“I'm not going to make it.”
Tony looked up from the project that he'd been pretending to work on. “Yes, you will,” he said. He tried a smile, but it was strained. It hurt. He held it anyway, because he was used to that. DJ didn't respond, and Tony's fingers were too tight on his tablet. “Hey.” He leaned forward. “Yes. You will.”
DJ sucked in a breath, and another. It was labored. “No,” he said, his voice very small. “I'm not.” He scrubbed both hands over his face. “I-” His face twisted up. “I can't get it. I can't- Can't-” His back was rising and falling with the force of his breathing, and Tony dropped his tablet onto the work bench, moving swiftly around to the other side.
“Okay,” he said, trying to keep his voice calm. “Okay. It's okay.”
“Not,” DJ gasped out, one hand scraping at the workbench, knocking a tool to the ground with a mechanical clang. Tony caught DJ's head between his hands, his grip firm, giving DJ an anchor point.
“We have time,” Tony whispered. “Deep breath. Slow. Inhale. Hold it. Exhale.”
DJ followed the instructions, conditioned to do as he was told in the midst of an axiety attack. A few more deep breaths, and he was capable of words again. “It's Christmas Eve,” DJ said, his voice very soft, and very sad. “It's... Not.” He swallowed. “Not okay.”
Tony glanced at the clock. “Not for another three hours,” he said. “And we've got hours after that. We've got whole day before official Christmas Present Time.” He leaned in, forcing DJ's head up. “Look at me. Hey. Look at me.” DJ's eyes flicked up, meeting his, and Tony smiled at him. “We can do this.”
DJ's mouth went thin and tight. “Wanted to do it. Myself.”
“Yeah.” Tony nodded. “I know you did. And you-” He glanced at the schematics that filled the air, rotating around them. “You did. You did it, Deej. You're so close.” He looked back at DJ. “You just need an extra-” He stopped, a smile blooming on his face. “A helping hand.” He leaned in, pressing his forehead against DJ's. “Just like I did.”
DJ was still breathing too fast, too hard, but he was calming, by steps and by stages. Tony could feel the tension bleeding out of him, bit by bit. Tony held up a hand. “I needed you so badly I nearly killed myself making you,” he said, just to see a smile curl DJ's lips. “Didn't I?”
DJ took a breath. Let it out. “You're-” He swallowed. “A lousy helper, Dad.”
Tony made a face at him. “Brat. Fine. I'm a lousy helper, fine, all you need is someone to hold things for you while you weld, right? Maybe get the fire extinguisher if things go really wrong.” He straightened up, his fingers sliding away from DJ's head. “Besides, it's not just me, is it?”
Understanding dawned, and DJ's head came up. Butterfingers and You were hovering next to the bench, and when he looked in their direction, they bounced their arms up and down. “I do say sir is correct,” Jarvis said. “There is still time. There is always time. Provided we are still attempting to complete our work. You have missed a deadline or two in your time, but you've always finished your work.”
On the bench, next to DJ's arm, Furbro stood up on his back legs, a miniaturized electrical relay held delicately in his teeth. DJ held out his hand, and Furbro darted into his palm. DJ held him up. “We can-” He sucked in another breath, and let his eyes close. “We can do it.”
Tony reached out, ruffling his hair with a rough hand. “You can do it,” he said, serious now. “I know you can. You just need some help.” He took a deep breath and pushed his sleeves up to the elbow, the gesture an old, comforting one. “And that's what we're here for.”
DJ smiled, just a little. “Thanks.”
“Thank me later, when we're done,” Tony told him. “Okay, we've got one night, and we have a lot of work to do. Get the helpers in line, and figure out what to do first.”
“Brew coffee?” DJ asked.
“That's my son. Jarvis?” Tony asked, waving a hand through air. “Time for the emergency stuff. The stuff with a medical warning label on it. The stuff that Steve thinks was put in the incinerator.”
“I shall brew a pot of your best and alert poison control,” Jarvis said.
“Keep them on standby, but I think we can handle it. Righ?” Tony asked, grinning at DJ.
