Man is the artificer of his own happiness - Henry David Thoreau
Tony inhaled deeply as he stepped from his car and into the driveway of his winter residence. Looking up, he saw smoke curling delicately from the chimney, enticing him to hurry into the warmth of his and Steve's home. A clear blue winter sky, broken by picturesque mountains, framed the cozy wooden house. A recent snow fall had dusted the roof with powder. From the yard, three cheerful snowmen seemed to greet Tony as he walked by. He resisted the urge to retrieve his silk top hat from the top of the tallest one. It looked better on the snowman anyway.
Truly, Vermont was beautiful this time of year, with all that snow his mind supplied, filling in the line from White Christmas. Tony smiled and shook his head. He must have seen that movie 12 times last week, and lord knew how many more times Maria would insist they watch it this week.
He walked up the drive, precariously balancing presents as he dug through his jacket pocket for the key to the front door.
It opened with a pleasant click that was loud enough to alert at least one family member to his arrival. He hadn't even gotten completely through the door before his oldest child collided with his legs.
"Daddy's home!" she squealed, hugging his knees tightly. Tony shifted the presents again so he could look down and see Maria.
"Are those for me?" She asked eyeing the brightly colored packages.
Tony grinned at her. "Some, if you've been good. Have you been good?"
Steve appeared, framing the kitchen entrance. "No, she has not," he said. The tone was less than pleased, but Tony could tell whatever had happened Steve found more humorous than he did troublesome.
"Your daughter has gotten into all kinds of mischief today, none of which helped me get ready for this evening's get together," he explained as he came over to kiss Tony on the cheek, taking the majority of the presents from him.
"My daughter?" Tony inquired scooping Maria into his free arm.
"When she takes apart the record player to see how it works, Tony, she is your daughter."
Tony looked at the blue eyed girl in his arms and he couldn't help it. He smiled at her.
"Did you figure it out?" he asked in a conspiratorial whisper. He could see Steve rolling his eyes.
"Nu-uh. I put it all together again, but now it won't spin. Bucky was sore at me 'cause he had bought some records today." She leaned forward, pressing her forehead against Tony's.
"Sore at you," Tony repeated shaking his head. "Steve what language are you teaching our child?" He set Maria back on the ground.
"Daddy will help you fix the record player after dinner. Right now," he handed some of the smaller presents to the child, "you go put these under the tree." Maria nodded and scampered off down the hall, presents clutched tightly in her small hands.
He turned back to see Steve shaking his head, his expression stuck between affection and annoyance. Affection won out. Steve set the presents down on a nearby table.
The tall man wrapped his arms around Tony's waist and drew him close. "We have got to come up with rules about dismantling the home appliances," he said with a warm smile. "And you will have to actually stick to the assigned punishments."
Tony gave his husband a sheepish look. "How bad was it really?" he asked.
Releasing Tony, Steve began to walk down the hall toward the den. "Aside from a shouting match with Bucky, not that bad, but she needs to ask before she destroys my things." Tony began to talk but Steve cut him off. "Even if you can fix them in a few hours. It's the principle."
As they came to the entrance to the den, Tony raised his hands in defeat, "Ok, ok, Papa. I'll talk to her." Steve bent to kiss him on the cheek in thanks.
Feeling suddenly very warm, Tony put his arm around Steve and took in the scene before them. A fire burned merrily in the fireplace, creating a warm glow through out the whole room. The reflected firelight caused the glass ornaments decorating the tree to outshine the actual lights. Maria had crawled beneath the Christmas tree and was currently occupying herself with arranging the presents just so. Jarvis crouched nearby, offering advice on present arranging while discreetly keeping an eye on the tree to make sure his precocious grandchild did not overturn it.
Across the room, Bucky lounged on the couch, resting his feet on the coffee table. He cradled Tony and Steve's youngest child, affectionately nicknamed Moth, in his arms, letting the baby sleep, and apparently drool, against his chest.
"How is he doing," Tony whispered to Steve nodding toward the young adult.
"Pretty good. Better than I was doing my first Christmas, in fact," Steve murmured. "As far as I can tell his biggest issue is guilt over how much you had to pay to. . ."
Bucky turned and looked over at them, wrinkling his nose slightly as he frowned. "You're talking about me," he accused.
