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The Way the Cookie Crumbles

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The second week of August, Pepper Potts thought she’d be beating the rush of other teachers to tidy up their rooms and get ready for the new school year. Mostly, though, she wanted to avoid Tony Stark – the bane of her existence since their junior year of high school.

As Pepper opened the faculty entrance with her key, she was greeted with loud classic rock music blaring through the school’s PA system. Her hope of avoiding Stark shriveled into a withered acceptance.

He always seemed to find her with his ‘Ms. Potts – what did you do this summer?’ Pepper wondered if this year he’d be tan again like the summer he’d volunteered to count sea turtles with the biology teacher, Helen Cho. Or maybe he’d be pale again – like the year he’d published his first book: Naked Physics – A Stark Introduction to An-Atomy Subject. The PTA had gotten upset with that, but after he’d read from it for half an hour, the PTA ladies (they were almost all women) had grudgingly accepted that the book was in fact, about physics and not at all scandalous.

Pepper tugged her milk crate with wheels full of books, die-cut paper shapes, and new READ posters toward her classroom. She managed to make it to her classroom without incident and opened the door to find Mr. Stark with boxes of her books open and partially unpacked and the posters she’d saved – some of them for years – strewn all over her desk.

“Get out, Mr. Stark,” Pepper’s voice sounded steelier than she felt, that’s for sure.

Stark’s eyes widened so much that she would have found it funny under almost any other circumstances, but catching him in the middle of pranking her did not leave her predisposed toward humor. “Um… Ms. Potts… I was just… They painted your room over the summer. I was just… I wanted…. I thought you were still in Key West,” Stark stammered lamely.

“I came back Monday.” Pepper glanced around the room in something close to despair. She’d been looking forward to today – the fresh coat of paint, opening each box of books that she’d packed at the end of last school year, and unpacking the new posters and books that had arrived while she’d been out of town.

“Summer romance gone bad?” Stark asked and waggled his eyebrows.

“No. My aunt died. I went to Florida for the funeral.” Pepper let her words sink in and wished she could feel the smallest amount of satisfaction as she watched the color drain from his face.

“I… didn’t know… I’m very sorry –” he stammered, and Pepper remembered the day their junior year when the list of soloists for the Christmas concert had been posted and Tony Stark had been chosen over her. He hadn’t even liked choir – always making snide comments to himself about ‘joiners’ and ‘followers’ as being people who lacked the creativity or drive to do things on their own – and he’d been chosen, and she hadn’t. Stark had sounded the same then.

Pepper held the door open. She would not cry. She hadn’t then and wouldn’t now either. “Please leave Mr. Stark. I think you’ve done enough.”

 

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Tony felt like all the air had been sucked out of his lungs. He’d thought of this plan last weekend – he’d unpack Pepper’s books and surprise her when she came back from vacation – all the heavy lifting in her room would be done. Maria Hill, the school secretary had told him Pepper was in Key West, so he’d thought he’d had more time.

Pepper worked hard and deserved a nice vacation. She’d trounced him at the end of the school year Walk-a-thon, raising more than double the funds that he had for their new school library. The year he’d donated the profits from his book to the school to purchase updated science equipment for all the science classrooms, Pepper had run an extremely successful ‘Tea with Austen’ event where people had dressed up as characters from the books, done readings, and had a high tea to raise money for new reading copies of English department staples. She’d ended up raising more money then, too.

Pepper Potts was good at everything and everyone genuinely liked her. Tony, on the other hand, could count his friends on one hand. Definitely Rhodey. Helen Cho, well sort of… they were work friends. Did the baristas at Deja Brew count? Wanda and Pietro were nice enough, he supposed. He brought them something every year at Christmas from the school’s annual holiday bake sale, so maybe they did count as friends.

Tony Stark slowly walked back toward his classroom to grab his bag. He’d finished with his room prep a couple hours ago. ‘Maybe this school year will be different,’ he’d thought that morning. Fat fucking chance of that now, Stark.

Sitting down at his desk, Tony propped his elbows on the desk and rubbed his forehead lightly with his fingertips. Why was he even here? He’d had another good offer from another college acquaintance with a start-up asking him to be a partner. This past weekend, everything had seemed so clear. He’d do something nice for Ms. Potts and start the year out right… then by December, he’d be able to ask her to the Natural History Museum’s Snow Ball (the weakest of seasonal gala puns, but generally an enjoyable event), Pepper would finally call him ‘Tony,’ and they’d ride off into the sunset… or something. The part between now and December had been the hazy part of his plan… but really it had only been twelve percent of a plan at best. Shit. Well, maybe next year.

 

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“Hello, people! As you can see, I am not Ms. Potts – but I understand you all still have assignments to turn in today, so let’s have ‘em. No excuses – you’ve got Thanksgiving break to recharge,” Tony announced to Ms. Potts’s AP English class. The flu had hit particularly hard this November, and appropriate substitutes were spread thin, so the office had to make-due with him and hope that Ms. Potts would be back to full health soon.

“No, Mr. Keener – your excuse that your homework is complete at some other point in time and that time is subjective, while creative, did not work first period and will not work now.” For all that some teachers complained about his teaching style, Tony expected a lot from his students. After much grumbling, all the papers that were available were in Ms. Potts’s tray.

