“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?”
“Come with me.”
Lucy stopped, the glass of punch hovering in front of her parted lips. “Ever heard of the word 'please?'” she asked, more amused than annoyed.
“He hasn't,” Xi'an said, wrapping a popcorn and cranberry garland around Jessica's neck. Jessica was absolutely refusing to acknowledge that it was happening, her lips pursed around a candy cane.
“Deej, try harder,” Rahne told him with a chiding smile. “Don't be a total wanker.”
DJ looked at David, who held up his hands. “Oh, no. No. Do not involve me, I'm not here for this right now.”
“He's here for the cookies,” Franklin said.
“Excuse me, I'm here for the cookies AND the pie,” David pointed out. He reached for his mug. “And the cocoa does not hurt, either.”
“You should talk,” Valeria said to her brother. “You've eaten your weight in gingerbread man.” She was perched on the back of the couch, her legs swinging back and forth. Lily had stolen her elf hat and was now sitting cross-legged on the floor next to her, helping Sarah and Paras string cranberries and popcorn from huge bowls between them.
Franklin bit the head off of a gingerbread man. “I regret nothing,” he said, and his sister swiped a gumdrop button off of his cookie. “Hey, get your own!”
“Can you come with me now?” DJ asked Lucy, ignoring everyone else. Rahne tossed a piece of popcorn at his head, and it stuck in his hair. “Please?” he added.
“Better,” Rahne said, and DJ caught her hand.
“Where are you going?” Paras asked, without looking up. He stabbed himself in the thumb and muttered something that sounded obscene under his breath.
“What does that mean?” Lily asked him.
“Uh-” Paras stuck his thumb in his mouth. “It means-” His eyes darted to Sarah.
“It's a bad word, he's a bad boy, don't listen to him,” Sarah said with a grin. She handed Xi'an another string of cranberries. “Do her hair.”
“Do NOT do her hair,” Jessica said, fending Xi'an off with one hand. “What is wrong with you guys?”
“I'm going to win. You know I am,” Xi'an said, smirking at him. “Give in with dignity.”
“I don't 'do' dignity,” Jessica said, but she let Xi'an loop the strand of popcorn around her head like a crown.
“Going to the playroom,” DJ said. “Cover for us?”
“How long are you going to be gone?” Sarah asked, arching an eyebrow.
“Not long. Just-” His hand tightened on Lucy's. “Cover for us.”
Valeria gave him a thumbs up. “We're on it.”
“She could lie to anyone, seriously, it'll be fine, just go,” Franklin said, reaching for another cookie.
But Lucy held back. “Lily, you want to go sit with Mom for a while?” she asked.
“No!” Lily grabbed Paras' hand, hugging it with both arms. “We're making popcorn garlands!”
“It's okay, she's really good at this,” Paras said, with an easy smile.
“And when she's done, I promised I'd introduce her to Uncle Ben,” Val said, before biting the head off of a cookie. “He may look tough, but he's a giant softie when it comes to little kids, and I got nail polish in my stocking. Want to see if he'll let us paint his fingernails?” Val asked Lily
“Yes!” Lily said.
“He doesn't even have fingernails,” Franklin pointed out.
“Yeah, but he'll never tell her that,” Valeria said with a smirk. “Go, Lucy, we promise to find your mom if Lily gets tired of hanging out with us.”
“An' if she gets sick of their family, we've still got ours,” Rahne said. “Logan alone...”
“Logan AND Kurt,” David said. He poured a fresh glass of cider and handed it to Rahne, who took it with a pleased little growl. “We're cool, get out of here.”
DJ gave Lucy a pleading look, and she gave in. “Fine,” she said, trying not to laugh. “Lead the way, Deej.”
“Thank you,” DJ said, and his smile was worth it, he was worth it, the way he held her hand and walked at just under a run, dragging her, laughing and boyant, in his wake.
Lucy couldn't help but look around as they cut through the room. At the massive, glittering Christmas tree in front of the windows, at the lights strung from the ceiling and around the windows, casting a glittering, icy light across every surface. Her mother was by the punchbowl, talking to Ororo, Jessica Jones, and Sue Storm. Sue waved at them as they passed, and Lucy waved back, grinning at her. Letitia was in the corner, giggling over her phone with Roxy Washington, the two of them keeping an eagle eye on Johnny Storm and Bobby Drake, who seemed to be daring each other to spike the punch bowl.
Logan, meanwhile, was right behind them, waiting to see who made the first move.
“Where's your dads?” Lucy asked DJ as they swerved around the pile of presents that were waiting for the end of the evening.
“Dad's panicking, Steve's with your dad,” DJ said, and Lucy laughed, catching up to him.
“That's probably safe,” she said, as they slipped out of the party and into the elevator.