Steve turned faintly red, but Tony grinned unapologetically and went over the couch. On the way he picked up a glass of wine that Jarvis had set out on one of the end tables, and took a small sip before turning to address the young man.
"I was just telling Steve that I don't see the point of being ridiculously rich if I can't afford a black market deal to purchase my husband's cryogenically frozen best friend from crazy Russian CEO's."
Bucky chuckled softly, trying not to wake Moth. "Well I hope you still think I'm a good investment after what I did to that car of yours."
Steve might be uncomfortable with the realty of Tony buying Bucky from Lukin, but Bucky regarded the whole thing with a healthy amount of morbid amusement. He'd said once that, as bad as it sounded, he figured there were worse fates than being deemed useless and then abandoned amongst other war time paraphernalia for a few decades.
"Actually, you are hands down the best investment I ever made," Tony smirked as he took another sip of wine.
Bucky looked at the older man, one dark eyebrow raised in skepticism. "How do you figure that?"
"For starters, you change diapers. Voluntarily."
This time the younger man couldn't contain himself to a soft chuckle. He laughed loudly, waking little Moth. The infant looked around the room, blue eyes wide. Moth immediately spotted Tony and smiled widely.
"DA!" Moth exclaimed happily, wiggling insistently toward Tony.
"I Think Moth wants you," Bucky laughed as he held out the child.
Tony set his drink down and took scooped Moth up into his arms cooing softly as he did so. The little baby gurgled happily and grabbed hold of Tony's nose. Tony yelped.
Laughing loudly, Steve walked over and sat between Tony and Bucky, his arm draping easily over his husband's shoulders as he watched Tony try to remove the pudgy hand from his nose.
Noting the appearance of an untaken lap, Maria left the rest of the present arranging to Jarvis and ran over, practically leaping onto her father. Steve easily caught her and swoop her up into his arms, standing a moment to swing the girl around before collapsing back onto the couch with the giggling child
When Steve had settled with Maria, Tony leaned over a little so his head rested on Steve's broad shoulders. He listened contentedly to Moth as the baby babbled and to Maria as she enthusiastically explained the mechanics of her moving dolls to an amused Bucky. Steve glanced up at Tony and mouthed 'I love you' as he reached over to entwine his free hand with Tony's.
Tony could have stayed like that for the rest of the evening; however, the doorbell rang, signaling the arrival of dinner guests.
That's probably Wanda, Vision, and the twins," Steve said, beginning to rise.
Tony waved him off. "I'll get it, that is, if you don't mind, Jarvis?" He asked as he handed Moth to the elderly man.
"Oh I think we can manage," Jarvis answered, taking the infant into his arms.
Whistling absently to himself, Tony strolled down the hall to welcome his friends into his home for the holidays.
Tony opened the door wide, ready to greet his fellow Avengers, but stopped short.
While he did find himself face to face with a female mutant with a tendency to walk around in what appeared to be lingerie, it wasn't Wanda who stood in front of him.
"Emma?" Tony said, eyes widening in surprise. "What brings you here?"
"I was called in to drag you out of your pathetic escapist delusions," she snapped striding through the doorway.
Tony offered the scantily clad blonde a jacket. "Merry Christmas to you too," he intoned dryly.
Emma waved the jacket away and got right to the point. "You're inside your own head. None of this is real."
For a few seconds Tony stared at the woman in front of him. Then he roughly grabbed her arm and dragged her out into the cold.
"Christ, Emma!" he exclaimed whirling her around to face him. "Extremis is going to have a hard enough time fixing the mess you're making without you announcing their non-reality to my whole family!"
It was Emma's turn to stare. "Are you saying you know this is all in your head?"
Tony glared at her then rolled his eyes.
"Well," Emma said in response to the man's poisonous glower, "that saves me some time. Thank you, Tony. I do so hate the part where I have to convince idiots that their perfect 'life' is a fantasy."
She took a few steps closer to Tony, her hand outstretched to take his. "Since we've established this is fake, let's skip right to the part where I help you get out of here. Maybe I'll even have time to still catch dinner with Scott."
Tony stepped away from her and toward the house. "Actually, Emma, I'd rather you leave by yourself."