“I see you all eyeballing the TV up here. Yes, we will be watching a movie this week while Ms. Potts recuperates,” Tony paused, and a happy ripple of chatter spread through the students. “However, I expect intelligent conversation on…” he glanced at the lesson plan and groaned inwardly. “Little Women. Does anyone have something they want to say?”

After an uncomfortable silence, Shuri raised her hand. “I don’t like the professor.”

That spurred the conversation all right. “Are you kidding? It was so romantic!”

“No way, he was an old creeper!”

“I don’t like that he patronized her!” (This was Shuri again).

Here Tony thought maybe he should intervene, because it looked like the Laurie fans were going to rally and start contributing to the conversation. He’d never actually read Little Women. But he’d seen both the Katherine Hepburn and Winona Ryder versions more times than he could count since it was his mother’s favorite Christmas film. Personally, he loathed Laurie and all his good-looking charm and smooth words.

“Okay – now that’s interesting – do you think Professor Baer was patronizing Jo or was he the only man in the –” he almost said ‘movie,’ “Book who wasn’t humoring her literary pursuits.” Grumbles from the classroom.

He continued, “Look – I’m not saying they were a great couple or anything. Let’s leave romance aside and just look at their conversations.” Tony was pleased that he remembered not to give his own opinion here and felt even more pleased when the discussion continued for another twenty minutes at which point he had to start the movie if they expected to be able to see the whole thing before the end of the day Wednesday.

Chapter Text

Thursday, Thanksgiving morning, Tony slept in. He’d made up the plans he’d mentioned to Jim Rhodes, his best friend from college, who he’d dragged along into teaching. Rhodey taught math and coached both the track and field and the cross-country teams. Rhodey was also taking Helen Cho, his girlfriend, to meet Mama Rhodes and had asked Tony along too. Tony had gone last year and the year before… and maybe the year before that too, but just didn’t feel up to borrowing someone else’s family this year, pretending like he belonged there.

He rolled out of bed, got dressed, and went out to rake leaves in his yard. The big oak had hung onto its leaves until the last possible gasp of autumn. It had rained a couple days ago, so now all the leaves were wet, and Tony hated raking wet leaves even more than raking dry leaves. At least the coffee’s good, he thought to himself as he took another sip from his travel mug and got to work.

After raking for an hour, Tony was feeling satisfied that at least you could tell he’d been doing yard work. Walking back toward his garage, he slipped on a patch of wet leaves on his driveway. He might as well as have been walking on ice the way Tony’s feet slid out from under him.

“Oh my god! Tony! Are you okay?!”

Tony was fairly sure none of his neighbors were awake – aside from a few people letting their dogs out. He really hoped it wasn’t Barbara from across the street. She kept trying to seduce him with healthy lasagna made with kale and ground turkey. Frankly, a cheese-less lasagna was not a ticket inside his pants, not that he said so, of course.

When he opened his eyes, Pepper Potts was crouching by his side, sweaty and wearing running clothes. “Tony! Are you all right? Should I call someone?” Pepper sounded… worried?

“Pepper? What are you doing here? You have the flu!” Tony sat up quickly and his head ached a little bit, but cleared quickly enough.

“…I lied. I just wanted a break,” Pepper admitted, then she said, “Hold still.” She studied his face and looked into his eyes, probably trying to figure out if he had a concussion or not.

“You lied?” Tony couldn’t hide the astonishment in his voice and Pepper flinched. Tony rushed to fill the silence, “I… uh… I lied too. I said I was driving down to the Carolinas to get some sun this weekend.”

“I thought you liked Jim’s family and that’s why you spend holidays with them,” Pepper said. Tony couldn’t tell if she was criticizing his decision not to go this time or not.

“I thought you liked teaching, Pepper,” he snapped.

Pepper looked hurt, “I do! I just –”

Tony nodded, “That’s why I lied about the beach.”

“Oh.” Pepper was still crouching next to him. This was the most civil conversation they’d ever had when they weren’t in a faculty meeting or something.

“I think this kinda puts me off my streak of productivity… you want to come in? Have a cup of coffee or something? A reward for being a good Samaritan? Or just ‘cause it’s cold this morning?” Tony asked, hoping he didn’t sound like he was trying too hard to cling to this chance encounter.

Pepper stood up, “I really shouldn’t. I’ve got things to do at home.”

Tony pulled himself to his feet. For the most part, it was his pride that hurt – and his butt. He looked down and tried as best he could to hide his disappointment. “Right. Of course. Well, thanks for making sure I wasn’t dead. Appreciate it. See you Monday.” He walked as briskly as his bruised bottom would carry him, spine straight, shoulders straight, and head held high.

 

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Pepper watched Tony hurrying away. She hadn’t meant to sound like she was avoiding him. She’d just never really looked at Tony Stark before. Maybe it was looking into those deep coffee-colored eyes or maybe it was the leaves caught in his hair, but Pepper wondered why she’d never noticed how attractive Tony really was. If she just got away from there, Pepper could just forget about it and go back to plotting how she could T.P. his house without getting caught.