“Safer than the alternative,” DJ agreed. “Jarvis?”
“Your escape appears to have gone unnoticed,” Jarvis said. “I shall monitor the situation.”
Lucy blew a kiss at the ceiling. “Thank you, Jay.”
“I am pleased to be of service, Miss Piero.” The elevator came to a gentle stop, and the doors opened. “Still, DJ, you should be quick.”
“Not good at that,” DJ said, as they headed for the playroom.
“Trust me, I am well aware,” Jarvis said, his voice full of resignation. “Still. I have faith in your abilities under pressure.”
Lucy was still laughing as they entered the playroom. “You should be nicer to him, Jay,” she said, stopping to do a quick spin. Her skirts swirled around her legs, and she held her hands up. She did a quick two step, sweeping in wide circles around DJ, who grinned, turning with her.
“I am far nicer than he deserves,” Jarvis said. “DJ. Get your present.”
DJ blinked. “Right,” he said, and he was off and running.
Laughing, Lucy padded in his wake, kicking her shoes off as she stepped onto the soft, warm carpet of the playroom. Everything was draped in lights and ornaments, garlands of tinsel and handmade paper snowflakes twisted around the massive limbs of the playroom tree. Strings of lights had been wound along the railing of the walkway that lead along the tree up towards the ceiling, and holographic snow swirled in the air around her.
“Your family goes all out for Christmas,” Lucy said.
“We kind of overdo everything,” DJ agreed, reappearing with a giant red and green gift bag.
DJ set the bag down with an audible clunk. Lucy gave it a confused look. “We're opening presents tomorrow, you dork, what're you doing?”
He smiled at her, his dark eyes warm. “You have to say you want it, before I can give it.” He reached into the bag and pulled out a small box with a bright red bow on top. “Here.”
“But-” She took it. “Isn't this you giving it to me?”
“Not quite.” He pointed at it. “Open it?”
She considered asking questions, or arguing, but he was almost vibration with tension, anxious and with something like fear in his eyes. So she just sat down on the floor, there in the shadow of his massive, magical tree, and untied the bow that held the box closed. She pulled the lid off, and set it aside.
There, nestled in the golden tissue paper, was a little lizard.
Lucy stared down at it. “I don't... Understand,” she said, or maybe she did, and she just didn't want to. Her heart was pounding in her chest, the pulse loud in her ears. “DJ, what-”
“She's the next generation of StarkTech AI,” DJ said, his voice quiet. Lucy's head snapped up, and he smiled. “Furbro's little sister.”
“She's-” Lucy's chin dipped, and she stared down at the lizard. It was curled up, seemingly asleep, its tail draped over its eyes and its paws tucked up under its chin. It was a pale blue, with green highlights to its skin as she held it up to the light, and slightly larger than Furbro. “DJ...”
“It was Furbro's idea,” DJ said. He lowered himself down to the ground next to her, settling down with his back against his tree. “He's... Alone.” The little green lizard peered around the side of DJ's neck, one paw braced on DJ's jaw. “And he worries about you.”
“Oh, he does, does he?” Lucy asked, her breathing ragged. “Deej-”
“You leave. He doesn't understand.” DJ leaned forward, bracing his elbows on his knees. “This one, he has- He has a limited network with her. They can-” He looked up. “He won't be alone. And she can be with you. So you-” He took a deep breath. “So you won't be alone, either.”
“I'm not alone,” Lucy pointed out. Her fingers were shaking, and she lowered them, and the box into her lap. “I have my family. My friends.” She looked up. “I have you, I don't need... I don't need this.”
But she wanted it. She wanted it, so bad, she could almost taste it, she wanted this tiny, amazing thing that DJ had built, had built for her. For her. The thought was dizzying, and she closed her eyes.
“I can't,” she managed. She shook her head, but her fingers were still locked on the box, clinging to it for dear life. “Deej, I can't, I don't know how to take care of her, I can't-”
“You can learn. If you want to,” DJ said, and her eyes flew open. He smiled, warm and reassuring. “I can teach you. Or, you can bring her back. I'll take care of her.”
Lucy took a breath, and looked up at him. “DJ. This isn't-” She stopped, not knowing how to do this, not knowing how to say this. Not knowing how to say this without breaking his heart. Or hers.
“I'm too young to decide what my life is going to be,” she said, the words coming in a rush. “I...” She pushed a curl behind her ear, and her fingers were shaking. Or maybe all of her was shaking. “I'm not ready for a lot of things, and I like you, I like you a lot, I do, but I don't know...”
Her voice trailed away, and with it, her courage. But she kept going anyway. “DJ, I'm not sure this is the sort of gift you give someone when you're sixteen years old.”
He blinked, in that slow, deliberate way he had. “It is, if you're me,” he said.
