A/N: This is written for WSwirls, aka my Lalamonster, for The Reviews Lounge, Too Secret Santa gift!fic exchange. I hope you like it, dear. Merry Christmas.

Disclaimer: Iron Man is not my creation; it belongs to Marvel, and I am just borrowing the characters for a bit. I promise to return them unharmed and in their original condition.

Ghosts of Christmas Past

Stark Estate, Malibu

The sound of Nat King Cole singing, "Chestnuts roasting on an open fire. Jack Frost nipping at your nose…" caused Tony to awaken from a blissful afternoon nap. Rather annoyed that Pepper would be playing music so loudly, he pushed himself out of bed to go find her.

He padded into the kitchen and was somewhat taken aback. There was Pepper wearing a hunter green cocktail dress, her lovely strawberry blonde hair up in a French twist with a few wisps falling down to frame her face. She looked gorgeous, Tony thought. She was standing at the kitchen counter preparing hors d'oeuvres, but Tony couldn't quite fathom why.

Feeling his eyes on her, she turned to look at him. "It's about time you got up. Did you find the clothes I laid out for you?"

"Clothes?" Tony asked. "For what?"

She took a few steps toward him. "Don't tell me you've forgotten."

"Of course not! How could I forget?"

Pepper gave him a look. "Oh, really? Then what's the occasion?"

"Your birthday? No, wait…our anniversary."

"Tony-"

"You know, I'm so popular, it's a little hard to keep track of all these appointments," he replied smugly.

"Tony," Pepper muttered in frustration. "I've been telling you every day for the last two weeks. We talked about it this morning. Were you even listening?"

"Let me get back to you on that." He turned to go back into the bedroom when Pepper stopped him.

"I do not think so. You are not weaseling your way out of another holiday party." She pointed to the bedroom. "Now, go in there and change, and I expect you to be presentable and cheerful when you return."

"A holiday party?" Tony replied. "Whose idiotic idea was that?"

She crossed her arms and narrowed her eyes. "You happen to be looking at the idiot."

"Did I say idiotic? I mean brilliant."

She gave him a look. "You're a terrible liar."

"But yet, you love me anyway. So, why a party?"

"Because every year, you avoid the holiday festivities like they're the plague. This is our first Christmas as a couple, and I wanted to do something special. It's nothing huge; just fifty or sixty of our closest friends, and-"

"Fifty or sixty?" Tony scoffed. "Pep…come on."

"What? Did the great Tony Stark suddenly get stage fright? Being the center of attention is always up your alley. What's wrong?"

"Oh, is that sausage?" he asked. He grabbed a slice off one of the trays and popped it into his mouth. A full mouth meant he didn't have to speak.

She shook her head in frustration. "Ugh, now I have to rearrange it all. Just go and change…and save the rest of the food for the guests, okay?"

Tony sighed, obviously outranked. "Fine," he mumbled, heading back into the bedroom. He sighed as he plopped down on the bed. He looked at the suit that Pepper had chosen, hanging by a hanger on a hook on the wall; the tie matched the color of her dress. He shook his head since he couldn't quite understand all the fuss over the holidays. The holidays had never been a very joyful time for him…at least not since he was five-years-old. That was the last Christmas he'd actually felt happy.

Five-year-old Tony ran down the stairs on Christmas morning. He'd been very good in school and made a point not to fight with Billy Westfall, even when he called him bad names. He'd been helping his mother with all the chores and made sure not to bother his father when he was working…which seemed like all the time as of late.

He'd written his letter to Santa Claus, visited him at Macy's, and even dropped hints to his parents (well, his mother, at least; he could never be sure if his father was listening to him). All he wanted that year was a racetrack set with the special cars that could move by themselves. If he never got another present as long as he lived, he wouldn't care as long as he got that racetrack set.

He made a bee-line for the tree and started checking all his presents. First, he examined the boxes and set aside any of them large enough to be the racetrack set. Then he used the shake method. Ruling out two boxes that made no sound whatsoever, he decided one large red one with a silver bow had to be it. He pulled off the bow and carefully pulled at one corner. Seeing a colorful box beneath, he decided it had to be the racetrack set, so he continued tearing the wrapping paper off, no longer able to contain his excitement.

However, poor Tony found himself terribly disappointed as he stared at the cover of the box.

