"I've thought of everything," the genius announced with a cackle, "and there is no way my plan can go wrong! A-haha! A-hahaha!"
"You know, Tony," Steve Rogers remarked, as he handed over a tumbler of Scotch and water, "you should probably take a little break. You're starting to laugh like a supervillain."
Tony Stark grinned sheepishly as he accepted the drink. "Well, you've got to admit, I have thought of everything."
Pepper, sitting on the sofa next to him with a glass of white wine, rolled her eyes. "Yes, yes, it was ingenious of you to decide to invite Mrs. Coulson. I'm sure she'll be thrilled to celebrate Christmas with a bunch of strangers in a foreign country."
Tony shrugged. "Well, I figure the only way we have a chance of getting Coulson to come is to invite his mother, too. And if it's just the two of them, she might enjoy getting away for the holidays. And not having to cook." He considered. "Or anyway not do all of the cooking."
Pepper sipped her wine. "I'm sure Coulson cooks, too."
Steve looked thoughtful. "And she might even appreciate a big confusing noisy Christmas." Tony made a face at him, and Steve protested, "No, I'm serious. I mean, for all we know Coulson has six brothers and sisters and they've all got eight kids each, but if it really is just the two of them and they normally have a really quiet holiday… You never know. It might be a nice change for them, to be around a lot of people."
"Anyway," Tony said, holding his glass up to admire the light through the amber liquor, "we'll see what they say." He looked around the cozy living room of Steve's third-floor brownstone apartment, admiring built-in bookshelves, art prints on the walls, and the tall narrow bay windows. "Have I mentioned how much I like what you've done with the place? Because I really like what you've done with the place."
Steve wriggled in embarrassment. "Thanks. I like these old buildings, they feel… homey."
"Hey, the Tower's homey. Doesn’t the Tower feel homey, Pepper?" Tony protested.
"Of course," Pepper replied, with one of her humouring-Tony smiles. "Particularly if your idea of home is the Massachussetts Institute of Technology."
"Like I said," Tony shrugged cheerfully, and turned his attention back to the StarkPad on his lap. "Now, here's the plan of campaign. We'll tell Fury and Hill that they have to come, because if something breaks out over the holidays-- "
"Wait a minute, Tony, you're not telling us you've heard of anything-- ?" Pepper demanded.
"No, no, of course not. Dr. Doom will be tucked away in Latveria drinking eggnog, or whatever supervillains do in Latveria."
"Eat fruitcake," Steve offered. When the other two looked at him, he shrugged. "Well, someone must eat it."
Tony grinned. "Good point. Anyway, not even supervillains want to ruin Christmas. I just meant, we'll tell them that if the Avengers have to assemble, having Fury and Hill on the scene will make everything much easier."
"That actually makes sense," Steve agreed, frowning.
"Of course it does," Tony replied, setting down the Scotch and picking up his mug of cold coffee. "And it'll probably work on Coulson, too."
"Although not necessarily on his mother," Pepper noted.
"Can't have everything," Tony shrugged. "Not that I would know anything about that." He consulted his StarkPad again. "Now. Clint will come because, face it, who's Clint got besides us?" He looked around guiltily, as if he regretted blurting that out, and also as if he was expecting another rebuke. Pepper and Steve just looked sympathetic. "Obviously, we won't word it like that," Tony added, in an abashed mumble. "But anyway-- Natasha will be in if Clint is."
"What about Bruce?" Pepper asked.
"Same as Clint, I figure. And since we're not all actually family, surely we can promise him we won't all get into a fight that might, you know, set him off.
"And speaking of family-- I'm sure if we sell this as a family holiday, we can get Thor and Loki on board."
"And Loki's household," Pepper prompted.
"Of course 'and Loki's household'," Tony agreed.
"George is Jewish, isn't he?" Steve said suddenly.
"I don't know, is he?" Tony asked, surprised.
"He wears a Star of David pendant," Pepper backed Steve. "Which doesn't mean he'd necessarily mind coming to a Christmas house party. We just need to be aware he might."
Tony looked distressed. "Well, my God, it's not like we're going to frog-march everyone to church on Christmas Eve or anything."
"I'd actually like to go to church on Christmas Eve," Steve said quietly, at the same time Pepper said, "No, I don't think dragging the Jewish werewolf-- or the vampire-- to church would be the best idea."
"Nobody says you can't go to church," Tony said quickly to Steve, making a note on the StarkPad. "If you want to." He turned to Pepper. "But really, what I have in mind is more… is more a big Avengers holiday party. Secular, I mean." His eyes were beginning to gleam. "Multicultural, even. Yeah. We can definitely-- " He broke off and began typing rapidly on the touchscreen of the StarkPad.
"Should we have a bad feeling about this?" Steve asked Pepper, aside.
"Probably," Pepper replied, and poured herself some more wine.
Loki was at work when the message arrived, but it promptly crashed the email program on his mobile phone and he had to wait until he got home to open it on the computer at the house. And then he realized it was also addressed to Annie, George, and Mitchell, and so it seemed only fair to wait for everyone to be able to open it together anyway.
"Do you have any idea what it is?" he asked Annie, who was looking curiously over his shoulder.
"No," Annie replied. "But since it's from Tony Stark, I assume there's some kind of convoluted file embedded in it that made your phone freak out."
"I wonder if the others have been able to open it?" Loki asked. He got his answer almost in the same breath, as his mobile buzzed in his jacket pocket. He pulled it out to find a text message from George, directed to both himself and Mitchell:
If you get a message from Tony DO NOT OPEN IT on your phone!
