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Christmas Present is the Christmas Future of Christmases Past

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"Are you sure dad is gonna make it home in time for Christmas?" Clint asked as he laid upside down on one end of the couch, his legs only just long enough for his feet to rest on the top of the low back. Bruce and Tony had realized early on that sturdy, low-seating was probably best for their hyperactive brood. "Because the weatherman on here says like all the flights everywhere are grounded." He held his tablet out for him to look at even if the screen was upside down.

Bruce bit back an admonishment at his not sitting up properly, but it was going on eleven and the kids were restless and very clearly starting to get worried about the absence of their other father. There had been an emergency a couple of days prior at an SBI research facility out-of-state that couldn't be ignored or insensitively delegated to someone of a lower-rank. That was followed by a freak snow storm halting and delaying a lot of flights across the country.

"Of course dad is gonna make it home in time for Christmas!" Steve exclaimed like he was chastising a doubting Thomas. "He said so himself when he called earlier!"

"So," Clint said with a shrug and went back to scrolling through his tablet upside down. "Maybe they cancelled his flight right after that.” His six-year-old logic was pretty sound on that point. “Or maybe they had to make an emergency landing because the storm got too bad." Jake flinched a little against Bruce's chest where the little boy had been nodding off as he snuggled in Bruce's lap while they watched Elf for the twenty billionth time at least. His youngest looked up at him with worried eyes, no doubt at the mention of emergency, and then at his older brother as he continued. "Maybe he had to land at some small airstrip in the middle of nowhere and he doesn't have any phone signal or WiFi to tell us."

Bruce couldn't help snorting a little in amusement. "I don't think your dad would take too kindly to that implication. Why, don't you know our phones are so amazing there doesn't even need to be a network tower in the area?"

He shared a laugh with Clint and Steve at the expense of Tony, who was constantly making a claim that even at ten and nearly seven the two boys knew was slightly ridiculous. The WiFi thing wasn't entirely ridiculous though. With even the slightest internet connection anywhere Tony would be able to find a way, bypassing mainframes with JARVIS if need be, in order to get some kind of message to him and there had indeed been radio silence for more than an hour now. And he should have landed at least forty minutes ago if he wasn't misjudging the flight time. In general, Tony was usually chattier than this in these kinds of situations, chomping at the bit to get home as much as the kids were for him to get home. Unless, maybe he'd fallen asleep. Bruce knew the small, unplanned trip had been taxing from talking to him that morning.

"Daddy," Jake broke through his thoughts with a small yawn, "is Santa gonna be able to deliver our other presents?" There were a couple of gifts from their dads and grandma Rebecca already under the tree, and the gifts from the kids to their dads and grandparents too, but the rest wouldn't be there until the next morning, after Santa came of course.

"He's got Rudolph, dummy," Clint answered first.

Bruce frowned. "Clint, apologize to your brother. The only acceptable use of that word is when you're addressing—"  He was cut off by robotic clicks and hisses as the helping robot, the first his husband had ever created, named Dum-E came rolling in from JARVIS only knows where as if he'd been called. Why the kids thought they needed a dog was beyond Bruce.

His three rambunctious boys started laughing at the sight, a symphony to Bruce's ears that he wished Tony was there to share his delight in. There was no need to worry, he quickly reminded himself and focused on the joy at hand.

"Dum-E!" Steve laughed with his head thrown back and one hand clutching his chest like he always did, a bizarre if charming trait he and Tony weren't quite sure what to make of.

"I didn't mean you!" Clint said with his own laugh, rolling over and sitting upright on his knees in what fell swoop.

"Yeah, he meant me, silly!" Jake giggled, much more awake and at ease again. Bruce had to smile at that and so would let the insult slide this time. It was Christmas Eve after all and if Jake hadn't taken offense, he wouldn't disrupt things.

"Hey, Dum-E," Natasha suddenly got the robot's attention as she and her grandmother came into the family room bearing a couple of trays of hot cocoa, "where were you to help us with this, huh?" Bruce smiled at how she sounded like Tony at the moment, chastising the robot as it hung its head in shame.

"Hey, be nice to him!" Steve immediately came to the robot's rescue and Jake chimed in a, "Yeah!"

"Okay, then you jerks come help," Natasha turned the tables on her younger brothers.

Bruce sighed and carefully motioned for Jake to get up so he could intercept the tray from his daughter. "How about dad helps, huh?" She shrugged when he took it. "And everyone else just sit down and chill a little or else I might need to send Santa a quick email to let him know you aren't interested in your gifts this year." Although two out of four didn't believe in Santa anymore, all four looked perfectly scandalized by the notion. Rebecca laughed softly. Bruce leaned in and whispered, "Not sure hot chocolate was a good idea, mom."