Emma blinked. She'd expected Tony to have escapist problems –he was an addict after all— but she'd also expected some level of practicality from the engineer.
"Excuse me? You want to stay here?" She cocked her head at him and gave him a scathing look. "Are you crazy or do you just want to be irritating?"
Tony laughed bitterly and waved his hands in the air "Oh yes, Mrs. Frost. I'm completely insane."
He moved to within an inch of her of the frowning woman and jabbed his finger at her. "You are asking me to leave a place where Steve is not only alive, but we are happily married with two children. Where Steve's friend is a cheerful 20 year old boy. Where Wanda's twins are actually twins, where my negligence never destroyed the Avengers. Where I never fucked up and put myself in charge of the fucking SHRA, and I sure as hell never took charge of SHIELD! Where Jarvis and Happy are still alive, and where there are no god damned Skrulls!" His voice had risen to a near shout, and Tony took a deep breath, pulling away from Emma. He paced a moment, trying to calm himself before his voice reached a level Steve or the others might hear.
He clasped his arms behind his back and looked at the blonde as though she were not fit to speak to him. "But you want me to go back to a world where everyone I was ever friends with is either dead or loathes me, where I have nothing and no one, where I'm a pathetic addict, where, god, where Steve is DEAD!" Tony laughed without humor. "Oh yes, Emma, I'm crazy to want to stay right where I am."
"Are you through?" Emma asked, massaging her temple.
"I'm through when you leave."
Emma crossed her arms. "You're telling me that you can be happy knowing this is all fake?" She smiled derisively. "Let me give you a reality check, dear. You won't be. I know you, Tony. You may think you are happy now, but the knowledge that none of this exists will eventually eat you alive." She held out her hand. "Save yourself some pain and come back now."
Tony looked at her, and for a moment, desperation flashed in his eyes, "Tell me, Emma, do people actually want me back?"
The desperation flickered and disappeared behind something cold and hard. "Oh, of course. Let me rephrase that, 'dear, '" he said mocking her earlier tone. "Does anyone want me back for a reason other than to see me hang for what I've done?"
"Carol," Emma said without hesitation.
Tony blinked at the unexpected answer, and for a moment he retreated back a few steps, looking pensively at his home. Then he shook his head.
"Tell her I'm sorry for me, would you," he replied softly. "But, she's not enough, not to take me from all this, from Steve."
Emma pressed her lips together. "And the part about 'you won't really be happy' didn't get through because . . ."
Tony grinned like a Cheshire cat. "No, you are right. So long as I know this isn't real, I can't be truly happy with it."
The telepath resisted the urge to slap him. "Then either you want to be miserable or you are wasting my time with an academic discussion. Either way, I'm done." In one swift, practiced move, her slender fingers ensnared Tony's arm and she began to drag the man with her. She had only just questioned the man's lack of resistance when pain lanced through her body. With an agonizing screech, Emma recoiled away and stumbled to the ground.
She took a moment to compose herself then got shakily to her feet, never looking away from Tony Stark. Tony just stood there, his hands in the pockets of his tailored pants.
"What have you done?" Emma whispered.
"Extremis," he explained, tapping his head with a finger. "It'll attack anyone who tries to pull me out of here." He tipped his head to the side. "Myself included, if I did this right."
Emma narrowed her eyes. "Oh, for fuck's sake, Stark," she snarled. "What kind of masochist are you! Are you intentionally doing this to be miserable your whole life?"
"No, of course not. I want to be happy. For once in my life, I'd like to be honest-to-god happy." Tony beamed at her looking like a child who had solved a difficult puzzle. "That's why Extremis is re-writing my memories."
Emma did a double take. "Excuse me?"
"You're right. I can't be happy if I know this is my own little fantasy world." Tony gestured with his hands to emphasize his words. "You know that, and I know that. So I programmed Extremis to overwrite my original memories. It was actually easier than I expected it to be."
Tony smiled at her, looking eerily at peace with himself. "So you see, Mrs. Frost, in a few days, Christmas actually if I calculated it right, this will be the only reality I can remember. It's my gift to myself."
Emma stepped toward him. "Tony, I'm here to take bring you back whether you want to come or not. Please don’t make this more painful than it needs to be." But even as she reached out, the mind numbing pain began to return. She groaned and doubled over.