"Apparently not," Annie murmured, as Loki tapped out a quick reply:
Too late. Am waiting at home for you both so we may read it together on the computer.
A moment later another message arrived, from Mitchell:
Aw, how sweet. :)
Are we sure it won't blow up the computer?
Annie and Loki exchanged a look. Annie made a palms-up gesture.
"Only one way to find out," she said.
All four housemates were gathered on the sofa, staring at the laptop on the coffee table before them. After what the message had done to the email on their cell phones (George had needed to reinstall his program from scratch) they were a little afraid to unleash it on their computer.
"Well," Mitchell said finally, "I suppose we can't put it off any longer." He started to log into his email program to try the message again, then paused to glance at Loki. "You know, whatever happens, there probably won't be projectiles or an explosion." Loki glanced sheepishly down at his hands, which were curled protectively around the two black-and-white adolescent kittens in his lap.
"Better safe than sorry," he muttered, embarrassed, and scratched the two little heads. As Philip and Elizabeth purred at him, Mitchell grinned and opened the email attachment.
For a moment, nothing happened at all. And then the screen went dark, creating the momentary impression their laptop had also been overwhelmed by the message. Mitchell was just cursing and reaching for the power button when they heard the sound of tiny jets. A moment later, an animated Iron Man came flying in from the left side of the screen. He was carrying a large gift-wrapped box with a bow on it.
As the friends leaned forward in fascination, and the kittens wriggled in Loki's lap for a better look, Iron Man set down the box in the middle of the screen and turned to wave at them. And then, in both an audio format (the voice was that of JARVIS, Tony's electronic assistant) and in large and very fancy subtitles, a message was delivered:
You are hereby invited to the Wool-White, Bell-Tongued Ball of Holidays--
"Apparently," said George, "someone has been reading Dylan Thomas."
"We can assume it's being held at the rim of the carol-singing sea, then?" Mitchell speculated incomprehensibly.
-- which is being held at Tony Stark's lodge in Scotland, from December 22- 27, and which you DO NOT WANT TO MISS.
What, you may ask, is the Wool-White, Bell-Tongued Ball of Holidays?
"What a coincidence. That was indeed my next question," Loki murmured, sliding over a little to accommodate Scamp the dog as she scrambled onto the sofa between himself and Annie. (Being a ghost, Scamp did not generally need to be accommodated, but when sitting between a sorcerer and another ghost, the rules were different.) Philip opened one eye, glanced at the dog, and then settled down more firmly in Loki's lap as though staking claim on behalf of all kittenkind.
Onscreen, animated Iron Man (and JARVIS) explained,
Here the gift box opened, and out crawled an animated Captain America. Over his shoulder he carried a fully-decorated Christmas tree. He waved at the "audience," set down the tree, and walked off the right side of the screen.
From the box emerged a fluffy werewolf, wearing a Star of David pendant and carrying a candelabrum with nine lit candles in it.
"Ooh, George, it's you!" Annie exclaimed unnecessarily.
The werewolf set down the candelabrum next to the Christmas tree, considered, and moved it to a careful distance from the tree. He then waved and walked off in the same direction as Captain America.
Out of the box came what had to be Nick Fury, garbed in black and holding a red, black, and green flag on a stick. He planted the stick in the ground beside the Christmas tree, made a gesture indicating impatience with the viewers, and also with Iron Man, and followed the other two characters.
"Oh," said Loki, very startled, as a little Thor, in red and black, climbed out of the box and then reached in to offer assistance to a little animated Loki, in green and bronze and wearing the supervillainous horned helmet Tony found so much more amusing than Loki did.
The animated Loki was struggling with a log of wood, which Thor steadied while Loki climbed out of the box, and then both animated brothers carried it over to the rest of the symbols, setting it down between the candelabrum and the flag. Thor waved, Loki fired a blast of magic that ignited the log, and they walked hand-in-hand off the right side of the screen.
"Aww," said Annie, sentimentally.
The flames from the burning Yule log climbed higher and higher. Just before they would have set the tree and the flag on fire, an animated "bot" arm emerged from the box, clutching a fire extinguisher, and cast a blast of white over everything. Animated Iron Man put his hands to his head as the arm retreated.
"For the rest of us!" cried a host of animated Avengers and their friends, including Annie, Mitchell, Pepper, and Agent Coulson, as they also jumped out of the box and went running and skipping and cartwheeling (and walking, in the case of Agent Coulson) off the right side of the screen.
Iron Man watched them go, then faced front once more.
It's all the observances-- and all the food-- we can fit into a week. It's sledding and caroling and feasting and hot chocolate by the fire. It's a time for family and friends and relaxing and feasting. Have we mentioned feasting?
It's the revolutionary, non-pollutionary--
"It appears he has also been studying Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory," Loki observed.
-- spectacular holiday wonderfest--
"You have to appreciate his gift for refined understatement," Mitchell remarked.
"I was just thinking that," George agreed.
-- and YOU ARE INVITED! Bring yourself! Bring your family! Bring your pets!
Iron Man closed the box (the bot arm tried to reach out and had to be pushed back) then picked it up and flew after his friends. The screen went dark. The housemates looked at each other.
"Are we meant to reply by email?" George asked.
"I must have missed that part," Mitchell said.
"I think we should watch the invitation again," Loki suggested.
And they did that.