“Yeah, but maybe you shouldn't,” Lucy said. “Deej, what if I go and join Hammer Industries in ten years or something, Deej? And take her with me?”
DJ gave her a look. “You have standards,” he said, and Lucy choked on a laugh.
“Okay, then, botboy, what if I go off and found my own company to compete with you and start making little AI lizards for sale based on this little one?”
“Well,” DJ said, drawing the word out, “then I'll just have to advance my product line and crush you.”
Lucy stared at him. DJ stared back. “Try it, just you try it,” Lucy said at last, bringing her hands up like a prize fighter. “I can take you.”
“If you use your designs, yes,” he said, grinning. “Not if you steal from me.”
“That's probably true.” She looked down at the lizard. “DJ, I can't promise you anything about the future. I'm too young to make those kind of promises.” She took a deep breath, and her chest ached. “And so are you.”
He nodded. “No,” he said.
She slapped both hands against her face. “DJ, why are you so impossible?”
DJ stared up at the star filled sky. “Dad and Pepper broke up a long time ago,” he said, his voice quiet. “Before... Me.” His fingers ghosted over his chest, locking on the fabric of his sweater above his breastbone. His eyelashes dipped low. “They were in love.” He glanced up. “Once. Now...” He shook his head. “They're not.
“But he loves her. Maybe, more than anyone. He loves Pepper.” He leaned back on his hands, and he breathed in, his whole body flexing with the force of it. “He will always love her.”
He smiled, and Lucy's chest ached. “Maybe, it's in my blood. I trust you.” He held a hand out to her, those long beautiful fingers curled upwards just a bit. “That you'll always be my friend.”
Lucy reached out, because she wasn't capable of doing anything else. “What if I'm not as loyal as you are?” she asked, her fingers hovering over his.
He shrugged. “Think you are.” His eyes were bright as he smiled up at her. “Lucy Piero, will you always be my friend?”
Her fingers closed on his. “Yes, DJ Stark-Rogers. Yes. I will.”
“And will you run my company?”
Lucy nodded. “Absolutely not.”
He sighed. “Worth a try.”
“Besides, you're going to be better than me,” Lucy said. She curled her legs under her, and DJ let her hand go so she could pick up the little bot.
“No. I won't.”
Lucy looked up. “You're smarter than me.”
“Maybe. But-” He blinked, slow and careful. “When you design, it's...” He stopped, his brow furrowing as he sorted through something in his head. “I look at your designs and I feel...” He looked up. “Content.”
Lucy's giggle caught in her throat. “Well, that's damning with faint praise, thanks, Stark-Rogers.”
“No.” He leaned in. “It's-” He shook his head. “Can't explain it. But your designs are balanced. Steady. Not perfect. Don't need to be perfect. I can't-” He shifted forward, bracing his elbows on his knees. “I'm broken, Lucy. Two halves. Won't ever be whole.”
Lucy blinked, caught off guard. “Deej-”
He was already shaking his head, a grin curling his lips. “It's good,” he said. “Makes me, well, me. I see with two sets of eyes, learn with two minds, but they can't-” He stopped, holding his hands up in front of him. “Be one. Always two halves. Always-” He took a breath. “Broken.”
DJ leaned in, his eyes bright. “You. Aren't.”
Lucy kissed him, quick and light, but she lingered close to him, her mouth almost touching his, and tried not to cry. “Maybe I am.”
“Maybe that's why I like you,” he said. “Will you accept her?”
Lucy's eyes closed, and she tried to say no. She tried to say she couldn't. What came out was “Yes,” and she thrilled to hear her own voice say it. She opened her eyes, and grinned at him, grinned so wide that it hurt. “Yes, thank you, DJ.”
“You're the first person to touch her,” he said, and Lucy's head snapped up. “The first voice she'll hear. The first thing-” He shrugged, just a tiny twitch of his shoulders. “It's important. She'll never forget. She'll never forget it, she'll never forget you.”
He smiled, and it was luminous, it was so beautiful she wanted to cry. “She will never forget her name,” he said, and Lucy choked on a sob, the tears catching her off guard.
“So I should-” She had to stop for a second, had to struggle to get her tears under control. She reached into the tissue paper, carefully picking up the little bot. She was heavier than her size would indicate, but her skin was warming up against Lucy's hands. “Be careful about that?”
“Yes,” DJ said, his lips curling up. “You can think about it, if you want to.”
Lucy stared down at the little lizard, curled into a perfect circle in the cradle of her hands. “No,” she said. “No, I think... I think I know her name.” The tears made her cheeks itch, but she couldn't bear to put the little AI down to wipe at them. Instead, she ducked her head, scrubbing at her cheek against her shoulder. “I know.”