"Sure, it is, sweetie. A nice, warm drink will calm them right down while we wait for Tony."

"But, but," Jake started stammering and his lip quivered a little all of a sudden, "I… I was gonna ask if I can…" Bruce quickly set the tray down on the coffee table and sat back down on one of the arm chairs, pulling his youngest closer to him to try and soothe him. Jake visibly swallowed hard against his emotions and said, "I was gonna ask if I can email Santa again." He looked on the verge of letting loose any tears he'd been holding back.

"Jake, I was just kidding about Santa not bringing gifts," he reassured him, pulling him in between the gap in his legs to hug him.

"You should never kid about Santa," Clint said very seriously from where he was frowning, a whip cream mustache already painting his lips. Rebecca very audibly choked on a suppressed laugh.

"That's right. I shouldn't," Bruce said patiently. He then let Jake go and looked at him. "I promise you Santa is coming. But why do you want to email him again, hmm?"

Jake glanced down at his shoes, suddenly very shy. "I, um, I… I thought maybe," he mumbled very softly, the opposite of his usual boisterous volume. "Maybe I can ask Santa to pick up dad."

Bruce had to give him another hug for that. "How about we try and give dad another call first instead," he offered. Jake nodded eagerly and the other three seemed in agreement. Rebecca smiled at him as she set down the other tray, took a mug for herself, and went to sit on the couch. Steve, Natasha, and Clint quickly vied for the two seats beside her. Bruce smiled back as he held his phone to his ear and waited for an answer.

Instead of an answer from Tony the call connected to JARVIS' remote private server. It was accessible only to their family and closest friends as a sort of built-in homing beacon, especially in such cases as this. "Good evening, Dr. Banner. Mr. Stark's phone is currently at critically low levels. It is in battery reserve for emergency calls only."

"Oh," Bruce toned. That was... very unusual. Tony almost never let his battery get that low. He would build a charging dock into his own body if he could, Bruce often joked. His kids were all staring at him at his tiny outburst of surprise so he casually hung up the phone.

That caused Jake to worry more and he tugged on Bruce's arm. "Why'd you hang up?"

"Daddy's phone is charging," Bruce answered gently, deciding it was better to fib just a little in this case. Maybe Tony's phone was still charging or maybe it wasn't. A glance at his older children showed him a worried glance between Natasha and Steve, who both understood how rare that was as much as he did. So Bruce quickly added, "Your dad's been very busy the past couple of days and told me how tired he is. He probably fell asleep on the plane without thinking to charge his phone sooner. You know JARVIS takes our safety very seriously no matter where we are," he continued. Their own personal Skynet waiting to happen, Bruce often teased his husband – and there had maybe been some nightmares once after the three older kids had watched some Disney movie about a smart house taking over. "So he would have alerted us if anything was wrong. Isn't that right, JARVIS?"

"Indubitably, sir."

"What's indootbly mean?" Jake asked with a scrunched face.

"It means," Bruce smiled and gently poked at each scrunched cheek, causing Jake to scrunch up more in humor, "yes, very much so. And that your father is okay."

"Oh, phew," Jake sighed melodramatically as any four-year old is apt to do, sagging his shoulders as he did. Then he looked at him. "But will he be here before midnight? We can't open our first gift without him!"

Jake was particularly excited about this little tradition Bruce and Tony had started with their kids when Natasha had turned four. This was the first year he really was starting not only to grasp the holiday traditions they had, but also actively look forward to them – just like his dedication to the Christmas countdown calendar they had.

Bruce considered the situation for a moment before saying, "Well, how about we try this." He glanced at all of his children to see if they were paying attention; they were, of course. "We still have about an hour until midnight. If dad's not home by then, we definitely won't open the first gift without him. Then the four of you will go to bed like good boys and girls are supposed to, but… I'm sure Santa won't mind if I wake you as soon as your dad does get home. How's that sound?"

"And we can open the first gift then?" Clint asked.

"Yes," Bruce promised.

"I hope he gets home before midnight though," Steve mumbled as he leaned his head against his grandmother's shoulder, having snagged one of the seats beside her.

Rebecca looked down at him with a small smile. "We all do, dear. Especially your daddy I'm sure." She looked at Bruce. "Since this is sort of a special day."

Steve perked up immediately with an, "Oh yeah! Our dads said they fell in love on Christmas Eve!"