“Tony – I’m sorry!” she called after him.

He turned part of the way and waved, “I’m fine. Go home, Ms. Potts. Have a good weekend.” Tony walked into his house and was gone.

Pepper spent the rest of Thanksgiving weekend rehashing their conversation – all the things she could’ve said, Tony’s tone of voice and how his words turned choppy and terse when she’d given such a lame excuse for not accepting his invitation. What she wondered most about, though, was why it all bothered her so much to begin with and why it stung when he called her Ms. Potts now, when it hadn’t before.

Monday at school, everyone gathered in the assembly hall for the Winter Carnival announcements. Every year, the teachers had a friendly competition over who could raise the most money for the PTA during the annual Winter Carnival.

After the art and music teachers talked about their up-coming programs, Principal Coulson stepped up to the microphone, “And last, but not least, I’m really excited to announce that we will be hosting a cookie competition!”

Pepper’s heart beat faster – cookies? Oh… oh no… Maybe it was a decorating contest? Or how fast you could assemble a gingerbread house kit…?

Coulson was still talking, though, in his deadpan tone of voice, “I agree – very exciting. You’ll also be excited to know that we’ll have one of Midtown High’s most famous alumni judging this year’s competition. Nick Fury of the Disco Danish Bakery.”

Stepping aside, Principal Coulson gestured to one of them most famous pastry chefs in the city. “Good morning Midtown High. I know some of you may not have heard of my bakery.” Some giggles rippled through the teenagers in the auditorium. Fury whacked the podium, “That is not my problem – sucks to be you.”

Pepper stared. She’d heard the guy had an eyepatch, but she hadn’t actually believed it. The idea of a pirate pastry chef made her want to giggle because her brain wasn’t quite sure what else to do with the information. She managed to keep her composure by biting the end of her pen.

“Teachers…” Chef Fury scanned the audience, seemingly able to pick out the faculty with uncanny accuracy in spite of the stage lights in the darkened auditorium. “I want us all to be on the same page. I will not tolerate stale, overbaked, cardboard-tasting, flavorless ‘marshmallow fluff.’” The man might as well have said bullshit – everyone knew what he meant.

Fury shook his head, already annoyed with the faculty, “There will be no repackaging store-bought cookies as your own! If you’d call it cheating on an assignment, I. Will. Not. Accept. It.” He looked around the room, glaring at the teachers, “Stay. The. Fuzz. At home.”

In the row ahead of her, she heard Tony whisper to his friend Jim Rhodes, one of the advanced math teachers, “Did… he just say, ‘stay the fuzz at home?’”

Rhodes nodded seriously, “Mm-hm. Yes, he did, Tones. Yes, he did.”

The urge to giggle bubbled up again and Pepper had to feign a coughing fit and excuse herself for a drink of water, walking on her tiptoes to avoid the click of her heels on the tile. In the hallway, she jogged toward the water fountain before letting go and laughing to herself at Tony’s incredulous ‘stay the fuzz?’

By the time the assembly broke up, Pepper was standing, pink-cheeked and damp-eyed from laughing so hard and trying to keep it quiet enough that her fits of giggles wouldn’t echo down the hallway.

Miss Romanov, the French teacher, asked if she was all right after such a long coughing fit. Just at that moment, Tony walked past toward the science rooms with Rhodes. Catching that last bit of conversation as they walked past, Tony stopped, “Maybe you came back too soon, Ms. Potts? Maybe you’ll take another day?” Tony’s face was totally neutral, a mask so shuttered that Pepper couldn’t tell if he was being sarcastic or not.

“I thought you might be a little more tan, after spending the whole break at the beach, Mr. Stark,” she replied, sounding snippier than she meant to.

“Sunscreen, Potts. Some of us wear it,” Tony shot back.

A that moment, Principal Coulson stepped out of nowhere and clasped his hands behind his back and smiled beneficently. That benign expression of goodwill he had when he was about to dole out a particularly unpleasant punishment to extremely annoying students. “Hello Ms. Potts, Mr. Stark. I was just agreeing with Chef Fury how much more interesting our competition would be if the participants in this year’s competition were teams of two. I appreciate you both volunteering to be our first team. It’ll be a holiday inspiration for us all as you learn to put aside your differences and work together.”

Tony stared as Coulson spoke, his face turning red as disbelief turned into comprehension. Rhodes and Romanov hurried away, unwilling to be randomly assigned their Cookie Competition partner.

“I – But…” Pepper sighed with resignation, “Anything for the PTA, Phil.” Pepper said, pleased that she didn’t physically slump in disappointment.

“That’s the spirit.” Coulson turned toward Tony, looking expectant.

“Fine. Fine. If she’s in, then so am I. Go Atoms,” Tony replied sullenly. The Atom was the school’s mascot. It was an angry personified atom that looked ready to wreak nuclear havoc on the school’s opponents on the field. Pepper hated it, but Tony didn’t sound that excited either.

Principal Coulson smiled, “Excellent. Looking forward to great things from the two of you as usual.” Then walked away toward his office.

After a brief pause, Tony scowled and grumbled, “Well, that happened. Fan-fu -”

“Fuzzing-tastic?” Pepper teased, her lips pressed firmly into a smile as her giggles threatened to start up again.