She looked up. “How do I...” 'Turn her on' was wrong, somehow, Lucy knew that was wrong, even if she wasn't sure why it was wrong. Instead, she said, “How do I wake her up?”
DJ raised one hand, flexing his index finger a little. “Head scritches,” he said, as Furbro pawed at the air, recognizing scritches he was not getting. Laughing, DJ lowered his hand to rub his fingertip back and forth on the flat plane of Furbro's head. The tiny bot arched up, his eyes closing as he made a pleased little chitter.
Lucy reached out, stroking a finger over Furbro's head. “Brat,” she whispered and he nipped at her fingertip. “Did you fix the biting problem?” she asked DJ with a grin.
“It's less a problem and more an undocumented feature,” DJ pointed out. “And yes. Furbro's the only nibbler in the family.” He stopped, his eyes sliding to the side. “I think.”
“Wow, very comforting.” But Lucy ran her fingers over the little bot's head, softly at first, and then with a little more pressure. The eyes opened slowly, as if the tiny AI in her palms was still sleepy, still confused. But her head came up, her eyes locking with Lucy's, and Lucy saw her pupils dilate as she focused. Lucy took a breath that hurt.
“Zora,” she whispered. “Your name is Zora.” Her thumb stroked over the tiny head, and the bot arched into the touch, chasing the contact. Lucy felt a tear slide down the curve of her cheek. “Zora, for Zora Neale Hurston, my favorite author. Zora, because you're as blue as the Zoras in Legend of Zelda. Zora.”
She held the little bot up. “Zora. It means dawn. The dawn of a new day, a new age, a new world.” She was grinning, so wide that it hurt, so wide that it forced more tears from her aching eyes. “Zora. I will always take care of you. I promise. I'll learn everything I need to know to make sure you're always safe, always happy, I will-”
Her eyes squeezed shut, and she was crying too hard to talk now, crying too hard to even breathe. She brought her hands up, folding her fingers around Zora. “I will always be your friend,” she whispered, her lips hovering over Zora's head, a kiss she didn't dare bestow just yet. “Hello, Zora.”
The touch was so slight that she barely felt it.
Lucy's eyes flicked open. Zora was standing upright on her back paws, her tail curled under her as a counter balance. Slowly, she leaned in, rubbing her head against Lucy's wet cheek.
“See?” DJ said, his voice soft and gentle. “She trusts you.”
“She's like SIX MINUTES OLD,” Lucy said, trying to glare at him and failing. She scrubbed at her wet cheeks with the back of one hand, Zora balanced easily on the other. “She's a bit naive, Deej.”
“But not wrong,” he said, unconcerned, as Zora reached up, one little paw flailing through the air.
And before Lucy could figure out what she was doing, Zora snagged the end of one of her curls and shot upwards. Lucy went still, joy curling low in her stomach, as Zora hung in front of her, upside down, clinging to a curl like a bungee cord. “Okay, that's just rude,” Lucy said, grinning, and Zora chittered at her, rubbing her cheek against Lucy's hair. “C'mere,” Lucy said, holding her hands out, and Zora dropped back into the cradle of her palms.
Furbro darted from one of DJ's shoulders to the other, peering around his neck. He chirped at them, and Zora twisted around, her mouth opened in a toothy little smile. “Is that your dorky older brother?” Lucy asked Zora, rubbing a finger along the line of Zora's back. The little lizard arched into her touch. “Is he SUCH A DORK?” Lucy crooned, leaning in. Zora straightened up on her back feet, her mouth opening in a wide grin, and Lucy laughed. “Yes. Yes, he is.”
“Hey, now,” DJ said, but Furbro just paced back and forth along the line of his shoulders, his tail whipping back and forth as he clung to DJ's shirt for balance.
“I speak only the loving truth,” Lucy said, fluttering her eyelashes at them. Zora darted up her arm, settling down on Lucy's shoulder. “Right, love?” She rubbed Zora's head with one finger.
“We have made a mistake,” DJ said to Furbro, who reached out and patted him on the nose with one little paw. “Thank you. That was comforting. I am comforted.”
Lucy leaned back against DJ's tree, staring up at the sky. Even though she knew the scatter of stars across the darkness was a holographic projection, she loved being here. She loved seeing what he'd made. “Merry Christmas, Deej.”
“Merry Christmas, Lucy.” DJ stood, holding a hand out. “It's snowing on the roof. Want to see?”
Lucy took his hand and pushed herself up with his help. Zora draped herself over Lucy's shoulder, her head hanging down, her paws flexing on Lucy's shirt. “It's not snowing.”
DJ's teeth flashed in a grin. “It always snows here on Christmas Eve. It has for years.”
“Really,” she said. Her fingers tangled with DJ's, and he squeezed her hand. “How many years, exactly?”
His nose wrinkled as he thought about that. “Well, all the years I've been around.”