"No they didn't," Natasha quickly countered. "They said they decided on Christmas Eve they wanted to spend forever together."

"It's the same thing!"

"Nuh-uh! They had to already be in love by then even if they didn't know it."

"I thought they got fake-married on Valentine's Day," Clint chimed in, confused.

Bruce didn't know whether to give a weary sigh or chuckle at everything so he went with the latter and then shot his mother a playful glare. "Thanks, mom."

"Well, why don't you tell them the story again while we wait for Tony. It's been a while from the sounds of it."

"Yeah!" Steve cheered. "I bet Jake don't even remember it."

"Remember what?" Jake asked from where he was at the coffee table attempting to down an entire mug of cooled hot chocolate as quickly as possible like the adorable, little goober he was.

"Alright, alright," Bruce acquiesced. There were worse ways to pass the time not worrying about Tony than telling their kids all about that night fifteen years prior.

 


 

Tony bounced on his heels as he waited for Bruce to exit the terminal. There had been emails and phone calls, and a few video conferences with tech that still wasn't where Tony was convinced it could be, but Tony hadn't been with his boyfriend for nearly three months. Three excruciating months of uncertainty, and yet the most certainty he'd ever felt about anything in his life.

After all of the insanity with Stane and Ross and then the horror of September 11th Bruce had needed a sabbatical of some sort. Tony could hardly blame him and made sure he'd gotten medical leave, but he'd been a little caught off guard when the man had decided to hightail it all the way to South America on a humanitarian venture rather than just ask him to fly them to that cabin in British Columbia he was rather fond of or anywhere else at all. He had been caught off guard that part of the sabbatical was from Tony too, even if they were still talking and their relationship wasn't officially on hold or anything.

Tony scanned the area again, just in case he'd misjudged the correct terminal, but he knew he hadn't. He was just itching to have Bruce close enough to touch again. And close enough to blurt out all of the things that he had tried time and time again to tell him in their long distance correspondence only for it to always come out in the words, "Miss you. Come home soon."

Now he was home again, but as optimistic as Tony could be he also knew if ever there was a time to keep his ego in check and not overestimate, it was now. Three months was a long time and maybe Bruce had come to conclusions contrary to his tone in their conversations. Three months was a long time to be away from a person. Tony knew it could have been three years and he'd still feel all of the emotions bursting at the seams of his heart, but that didn't mean it would be the same for Bruce. Maybe they'd try and pick up where they left off only to find it stagnated out. Maybe Bruce was already mentally packed and ready to move back in with his mother and aunt or maybe his cousin or maybe somebody else or—

Bruce stepped into the noisy airport and time stopped. Tony didn't care if that had only been some romantic movie cliché with no foundation in reality up until this moment because time. fucking. stopped. There was nothing, no crowds, no noise, no other thing in the universe save for the gorgeous man not even fifty feet away from him. Bruce was the only thing in the universe and yet Tony was somehow given permission to be conscious of it while everyone else remained frozen in ignorance; their loss and his monumental good fortune. He felt a touch of déjà vu. 

"Tony?" Bruce's voice cut through the time-space-continuum and the world started moving again.

Then Bruce's face lit up with a surprised smile. The kind of wide smile that crept up on a person only accustomed to the physicist's small smiles. The kind of wide smile that made Tony's heart pound and his own smile answer back like the moon reflecting the sun – even if Bruce always insisted it was the other way around – and made the world stop again.

Tony wasn't even sure how or when his feet had started moving or Bruce's either for that matter, but they were suddenly in a strong embrace. It was the kind that only the naïve around them would look at and assume best friends, although that was certainly true too, or brothers. It was long and intimate and just short of PDA without any actual kissing to the point that even in one of the most liberal states in the country Tony glimpsed a few scandalized looks that screamed, "But think of the children!" or "Heathens!" or even "How dare you compromise my fragile male heterosexuality!" Tony couldn't care an iota less and even made them all more uncomfortable by running one hand up into Bruce's short locks as he held him closer.

"God, I'm so glad your hair's grown out some since our last video conference," he said, terribly relieved.

Bruce snorted and pulled back. "We've been through this. It was hot in Brazil." He shook his head fondly at him, and god, Tony had missed that too. "I can't believe you're here. You should have let me know. I thought—"

"You thought I was going to waste a second longer in being with you again?" Tony gave him an incredulous look.

