“Don’t go home for Christmas,” Tony says.
Pepper raises her eyebrows. Her voice is calm, but Tony can see a flush creeping along her cheekbones. “Tony, we’ve talked about this. I have to go home for Christmas. It’s the only time I can see my family.”
“It’s not," Tony insists. "You can take vacations. Go see them on February twelfth. Or March eighteenth. Not on Christmas.” He has a bad feeling he's doing this all wrong. When she's sitting at her desk in the middle of the afternoon, she's really hard to negotiate with.
Pepper gives him her most severe Fortune 500 CEO stare. “And you have decided to care about Christmas why?”
“I don’t care about Christmas,” Tony says, and Pepper sighs. “I care that you care about Christmas. You want to have a nice Christmas...so don’t go home.”
“Tony…” Her voice is tired, the fearsome stare gone. He hates making her sound that way, but he's glad he's talking to his girlfriend and not the person who is, technically, his boss.
“I could go home with you. For once. You know, after four years together. I will be on my best behavior, I swear.” He perches on the corner of her desk, close to her chair.
“You can’t be on your best behavior," Pepper says, gentle but firm. "I can barely be on my best behavior.”
Tony sits up straighter. “I, Tony Stark, solemnly swear that if you take me home, I will behave. Scout’s honor.”
Pepper smiles wanly. “You were thrown out of Boy Scouts.”
“Fair...but I was a different person then.”
“You were seven.”
“Yup, definitely changed since then.”
Pepper shakes her head. “I know what will happen, Tony. You’ll get into a fight with my father. He’ll say something, you’ll say something, then he’ll stand up and you’ll stand up. And I’ll be yelling for both of you to show a little common sense and decorum, but neither of you will listen, and --”
“You really think that about me?” Tony asks. He thought he'd gotten better over the years, but maybe not. Maybe he should ask Jarvis or Bruce.
“I really think that about my father," Pepper says. "It’s what he does when he’s drunk. He knows what buttons to push, and he doesn’t back down. And yes, your buttons are easy to push.”
"Okay, that's fair," Tony says. He doesn't know much about Pepper's dad except that he drinks too much and has public intox charges on his record, and quite a few domestic disturbance calls back when Pepper's mom was still alive. Jarvis had found out that much. Pepper never said anything at all, except back in the early days when she'd asked Tony to schedule some meetings on Father's Day, and once when she had called him from Iowa and asked in a very small, quiet, un-Pepper-like voice if he could please invent an emergency so that she could come home. And his heart had clenched because Pepper could've asked a lot of people to fake an emergency, but she'd chosen him, and she'd called Stark Industries home.
Really, he should have never let her go back to Iowa after that -- but as Pepper is so fond of reminding him, he doesn't actually let her do things. She lets him stay in her life if her respects her freedom and independence, and that includes not hacking her emails to cancel tickets or buying out every seat on every flight from New York to Des Moines. So basically, if he wants her to stay here at Christmas, he's just going to have to say it more convincingly.
"Pepper, you are my girlfriend. We are in a relationship. A long-term, serious relationship that has somehow survived against all odds. And we should spend Christmas together because that's what people who love each other do." Pepper blinks, looking vaguely impressed, and Tony presses forward. "I, Tony Stark, promise that if you stay with me for Christmas, it will be the best Christmas you've ever seen. The best Christmas anyone has ever seen, a spectacle, a show to last the ages --"
He's gesticulating wildly until Pepper grabs his hands and tucks them back into his lap.
"No?" he asks.
"I was considering it before all the wild promises that you can't possibly keep," Pepper says.
"Okay." Tony takes her hands. "If you stay here for Christmas, I promise you a completely...acceptable holiday. The most acceptable holiday you've ever had. There will be...beer --"
Pepper frowns. "Champagne. I'm not cheap."
"There will be champagne," he says. "And pizza. But not the cheap kind. The kind with truffle oil and stinky cheese and housemade prosciutto."
Pepper raises an eyebrow. "And what else?"