“Somehow, I knew that was going to be your answer.” Lucy leaned a little closer, and tucked her head against his shoulder. “Thank you, DJ.”
His lips brushed against her forehead. “Take good care of her, Zora.”
“Hey, I'm going to be taking care of her, not the other way around,” Lucy said.
DJ's fingers squeezed. “Keep telling yourself that, organic,” he said, with a grin.
“Oh, is that my new pet name?” She hip checked him, and gave him a nudge towards the door. “Let's go, botbrain. I want to see it snow.”
“There's a lot more children here than I expected,” Adam said, as Steve handed him a cup of mulled cider.
“Yeah, it's exploded over the last few years,” Steve said, folding his arms on the top of the bar. At the other end, Luke Cage had fallen into old habits and was mixing drinks with a professional skill and a studied flair. Jessica was perched on one of the barstools, their baby in her lap, playing with a cocktail stirrer. Danny Rand was trying to juggle bottles, and Jessica was egging him on, despite Luke's long-suffering attempts to make it stop.
Steve nodded at Kitty Pryde as she bounced past, wearing a sweater covered in silver stars of David. She gave him a wave, but kept going, phasing through the couch and Stephen Strange, who didn't seem to notice. Wanda and Pietro Maximoff were sitting across from him, laughing as they listened to whatever story he was telling.
“A lot of the kids are from a local boarding school,” Steve said, ladleing out six cups of cider in quick succession. “Most of them go home for the holidays, but some of them can't afford to, or-” He paused, dropping a cinnemon stick into each cup. “Or it's not safe for them to go home.”
Paras popped up next to them. “These for us, Cap?” he asked with a grin. It was in sharp contrast to the magenta color of his skin, and Steve smiled back.
“They're for you,” Steve agreed, grabbing a tray. “How was your Diwali?”
“Great! Thanks for asking.” Paras gave Adam a smile and a nod, then collected the tray and headed off again.
Adam watched him go. “Probably not safe for them a lot of places,” he said, as Kurt walked past, a little girl with hair like swirling orange tentacles clinging to his shoulders.
“Probably not.” Steve looked over to where Lily was jumping rope using Reed Richard's elongated arm, Valeria holding his hand and swinging it. Reed looked delighted to be included, a santa hat firmly on his head. “But they're safe here.”
Adam nodded. “That why the buffet's a little..” He paused, his eyes narrowing as he searched for a word that wouldn't insult.
Steve grinned at him. “I like to go with eclectic,” he said, reaching for another stockpile of glasses. “We ask everyone who's coming to tell us either a traditional food their family has at this time of year, or their favorite food. So they get at least a taste of home.”
“I thought that potato salad seemed familiar,” Adam said, sipping his cider.
“Lucy said it was Lily's favorite.”
“And her mama's, but let's go with Lily,” Adam said, and Steve laughed. Adam set his cup down. “Okay, truth time, Captain America. How crazy is my little girl's life going to be, if we let this continue?”
Steve took a deep breath. “Truthfully?” he asked. Adam nodded. “The king of Wakanda knows Lucy by name. Her life is going to be changed by this. No matter what happens from here. It's going to be a bit unusual.”
Adam straightened up. “The king.” Steve nodded. “Huh.”
“If it helps, T'Challa likes her,” Steve said.
“Not sure if it does, but thanks for the effort.”
Steve wiped down the bar. “We like her, too.”
“Yeah, you should, she's amazing.” Adam shook his head. “That girl was always going to be trouble. Knew it the first moment they put her in my arms.” But he was smiling, soft and warm, and Steve smiled back.
Steve looked up, and Luke held up a bottle. “We're out of cranberry juice,” he said. “You got any more?”
“Yeah, I'll get some from the pantry,” Steve said, pushing himself upright. “Sorry, I'll be right back,” he added to Adam.
“Forget that, come sit with us,” Jessica called, with a grin. “We're more fun.”
“Hey, now, no one's more fun than Captain America,” Luke teased, arms crossed over his chest.
“Everyone's more fun than Cap,” Danny said, and Dani flung a cherry at him. It hit him square on his cheek.
“At least someone likes me,” Steve said, as Adam headed over. He gave the baby a wink. “That's my girl.”
“Hey, hey, hey!” Luke said, pointing a finger at Steve, and, laughing, Steve headed for the elevator.
He was heading back up, half a dozen bottles of juice balanced in his arms, when the elevator suddenly paused. Steve looked up. “Jarvis?”
“One moment, Steve,” Jarvis said, and the elevator doors opened again. DJ and Lucy came running around the corner, hand in hand.
“Going my way?” Steve asked, as they ducked onto the elevator. He looked at DJ for any hint of what was happening. “Enjoying the party?”