"Well, I… I don't… I mean, I thought my mom…" His eyes widened. "Mom was supposed to meet me—"

"And she's very eager to see you. Especially since it's Christmas Eve," Tony told him by way of assuring him he was already aware of the previous arrangement. "But she conceded to my request. Insisted on it really," he added with a laugh.

"Of course." Bruce chuckled.

"So I'm here under strict permission to sweep you away from LAX in my chariot and then take you back to our place where she's already waiting for us. I very highly suspect she's in the process of making Christmas Eve dinner for us too," Tony added with a wide smile. He loved Rebecca Banner almost as much as he loved her son. "She had that gleam in her eyes."

"Then she's definitely making us Christmas Eve dinner." Bruce nodded. "We should probably pick up my bags and get…" He paused and then gave a small, content sort of sigh. "We should get home."

"Yeah, we should," Tony agreed, loving the way the word sounded coming from Bruce's lips. His kissable lips… He blinked from his reverie to catch up to Bruce when he realized he'd already started towards the baggage carousel. "So you're not disappointed you got me as your welcoming party instead of your amazing mother are you?" Tony asked once they'd secured his luggage and were beginning their trek to where Happy was waiting for them with the car.

"You're kidding right?" Bruce asked in a skeptical tone.

"Well, a man's best friend is his mother," Tony pointed out, stopping next to the car.

"Exactly," Bruce agreed, turning to look at him. Then he got that very tiny, wry twitch of his lips that told Tony what was coming. "So remind me to thank her," he said before pulling Tony into a kiss by way of his jacket.

Nearly three months of not kissing his boyfriend had been like a drought. He hadn't even realized how thirsty he was, not actually, until this moment and so deepened the kiss almost immediately as if drawing water from a well. Somewhere his past self was laughing at him for being so naïve as to think no magical creature like Bruce could exist, for thinking there couldn't be a man that he could feel this way about.

"Ahem." Then Happy had to go and ruin the moment. They broke apart, Bruce with that gentle flush to his cheeks that he still got, and Tony would never get tired of seeing, even if he had nothing to be embarrassed about. "Nice to have you back, Dr. Banner," Happy said hospitably as he opened the trunk. "I hope you had a good rest. Good enough that you don't plan on running off again anytime soon. Not that I'm saying you were running, mind you," Happy quickly recovered. "But the way Mr. Stark here was moping around you'd think you had. And you can just imagine how fun that's been to deal with."

Bruce had tensed up for some reason and his lips turned down into something a little rueful. "Yeah. I think I can."

"Alright, not to cut the reunion short, but we have a beautiful woman waiting to spoil us with a delicious meal to get back to," Tony interjected, ready to move past this particular conversation… and also ready for a very different one. He'd second guessed himself all the way to the airport, but one look at Bruce had shattered any remaining doubt.

Bruce chuckled as they slid into the backseat of the vehicle. "You know, honestly, sometimes I think if you were attracted to women you'd be hopelessly in love with my mother."

"Babe, I am hopelessly in love with your mother," Tony teased, while also meaning it genuinely. He couldn't ask for a better not-quite-in-law. "But if you're suggesting I'd choose her over you in that hypothetical scenario and assuming your attraction to men were unaffected, I'd say I'd more likely still be gay for her son." Tony smiled at him.

"That so?" Bruce lifted an eyebrow. "And in a hypothetical scenario where I was also straight?"

Tony practically beamed at him and leaned in closer; he'd missed their banter as well. "I'd just have to find a way to convince you to be gay for me too."

"Would the correct terminology be 'bisexual for you'?" Bruce proposed.

"I think the correct terminology would be 'I don't fucking care what junk you're sporting, I just want to...'" Tony let his sentence trail and captured Bruce's lips in another long-missed kiss.

"Catchy," Bruce broke the kiss quickly to retort before bringing their lips back together, more hungrily this time. Tony was hungry too so it didn't take long to turn into a heated cliché in the backseat.

Once again Happy cut in with a, "You know I love you guys, but either of you starts undressing I'm pulling this car over and you can drive yourselves back."

Bruce laughed heartily, an unexpected sort of laugh, into the kiss and pulled back for air to laugh some more. Tony would swallow the sound if he didn't love it so much. And if he hadn't been deprived of it for so long.

"Let's cut him a break, Tony," Bruce said. "After all, he's being nice enough to give up Christmas Eve with his family to play taxi."

"Well, one the way you two are acting, neither of you could be trusted to drive," Happy replied. "Second of all, don't think I don't have incentive. Your mother invited me to stay for dinner too. I'm hopelessly in love too so if Tony won't, I have absolutely no objections to marrying your mother."