And DJ grinned back, wobbly and weak, but a grin none the less. “Right.”
Tony nodded. “Let's save Christmas.”
Steve woke up alone.
He reached out, his fingers sliding over Tony's pillow, and found it cool to the touch. He heaved a slight sigh, rolling over. “Jarvis, did he get to bed at all last night?”
“I'm afraid that neither of them have had a chance to sleep,” Jarvis said. “I've encouraged them both to do so, but my recommendations count for very little when they are in this state.” He paused. “Perhaps, if you wouldn't mind, you might intercede?”
“Yeah, sounds about right,” Steve said, throwing the covers back. “What am I dealing with here?”
“Difficult to say,” Jarvis said, his voice apologetic. “Sir is in a mood.”
“Right,” Steve said. He snagged a pair of running pants from the bureau and stepped into them. He grabbed a t-shirt, but didn't bother pulling it on. He'd have time for that in the elevator. “Workshop?” He tossed the shirt over his shoulder and headed out of their suite.
“Kitchen,” Jarvis said.
“Thank heavens for small mercies.” Steve turned, heading up the hall to the kitchen, pulling his shirt on. “We on track for everything else today?”
“Yes. The Pieros have checked into their hotel, confirmation was sent to SI yesterday confirming their arrival. The living room has been cleaned and decorated, the supplies for the party have been delivered, and the catering staff have checked in, they will be on site at four pm to begin prepping.”
“Great, any new information on the RSVP front?” Steve asked.
“Mr. Wong has notified us that Doctor Strange remains...” Jarvis paused. “Unavailable. However, he assures if if that he or Clea return to this plane of existence prior to the party, he will notify them that their presence is welcome here.”
“That man does not get paid enough,” Steve said.
“The Avengers have sent him an Edible Arrangement to thank him for his assistance,” Jarvis said. “He appreciates the chocolate dipped strawberries.”
“Thanks, Jarvis.” Steve pushed the door of the kitchen open.
He had thought he'd been prepared for this, but he wasn't. On the table, a massive pot full of dark liquidy sludge was dripping onto the tablecloth. DJ was slumped in a chair, his head lolling to the side, a bowl balanced on his stomach, a spoon hanging out of his mouth. Tony was stirring his own bowl with more force than was strictly necessary. The whole room smelled of chocolate, rich and dark and sweet.
“Okay, what's happening in here?” Steve asked, feeling the smile bloom on his face.
Tony's head rolled in his direction, his grin brilliant and his eyes manic. “We,” he said, a little too loud, a little too sharp, “are eating pudding!” He held the bowl over his hand, his fingers cradling it from below. “It is the pudding of VICTORY!”
Steve's eyes jerked to DJ, who gave a slow, tired nod, the handle of his spoon wobbling in front of his mouth.. Relief rushed through Steve, followed immediately by an almost overwhelming sense of pride. “You did it,” he said, and it was reverent, it was a benediction.
DJ nodded again. “We did it,” he said, and Steve let out a whoop, lunging forward. He scooped DJ out of his seat, swinging him in a wide circle. Laughing, DJ clung to his neck, his face buried in Steve's shoulder. Somewhere in the distance, Steve could hear Tony's laughter mixing in with theirs, and he set DJ back on his feet.
His fingers cradled DJ's face, tipping it up. “You did it,” he said, grinning like an idiot. “I'm so proud of you for trying. For working so hard at it.”
DJ smiled up at him, his eyes crinkling shut. “And for succeeding?”
“I would've been just as proud, even if you hadn't,” Steve said, and dragged DJ into his arms for a hug. “God, you're an amazing kid, you know that?”
“Substandard bot, though,” Tony said, stealing a bite of pudding from DJ's bowl, and Steve dragged him out of his chair, too. “Hey! Hey, my pudding,” Tony protested, but he went willingly into the hug.
DJ curled up against them, his head down, his breathing ragged. “I did it,” he said, his fingers latching onto Tony's shirt. The fabric crumbled in the force of his grip. “We did it.”