"Orgasms?" Tony hazards. "Not the best you've ever had. Honestly, I'm not sure I can outdo that one night in Bora Bora. But definitely high quality orgasms. As many as you want."
"Anything else?" Pepper smiles, and Tony knows he's won.
"The rest is a surprise," he says. "A small, classy surprise."
He can learn small and classy, right?
“So...what are you getting Tasha for Christmas?” Tony asks.
Clint just shrugs. A man after his own heart, clearly. A man who knows that he doesn’t love his woman any less just because he can’t be bothered to think about socially mandated gift-giving occasions more than two days in advance.
“You celebrate that shit?” Clint asks.
“You don’t?” Tony asks. Apparently, Clint was not a good gift advice backup plan.
“Nah," he says. "Nat and I celebrate Festivus.”
“I...what?” Tony asks. He didn't have a quip prepared for that.
“Made-up holiday from Seinfeld?" Clint asks. "Don’t tell me you haven’t heard of it. Nat’s really into the airing of grievances.”
“That sounds...scary. Or fun. Scary fun. Can I come next time?” Tony asks. Clint just looks at him, and Tony swallows. “Or not, because most of the grievances are about me and I don’t want to die.”
Clint nods slowly, and Tony changes the subject hastily. “So you and Nat just don’t celebrate Christmas? It’s just any other day?”
“Kind of." Clint links back on the couch and puts his feet up on the coffee table. "We used to try ordering Chinese food and watching movies, but it made her twitchy. So lately we’ve been buying plane tickets to weird places so we can fuck there. I think Nat wants to go to Turkmenistan this year. We tried it once before, but President Turkmenbashi was still operating his personality cult back then, and the giant pictures of him all over the hotel room weren’t really a turn-on.”
“I...actually don’t know what to say to that,” Tony says, and Clint looks impressed.
“Do I get a medal or something? For silencing the great Tony Stark?” he asks.
“I’ll have my people get on that. But seriously, no Christmas gifts?”
“Not usually. This year I got her a knife.” Clint flicks his eyes toward the coffee table, and Tony picks up the small knife he finds there.
“Uh...Barton, I think this is a cheese knife.”
“Yup. That little mouse on the handle…” He chuckles. “So cute, man. You know what Tasha’s going to say?”
“You know, I’m pretty sure I don’t.”
“Fuck you, Barton. That’s exactly what she’s going to say.”
“You know she can still kill you with this, right?”
Clint smiles fondly. “She’d be welcome to try.”
“Your relationship is different from other relationships.”
“It sure is,” Clint says, smiling broadly now. He leans back on the couch, taking a drink from his beer bottle. “So what are you going to get Pepper?”
“I don’t know. She’s not into grand gestures, and that’s kind of my specialty.”
“So give her something from the heart,” Clint says, like it's that simple.
“My heart is questionable at best,” Tony says. "There was an incident with some shrapnel a few years back, which you might recall."
Clint raises his eyebrows. “So you’re trying to give her something from my heart, which is not like other people’s hearts. My heart is full of cheese knives and sex fantasies about Turkmenistan.”
“Right," Tony says. "In the future, I should probably choose my sources of advice more carefully.”
“That would require you to learn to interact with normal people,” Clint points out.
“A significant detriment," Tony says. "I only have one normal person in my life, and it’s Pepper.”
Clint looks at him appraisingly. “Okay, here’s an actual piece of advice: don’t fuck it up.”
Tony snorts. “Thanks for the profound insight.”
“You didn’t let me finish. I mean, don’t fuck it up because you think that you’re a fuck up or that failure’s inevitable or whatever kind of weird complex you have.”
If Tony were drunker, he’d probably get surly. Instead, he settles for mildly barbed. “Thank you for the psychoanalysis. That was sarcasm, by the way. I want psychoanalysis pretty much never.”
