29.12.2007 / Pepper

Of course, Tony has to call Pepper when she has her few precious days off for Christmas.

As soon as she sees the number on the screen of her phone, she goes up to her old room and closes the door, knowing that this is very likely to end in a shouting match and her family definitely doesn't need such a questionable pleasure.

When she says hello to the phone in her hand, she is half-expecting a call from prison or some remote location where Tony got lost, or maybe a drunken brag or a set of complains about how stupid insert name is. She certainly doesn't expect Tony to speak quietly, sounding tired, unsure, but with a certain powerful note.

'How do you make the best tomato soup?' he asks simply and Pepper blinks, dumbfounded.


'How do you make the best tomato soup?' Tony repeats in the same calm voice and then Pepper knows something is very wrong.

'Oh god, it's Christmas, what have you got yourself into this time?!' she exclaims, running her hand through her hair unconsciously, messing up the carefully crafted hairstyle.

'I just need to make tomato soup because I can't call caterers and I know that you can answer my question and I promise I will behave and no gossip rag appearance for a month? No PR disasters for a month, come one, just in exchange for one simple –'

'Don't try to sweet-talk me,' Pepper cuts in angrily. Everyone is waiting for her downstairs and she gets to see them once a year and he calls to ask for a recipe? That's a whole new level of absurd.

'Please,' Tony adds, his voice cracking a bit over the connection. 'I will explain everything when you are back.'

This is a bad decision, Pepper tells herself, nothing good has ever come from such promise. But she sits on the edge of her bed, playing with her ponytail and ruining her hair further and instructs him in Tony-language on making tomato soup.

'You are an angel,' he tells her before hanging up; that is out of character, and she doesn't even get to say bye. Or shout at him.

She tries not to wonder what the whole call was about, but she can't stop thinking for the next three days. By the end of the family reunion, like every year, she decides that the time spent with relatives is precious and necessary, but full six days of doing nothing, being called Ginny and listening to embarrassing stories from her childhood and comments about how she is wasting her carrier opportunities being Stark's PA is a bit too much.

On December 29th she is back in Malibu. There are a few things that she still needs to take care of very soon. One of them, according to a message on her phone, is now to cancel Tony's reservation for Barcelona for the New Year's eve. It is last minute, but not something that he hasn't done before – just why, Pepper really wants to know why.

The answer becomes pretty obvious as she finally enters the room where Tony is – one of the guest rooms, JARVIS informed her – and there is a small kid sitting on the floor, a scrawny dark-haired boy that can't be older than six; he seems to be playing with the action figure that he has in his hand, but Pepper can't quite figure what exactly he is doing.

And Tony, when she stops in the door, he gets up from the floor where he was sitting next to the boy. He's clean shaven but has dark bags under eyes; Pepper can tell that he is exhausted, but at the same time he looks genuinely happy, and that doesn't happen so often, she is the one who knows best.

'This is Evelyn,' Tony says simply, standing next to her and following her gaze.

'Ohmygod,' Pepper breathes, blinking, suddenly realizing that it's really happening; it's rather hard to believe in what she's seeing. 'I knew this was going to happen one day, I just knew it – that's why you called me? You need to feed –'

'My son.'

'– your son? Your son? Ah,' Pepper takes a few deep breaths, trying not to panic. Tony makes this I am sorry I wanted good this time I promise face that he's learned works best on her. That is very, very mean, she decides.

The kid doesn't seem to acknowledge their presence at all, focusing all his attention on the set of action figures that he has in front of him. He doesn't seem to play, now that she's been observing him for a longer moment, he just moves them from one place to another methodically, hands moving quicker and quicker, shoulders tensing; Pepper has just spent enough time with all her young cousins to recognize that there's going to be a tantrum soon –

'Easy there. Try heptagon now,' Tony calls from her right, and the boy seems to relax a tiniest bit and starts to reconfigure the toys yet again. In a few moments, the figures are standing in lines, creating a neat figure.

Then he tears the setup down and jerks his head, as if nodding abruptly, before starting to set the toys again.

Pepper looks away from the boy – Evelyn, she reminds herself, but the word sounds strange on her tongue – to stare at Tony. He's observing the boy intently, biting his lip, hands resting on hips. He doesn't look like himself much at the moment: no goatee, no designer sunglasses, no flashy fitted suit, not even a motor oil-stained t-shirt. So, no billionaire or mad genius appearance. He looks just… ordinary.