Tony's hand smoothed over DJ's hair, pushing it back from his face. “You did it,” he whispered, pride and love making the words shake. “I just held things for you.”
“No,” DJ said. He looked up. “Love you,” he said. He blinked, slow and careful. “Wanna charge now.”
Tony nodded, letting his head fall against Steve's shoulder. His hand covered DJ's where it was still clinging to his shirt. His thumb rubbed gently against the back of DJ's hand. “You've been up a long time,” he said. “Time to crash for a bit.”
“We love you,” Steve said, and DJ nodded, pulling away from them.
“Love you,” he repeated. “Too.” Stumbling, shuffling, he headed for the door.
Steve watched him go, and turned his head to press a hard kiss on Tony's lips. “God, I love you,” he said, and Tony grinned against his mouth.
“Fuck right you do,” he said, leaning heavily against Steve's chest. “God. I'm wiped. This was a lot easier when I was his age.” He draped his arms over Steve's shoulders, burying his face in Steve's chest. “Take me to bed or lose me forever, Rogers.”
Laughing, Steve tucked both hands under Tony's ass and lifting. “Up we go,” he said, and Tony obligingly wound his legs around Steve's waist. “Let's get you to bed, Stark.”
“I am going to sleep for the next month,” Tony mumbled into Steve's neck.
Steve winced. “You're going to nap for about five hours,” he said, his voice apologetic. “Because Lucy's family is coming over this afternoon for Christmas Eve dinner.” Tony groaned, loud and long and full of pain. “Yeah, I know, I know.” Steve pressed a sympathetic kiss to his forehead. “I'll put you in for father of the year.”
“I am already father of the fucking decade, I am calling it quits,” Tony mumbled. “From this point on, it's you. All you, Rogers, you can handle the potential disapproving in-laws, his college education, the rest of his development, I have done my fucking part, I am quitting on a high note, I am going out while I'm on top-” Without any warning, he braced his hands against Steve's chest and pushed himself upright. Steve jerked to a stop as Tony twisted in his arms. “I want-”
He stopped, and Steve frowned. “Tony?”
“I demand my pudding,” Tony said, glaring at Steve. Steve bit his lip. “Don't give me that look, Rogers, I have earned my goddamn breakfast pudding.” One of his hands locked on Steve's shirt, dragging himself in. “It is the pudding of fucking victory, and I have earned it.”
Steve considered him. “Jarvis, how much coffee has he had in the last 48 hours?” he asked.
“A rather inadvisable amount, even for him,” Jarvis said. “For his health and safety, I would suggest decaf for at least the next twenty-four hours.”
“Try it and I'll have you running the HR department paperwork servers for the rest of your existence,” Tony said. “Besides, you goddamn narc, I'm fine, I could have three double espressos right now and then go right back to work.”
“Let's not test that, Tony,” Steve said, making a quick detour by the table so Tony could recover his pudding. “Sleep deprived engineering doesn't work out overly well for the rest of us.”
“Works out great for me,” Tony said. He draped an arm around Steve's neck. “God, I'm tired.”
Steve's arms tightened. “I know. I'll take it from here. All you have to do is wake up, shower, shave, and come be your usual charming self once the party starts.”
“Oh, God, Rogers, why do you ask the impossible of me?” Tony asked.
“Because I honestly believe you can accomplish it,” Steve whispered against his hair. “You always have, up until this point.”
“He's your kid now,” Tony said, yawning against Steve's throat. “All yours. You can- Deal with him.”
“Remember the family rules about disowning people?”
“Not in anger?” Tony asked.
“Not at all,” Steve said, heading to the elevator. “C'mon, let's put you to bed.”
“All right.” Steve clapped his hands together, and Tony winced, his head pounding. Steve gave him a sympathetic look. “Everyone on their best behavior.”
“No,” Clint said, at the same time that Logan let out a snort of laughter.
“You two, on opposite sides of the room,” Steve said, pointing a finger at first one, then the other. “Phil, can you watch him?”
“Which one?” Phil asked, without even looking up from his tablet.
“Dealer's choice,” Steve told him.
Phil made a humming noise under his breath. “I'll take Barton,” he said with a faint smile.