"She could do much worse, I guess," Bruce replied in good humor, with a small smile, but Tony saw the way he glanced out the window with a far away look.

Rebecca Banner had done much worse, once upon a time. And it had been a raw nerve the one time early in their relationship that Bruce and him had stumbled into the conversation of Rebecca ever meeting anyone new. Bruce was fiercely protective of his mother and the mere thought of her ever meeting someone who might turn out to be as horrible as his father was a practical trigger; he was selfishly happier that his mother had never tried anything serious again, and also guilty that maybe she restrained on account of him. Bruce had even admitted that he'd been nervous to start any serious relationship of his own in favor of letting no obligations come before being there for his mother.

Tony understood what was going on through Bruce's mind and squeezed his knee. To try and lighten the mood he teased, "Please don't. Not sure I want you for a father-in-law."

Bruce looked back at Tony. His expression was one of surprise, but there was something else Tony couldn't quite read in his eyes. Tony seriously hoped it wasn't bad whatever it was, and there were a million scenarios in Tony's mind where it definitely could be bad.

The look passed and Bruce laced his hand with the one on his knee. "That reminds me. Thank you for looking out for my mom while I was away."

"Are you kidding?" Tony asked with a smile as their heads leaned against each other just to relax; he was sure Bruce was probably feeling some jet-lag. "She was the one looking out for me."

Bruce chuckled fondly. "Well, I don't doubt that."

Tony turned his head a touch to kiss Bruce's temple and he murmured with his lips lingering there, "She knows I'm hopeless without you."

Bruce turned his head as well to catch his gaze, that look from before back in his eyes and searching Tony's eyes all the harder. They leaned in at the same time and shared another long kiss before settling into each other's arms for the rest of the drive. Bruce fell into a catnap and Tony enjoyed the feeling of having this warmth and nearness again. His face was probably besotted because he caught Happy's knowing look in the rear view mirror.

Bruce woke again shortly before they arrived at Tony's mansion and they spent the time all discussing casual things like Bruce's flight and some highlights from his trip. Of course, Tony knew that Bruce's mind was somewhere else. His own was too. He just still wondered, and worried, if it would end up being that their minds were now in two different places.

"Hey, Bruce, you want to take a small walk? Stretch our legs a bit?" Tony asked when they pulled up to their home.

"Sure," Bruce agreed.

Happy got the hint and went inside to leave them to their own devices. They walked hand in hand down the path that led toward the cliff side overlooking the Pacific.

"I've missed this view," Bruce stated after a quiet moment.

"Yeah, me too," Tony responded. Bruce furrowed his brow. He turned to look at him before understanding his meaning and ducking his head.

"Tony, I did a lot of thinking while I was gone," Bruce started with a sigh and looked back out at the ocean.

"I know," Tony said with a squeeze of Bruce's hand. "I did a lot of thinking of my own."

Bruce gave him a curious glance before looking away again. His shoulders sagged. "I've decided I'm going to have to start looking for employment elsewhere."

Tony's eyebrows went up. He'd known Bruce was disheartened with the company, like he himself was, but he'd not honestly expected Bruce to make such a firm decision. It was a surprise and Tony had to admit he loved him all the more for how strong his convictions could be. Bruce's convictions in these matters was just one of the many things that kept Tony hooked.

"I'm sorry, Tony," Bruce continued after a moment, turning to face him. "I just, can't see my future with Stark Industries. I understand your father's stance, I do. I don't fault him for it. I know our military needs suppliers. And I know you're doing everything you can to make the company more accountable, make the weapons more precise. I just..." He shook his head. "It's not for me. I tried... I thought..." He sighed and dropped his head, unable to finish.

"It's not the future you want," Tony said in understanding. Complete understanding. "And our future?" Tony prompted tentatively just the same.

Bruce looked like a deer in headlights. "I, um, I can't say I gave much thought to that... Well, I didn't but... maybe not specifically."

"Specifically? You mean you wanted to hear my reaction first?" Tony guessed. "Before you let yourself think about where I might factor in?" Bruce met his gaze again and gave a small shrug.

"Bruce," Tony grasped Bruce by his shoulders, "I told you. I'm hopeless without you."

"I... I..." Bruce stuttered for a moment. "Look, Tony, I know you care about me. I haven't doubted that for a second. But once I leave the company what will that mean for us? Will you resent me after a while? Don't you think I'm disregarding your family’s legacy even a little bit? Tony, you'll need somebody who can be there for you and I don't know if I can do that no matter how much I may still want to. And it's not just that," he continued after a hesitant pause, maybe because of what he'd admitted. He gave a small, almost rueful smile. “I realized some other things while I was gone. I... I know what kind of future I do want.” 