Tony half-choked and half-snorted a laugh and replied, eyes twinkling, “Yeah… this is a big load of marshmallow fluff if you ask me.” He smiled then, his whole face lighting up, and any lingering self-defensiveness Pepper felt melted away.

Pepper couldn’t help herself and chirped as the built-up giggles escaped. She also noticed the way Tony’s face softened as she laughed. Her laughter faded though, when she came to a realization – her bakery seconds, the almond horns that didn’t look quite nice enough to sell, would probably not escape Chef Fury’s notice. “Tony, I can’t bake.”

 

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Tony blinked, incredulous, “You can’t bake? What about those… U-shaped almond things you bring to the cookie exchange every year?”

Pepper shrugged, ashamed, “Bakery seconds… There’s your jam thumbprint cookies though – those are delicious. I love them with the raspberry and apricot jam.” Pepper sighed in pleasure, remembering the buttery crumbly cookie with the walnuts and tang of the jam.

Shoving his hands into his pockets, Tony mumbled, “Bakery seconds… I can’t bake either.”

“But it’s science – you should be great at it!” Pepper said, just as shocked as Tony had been at her revelation.

“Should be, maybe, but something always goes wrong…. I can cook other things and they turn out fine. Baked pasta, chicken – I even did a pork loin once and it came out all right…. But baked goods? The oven hates me. I can barely warm up dinner rolls,” he admitted miserably.

As they walked back toward their classrooms, Pepper considered, “Well, there’s twenty days – no nineteen – days before the Winter Carnival. We should be able to come up with something by then, right?”

Tony thought hard about it and glanced at her, admiring the determination and hope he saw there and stopped himself from tucking a strand of hair behind her ear that had fallen out of her ponytail. “Eighteen. You’re counting the day of the Carnival itself.”

Pepper’s lips pressed together, “Sh-”

“Think the word you’re looking for is ‘sugar’, Ms. Potts,” Tony said, smiling again. “I agree wholeheartedly… but I think we can do this. Two batches a day on weeknights, three or four on weekend days – we should be able to come up with something at least edible.”

Counting on her fingers and lips moving, Pepper looked at Tony, concerned. “Most batches make somewhere between two and four dozen cookies, Tony. If we average 36 per batch, that’s almost 1,600 cookies.”

“But how many of those are gonna be edible, Pep?” Tony asked, forehead creasing with concern, too focused on the tragedy of that many inedible cookies that he didn’t realize how familiar they were getting to be.

“Mmm…” Pepper agreed. “After school, we can meet to strategize.”

Chapter Text

Tony rested his head on the cookbook, his eyes drifting closed. They’d been hard at work in Pepper’s kitchen tonight since his was still a disaster from the last four nights of baking misery. Monday through Thursday night’s cookies had not turned out well.

“Tony! Stop ignoring me!” Pepper sounded annoyed again, which wasn’t a surprise since they’d both been getting less sleep the past few days and after four full nights, not counting this evening, they didn’t have anything remotely close to edible. Two burned batches, two that crumbled if you looked at them funny, and one that spread into a giant cookie puddle on the sheet. Those were the most memorable disasters.

“Huh? Oh, sorry,” Tony yawned. “What was I supposed to look up again?”

Pepper sighed, exasperated. “I let this batch cool on the sheet like the commenter said to in the ‘why are my cookies too crumbly’ thread and now I can’t get them off.” She tried scraping them off the sheet again to salvage the cookie sheet at least and started to cry in frustration.

Tony rubbed his eyes and put the tray in the sink and ran some water over them to loosen them up. “C’mon – we can let the tray soak and try again tomorrow. I’m tired, you’re tired…” He reached out to her, not sure if a hug would be welcome or not.

After hesitating a moment, Pepper stepped into Tony’s arms and rested her head on his shoulder and cried, hiccupping from trying to restrain her tears. “I- I just don’t know what to do – and you’re relying on me and what are we going to do Tony?” She looked up at him and Tony’s heart splintered.

“Well, I’ll tell you what we’re not going to do. We’re not going to get so worked up about this that it reduces either or both of us to tears. I don’t care about winning if it’s gonna make you this miserable, Pep,” Tony said frowning. “Let’s order some pizza and watch TV. We’re missing all the Christmas specials. If we burn out in the first week, we’ll never get something edible out of this.”

Pepper searched his face, as if trying to figure out if he meant what he said or not, then nodded slowly. She swallowed a few times and wiped her eyes with her fingertips. “That,” she sniffed again, “That sounds nice. Can we do that instead of this?” Pepper gestured to the mess of flour, dough, cookie sheets, and cooling racks, “Just for tonight?”

“Absolutely, yes. You go get comfortable and I’ll take care of everything. What do you like on your pizza?” Tony asked, letting her go and turning gently toward Pepper’s living room.

“Green peppers, olives, and pepperoni,” she replied automatically, as if she’d placed this order more than once.

“I can work with that. Okay, I’ll go pick it up, that’s faster than delivery and I’ll be back in thirty minutes or less,” Tony said, smiling.

“Or my money back?” A tentative smile hovered on Pepper’s lips.