“Which is probably why you need it so badly,” Clint says mildly. “Look, I can see where this is going: you’re about to get her nothing because you figure you’re going to fuck up anyway, so why bother trying? I get it. I’ve been there. You think it’ll hurt less if you fuck up because you didn’t try than because you tried and failed. And yeah, maybe it hurts you less, but it’ll hurt her more. That’s how I ended up divorced and drunk off my ass in Abkhazia, about two inches from getting fired from SHIELD. And then I met Natasha and brought her home with me instead of killing her, and things worked out okay. But there’s only one Natasha, so you can’t really count on finding some assassin with a past as fucked up as yours. So don’t screw up the relationship you have.”
That’s the longest thing he’s ever heard Barton say. Remarking on that would probably sound gauche though, so all he manages is, “Huh.”
Barton puts his empty bottle on the coffee table. “Does Pepper have any family?”
“Nope,” Tony says. “They’re dead. Or assholes.”
Getting Pepper to stop going home for Christmas had been one of the great triumphs of his life, right up there with arc reactors and privately enforced peace. But yeah, now that he thinks about it, that puts a pretty large responsibility on him.
Clint obviously agrees. “Look, people like you and me and Nat...we don’t have a family, we say fuck Christmas and do something else. Pepper’s not like that. She wants the Christmas she never had, or the one she only got once when she was eight and nobody was dead or an asshole yet.”
“Right,” Tony says, staring off into space. Shit like this is exactly the kind of shit he always fucks up. His memories of family Christmas are distant and dim, but they pretty much involve his father being either absent or wasted.
“It can’t be that hard, right?" Clint says. "There’s all those movies and stuff. Think about that Charlie Brown Christmas Special shit, and make it happen. You. Not your staff.”
“Charlie Brown’s creepy,” Tony says, but the complaint is half-hearted. He knows Clint is right.
“I know, man,” Clint says. “Why is he bald?”
“I thought I locked you out of your calendar,” Tony says from the bed. Pepper is standing next to the bureau in white cotton panties and a sensible nude bra.
“What did I do with my camisole?” she mutters, digging in the drawer.
“I thought I locked you out of your calendar,” Tony says, louder. Pepper turns around to face him, and he tries not to be disappointed about the boring bra. He’d invested a lot of hours into imagining the kind of lingerie she wore, back before they were together.
“And I write the paychecks for the IT department, so they let me back in,” Pepper says, sounding only faintly exasperated.
“IT can hack me?” Tony asks. When had that happened?
“I only hired people who could hack you,” Pepper says calmly, like undermining company security is a perfectly normal hiring criterion.
“What if they’re evil?” Tony asks. Given their lives, it's a legitimate concern.
“Three of them were," Pepper says with a little shrug. "There was an incident on the eighteenth floor on Hydra day, remember?”
“Right. They weren’t expecting the Extremis. That was very sexy by the way.” He grabs Pepper by the hips and pulls her over toward him. She bats his hands away.
“If I picked out a sexy bra for you, would you wear it?” he asks.
She rolls her eyes. “Red bras don’t go under white button-downs.”
“I thought that was what the little shirt thing was for,” he says, gesturing at the strappy thing dangling from Pepper’s hands. Camisole, that’s what she’d called it.
“You can pick out my underwear,” she says, leaning over to kiss his forehead. “I’m sorry about today. The Bangkok account can’t wait. I’ll try to be done in time for dinner.”
“You’re hiding from Christmas,” Tony accuses.
“Maybe,” Pepper admits. Her smile is crooked. “But we agreed not to call each other out on our bullshit before eight o’clock in the morning. And it’ll give you time to go shopping.”
After the third attempt, he's got scratches all over his hand and pine needles in places they don't belong, and he looks up and finds Clint on the couch recording with a cell phone. An iPhone to be exact, which is just insulting.
"Iron Man versus Christmas tree," he says. "How long do you think it will take to go viral?"
At least the tree is straight this time. He and Clint stand back and study it like it's an alien creature.
"Do you think it's good?" Tony asks, and Clint shrugs.
"It's a tree. In your living room. Last I checked, that's what it was supposed to be," Clint says.
"It's fine," says a voice from the doorway. Tony turns to find Natasha lounging against the wall, studying the tree with a critical eye.