Tony strongly suspected Bruce might mean that he wanted to have a family, domesticity, that sort of thing. During their calls Bruce had talked at length about the kids he was helping. But if he knew what kind of future he wanted and was having a hard time seeing Tony in it, what did that mean? He could hazard a few guesses and it felt like his worst fears were coming true.

“But you don’t want that future with me?” Tony let his hands fall from Bruce's shoulders.

Bruce groaned in desperate frustration, pulling away a little. Tony blinked in surprise.

“No, Tony that’s just it. I do want it with you." Bruce looked at him so helplessly that it hurt. "Stop trying to make this sound like I don't want to be with you. God, the past three months I’ve relived that nightmarish day over and over. I kept thinking what if I’d lost you? What if there hadn’t been traffic? Tony, I love you." He closed his eyes and the helpless look turned hopeless. "I love you so much that it scares me," his voice was a hoarse whisper, "and I don’t know if I can risk this anymore. I..." He opened his eyes. "I can't risk taking the chance of us falling apart because of my decision. I’d rather lose you this way now than that way later.”

“But, Bruce,” Tony said with relief filling his chest and renewed determination, “you don't have to lose me at all." He carefully pulled a document from his inside pocket. “So before we do anything quite that drastic, I want you to read this.”

Bruce’s mouth was agape and there was a cute line between his brow, but he took the proffered document. He unfolded it and held it gently in his hands. Then with one hand he patted his pockets before pulling out his glasses. Tony took them from him and assisted him with putting them on. Bruce gave him a small smile before focusing his attention on the document. Tony watched as his eyes scanned it quickly, being a speed-reader like himself. His mouth fell open again.

"This…" He sounded breathless. He glanced up at Tony. "Tony, this is… amazing."

"I told you, I did some thinking of my own. And I realized that is the future I want. It's the future I've always wanted, but it was a little out of focus before. It might take a little while to make it happen, but I will somehow."

"It... It sounds like the perfect future," Bruce said, re-scanning the mission statement he held in his hands. "A company like that…" He looked up at him with sparkling eyes. "Tony, you could change the world."

"We could change the world," Tony corrected. "Turn the page."

Bruce did as instructed and let out a legitimate gasp as his wide eyes took in the actual business details, from desired initial location – somewhere in California of course – to the specific domains Research and Development would focus on – such as alternative energy sources and advancement of technology, engineering, and robotics across all fields. And most importantly, no more weapons. But that wasn't what Tony wanted him to see.

"Oh my god," Bruce whispered in a reverent yet also disbelieving tone. He looked up and now his eyes sparkled like there might be tears there. That was further indicated by his hard swallow and the watery twitch of his lips up and down. "Stark and Banner International?" He looked at the name of the company again. 

"The perfect future," Tony echoed his words. He looked at Bruce intently then. "Bruce, you're already exactly the person I need. More than that, you're the only person I want." Bruce's eyes widened. "I love you, Bruce. I've been so worried you'd come back and tell me you don't want me anymore when all I want to do is be with you for as long as you'll have me."

"Tony..." Bruce studied him. "What are you saying?"

"I'm saying I'd get down on one knee right now and ask you to marry me if I the bigots would let us," Tony answered and Bruce's expression turned stunned. "I'm saying I can't see my future without you, Bruce. I tried to imagine it. Imagine what would happen if you didn't want me, but I couldn't. I don't want you to just be my business partner. I want you to be my partner in everything. You want to start the business here, we will. You want to start it elsewhere and move your mom wherever that is, just say the word." He took a breath and then said, "You want kids then I want to be the man you have them with." Bruce's face flooded with emotion. "The future's ours to make perfect together, if you want, Bruce. Would you consider spending your life with me?"

"I…" Bruce looked down at the document and then at Tony. Before Tony could blink, Bruce suddenly all but tackled him and they were caught up in a passionate kiss. "Yes," Bruce said when he pulled away. Tony kept on kissing him – his lips, his chin, his jaw, his cheek, his lips again, anywhere he could – while Bruce repeated, "Yes. God, yes. Yes, Tony." They kissed passionately once more and this time when they broke apart they rested their foreheads together.

"Just to be clear," Tony said, happy and in love and in good humor, "I'm definitely also proposing a domestic partnership here."

Bruce chuckled fondly and kissed him again. "I know. And it's... it's exactly what I want.... what I wouldn't let myself hope for since I was afraid you couldn't see that kind of future with me," he confessed.