Tony looked down at her. "Emma, don't. Extremis will attack us both if you try to undo all this. I'd say it'd be 100% lethal to me, but nothing is ever 100% is it? So let’s say 99.99%, and it's. . ." He paused a moment, gaze turning inward as he calculated. "Probably about 95% lethal to you."
Tony walked over to her and helped her to her feet. "So then the question is, how much are you willing to risk for me?" The smile never left his face. He already knew what her answer would be.
"How could you… do this to yourself?" Emma whispered, her voice low with disgust.
Tony shrugged, but before he could answer, a shout from the doorway interrupted him. "Tony?" Steve called sounding slightly worried, "is everything—" His eyes widened when he saw Emma and he rushed to Tony's side.
"What's going on here?" he asked sternly. Tony putting a calming hand on Steve's back.
"Nothing. Emma just had a business proposition that couldn't wait."
"Oh?" Steve asked.
"He turned me down," Emma said, brushing her blonde hair off her shoulders. "Or at least I think he did. Last chance, Tony."
Tony shook his head. "Good bye, Emma." With that he turned and went back to his home.
As she starred into the growing void, she didn't know what made her madder: Tony's refusal to face reality or just the simple fact that she'd lost to him.
"He can bean idiot, can't he."
Emma looked behind her in surprise. A figure stood there clad entirely in a blue robe with a hood that obscured his face.
'"What the hell is wrong with this man's mind," Emma muttered to herself as she eyed the figure. "Look, go away, or dissolve, or whatever you delusions do when no one pays any attention to you." She gave a simple telepathic command and waved her hand dismissively. "Shoo and let me think."
But the figure remained. You'll kill him, it whispered. I can't let that happen. I know this is not . . . ideal, but I'll look after him as best I can. Tell Pepper and Carol that."
The figured paused a moment, then looked down at Emma. The telepath could just make out the blue of his eyes, "And reassure them that, if nothing else, he is happy. "
Emma snorted slipping into an attack stance. "And what are you? Some physical manifestation of that damn virus?"
The cloaked figure raised its head and Emma gasped out loud.
No Steve whispered, I am Tony's friend."
Entering the hallway she turned and found herself looking at Ms Marvel. The other blonde took a step forward. "Can I see him?" she asked.
"Oh, of course you can see him," Emma said airily. "But you can't talk to him."
"What? Why the hell not?! " Carol demanded.
"Because the bastard is still a vegetable," the telepath snapped, not breaking her stride toward the elevator. "And he's going to stay a vegetable because I am not letting my brain get fried by a virus just so the government can have their kangaroo court event."
"Are you saying you can't get him back?" Carol felt a lump building in her throat.
"That is exactly what I'm saying," Emma answered without stopping.
"Why not?" Carol had not meant to shout, but the angry cry echoed off the pristine hospital walls.
Emma whirled on the woman. "Because it seems you are not enough. I quote that, by the way."
Carol made a strange sound in her throat as the cruel words brought her to a sudden halt. Emma faltered in her own steps and looked back at Carol, the faintest trace of pity in her expression. "For what it's worth, he's happy. That son of a bitch is actually the happiest person I know right now."
"But," Carol stammered. However, the elevator doors had already closed on the other woman.
For a moment, Carol lingered in the hallway unable to work up the nerve to go into Tony's room. She had to see him for herself. She had to know that, despite Emma's attempt, nothing had changed.
Hesitantly, she pushed open the heavy door to her friend's hospital room. Machines were doing their best to keep Tony's body functioning. She tried hard not to look at all the tubes running in and out of the ex-Avenger. She didn’t want to notice how pale he'd gotten, and definitely didn’t want to see the eerie black eyes with the coding that ran across them.
However, she couldn't help but notice Tony's relaxed, peaceful smile. It stood out because Carol could not recall the last time she'd seen such an expression on his face.
Even though she knew she couldn't bother him, she moved quietly as she made her way to the chair beside his bed. Gently, she brushed some hair back from his face then trailed her hand down to touch the edge of his smile.
"You bastard," she whispered, feeling her throat become tight. "You had better be happy because–"
Her words failed her. Leaning forward, she began to sob.