His mother finally came into the room, noticing that her son was awake. "Merry Christmas, sweetheart. Oh, what did Santa bring you?"

"An erector set," Tony mumbled, trying to sound happy but failing at it.

His mother seemed oblivious. "Oh, you must have been a very good boy this year! Why don't you open your other presents?"

Tony did as he was told. He did get a lot of 'nice' presents, but he did not receive the racetrack set. It took everything in his power not to burst into tears.

Then a miracle happened. Well, it was a miracle to Tony; his father entered the room. Tony remembered how surprised he was that his father was going to spend the day at home. He picked his son up and gave him a warm embrace. "Merry Christmas, Tony."

"Merry Christmas, Dad," Tony replied.

"Did you like all your presents?"

Tony shrugged. "I guess."

Howard gave a light chuckle. "You guess? Well, I think there's still one you didn't see."

Tony perked up. "There is?"

Howard put him back down. "Head down to my study. There's a surprise for you; I'll be there shortly."

Tony didn't waste a minute. He ran as fast as his little legs could carry him and there, set up on the floor of his father's study, was the racetrack set. Not only that, his father had also gotten the expansion set and the extra cars that went with it. He couldn't believe it. He had to rub his eyes to see if it was a dream.

A moment later, Howard appeared behind him. "What are you waiting for, son?" he asked.

Tony looked up at him. "Did you really do this all for me, Dad?"

"Just for you, son." He squeezed past him and took his hand. "Now come on; let's see this baby in action."

He and his father played with that racetrack until his mother had to force them to the dinner table. It was one of the best days he'd ever had…and really one of the last times he could remember his father doting on him so much.

The sound of Pepper's voice pulled him out of his thoughts. "Are you almost ready? Our guests should be arriving in about twenty minutes!"

"Working on it," he called back. He stood and started undressing. As he removed the suit from the hanger, he sighed sadly.

Christmases since were never as special as that one, especially since his father became more distant every year. The year when Tony was six, Howard did have Christmas dinner with him, but that was it. He had to go back to work immediately after. When Tony was seven, Howard gave him a phone call to say, "Merry Christmas, son. I love you." And the year he was eight, there was nothing. Holidays in the Stark household lost their meaning as the years went on, so Tony really didn't see the point in doing much about them now.

-IMIMIMIMIMIMIMIMIMIM-

One hour later, the party was in full swing. Tony did his best to appear as though he was having a good time for Pepper's sake, though he had to grit his teeth. At least there were a few familiar faces, Lieutenant James Rhodes for one. Tony crossed the room to him.

"Merry Christmas, Tony!" the lieutenant greeted.

Tony rolled his eyes. "Don't tell me you buy into all this holiday mumbo jumbo, Rhodey."

Rhodes shrugged. "Sure; you mean you don't?"

"I never really saw the point." Tony then looked in Pepper's direction. She was mingling and laughing; she looked like she was having time of her life. "Pepper, though…she seems to love this stuff."

"I don't know anyone who doesn't love the holidays."

"Except those who don't celebrate," Tony pointed out.

"You know what I mean. It's that time of year when you're supposed to embrace the spirit of giving. You're supposed to cherish the ones you love, make sure you tell them you love them; all that kind of stuff," Rhodes pointed out.

"Funny, I thought you were supposed to do that kind of thing every day."

Rhodes sighed. "Well, sure…but how many people really do? This is an annual reminder, if you will."

"Yeah, I guess," Tony replied. "Too bad some people never get the hint."

Before Rhodey could reply, however, Tony walked off, disappearing into the crowd.

-IMIMIMIMIMIMIMIMIMIM-

Hours later, the party had ended. Pepper was overseeing the cleaning crew, being sure it was done to her satisfaction.

"So did you have a nice time?" she asked him.

Tony grabbed a few pieces of leftover cheese and sausage off a tray. "I guess."

"Ugh, what is it with you?" she muttered.

"What?" he asked innocently. "I mingled. I talked."

"Yeah, with the lieutenant," she replied. "This was supposed to be something we did together."

Tony looked around and then he waved at her. "Hello? Wasn't I here the whole time?"

She rolled her eyes. "You know what I mean. You were…detached."

"I was not."

"You were too, Tony. Half the time, you were in the bathroom."