'How?...' she manages to utter, still trying to wrap her mind around the fact that there is a real child sitting in front of her and well, it's not crying or anything, she wouldn't have expected the man she's known for years to do as much as feed and bath someone else, since he forgets about to do that himself –

'His mother died a month ago,' Tony tells her in a quiet voice. The boy keeps repeating his game without as much as turning around. 'Annis – we broke up a few months before I hired you. We've been together for like a year? My longest relationship so far,' he chuckles humorlessly. 'Evelyn was born half a year after we split up. I've known about him from the beginning. I helped them with money and everything… Yeah. She was bringing him up. Then – she died in a car accident. Stupid death. He's been staying with his grandmother for a month, but she couldn't handle him.'

Pepper frowns at the choice of Tony's words, but he doesn't seem to notice.

'I went to take him on Christmas Eve.'

'Oh. So Olivia didn't come by?'

Tony actually laughs at that wholeheartedly.

'No, I don't think she will be around anytime soon…'

'Is it the first time you've met – him?' Pepper asks reluctantly, wondering if it's something he should inquire about – but then, Tony lives his life on front pages of newspapers, so he doesn't exactly think of privacy the same way other people do.

'No, no, he knows me. Not well enough, but that must do for now. Would be much, much worse if he didn't… I know, now you're going to ask me why didn't you know and I can't really give you much more than saying that I didn't want anyone to know. I've been seeing him once in two, three months and Annis was happy with that.'

Pepper nods and looks back at the boy. He still hasn't moved at all, hands still choosing the toys and putting them from one place to another, forming a different deliberately-looking structure each time. She opens her mouth to ask, but before she can form a question, Tony speaks up.

'I – Evelyn is autistic. But he's doing pretty well, considered. We found games we both like.'

Autism, autistic, Pepper makes a quick mental search, but besides a few random information she's heard here and there she doesn't know anything about the condition. It's just – a big problem, isn't it? She's quite sure of that, and Tony…

'We've known for three years now. Annis was taking a good care of him. He's been getting better, I will spare you the details now. Later. Sometime a lot later. We still need to do a lot today.'

'We,' Pepper repeats. It's strange to hear that word from Tony's mouth when it doesn't mean him and his girl-for-the-day or his supposed love of his live. And even then it is rare – how did he suddenly became remotely responsible? 'Are you going to… keep him?'

'What else do you think I could do?' Tony snaps, but then gives her an apologetic smile. 'Sorry. I know what you're thinking – no, I really know. I might not behave like that, but I do know myself. And I'm not letting someone lock him up somewhere, or some random people take care of him. That's just – just no.'

'So, he is staying,' Pepper summarizes, trying to process what has been happening for the last couple of minutes. She has expected all kinds of strange and unexpected things from Tony but something like this. A child. A boy. A son. 'Well, you will need –'

'JARVIS took care of everything,' Tony informs her. 'I should have everything we might need just after New Year. Right now, we're managing without all the fancy stuff. He has some toys back from his house.'

Just then, the boy throws the last figurine into the others, making them falls, and backs away abruptly. Tony moves quickly and moment later he's by the boys side, whispering something into his ear. Evelyn doesn't give any indication of listening, but he doesn't move any further. Tony doesn't touch the boy, but stays close, talking for a few more moments, then after a brief pause and another nod from the boy, squeezes his arm lightly, removing his hand quickly. Doesn't like physical contact, note, Pepper orders herself silently, and suddenly she is feeling very scared, well, terrified, because she's never been good with children and she doesn't know how to approach a – regular kid, is she allowed to say that? Not to mention a one with a developmental disability –

Tony does seem strangely at ease though, even if Pepper can tell that he really needs a good eight hours of sleep, not like something so prosaic ever bothered him.

Finally, the boy turns around slowly and Pepper can see how he really looks: he's definitely Tony's, that's rather striking; he has the same eyes and the same cheekbones and lips. His face is still and guarded and he doesn't look anywhere near Pepper's face, but he does wave in her direction before turning back to Tony, who whispers something more and gets up. Evelyn takes the figure he threw and puts it back in series.

'… you seem good with him,' Pepper states finally, still having trouble believing completely that she's just said that and that it is very true.

'Gotta. No one else is going to be,' Tony replies easily, almost managing not to sound grave.

Pepper decides to turn in early. She will have a lot of homework to do in the morning; they all will have so much to learn.

A/N: I don't have any personal experience with autism and all I know about it is information from several psychology/psychiatry books and internet communities for autistic people and parents with autistic kids. Please note that some unpleasant comments are due to ignorance or lack of knowledge of certain characters and are not my opinions or universal truths. I hope you find this story believable and enjoy it anyway. & I looove feedback :)