DJ grinned, wide and bright. “Yes.” Beside him, Lucy tipped her head to the side, and Steve spotted the little blue green lizard perched on her shoulder.
“She's beautiful,” Steve told Lucy.
“I named her Zora,” Lucy said, and Steve's chest ached.
“That's a very good name,” he said.
“We're going up to the roof,” DJ said, his hand still wrapped tight in Lucy's. “Find dad?”
“I've got to get these to the bar, then I'll see what I can do.”
“Thanks, Steve.” DJ let go of Lucy for long enough to hug Steve around the waist, only letting go when the elevator stop. He looked up. “Thank you.”
Steve shifted the bottles into one arm so he could ruffle DJ's hair. “Love you, botboy.”
“Love you,” DJ echoed, and Steve stepped off of the elevator, turning at the last minute to catch one last glimpse of them. DJ had recaptured Lucy's hand and the two of them were smiling at each other, so young and so full of hope that for a second, it hurt to breathe.
The doors shut, and Steve turned back to the party.
“There you are.”
Steve smiled as Rhodey appeared out of the crowd, immediately taking half of the bottles from him. “You made it,” he said as he lead the way to the bar.
“Sorry I'm late,” Rhodey said, as they handed over the bottles to Clea, who now appeared to be working as a bar back. Steve wondered if he should be concerned about that. “Where's Tony?”
“Saw him outside with McCoy,” Luke told them. He leaned over the bar to clasp Rhodey's hand. “How's it going, brother?”
“Looking forward to a few days off,” Rhodey said. “Can you save me a decent beer? I gotta find the host.”
“Good luck with that,” Danny said. “Steve, we've got the champagne and sparkling grape juice on ice, let me know when you want me to break out the glasses.”
“With this crowd, the later the better,” Steve said. “Let's go find Tony.”
“How's it going?” Rhodey asked as they walked across the room. He waved at Misty Knight and Carol Danvers as he passed them, ducking as Spidey came swinging across the room with a little boy clinging to his back. “Any problems?”
“It's been running pretty smoothly-” Steve said, as Lucy's older sister popped up directly in front of them.
“You're War Machine,” Letitia said to Rhodey, her eyes huge. “Oh my god.”
“Technically, the armor's-” Rhodey started, but that was as far as he got.
Letitia leaned in. “Marry me,” she said.
Rhodey's eyebrows arched, and his lips twitched up in a smile, but he didn't miss a beat. “A girl as fine as you couldn't possibly survive on a military salary,” he said. “You deserve better.”
Letitia pointed a finger at him. “Honey, that was the perfect answer, damn you.” She reached for her bag. “Can I at least get a selfie here to brag about?”
“I think we can manage that,” Rhodey said, and he grinned as she leaned back against him, throwing up a peace sign as she snapped the selfie.
“Thanks!” she said, and then she was gone in a swirl of brilliant green skirts.
Rhodey pointed a finger in Steve's direction. “Don't.”
Steve held up his hands. “What?”
“Don't say a damn word,” Rhodey said.
“Look, I wasn't going to say a thing, you should just be glad that Tony wasn't around,” Steve pointed out with a grin. “Because I'm sure he'd support it.”
“What, me marrying a twelve year old?” Rhodey said, pressing a hand to his face to hide his own grin.
“She's in college, and it's more that if DJ married Lucy someday, and you married Lucy's sister, you could be his son-in-law.”
“That's not how that works. That's not at all how it works.”
Steve was trying not to laugh. “But would Tony see it that way?” he asked, trying for an innocent face.
Rhodey gave him a look, but his eyes were dancing. “Rogers, if you ever-”
“I guess it depends on what you got me for Christmas,” Steve said.
“It's a t-shirt I bought at Coney Island that says 'This is my Mandatory Fun Shirt' on it,” Rhodey told him.
“Guess you're safe, then,” Steve said, slapping him on the back. “Come on, let's go find Tony before he gives up on being father of the year.”
“Huh, how'd you know that's what his t-shirt says?” Rhodey said, throwing an arm around Steve's shoulders.
“I am an excellent guesser. Let's go.”
Rahne looked up, her eyes going wide for a second, just for a second, and then her face relaxed into an easy smile. “Hello there, Miss Lucy,” she said, with a tilt of her head. “Happy Christmas.”
“Merry Christmas.” Lucy smiled back, but her hands were shaking, just a little, in the pocket of her jacket. She flexed her fingers, and felt Zora rub against the side of her hand before settling down in the depths of Lucy's pocket. Lucy stroked her head with her thumb, and took a deep breath. From her other pocket, she pulled out the little cellophane bag, holding it out to Rahne. “This, it's for you.”