“Money-back guarantee is in full effect,” Tony grinned. “Time me.”

 

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Twenty-nine minutes later, Pepper found herself worried about whether Tony was coming back or not. Wait – didn’t dinner and a movie constitute a date? Did Tony change his mind? Was this a date? She had changed into flour-free clothes – a pair of wide-legged yoga pants and fleecy sweatshirt. Was this okay for a first date? What if this wasn’t a date and she was over-thinking? Maybe he’d slipped again – the sidewalks had been slippery lately.

Just as she’d made up her mind to call, Pepper heard knocking on her door and found Tony juggling a pizza and a paper bag that looked heavy. He’d also changed from his school clothes into well-worn jeans, a band t-shirt that had seen better days, and zip-up hoodie that poked out from under a puffy winter coat.

Tony smiled, “Sorry, I think I’m late – but I brought a bottle of wine and some dessert too – if you want it.”

Pepper smiled and felt her whole body relax, “I guess that makes up for being two minutes late.”

“Did you think about what you want to watch – or are we just gonna wing it?” Tony asked as he took off his shoes and handed Pepper the pizza so he could brush the snow out of his hair. It didn’t really work, so Tony was left with slightly damp hair that stuck up in places.

Pepper carried the pizza to the coffee table and went to find some wine glasses while Tony set the bag with the wine and dessert on a chair (the counters were still full of cookie baking detritus) to finish taking off his coat.

A few minutes later, they each had a very generous glass of wine, their own blankets to snuggle under, and a plate of pizza.

“Okay, I never want to see Love Actually again. It just annoys the hell out of me,” Tony complained.

“Well, what about It’s a Wonderful Life?” Pepper asked, then taking a larger than ladylike sip of wine.

Tony shook his head, “Makes me cry and I don’t do that on the first –” He blushed. “Not that this is – ”

Pepper saved him with a smile, “While you were out, I was wondering the same thing, actually.”

“Really?” Tony’s eyes widened with pleased surprise. “I mean... that wouldn’t be so bad, would it?”

“Seems like it’s going all right so far, but maybe we should stay away from Jimmy Stewart,” she said, eyes sparkling.

“Please, can we watch Santa Claus Conquers the Martians?” Tony asked hopefully.

The Nine Lives of Christmas is on…” Pepper countered.

Elf.” Tony suggested, raising an eyebrow.

Pepper thought for a moment before answering, “What about Home Alone? The first one.”

Tony considered, “I could watch Home Alone. More wine?”

“Mmm,” Pepper agreed, and he poured while she started the movie and they both hunkered down into the couch.

 

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Tony fell asleep on Pepper’s couch and she hadn’t had the heart to wake him. After breakfast Saturday morning, they cleaned up the mess they’d made baking the night before. When they finished that, Pepper leaned against her kitchen island, “I don’t really want to face baking right now…” her voice trailed off, defeated.

“Honestly, neither do I,” Tony admitted, curling his fingers around his coffee cup possessively. He stared into space, lost in thought and Pepper wondered if he was trying to figure out how to exit gracefully or what.

“You know…” Tony started. “All those movies? The rom-com ones where Christmas is great and everyone loves everybody and then the whole town is singing about joy?”

Pepper laughed, “I haven’t seen one just like that… but I know what you mean, yes.”

Tony hesitated and rubbed the handle of his cup with his thumb before looking back at Pepper. “Well… I was thinking… before they start the montage of holiday bonanza… whatever the theme of the movie is… they always decorate to get into the spirit of the thing. Clearly, we’re failing because neither of us have decorated for Christmas.”

“And you think that’s going to help?” Pepper folded her arms in front of her. Skepticism hung on each word.

“Well, it certainly won’t hurt anything. And at this point, I’m willing to try anything – including ‘holiday magic’.” Tony finger quoted. “I’m tired of non-scientific advice: oven is either too hot or too cold, left the cookies on the sheet too long – or maybe not long enough. Add more flour, no you added too much.” Tony waved his hand dismissively, “Nope. Clearly, we tried to start our montage without the appropriate prep work. Then, the spirit of Christmas singing through our veins, we’ll kick these cookies’ asses and …at least not look like idiots in front of the rest of the school.”

Pepper giggled, “All right, I’ll pencil in ‘cookie ass-kicking’ in for next weekend then?”

“Fuzzing right we will,” Tony snarked, deadpan.

Pepper laughed so hard she snorted and then laughed because she snorted. Tony laughed because she was laughing so hard and he had to hold her up when she started to lose her breath. “It wasn’t that funny…” he mumbled, then cracked up again.

She shook her head because no, it wasn’t – it was just something about the way he’d said it so seriously that she found hilarious. After several fits and starts of errant giggles, Pepper caught her breath and was able to step away from Tony.

Face still glowing, she said, “Just getting my coat and scarf. Let’s decorate. I call my place first!”

 

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During lunch monitoring on Monday, Pepper and Tony tried to regroup. “Cookies tonight.” “Yes. We’ve got this. We can do it. We’re ready now.” They went to the Christmas craft festival instead. Tuesday, they went to the choir’s holiday concert rehearsal instead.

