to clear it.

The elaborate bow immediately unravelled under his dextrous fingers, the sprig of mistletoe tumbling, jerking to a halt at a point just below Tony's navel.

He looked down at it, then at Pepper, raising a single salacious eyebrow.

She folded her arms and shook her head, mock-sternly.

He jiggled the ribbon a little, the mistletoe bobbing and swaying at the end of it.

It was tempting to give in, just for the pleasure of seeing his reaction, but Pepper's resolve held firm. "In your dreams, Tony."

He hopped down and took a step towards her, right into her personal space. He touched her cheek with the back of his hand, the sprig of mistletoe dangling from between his fingers. She could feel her heart syncopating in time to the all-encompassing throb of the music outside.

She put a hand against his chest, intending to slow his approach, but found herself instead tracing the hard outline of the RT, faintly luminescent beneath the heavy white shirt front. Just one more example of how Tony's ingenuity had managed to turn weakness into strength.

"Pepper," he murmured. He had that look on his face that usually meant he was about to say or do something catastrophically inappropriate.

Which was the precise moment when Iron Man came bursting through the door.

Tony and Pepper broke apart instantly, as though someone had flipped a switch and changed their polarity. Pepper didn't see where the mistletoe disappeared to; she was too busy trying to decide what to do with her hands.

"Hey, Pepper, I—" Happy paused, then flipped up the faceplate of his armour. "Boss! You made it!" The driver had never been a particularly demonstrative individual, but there was a moment when Pepper thought he might actually hug Tony.

"Yep." Tony managed to fend Happy off with a well-timed handshake. "Imagine my surprise when I found out I was already here."

Happy chuckled. "Don't worry, boss, I don't want to be a superhero any more than I did yesterday. I just want to get out of this thing."

"You sure about that, Hap? Looks good on you."

The driver shook his head emphatically.

Tony nodded. "In that case, I relieve you, sir."

Happy gave a crisp salute—he seemed to be getting the hang of moving in the bulky armour. "I stand relieved."

"Need any help? That thing looks like it'd be a bitch to take off. Is that the chestplate from the—"

"I am on hand to direct Mr. Hogan in the removal of his costume," JARVIS reported in Pepper's earpiece.

"JARVIS can handle it. Isn't it about time for your speech, Mr. Stark?" Pepper prompted.

Tony took Pepper's arm at the elbow, and gestured to the door with a debonair smile. "Lead the way, Ms. Potts."

Pepper stood at the back of the room, trying not to betray her anxiety as Tony ascended the steps to the small platform stage.

A year ago, she would have found some way to derail this—wouldn't have dreamed of simply standing idly by while her boss gave an unvetted speech, with a drink in his hand, to a crowd of employees armed with cameras. At the very least, she would have had JARVIS and the legal department standing by, ready to deal with anything that cropped up on YouTube.

Realistically, there was still a very real chance that this could go wrong. But the difference now was that, while Pepper didn't always agree with Tony's decisions, she was able to trust that he would at least make decisions. That he had, over the past year, gained a sense of agency and purpose in his life that had always been lacking. That he was aware of the impact of his actions.

He tapped the mic experimentally and scanned the crowd, smiling when he spotted Pepper. She nodded encouragingly: Go get 'em, boss.

"It's been an interesting year for us," he began, "and I'm glad to be here celebrating the end of it with all of you. Each and every one of you is an integral part of this company. My dad always used to call it the Stark Industries family—and because of that, I grew up thinking of many of you here tonight as distant relatives.

"You know, when I was about five years old, I confronted my parents with the terrible truth that I had discovered: reindeer couldn't actually fly. I won't bore you with the technical details of how I figured this out—it had to do with conservation of momentum."

The entire propulsion division roared. It was a running joke around the lab that Iron Man was only able to fly through Tony Stark's sheer strength of will.

"So my dad explained, at considerable length, about recessive genes, and that only a few very select, very special reindeer were able to fly. And I got ticked, because I felt that the fact that no one had ever seen a flying reindeer was proof that they couldn't possibly exist. Nobody had explained to me yet about proprietary technology."

Another gale of laughter, even more widespread than the first.

"Then my mother said to me, 'Anthony—' my mom was the only person who ever called me Anthony, and only when she really wanted me to listen—'Anthony, just because you can't see something, doesn't mean it isn't holding you up.'

"Those of you who were lucky enough to meet her will remember that my mother was… well, she was a smart lady. And I'm a smart guy, once I've had my coffee in the morning, but it still took me a long time to figure out exactly what she meant. She wasn't talking about physics—that, I've always had a pretty good handle on. She was talking about something more intangible."

He paused, looking thoughtfully out over the expectant crowd. Pepper blinked several times in rapid succession, trying to forestall the onslaught of tears.

"This year has been kind of a roller-coaster ride for me, and through it all, I've known that I could depend on your understanding, your determination, and your support, to help me fly true. Because that's what a family does, especially in times of crisis: it holds you up. So tonight is my small way of thanking you all for that." He raised his glass, and the majority of the crowd followed suit. "To the Stark Industries family. Cheers!" He tossed back his drink.

There was a burst of applause, and Pepper let out a thankful sigh. The toast had gone off without a hitch. It was a Christmas miracle.

"And on that note…"

He'd set his speaking notes down on the nearest table, with his empty glass. Crap, thought Pepper. Tony was extemporizing. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw at least two of the company's cadre of lawyers reach for their cell phones.

"…there is one more thing I'd like to say.

"Tonight has been a great evening, with good food, and awesome entertainment, and the best thing about it—apart from the fact that the boss is paying, of course—is the fact that you can kick back and enjoy it, knowing that someone else has taken care of all the small details.