Rahne blinked, her smile fading, but she reached out to take it. “Ah, thank you, luv, but I haven't anything for you-”
“No, no,” Lucy said, interrupting her quickly. “It's, well, it's my family tradition. We make peppermint bark. It's white chocolate with peppermint hard candy mixed in, it's good. As long as you like peppermint?”
Rahne nodded. “I do, thank ye.” She waved a hand at the bench next to her. “Want t' join me?”
Lucy sank down next to her, relieved. “Thanks.”
“Not that I'm objecting or anything, but I wasn't expecting a gift,” Rahne said. Her short hair was dusted with snowflakes, her pale cheeks pink from the cold. The other kids from Xavier's were running in circles on the roof, building snowmen and making snow angels, throwing snowballs and sliding back and forth on the landing pad. Rahne was alone, leaning against the building, tucked away in the shadows.
Lucy had nearly missed her, when DJ had led her outside into the swirling snow.
Now, she took a deep breath. “I wanted to thank you,” she said, tucking her hands into her pockets again. “You-” She stopped, her head down. “You've always been kind to me. You could've made it hard for me to fit in. And you didn't.” She looked up, meeting Rahne's eyes square on. “I wanted to thank you for that.”
Rahne rocked forward, her head tipping to the side. “And why would I make it hard for you?” she said, digging in the bag of candy.
Lucy took a deep breath. “Because you're in love with DJ.”
Rahne's fingers stilled on the bag. For a second, she didn't move, didn't say anything, didn't even look up. Finally, she pulled out a piece of the chocolate and slipped it into her mouth. “Well, he is very loveable. But I'd like to know, how did you figure that out?” she asked, her voice calm and conversational. “Since I've been so careful to hide it.”
Lucy had half been expecting her to deny it. Now, she scrambled to change gears. “David,” she said. Rahne looked up, dark eyes brilliant. Lucy swallowed. “Whenever I'm around, he watches you.” It was more than that. David always moved, always put himself between them. A physical buffer. He hovered. But mostly, he watched, and it had taken Lucy a long time to realize that he only did it around her.
The rest, she'd figured out on her own.
“David watches everyone,” Rahne said, her lips curling up. “That's what makes him Prodigy. He-” Her lips tightened, her smile going thin and sharp. “He sees far more than he should, the bastard.”
Lucy folded her hands in her lap. Across the roof, DJ was stomping through the snow, Valeria clinging to his back, her arms around his neck. Franklin and Xi'an were throwing snowballs and Paras and Jessica as Sarah rolled up her own supply.
And David was watching them. Lucy gave him a smile, and he smiled back, but his eyes were focused on Rahne. She, without looking up, just flipped him off. His smiled relaxed, but when he turned away, Lucy got the feeling that his attention was still on them.
“I kind of expected you to hate me,” Lucy said, bringing Rahne's head around.
Rahne slipped a piece of the bark between her lips, and took her time chewing it. “Hating you won't make him love me,” she said, calm and collected. She glanced at Lucy, her eyes glittering in the reflected light of the tree. “I thought, for a while, that maybe he would. We're a bit alike, you know.”
She held up a hand, flexing her fingers like claws in front of her. “I'm a shifter, too.” She said it with pride, her chin up, her shoulders straight. “I know what it's like, to live as two things, all at once, I know how that-” She exhaled, and her breath curled like steam around her face. “Changes you.” She gave Lucy a puckish smile. “Literally, ya see.”
Lucy smiled back. “Literally,” she agreed.
Rahne's smile faded, and she leaned back, staring up at the sky. “But he's never felt for me what I've felt for him, and that's just life, aye? Life and luck. You can't change a person's heart, no matter how you might like to.” This time, her exhale sounded like a sigh. “How much ya need to.”
Lucy nodded. “I'm sorry.”
Rahne laughed. “See, this is why I couldn't hate you, even if I wanted to.” She gave Lucy a grin. “You're perfect, you are, and I can't promise I won't take a nip at your ankles the next time I meet you in wolf form.” But there was only warmth and humor in her voice, no threat, no sarcasm.
“I'll consider myself fairly warned,” Lucy said. She drew her knees up, bracing her heels against the edge of the bench and wrapping her arms around her legs. “And I'm not perfect.”
“Nae, but you're perfect for him,” Rahne said. “And he's my friend. I want him t' be happy, after all, and you make him happy.” She looked down at the bag of candy in her hands, cradled in her lap. “That's enough, I think, t' call you friend.”
“I like you,” Lucy said, the words bursting out of her. “And I'd like to be friends with you, not because of him, but because of you, but I understand if that's, if that's too weird for you, or too painful-”
“Huh, and here I thought we were already friends, but if you don't think so...” Rahne grinned, and popped another piece of the candy into her mouth. She chewed slowly. “Tell you what, Miss Lucy. You teach me how to make this stuff, and I'll accept your offer of friendship.”