Wednesday, Tony had the academic decathalon’s holiday pizza party. Pepper called in a takeout order of Chinese food and graded papers in her classroom and waited for him. They went to his house and just talked, enjoying the Netflix fireplace video.

“We’ve got a week, Tony,” Pepper sighed.

“Yup.” Tony sighed and ran his fingers through his hair. “But at least you got your papers graded. Thanks for waiting for me.”

Pepper smiled in spite of the building anxiety over their distinct lack of any edible baked goods. Tony’s gesture made her wish that she was the one with fingers in his hair and she looked back into her mug of spiced cider. “I didn’t mind.”

Tony leaned back on his section of sofa, rubbing his eyes, “Those decathalon kids are really passionate about pizza apparently. I had to shut down that Parker kid and his friend who started talking about the history of flatbreads around the world and the implications of our hunter-gatherer ancestors using cooking as a means to freeing up additional nutrients in both plant and animal foods. We’d all still be there, I think – so many of them are on the debate team too….” He sighed, “Anyway, thanks for waiting even though I’m too tired to be useful now.”

“Maybe I should go if you’re tired?” Pepper suggested.

“I really don’t like you out walking so late at night, Pep,” Tony mumbled and leaned forward, elbows on his knees, trying to rouse himself into at least the semblance of action. “If you really want to go, I’ll walk you home. It’s the least I can do to try and make up for being so useless.”

Pepper rested a hand on his arm, “Tony, you’re not useless – you’re tired out – that’s all.”

He huffed and shook his head, not believing her, “You don’t have to try to make me feel better. I appreciate it, though.” Tony patted her hand and then just left his hand on top of hers and rested his head against her shoulder.

“I’m not trying to give you a pep talk – I think you’re wonderful Tony,” she said, smiling softly.

A moment passed and Pepper couldn’t tell if the sound she was hearing was Tony starting to cry or trying not to laugh – she didn’t dare look. Tony turned his face and laughed into her shoulder, trying not to laugh too hard. “Best Pep talk ever,” he said and squeezed her hand and kissed her shoulder before sitting up again.

Surprised, Pepper said, “You kissed me.”

Tony’s eyes widened, “Well, technically I kissed the shoulder of that extremely festive holiday sweater you’re wearing.”

Pepper looked down at her sweater of sparkly ice-skating penguins and grinned, “It’s hideous, isn’t it?”

“That sounds like a trap, but I can’t deny it. You’re amazing. Have I told you that before?” Tony murmured.

Pepper was suddenly aware of how close they were to one another. Instead of standing up and fleeing, though, she slid her hand around the back of his neck, pulling him into a tentative kiss. Tony’s lips felt firm and warm and she sighed softly into the kiss before pulling away.

Blinking and dazed, Tony looked like she’d hit him over the head with a heavy object.

She bit her lip, “Is that okay? I’m sorry, I just –”

Tony shook his head, still momentarily speechless. After a moment of blinking and getting his bearings again, he beamed, “Yeah, more than okay.” Tony touched his lips wonderingly, “Just… are you for real? I didn’t trip and hit my head or something?”

Pepper blushed and shook her head, laughing softly, “No – I really did that.” She could feel her face flush and was sure she was beet red from the roots of her hair to the collar of her penguin sweater. “I can’t quite believe it myself.”

“Because it’s me?” Tony asked, still smiling kindly, but with a touch of sadness in his eyes.

“No, just – I don’t usually do things like that – kissing charming men on a whim, I mean.” Pepper fanned her face with her hand.

Grinning, Tony asked, “You think I’m charming?”

Pepper sat up straighter and tried to look dignified, “Yes, as a matter of fact I do.”

Tony opened his mouth, eyes twinkling, he looked ready to tease her some more, but then he smiled tenderly, “Then I’m a lucky guy.” He kissed her on the cheek. “There’s nobody else I’d rather lose a baking competition with.”

Pepper laughed until she had to wave him away and wipe her eyes, then smiled fondly, “If I’m going to lose, I’m glad to have you with me.”

Her eyes sparkled. Tony leaned forward and kissed her gently again and stroked her hair. “I never thought I’d ever be here like this with you.”

She smiled and agreed, “Before Thanksgiving I wouldn’t have believed it. But… I don’t know… something changed when you caught me lying about the flu.”

Tony sighed. “Pepper? I’ve always had a crush on you.”

“What? Really?” Pepper felt completely astonished.

“Yeah… I mean that’s why I auditioned for that Christmas concert.” Tony blushed, “I didn’t think I was any good… I just wanted you to notice me.”

“And I liked choir…” Pepper took a deep breath. “All these years… I thought that you’d just been making fun of me – of all of us – who liked choir and club activities. Something like ‘anybody can do this – you’re not so special.’”

Tony shook his head, “No, no – I sing with the radio or in the shower. I never, ever thought I’d get chosen. But the way you looked at me when they posted who the soloists were going to be? I just… died inside. Not like I ever had a chance with you back then… but… I had dreams, you know?”

Pepper found herself nodding, for all of his snarkiness in high school, Tony had also been a very awkward boy. Tony had already started teaching at Midtown High when she’d been hired to teach English the following year. “Your solo was beautiful. Haunting. I’ve never thought of ‘Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas’ the same way again. The choir director chose the right person.”