"Well, I'm lucky enough that I get to live that way each and every day, because I have someone in my life who looks after all of those small details for me, allowing me to focus on the things that I need to get done. And it's a pretty thankless job, most of the time, but she does it with grace and tact, and frightening efficiency, and an incredible amount of style."

Pepper's heart felt weightless, silently suspended within her chest—and then began to beat again with painful ferocity.

"And so I would like to say a special thank you to my outstanding personal assistant, Virginia Potts." Tony pointed, and the entire crowd seemed to swell and surge in her direction. "Take a bow, Pepper," he called.

Pepper rose to her feet with a gracious smile as the entire room, Tony included, erupted into wild applause.

In the wake of Tony's speech, the crush of bodies began to thin out as young parents took the kids home to bed, and those without children went on to other holiday celebrations, leaving only the most stalwart partygoers to finish out the night. Pepper worked the room, exchanging salutations with most, handshakes with many, and hugs with a select few.

She was in the midst of being heartily congratulated by Clarice from Finance and Administration when her Bluetooth earpiece chimed softly.

Pepper jumped—she'd forgotten she was still wearing it. "JARVIS?"

"Your presence is urgently required, Ms. Potts."

She'd already waved goodbye to Clarice and was cutting discreetly through the crowd, Blackberry in hand. "I'll be right there."

She yanked open the door and barrelled into the darkened room. "Happy?" she called, groping blindly along the wall for the light switch.

"Ecstatic," replied a familiar drawl. "You?"


She located the switch at last. The light snapped on, and sure enough, there he was: hands jammed in his pockets, rocking on his heels, watching her with anxious eyes.


"Hi," she echoed.

She glanced around her at the discarded elements of Happy's costume that littered the floor. She tried in vain for almost a full minute to figure out what the emergency was, before the truth hit her: there wasn't one.

He'd paged her here for… what, exactly?

"Tony..." She was on the brink of an emotional outburst, ready to either laugh or cry—or maybe both. "That was a great speech. Thank you."

"It's true. All of it. I don't know what I'd do without you, Pepper. And I know you don't want… I mean, that you're not interested in me that way. I get that. But I just wanted you to know… I really do think of you as family."

"Wow." It was all Pepper could think of to say. If he really felt like that…

"Yeah, it's weird, right? You're weirded out, I can tell." He raked his fingers through his hair. "Sorry. Just—just forget I said anything. Okay?"

Pepper crossed the room in swift, purposeful strides. She marched right up to her boss and, before she had time to second-guess or talk herself out of it, threw her arms around his neck and kissed him full on the lips.

There was a moment of stunned non-reaction from Tony, during which Pepper had ample time to wonder how catastrophic a mistake she'd actually made. Six months was a long time, particularly for someone as capricious as Tony Stark; just because he'd had those feelings for her then, it didn't necessarily mean he had them now. Maybe he'd moved on. Maybe he meant family in the most platonic sense.

Fortunately, Tony, being a prodigy, tended to catch on quickly. It took him only a split-second to get over his shock; he grabbed Pepper firmly by the hips and leaned forward into the kiss, coaxing her mouth open with his own, his callused hands catching on the silky fabric of her dress.

It wasn't the passionate, frenzied embrace she'd envisioned whenever she'd pictured this moment. Pepper had always imagined that, if she did one day take complete leave of her senses and capitulate to her boss, it would be hasty, and messy, and cathartic, and unrestrained.

But there was something very careful and deliberate about the way Tony kissed her—as though he was embarking on a new project, something difficult and delicate and infinitely complex. Something on which he intended to expend considerable time and the entirety of his attention.

Something worth getting right.

Predictably, it was Tony who spoke first. "Are you my Christmas present?" he murmured, smiling against her lips.

"That depends."

"Oh, I've been a very, very good boy." He punctuated the statement with an emphatic squeeze of her backside that effectively belied his assertions.

"But what do I get in return?"

"Don't be greedy, Potts. You already got one gift from me, and I didn't even make you wait until Christmas."

"Hmm?" He was nuzzling at the juncture of her neck and shoulder in a way that made it extremely difficult to follow the thread of their conversation. "What are you talking about?"

He removed himself to look her in the face. "You said that what you really wanted was for me to act like a CEO. Remember?"

Pepper glanced away, chagrined. "I'm sorry about that."

He shrugged. "It was a fair observation. And I figured, you do so much for me… it was the least I could do."

"That's why you've been acting so weird." And, she realized, the reason he'd suddenly adopted a bizarre, holiday-themed wardrobe.

"If by weird, you mean professional and efficient, then yes." He sounded slightly affronted. "Even with you throwing up roadblocks at every turn."

"What roadblocks?"

"Oh, sure, you can look innocent all you want, but you texted me first during that ballistics meeting. I have the evidence."

"You're the one who offered to inspect my legs."

He nodded. "That offer still stands, by the way."

"So…" she stroked the back of his neck lightly with her fingernails, and was gratified to hear him sigh contentedly, his dark eyes slowly losing focus. "Does this mean I'm not getting a new Audi?"

"Would you settle for a slightly used superhero?" He grinned. "If it helps, I've got mistletoe in my pocket."

"And here I thought you were just happy to see me," she teased.

"I didn't say all of that just to get you into bed, Pepper," he told her, his tone disarmingly earnest.

She arched a single eyebrow. "Who said anything about bed, Mr. Stark?" she deadpanned.

"I just wanted you to know."


"Although, since you brought it up…" He clasped his hands at the small of her back and tightened his arms around her. "If you are my present, I think it's only fair that I get to take you home and unwrap you."

Pepper flashed him a sultry smile. "I'll see what I can do."