"I wanted to make sure I looked good," he defended. "Is that so wrong?"

She glared at him, but didn't answer. After a few minutes, she sighed. "You know what, Tony, I just thought that our first Christmas together could be something special."

"Newsflash! It isn't Christmas yet, and our first Christmas will be special. I just don't see why we have to share it with all these friends I don't really know."

Pepper shook her head. "I can't believe you."

"What?"

"Have you listened to anything I've said these past few weeks?"

"Of course."

She crossed her arms and gave him a look.

"Is it just me or are your looks getting more cryptic?" He gave a slight laugh. "You're going to have to help me out here, Pep. Apparently, I'm in the doghouse and don't know why."

Pepper let out a frustrated groan. "This was our Christmas. I have that conference in Milan I've been telling you about."

"Conference?"

Another glare.

"Oh, that conference," Tony answered dramatically. "I remember now."

"You're a terrible liar, Tony."

Tony sighed. "You have to work over Christmas?"

"I won't be back until Christmas day…late. It's kind of one of those one time opportunity deals. You were on board with it when I spoke to you about two weeks ago," she explained. "But you obviously didn't hear a thing I said."

"Sure I did. I just forgot."

"Whatever." As the cleaning crew finished up, she entered the bedroom.

"Where are you going?" Tony called after her.

"To get ready."

"Ready?"

"I have to leave soon," she told him.

"You leave tonight?"

"What part of 'this was our Christmas' didn't you understand?" She motioned to her suitcase, which had been packed for three days and was sitting by the bedroom door. "And didn't you wonder why this was out?"

"I didn't notice."

She shook her head. "You're impossible sometimes. Are you going to be able to survive until I get back?"

"I'm sure I'll be fine. JARVIS will keep me company, won't you, Jarv?"

"Indeed, sir," the AI replied.

After Pepper had finished changing, she turned to Tony. "Well, I do have a little while before I have to go. I thought we'd wait until I got back to exchange our presents, but do you want to open the others?"

"The others?"

"The ones the guests brought, silly."

Tony shook his head. "No, you go ahead."

But Pepper took his hand and pulled him towards the tree. "Come on; it'll be fun."

"Pep, I'm Tony Stark. What do I need presents for?"

She smiled. "Just humor me." She chose one of the largest presents and handed it to him. "Open it."

Tony hesitated.

"Go on," she urged.

He ripped off the paper and feigned surprise. "Oh, a single serve cappuccino maker. Yay."

She gave his arm a push. "Oh, stop. It's a very thoughtful and lovely gift."

"Yeah…except we already have two."

"This can be our back-up."

"Whatever."

She handed him another box.

"Why do you keep handing me the boxes?" He motioned to the envelopes in her hand. "Those look more interesting."

"Fine; we'll trade." She handed him a card and took the box off his lap.

Tony tore open the envelope and pulled out the card. Without bothering to read the message written on it, he opened it. "A donation has been made in your name to the World Wildlife Foundation? What the heck kind of gift is this?"

Pepper chuckled. "Well, you did say you're the man who has everything. Judging by this stack of envelopes, I'd say our friends know that."

"You think they're all like that?"

Pepper shrugged. "It's probably a likely possibility. But what does it matter? It's the thought that counts, right? And you said it yourself; it's not like we really need anything."

Tony shrugged.

She carefully tore of the paper. "Oh, it's a bottle of Beaujolais."

"Let me see that." Tony took the bottle from her. "2000. That was a good vintage. Too bad I don't touch the stuff. This was obviously not from any of our closest friends."

Pepper smiled. "It's from Rhodey."

"That bastard knows I won't drink it."

"Maybe he's trying to tell you something," she said gently. She turned her attention back to the presents under the tree. "There's one more." The box was wrapped with green and silver paper, a large green bow on top. Pepper looked for a card. "Funny; I can't remember who brought this one. And there's no tag on it. Do you want to do the honors?"

Tony shook his head. "No one opens that one."

"What?"

"It's from my father. He gave it to me the last Christmas he was alive. I've never opened it."

"Wait a minute. You mean you place the same present under the tree every year?"

"Yeah."

"And you never open it?"

"Yeah."

"Why not?"

He shrugged. "I have my reasons."

"Aren't you even a little curious about what's inside?"