 

>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>

 

Tony stared at their hands as Pepper curled her fingers in his. He was quiet for a moment before replying, “Thank you. That… means a lot to me. I’ve felt awful about it since the day those audition results were posted.” He paused again and took a deep breath, “Wow. I never really thought any of this – ” Tony swallowed the knot of emotion in his throat. “Never thought there would ever be anything close to an ‘us,’ you know?”

Pepper yawned and squeezed his hand, “Working with the theory that either of us will sleep tonight, is the offer to walk me home still open?”

Tony smiled, “Can I hold your hand?”

“You may indeed.” Pepper grinned and got up to get her coat and scarf, “So you never told me how it was teaching English for a week.”

“Three days… but not bad. I think there were some good discussions. Will you hate me if I admit I’ve never read Little Women?” Tony asked, concerned about her opinion, but he didn’t really expect her to be upset about it.

Laughing, she said, “No, honestly I’d be a little surprised if you had.”

Tony slipped on his own coat and stepped back into his snow boots. “I’ve seen all of the movies – every single one dozens of times. I just never read the book.”

“Really?” Pepper picked up her purse while Tony held the door open for her. “Any particular reason? A film class maybe?”

Tony locked the door behind them and held Pepper’s hand. It wasn’t far, maybe three or four blocks, but it was comfortable like this and a bit of a thrill, too. “No, it was my mom’s favorite Christmas movie. She had them all on VHS and we’d watch them at least once a week from Thanksgiving to Christmas.”

“It’s not your favorite, though?” Pepper looked sympathetic.

“No, usually I just watch one of them on Christmas and that’s it since Mom’s not around anymore. But watching on Christmas makes it seem like we’re together again for a little bit. My favorite is the Grinch cartoon – the original one narrated by Boris Karloff.” Tony shoved his other hand into his coat pocket. “What about you? Any family traditions?”

“Sometimes I went to visit my aunt and get some sunshine in Florida, but not this year, I suppose.” Pepper’s voice got quiet and she sighed, “But I guess my parents and I always decorated together. My mom baked enough bread and cookies and cake to feed a small army.” She laughed to herself. “But I think what makes me think of Christmas most is the music. My grandma would play the piano and my cousins and I would sing Christmas carols and eat too many potato chips with my uncle’s world famous clam dip and drink that sherbet punch they always used to make.”

Tony squeezed her hand, “It’s not quite the same now that we’ve grown up, huh?”

Pepper tucked their hands into Tony’s coat pocket because her fingers were cold. “No, not quite. This year has been the best Christmas I’ve had in a long time, though. I’ve got some of that warm feeling back, you know? That there’s good things to look forward to.”

“Magic in the air?” Tony smiled and was teasing a little bit, but not as much as he might’ve a month ago.

“If you want to call it that, Mr. Man of Science,” Pepper laughed. “All I know is I that I don’t remember the last time I laughed so much and felt this good about anything.”

Tony kissed her again on her doorstep, this time letting the kiss deepen and linger longer than it had in his living room. He gave her one more soft kiss for punctuation. “We’ll figure out the cookie stuff tomorrow.”

Pepper bit her lip and smiled, “Good night, Tony.”

Unfortunately, tomorrow turned into Friday, which drifted into a lazy Saturday of Christmas shopping and gift wrapping. While they wrapped presents, though, they did discuss their cookie dilemma over panettone and coffee. They resolved to try the sugar cookies again since those had only burned and not had worse results. If they watched the oven more carefully this time, maybe everything would work out… on Sunday.

The Sunday before the contest, Tony and Pepper finally managed to pull off one single batch of rolled out sugar cookies that they could use for the contest. They spent most of the afternoon icing the snowflake-shaped cookies light blue and Pepper drew snowflake lines in white while Tony dipped them in a mix of sparkly sugar and silver edible glitter.

Admiring their work that evening, over an order of curry takeaway, Tony smiled at Pepper, “I can’t believe we did it!”

Pepper nodded, “All I can say is nothing better happen to those. I’ll put them away when they’re dry.” She walked around the counter and wrapped her arms around him. “Thank you, Tony. I could never have done this on my own.”

“I’m feeling the holiday magic right now, I think,” Tony said wistfully.

“Tony!” Pepper pushed him away, laughing.

“What?! I meant HOPE and JOY! Geez, get your mind out of the gutter, Potts,” Tony picked up his cocoa strengthened with Irish crème liqueur and held it like a shield in front of him, grinning from behind it.

“That’s Ms. Potts to you and you’re terrible,” Pepper giggled.

“Can I still hold your hand when I walk you home?” Tony asked, batting his eyelashes not-so-innocently.

“Not if it’s going to give you ideas like that! Filled with hope and joy…” Pepper huffed, teasingly.

“That’s not all…” Tony paused. “That’s where I’m gonna leave that before I get myself into real trouble here, Ms. Potts.” He walked over and gave her a kiss on the cheek. “I love you – whether we win or lose Friday, that won’t change.”

