"I'm sorry," Pepper said.
"Whatever for?" Charlotte asked, coming to stand next to her friend. It was late afternoon, the sun already sinking into the western sky, snow gently falling, the vista before them pristine and untouched. Behind them, only two sets of booted footprints were visible. Pepper shivered, wearing nothing but a sweater. "Here, I thought you might like your coat." Charlotte put the long down filled coat over the other woman's shoulders.
"Thanks. Maybe I thought I could be my own heater," she said bitterly, pulling the coat on. Then she answered Charlotte's question. "Sorry for pitching a fit, like I'm a five-year-old. Ruining Christmas." Looking up, she asked, "Tony send you out here?"
"He wanted to come after you, but was convinced by the guys that he needed to give you some space."
"I'm such a hypocrite!" She began to pace around in a circle, making a track in the snow. "I would get so mad, hurt, think that Tony didn't trust me, when he shut me out after Afghanistan, after New York. And now I know why he did it, but even knowing, I do the same thing to him!"
Charlotte laughed softly, and Pepper's head shot up, an accusing look in her eyes. Reaching out, she squeezed Pepper's shoulder. "Silly goose!" Now, Pepper looked even more offended, and Charlotte's laugh got louder. "I just had a nearly identical conversation with Tony, my dear Virginia—which is why I'm out here in the snow, and not Tony."
Pepper's shoulders slumped. "You must think I'm an idiot."
"Listen to me, Virginia," Charlotte said firmly. "What happened to you, what Killian did to you, you aren't going to get over in a day, or even a month. It will become part of you, but I guarantee it won't overcome who you are. Just because Tony understands, and you understand that Tony understands, and so on and so forth, doesn’t grant you some special power to wish it all away, to go back to the woman you were last week. It doesn't work that way, no matter how much we might wish it did. So no, not an idiot."
Pepper smiled crookedly. "Let me guess, you pretty much told Tony the same thing."
"Pretty much," she agreed.
"It wasn't enough that you had one messed up friend, now you have two of us."
"You're both worth it."
"It really means a lot that you've tried to create some normal for me and Tony today. Managing SHIELD, giving us a few days grace. Picking the Jackson Hole house to come to in the first place, cooking Christmas dinner, somehow making gifts for everyone appear like magic, even though you had absolutely no notice."
"I had a few hours," she contradicted.
"Sorry, a whole few hours." She rolled her eyes.
"Ez helped, and Amanda is definitely your go to girl for last minute gifting."
"You just can't accept a compliment, can you?" Pepper demanded.
"Fine, you're welcome. Better?" Pepper nodded, smiling. "But even Tony helped," Charlotte finished.
"How? Sampling the wine for dinner?"
"Peeling potatoes." She winked.
"Now that would be a Christmas miracle. Honest? You got him to peel potatoes?"
"I did! Though, I'm certain by the time we get back to the house, he'll have invented some gizmo to do it for him."
"You really are sneaky," Pepper said admiringly.
"I'm sure I have no idea what you're talking about," Charlotte protested, all innocence.
"Hah! You've made sure Tony's distracted from worrying by trying to get out of his assignment, don't deny it!"
She looked just a little smug. "Maybe I did."
"I've had lots of practice managing menfolk," she said with a laugh.
The two women fell silent, looking out into the darkening forest. Somewhere, far in the distance, a wolf howled.
"Not sure what I should do now. I don't want to go back yet," Pepper confessed.
"We should make snow angels," Charlotte declared.
Pepper looked confused. "Snow angels?"
"When I was a little girl, my father and I would walk in the snow, and we'd make snow angels. It always cheered me up, no matter how unhappy I'd been. And when Ezra was a little boy, I taught him."
"I've never made one."
"Then it's about time you did." Charlotte threw herself flat on her back on top of the snow, her arms and legs going back and forth as she created her snow angel. "Come on, what are you waiting for?" she asked, when it seemed Pepper was going to change her mind. She picked up a handful of snow and tossed it at her friend. "Snow angels or snowball fight—your choice."
"No snowballs!" Pepper followed Charlotte's lead, though she gingerly sat down in the snow instead of throwing herself down like Charlotte did. "I feel silly."
"That's the point. Being silly!"
"If you say so." Looking like it was definitely against her better judgment, Pepper laid back, halfheartedly moving her arms up and down.
"Put some enthusiasm into it," Charlotte chided. "Come on!" She was already well into creating her third.
"Okay, okay!" Doing as she was told, Pepper made an effort to create her very first snow angel. By the time she got to her second, she was giggling, and by her third, she was tossing snowballs at Charlotte, trying to slow her friend down so she could catch up.
A half hour later, breathless, faces red from the cold and exertion, the two women wrapped their arms around each other, standing in the center of a ring of snow angels.
"You know what?" Pepper asked.
"This might just be the best Christmas ever."