“I don't need a babysitter,” Clint said, his arms crossed over his chest. He was wearing a sweater that was made Tony's eyes hurt to look at it. Even worse, he seemed proud of it.
“Yes, you do,” Natasha said. “You ate all of the candy canes off of the right hand side of the tree.”
“That's only half of the candy canes, don't say all when you mean half,” Clint said.
“You ate about thirty candy canes, are you really arguing that you could've eaten more?” Bruce asked him.
“Yes, this is exactly what-”
“I have a headache, a stomachache, a back ache, and the rest of me is feeling pretty lousy, too,” Tony said, cutting off the argument before it could start. “First person who does anything socially unacceptable gets thrown off the Tower.”
“Are we getting lectured about behaving ourselves from STARK?” Natasha asked Bruce.
“It's a Christmas Miracle,” Bruce said, utterly deadpan, and Tony pointed a finger in his general direction.
“It sure as fuck is, and if I make it through tonight without an ulcer, it'll be another one,” he said. “And also-”
“It's Christmas,” Steve said, his voice quiet, but loud enough to stop Tony in his tracks. “And Lucy's family's coming tonight, and I think we can all agree that they have legitimate reasons why they'd be wary about letting Lucy continue to visit with DJ.” He looked around. “So please. Let's be...” He tried for a smile. “Welcoming.”
“He means normal,” Clint said to Natasha.
“He knows better.”
“Behave,” Steve told them. “Where's Thor?”
Logan hooked a thumb over his shoulder. “He and 'Ro are outside comparing lightning.”
“Please be a metaphor of some sort,” Tony said.
“It's not,” Clint said. “Hey, you paid for the upgraded lightning rod on this building for a reason.”
“And he's the most likable member of the family,” Tony said with a smile that felt a little bit insane. Steve gave him a look. “What? He is.”
“Question,” Reed asked, raising his hand.
Sue tugged it back down. “No, Reed.”
“No, Reed.” She gave Tony a sunny smile and looped her arm through Reed's. “We'll be on our best behavior, and the children understand what's at stake.”
“DJ's happiness?” Tony asked.
Sue gave him a smile that could've cut glass. “Among other things.”
“Right!” Steve said, trying his best to maintain Christmas cheer. “Okay.” He glanced at Logan. “Kids downstairs?”
“In the playroom,” Logan said.
“Doing what?” Tony asked.
Logan shrugged. “Dunno. Playing, I guess.”
Tony stared at him. “They really let you take care of children.”
“Yeah, it's crazy,” Logan agreed, with a grin.
“It is, yes.”
“I'll go round everyone up,” Steve said. “Nat, could you see if you can get the weather under control?”
“On it, Cap.” She took Clint's arm. “Come on.”
“Wait, why me?”
“You're taller than me, I need someone to attract the lightning.”
“EVERYONE'S taller than you,” Clint said, as he was dragged towards the doors.
“Everyone else, please have a drink, there's punch, soda, and a fully stocked bar,” Steve said. “And let any late arrivals know what the game plan is.”
“And with that, I'm going to hit the bar,” Tony said.
“Sounds like a plan, “ Logan said, slapping him on the back. “Think I'll join you.”
“Yeah, let's get the good stuff before the peasants arrive,” Tony said. “Thanks for bringing the kids over.”
“They like coming out.” Logan's eyes slid in his direction. “Surprised that they were on the guest list, considering that you're trying to make a good impression tonight.”
“What is that?” Tony asked. “Was that an implication that we shouldn't have invited them?”
“It's an implication that some people might've considered not having the mutant kids over in the situation, that's all,” Logan said.
“If they have a problem with DJ's friends, it's better we know it now,” Tony said, meeting Logan's eyes head on. “Because DJ's not giving them up, not even to keep Lucy's family happy.” He stepped behind the bar, pouring a steaming cup of coffee from the gleaming urn there. Then he reached for the rum. “I'm hoping it won't be a problem. Lucy's never had a problem with any of the kids.” He looked up. “Unless I'm missing something?”