She was grinning, and Lucy grinned back. “Only if you'll teach me how to make real shortbread.”
Rahne's eyebrows shot up. “Oh, jus' cause I'm Scottish, I must know how t' make shortbread? Stereotypes abound!”
Lucy made a shocked face at her. “Oh, so you can't?” she asked, and it was a little taunting, just a little.
“You're damn right I can, I can make the finest shortbread you've ever had,” Rahne said, leaning in, her eyes narrowed, her accent getting thicker with every word. “But the butter in this country of yours is shite, there's no hope of producing decent results with that watery mess y' call butter.”
“Well, then, I'll just have to go to Scotland,” Lucy mused.
“Right, then I can do right by ya,” Rahne said. She bit into another piece. “But for true, Lucy, this is good stuff. Thanks.”
Lucy nodded. “I think my mom put too much peppermint oil in the base this time,” she said, her voice quiet. “It makes my eyes sting.”
Rahne blinked, her lashes sweeping down, and a tear slid along the curve of her cheek. She took a breath, and it shuddered in the air. “It's a bit strong,” she said, and she shifted closer to Lucy on the bench. “Lucy?”
Rahne's face crumbled, just for a moment, agony sweeping over her features, and her head fell forward, hiding it. “Don't tell him.”
Lucy reached out, catching Rahne's hand in hers. It was instinct, and the instant she did it, she wondered if she'd made a mistake, but Rahne's fingers curled around hers, holding on tight. Lucy took a breath. “Nothing good ever comes from telling boys about emotions,” she said, and Rahne laughed, watery and wobbly.
“Ain't that the truth.” Rahne leaned in, and laid her head on Lucy's shoulder. “New year soon,” she said, her voice just above a whisper. “Time for a new start.”
Lucy slipped her free hand back into her pocket, and felt Zora stir there, strangely warm. “'There are years that ask questions,'” she quoted, watching as the words dissolved in the air above their heads. “'And years that answer.'” She smiled. “I think it's going to be an answer year, Rahne.”
She felt Rahne nod against her shoulder. “But I wouldn't mind a few more questions, either.”
“You know what? You're right.” Lucy tipped her head back, letting the cold flakes of snow settle on her cheeks. “Either way, it's going to be interesting.”
Tony stood in the snow, his hands in his pockets, his head tipped up towards the sky. He heard the slight crunch of footsteps in the snow behind him, and he smiled. “Hey, Cap.”
“Hey, Stark,” Steve said, right before his arms slid around Tony's waist. His lips brushed against the side of Tony's throat, and Tony relaxed back into the heat of Steve's body. “Merry Christmas.”
“Not quite yet,” Tony said, leaning back against Steve's chest.
“Close enough,” Steve said. For a moment, they stood there in the swirl of snow, staring at the New York skyline. “You did a good job.”
Tony nodded. “There's still time for me to screw it up,” he said, and Steve's arms tightened.
“But you won't,” he whispered. “And even if you did, it's fine.” He took a deep breath, and Tony felt it through his whole body. “God, I love you.”
The smile came out of nowhere, and it curled through him, warm and pleasant in the pit of his stomach. “Absolutely have no idea why,” he said anyway, and Steve laughed against his neck.
“Because you installed an artificial snow machine up here so it could snow when DJ needs snow,” Steve whispered. “Because there's three dozen or more kids inside that are getting a present from Thor right now, after a party you throw and pay for, and the number of kids you end up hosting only gets bigger with every year. Because you made sure your son finished what he needed to finish. Because you love him that much.”
“I love you that much, too,” Tony said, and he closed his eyes, trying to memorize this moment, the cold wind that swept the snow in swirling arcs, the faint sound of Christmas carols from the living room behind them, the warmth of Steve's body, the warmth of Steve's words.
“Things are going to change,” he whispered.
Steve was silent for a moment. “Yes,” he said at last. “They always do.” He kissed Tony's jaw, and Tony twisted around his arms, tipping his head up for a kiss. It started out gentle and sweet, and Tony's hands sank into the fabric of Steve's shirt, dragging him down.
“I love you,” Tony said, and Steve shuddered against him. Tony smiled. “You still like hearing that, don't you?”
“I still need to hear that,” Steve said. He pulled back, just far enough to see Tony's face. “What's wrong?”
Tony reached up, running the knuckles of one hand along Steve's jaw. “Nothing at all.” He took a step back. “C'mon, I've been keeping Clint from doing something stupid all night, and I'm done babysitting. Let's go see what Santa-Thor and his assistant Elf-Bruce have for us.”
Steve considered him with narrow eyes, but after a moment, he nodded. “Merry Christmas,” he said.
“Merry Christmas,” Tony said, and he reached for Steve's hand. “And many more.”