"I know," Tony echoed. "You weren't the only one afraid," he assured him. They both understood each other now. Their heads hadn't been in different places after all and Tony couldn't believe his luck. "We should probably go inside and tell your mother the news." Bruce heartily agreed, although they kissed for one long moment more before heading in.

"I was wondering when you two would make it inside," Rebecca was practically upon them as soon as they entered the large foyer, throwing her arms around her son. "Not that I can blame you with such handsome company to distract you."

Bruce smiled that smile that lit up his whole body as he hugged his mother tightly. "I've missed you so much, mom. And you know Tony could never take your place," he said earnestly.

"And Tony wouldn't want to," Tony chimed in, high on his and Bruce's decision and how now this would be his for, hopefully, a very long time to come.

"Oh," Rebecca said with a shake of her head and pat to Tony's cheek before giving him a quick hug as well. "I know. But I also know there are some things you can give my son that I certainly can't."

"MOM!" Bruce cried in a scandalized fashion, although definitely dramatizing, and Tony couldn't stifle a laugh.

"Just stating a fact, dear. No need to act like it isn't true," Rebecca said with a chuckle that sounded similar to Bruce's in inflection. Then she hugged her son again. "But I am glad you're back. In fact, as your mother I forbid you from going so far away for so long like that, at least without taking me with you next time. I've gotten spoiled having you so close by again," she said. Tony knew she meant when Bruce had gone off to college and then worked for a short time on the east coast.

"Don't worry, mom," Bruce said with another bright smile and glance at Tony. "I don't have any plans of taking off like that again anytime soon." Tony shared his wide smile.

"Good. Because I'm sure Tony here was getting a little fed up with my pestering him in your absence and—" She paused abruptly. Tony glanced at her to see she was studying them now. "What's this? What are you two up to?"

"Rebecca," Tony said with a deep, and to his surprise nervous, breath, "you don't have to worry that you were pestering me. In fact, I love that you treat me like your son." He looked at Bruce. "And because I love every minute I spend with your actual son, and long for him every minute we're apart," He looked back at Rebecca, "I've asked him to spend his life with me." Rebecca's face lit up and she looked back and forth between them.

"I hope you said yes," she said to Bruce in a mother's warning tone.

Bruce and Tony both laughed. "Of course I said yes! Geez, mom. What kind of son do you think you raised?" he asked in a teasing scoff.

"So," Tony continued with a bright smile, "then I take it you're okay with having me as your official, unofficial son-in-law?"

"Are you kidding? I thought I'd have to fill out the legal forms and give them to you for Christmas for the two of you to get the hint."

Bruce's eyes widened. "Mom... you wouldn't have..."

"Don't tell my mom or she might get jealous, but I seriously love you," Tony replied to that.

"Hey!" Happy suddenly joined them, clearly having overheard. "I told you he'd say yes, boss! Congrats, you guys!"

"Thanks," Bruce said with a chuckle, starting to obviously get a little overwhelmed.

"Okay, just one more thing before we raise a toast and have dinner," Rebecca said and hurried off. Tony furrowed his brow and looked at Bruce. Bruce hitched a shoulder in response. Before they could make any guesses, Rebecca returned with a small box all wrapped in decorative paper and a bow on top. "I know it's Christmas Eve, but Bruce and I have always loved opening one gift the night before anyways, you know." Tony knew that from his first Christmas with Bruce the year before. "And I've been saving this gift for many years as you can probably tell from the dated wrapping paper so I'm a little eager."

Rebecca handed the gift to Bruce, taking care of Tony's quirk of not liking to be handed things even if he insisted he'd always make an exception for her. Bruce noticed the tag attached to the bow and flipped it over for both of them to see. It read:

To: My dear, Bruce and the dear man who will cherish him
From: Mom

Tony shared a surprised look with Bruce and then watched as Bruce carefully opened the small gift box. They were startled further at the sight of two, clearly vintage if not overly ornate, matching wedding bands.

"You don't have to wear them," Rebecca stated immediately. "I’m not sure if they'd even fit you both," she added, no doubt in implication to the slightly smaller one that would most certainly have to be resized by a professional craftsman for it to fit either of them. "But they were my parents' rings, and I never got the chance to wear them after my mother bequeathed them to me. I've always meant to give them to you, Bruce. If only to have as an heirloom to mark the occasion."

"Thank you, mom," Bruce said and hugged her.