Logan leaned on the bar. “Nope, you're dead on. The kids think she's a good egg. And you're right. That sort of thing usually comes from the family, but not always.”
“Not always,” Tony agreed. “But look, DJ doesn't always come across as...” He paused, musing on how to put this. “Socialized,” he said. He held up an empty coffee cup, and Logan nodded.
“I'm grateful to your kids,” Tony said, his voice quiet.
“He saved them,” Logan said. “And more than that, you're right.” He picked up the coffee cup that Tony pushed across the bar to him. “He's loyal to them. He's-” He took a sip. “He's a good kid, Stark. And they need more good kids in their lives.”
Tony braced his elbows on the bar. “Don't we all.” He held up his cup, and Logan clicked the rim of his mug against Tony's. “Merry Christmas, let's see if we can't survive it.
“Merry Christmas,” Logan said, with a slight smile. “You think-”
“Sorry to interrupt, sir, but the Pieros are on their way up,” Jarvis said.
“Great,” Tony said, trying to sound enthusiastic. Judging by the smirk that Logan sent him, it wasn't particularly effective. He dumped a measure of rum into Logan's cup. “There's more where that came from, if you behave yourself.”
“Worth considering,” Logan said. He took a sip.
“Jarvis, is Steve-”
“On his way, sir,” Jarvis said. “He will meet you at the elevators.”
“Right. Cue the cheeriest music we got, and light up the tree. I can do this.” Tony headed across the room, adjusting his tie as he walked. He gave his reflection a glance as he passed the windows.
“You look great,” Steve said, falling into step next to him.
“Says the man who's wearing a green sweater with a tree on the front of it,” Tony said, his voice wry. “And manages to still look good.”
Steve glanced down. “Excuse me,” he said, with a grin. “This was a gift from my kid.”
“He was eight, and he's got bad taste,” Tony pointed out.
“I like my sweater,” Steve said, as they reached the elevator. He leaned over, pressing a kiss to Tony's lips. “And my family.”
“Good, because you're stuck with us,” Tony grumbled as the elevator dinged. Tony slapped a smile on his face as the doors opened. “Hey, Luminous,” Tony said to Lucy.
“Hi,” she said, with a bright grin. “Thanks for inviting us.”
“Yeah, well, we had a little extra room.”
“Come on in,” Steve said, bright and warm and welcoming, and Tony could almost see the Pieros relax. Steve had that effect on people. He said things, and you believed them, even if you didn't want to.
“Thank you for having us,” Adam Piero said, shaking Steve's hand, then Tony's.
“Hotel room okay?” Tony asked Victoria, who managed a smile.
“It's lovely, thank you.”
“Like being a rock star,” Letitia said from behind Lucy. She was wearing an oversized sweater with glittery silver snowflakes all over it, and a huge set of sunglasses. “The concierge got us tickets for EVERYTHING.”
“Take your glasses off,” her father told her. “It's a bit much,” he added to Tony. “They clearly think that we're connected to SI somehow.”
“Yeah, that seemed safer,” Tony said, waving them in. Lily, the youngest girl, had green and red bows on her braids, and a pretty checkered dress over bright green tights. She clung to Lucy's hand, her eyes huge. “Hey, kidlet,” Tony said.
“Is that STORM?” Lily asked, her head craned to the side.
Tony followed her gaze to where Thor, Ororo, Nat and Clint were coming back inside. Sue greeted them with cups of steaming hot cider from the tray sized palm of Reed's hand. “Yeah, that's Ororo, would you like to meet her?” Tony asked. “She's very nice.”
Lily looked up at her mother. “Can I?”
Victoria smiled down at her. “Sure. We can both go meet her.”
“Come on,” Steve said. “We'll introduce you-”
There was a puff of smoke and a crack like thunder, and then Stephen Strange was standing next to them. “Ah,” he said, looking around. “I wasn't entirely certain that would work.” He dusted off his shirt, raising another puff of smoke, and the fire alarms started to whine.
“Welcome to our home,” Tony said with a bright smile, ignoring the siren. “Who wants something to eat?”