Pepper smiled, blushing and held his hands in hers, “I – I love you too, Tony. Win or lose.” She paused and smiled softly, stepping into his personal space. “You can call me Pepper.” She kissed him on the lips firmly, pressing her lips to his, then brushing her lips against his cheek and kissing below his ear. “I will also accept ‘Pep,’ ‘light of my life,’ or ‘my darling sugar plum’.”

Tony nuzzled her neck, “Pepper, Pep, light of my life, my darling sugar plum.”

Laughing a bit breathlessly, she murmured, “Only you could make that sound anything other than ridiculous.”

 

>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>

 

Monday morning, they came into school together, but if anyone noticed, no one said anything. There were so many pre-holiday assignments due and after-school club white elephant gift exchanges, and volunteer events that the week passed in a whirl of activity.

Friday was just a half day of classes and the rest of the day devoted to the Winter Carnival. At two o’clock, though, chatter at the cookie tables had died down with the arrival of Nick Fury who surveyed the tables, flanked by Principal Coulson on one side and Head Secretary, Maria Hill, on the other.

“Not bad for a bunch of home bakers. I’m impressed.” Fury’s tone of voice made it difficult to determine whether or not he was actually impressed or being completely sarcastic. All the entries were being judged blindly.

Tony wanted to punch whoever made the intricate gingerbread diorama of a cookie baking contest with gingerbread people and tiny cookies of different types on the tiny edible plates. He glanced at Pepper and rolled his eyes when Fury tried the different tiny cookies on the tiny plates and hummed to himself, pleased. At least no one was getting bawled out for entering store-bought cookies.

Fury moved down the line, testing how well they snapped if they were a firm cookie or how tender they were if they were chewy cookies. He checked for color on the bottom and appeared to evaluate their appearance before breaking off a piece to taste, then marking off boxes on his scoring sheet and jotting a few notes before taking a drink of water and moving on to the next plate.

A tense thirty minutes later, Fury conferred with Principal Coulson and Ms. Hill, who tasted the entries as well and chatted quietly between themselves.

Pepper moved to stand next to Tony and whispered, “I’m going to scream if they don’t decide soon.”

Tony nodded and agreed, “Yeah… I’m starving – I didn’t eat lunch because, hello? cookies!”

Pepper opened her mouth to reply, but then Fury, Coulson, and Hill conferred together and there was a lot of nodding in apparent agreement. Principal Coulson stepped up to the microphone. “Hello everyone – thank you for being so patient. Chef Fury will now announce our winners. I’d like to remind everyone that third place will receive a ten-dollar gift card per team member for Disco Danish Bakery. Our second place winners will each receive a ten-dollar Disco Danish Bakery gift card and a fifteen-dollar gift card to the Deja Brew coffee shop. First place winners will each receive the Disco Danish gift card, the Deja Brew gift card, and a spectacular trophy cookie plate. Chef Fury?”

Nick Fury walked to the microphone and scanned the teachers’ faces. “Thank you bakers. Overall, I commend you.” Some applause from a few students rippled through the room. “However, I’m sorry to say that the chocolate-covered butterhorns have to be disqualified because they are from CiCi’s Italian Bakery.”

Tony heard a dull smack and a furious phys ed teacher, Kate Bishop, hiss to her fellow phys ed teacher, Clint Barton, “You said there was no way he could know!”

“Ow! I said he probably wouldn’t know! Ow!” Clint wasn’t quite so quiet and they moved their squabble out of the room so they could argue more loudly.

Fury nodded, “I am pleased that the rest of you heeded my warnings and did not cheat. Those of you who do not win today’s contest can congratulate yourselves with that much.”

From the crowd of teenagers, Tony heard Peter Parker’s too-loud whisper, “Ouch, harsh much? Geez…”

Ignoring Parker, Fury continued, “In third place, we have the spiced pryaniki – the Russian tea cakes. Wonderful – you should be very proud.” French teacher, Natasha Romanov hugged the shy, bespectacled Steve Rogers, the art teacher and newest member of the faculty.

“Our second-place winners are the bakers who made the poppyseed rugelach. Absolutely fantastic,” Fury even smiled when guidance counsellor Sam Wilson high-fived Bruce Banner, the chemistry teacher. “Thank you bakers!”

Pepper squeezed Tony’s hand in excitement and he smiled and tried not to look too pleased about this.

“And first place – I have to say, I was blown away by the outstanding creativity shown by the bakers of the gingerbread cookie contest. Well-deserved!” Fury was positively beaming now, which made Tony feel a bit uncomfortable.

Helen Cho jumped up and down and threw her arms around Jim Rhodes’ neck. “We did it! We did it!”

Somehow, seeing his best friend so happy (and managing, just barely, from giving his girlfriend a big kiss in front of the entire school) took some of the sting out of losing. Tony squeezed Pepper’s hand back and turned to her, “Sorry we didn’t win?”

Pepper smiled, “I got something better than a gift card for coffee and cookies this year, so no… I’m not sorry.”

“Me either,” he said, grinning back at her and gave her a quick peck on the cheek while all eyes were on the competition winners.

Tony and Pepper lose moodboard

Rhodey and Helen win moodboard

 


 

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Achievements earned as part of the Holiday Movie Challenge 2019. Click here for more info!