Author's Notes: This piece took me FOREVER to write. As several of you have pointed out, my preferred medium is tragedy, but since it's the holidays, I thought I would spare you all and really peel out on some fluff.
A thousand thank-yous to nani1986 , who gave me some spectacular feedback on the early drafts of this story. And a big shout-out to everyone at its_always_been who got all their challenges in by the deadline. You guys rock!
Written for the Holiday Challenge at its_always_been . Prompts:
Phrases: Office Party
Be warned: 10,983 words. If you need a bathroom break, you should probably take it now.
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.
“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.
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.
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.”
“What is that, peppermint? And chocolate?”
“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.
“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?”
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.”
“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.