Tony took the box from her and rolled it around in his hands. "I don't know. I never thought about it before. I just… It doesn't seem right to open it, I guess. I don't have a lot of good holiday memories with my father, and opening this gift might just be another bad holiday memory. I don't want that."

"I suppose I can understand that, but Tony…he's been gone a long time. Isn't it possible there might be some good that could come out of it?"

Tony shrugged. "I don't know."

Pepper took the present from him and placed it back under the tree. "Well, I'm certainly not going to force you. I just know if it were mine, I'd open it." She handed him the rest of the cards. "Looks like you'll have to open the rest of these by yourself."

"Oh, joy."

She smiled and gave him a kiss. "Merry Christmas, Tony."

"Merry Christmas, Pep. See you when you get back."

"I can't wait. I'll call you when I land. Goodbye."

-IMIMIMIMIMIMIMIMIMIM-

As Pepper left, Tony found himself alone. Normally, that wasn't such a bad thing. He never minded being alone, usually, but not tonight. He looked at the stack of envelopes in his lap and sighed. He really did not feel like reading, "A donation has been made in your name to (fill in the blank) over and over again." Sure, maybe some of them were gift certificates, but he knew Pepper's theory was right. They knew Tony had everything he could possibly need. He set the cards aside and entered the kitchen again.

He opened the liquor cabinet and poured himself a glass of scotch. He took a sip and walked back to the living room. He stood in front of the tree and looked at the lone present beneath it.

"My greatest creation is you."

The words of his father echoed through his mind. Tony took another sip of his drink. "Bullshit! If I was so damn important to you, why were you never around? Why did I always feel like you pushed me aside, like I was never good enough? Huh?"

Of course, he received no answer.

"Jesus, Tony," he muttered. "Get a hold of yourself." He downed the rest of the drink, set his glass down on the table, and considered getting another. Instead, he knelt down in front of the tree and looked at the unopened gift. He looked up towards the ceiling. "You're going to make me do it, aren't you?"

The words of Howard Stark echoed through his mind. "Merry Christmas, son! I love you."

Tony heaved a sigh and picked the present up. For the first time, he actually wondered what was inside. When his father had given it to him years before, he didn't care. It wasn't very heavy, and he was afraid to shake it in case it was breakable.

He held it in one hand, then the other, pondering whether or not he truly wanted to open it. Part of him knew, however, that if he didn't, Pepper was going to nag him about it when she got back.

"I should just get it over with," he muttered. He sat down on the sofa and set the present in front of him on the coffee table. He folded his hands and thought for a few more minutes.

"I hope you'll treasure this as much as I did."

"Did I ask for your input?" Tony asked. "You're getting your way, so keep quiet."

Tony then brought his hands to rest just above the present. He hesitated for a brief second before untying the bow. He then pulled off one corner of the tape. "No turning back now," he muttered as he did the same on the other side of the present. A few moments later, all the wrapping paper had been removed to reveal a plain white cardboard gift box.

Tony took a deep breath and slowly pulled off the lid. He gasped slightly when he saw what was inside. Inside was a photograph placed in a plain silver frame; the photograph was of five-year-old Tony and Howard; they were in his father's study playing with the racetrack set.

Tony was taken aback. He didn't even remember anyone taking photos that day. Upon careful examination, however, he could see it wasn't a photo they would have posed for. Neither of them was looking at the camera. He guessed his mother must have taken it. Tony examined the look on his face; it was one of joy, one of happiness.

Then his eyes moved to the face of his father and what he saw surprised him. His father looked just as happy as Tony did. Tony smiled and removed the photograph from the box. As he did so, a small white piece of paper fell out and onto the floor.

Tony picked it up and read it.

My dearest Tony, I want you to know I will always cherish this moment for the rest of my life. I only wish we could have had more moments like this. That is my biggest regret. Don't make the same mistake I did. Don't lose sight of what's truly important: the ones you love. Merry Christmas, son. I love you. I will always love you.

Tony felt a few tears sting his eyes. He took the photo, walked towards the mantle, and moved a few knick knacks around to make room. He then placed it in the center and brushed a gentle hand across his father's face. "I love you too, Dad. Merry Christmas."

A/N: A huge thank you to ReadingBlueWolf for betaing this.