When he pulled back again and moved to show a curious Happy the rings, Tony took his place and hugged Rebecca. With all of the love and conviction and warmth and determination in his heart, all the things he never thought he could feel towards anyone, he whispered, "I will cherish him. I'll try not to let you down on that, I promise."

 


 

"I heard your father make that promise even though he didn't know it at the time," Bruce finished the story, a smile on his face as he reminisced on that night and his kids – particularly Jake who was in his lap again – listened raptly. "Natasha's right that I had already fallen in love with him long before that and I'd been pretty sure of it. In fact, I think I fell in love with him the very first night we met even if Steve's right that I didn't quite know that until later." And certainly now wasn't the time to digress into the censored version of that story. "But it was at that moment that I knew without a doubt I'd made the right decision in falling in love with him. I knew I was the luckiest man on Earth if your dad wanted to spend forever with me."

"But it was a tie for luckiest man on Earth."

"Dad!!" All four children cheered at once at the unexpected interruption.

"He's okay!" Jake said at the same time Steve shouted, "He made it in time!"

They all jumped up and turned towards the entrance of the family room. Bruce followed suit, but his eyes widened just as all of their kids stopped mid-run to tackle their dad in a hug.

"A puppy!" Clint was the first to break the surprised enchantment over all of them. "Dad brought home a puppy!"

"How fast dad is usurped," Tony said with a good-humored chuckle. He looked down at the puppy in his arms and shook his head. "Well, it's a good thing you're cute, fluffball. Alright, go meet your siblings," he then said and set it down on the floor and backed up while the kids quickly, and ironically, did a sort of dog pile around their collective Christmas gift. Well, save for Jake who first ran and gave his father a small hug, no doubt truly relieved Tony was safe at home again, before then joining his older siblings. "Just to be clear, this is your Christmas Eve gift," Tony added, not that the kids paid much attention which caused him to chuckle again.

Bruce bypassed the kids and their new puppy - a Leonberger puppy to be exact which he was still pretty certain they'd end up regretting at least at some point when it out-sized them all but that wasn't important at the moment - and made his way over to Tony. Tony's arms opened immediately and wrapped around him as their lips met. Three months all those years ago now felt equal with three days in terms of missing the other man when they were apart.

"How long were you listening?"

"Long enough to hear the last little bit about the rings," Tony answered.

"You had me worried," Bruce admitted. "Your phone—"

"I know," Tony interjected. "I was so eager to get home I left my charger at the hotel. Didn't realize it until after I woke up to a dead phone." Bruce felt a little vindicated that he'd guessed partially right about Tony falling asleep on the plane. "I almost bought a universal one from the airport when I landed, but you know I hate those things."

"You forgot your charger?" Bruce was surprised about that bit. "That eager, huh?"

"Either I'm getting old or I'm a certified sap," Tony responded with a shrug, his arms still around Bruce.

"Probably both," Bruce answered with a chuckle before accentuating it with another kiss. "But that was sort of the whole point of why I said yes in the first place. To see you become an old sap who just couldn't wait until morning to pick up our new puppy instead of coming straight home even though you should have known you were missed," he emphasized. The puppy had been at his mother's place the past couple of days, and while this had always been the surprise plan, they could have just as easily woken up early enough to go get it instead given the circumstances.

"Oh, is that so? Not because you wanted to become the old sap alongside me? The one who worries about me when there's no need?"

"Well, there's that too," Bruce conceded with a laugh and they kissed one more time before their kids got their attention.

"Stop kissing and come help us name our awesome new dog!" Clint exclaimed.

"They have to kiss a lot," Jake admonished. "Don't you remember daddy's story?"

"They can kiss and stuff later when they go to bed," Natasha said in a matter-of-fact tone. Bruce and Tony shared a slight grimace. "Right now they need to stop you boys outvoting me and naming our dog something dumb."

"Is it a girl dog or a boy dog?" Jake queried.

"What do you mean something dumb?" Steve countered his sister's previous statement, nobody answering Jake's question.

"What kind of dog is he anyhow?" Clint pondered aloud while Natasha and Steve continued to bicker. All the while Rebecca watched from the couch, laughing at her grandchildren's antics.

Bruce sighed as he turned around in Tony's arms and let his husband embrace him from behind as they watched the scene for a moment themselves, both knowing it would be only a short moment since they would have to intervene.

"Still the perfect future we envisioned?" Tony asked softly, the question entirely rhetorical and the answer to it in his loving tone.

Bruce gave a content sigh and let his fingers run across the matching band Tony wore on his left ring finger. "I think we both know this is better than anything we imagined."