"Do you live here?" he asks. She's around a lot, but nobody's ever caught her on a security camera.
Natasha cocks an eyebrow. "Wouldn't you like to know?" She strides forward and studies the tree. "It'll look good with some ornaments and lights. I got some off a Costco truck for you. One of your minions is bringing them up now."
Tony tries to process that. "Did you steal a bunch of Christmas ornaments for me?" he asks.
"No," Natasha says implacably. "I stole them for Pepper. I don't even like you."
"I generally try not to steal things," Tony says. "It's bad PR. And also wrong." He pulls a wad of bills out of his wallet and hands them to Natasha. "Maybe you could pay for these?"
"Two hundred and eighty four dollars?" Natash asks, eyebrows raised. "That's a little steep." She frowns and tucks a few twenties into her wallet -- for the driver, Tony presumes -- and slides one of the hundreds into her bra. The rest she gives back to Tony.
Tony reaches for a box of lights -- he has some really innovative ideas about timers and dimmer switches -- but Natasha shakes her head.
"Let me do this," she says, seizing the box of lights from Tony's hands. "I'm good at normal. You're good at electrical fires. Besides, you still need to go shopping."
And then he goes home to wait. Without even pouring himself a drink. Because drinking at three o'clock in the afternoon while alone is bad, and also Pepper has made it clear she considers it a deal breaker.
He sends some texts. Clint says they're about to get on a plane to Turkmenistan, wherever that is. Tony should look at a map. Natasha texts him to say I'm texting you from an iPhone. She includes a helpful emoticon of a smiling turd. Bruce, at least, has a StarkPhone, like a proper human being. His first twelve texts say stop sending me pictures of dicks wearing Santa hats. The thirteenth says don't send me pictures of dicks wearing other things, and the fourteenth says actually, no pictures of body parts at all, find a different way to say Merry Christmas. The fifteenth, which arrives before Tony has finished formulating his reply says, if you're bored, here is an interesting math problem. Luckily, the math problem actually is interesting, and that's what Tony's working on when Pepper comes in at seven.
Her high heels are dangling from her hand, and a few loose curls have escaped her bun. Her shirt is unbuttoned low enough for Tony to see the top of her camisole, and her eyeliner is ever so slightly smudged. He never, ever saw her like this before they were dating, and it's his favorite way to see her. Well, second favorite. First favorite is naked. It's hard to top that.
He strolls toward her with a glass of champagne in his hand.
"You'll notice the absence of overly large stuffed animals," he says to cover up the fact that he's nervous. Because yes, doing normal human things definitely still makes him nervous.
Pepper smiles and takes the champagne. "No scorch marks on the wall either, and an only slightly unreasonable number of packages. Impressive."
He looks at Pepper out of the corner of his eye. The glow of the Christmas lights looks good on her skin, and she looks happy. Not elated or amazed or overjoyed, which is the reaction he used to think he needed to get from her all the time, but happy.
"So did I do this right?" he asks. "Is it the most adequate Christmas ever?"
Pepper turns to face him. She rests her forehead against his and traces her thumb down down his cheekbone. A lot women -- an actually uncountable number of women -- have touched him in a lot of ways, but Pepper is the only one who's ever touched him like that, and it still makes a weird flipping sensation in his stomach every time she does.
"I think this is actually the most anyone has ever done for me on Christmas," she says, and there's a little catch in her voice.
"Well, then, I guess I must have overshot. I was going for acceptable, as per our agreement," he says and swallows hard. Emotion, still not his strong suit (or Pepper's really, although they both pretend it's just him. His issues are much more dramatic, after all.) "You might have to instruct me on the adequate orgasms," he says. "Because that's going to be a challenge. Shoud I just touch your clit? Or not touch your clit? Or all hands and no tongue?"
But Pepper is already looking at him intently and pushing him backward toward the couch. He falls down onto the cushions, and Pepper slides smoothly into his lap.
"I think you should do exactly as I say," she says, and Tony nods. That's one request he's happy to comply with.