Tony taps a spatula on the side of the counter, humming AC/DC to himself, and steps backwards, only to hear an indignant yelp behind him.
“You need brake lights,” Pepper says, readjusting her grip on the chopping board that Tony had nearly knocked to the floor. “Reversing lights. Alarms going off. Eyes in the back of your head.”
“Sorry, honey.” He resumes tapping out a rhythm.
“Stop,” Pepper says firmly, for the tenth time in as many minutes. “Stop stressing. Get out of my kitchen. You’re being the opposite of helpful right now.”
“Pep,” Tony whines, “I have nothing else to do. I’ve wrapped everything I possibly can. I’ve peeled the carrots for the reindeer. I’ve put the cookies on a plate and poured the milk for Santa. The lights are all working. The fire’s lit. I need a distraction.”
Pepper puts down her knife and sighs. “They’ll be here soon, honey.”
“It’s snowing,” he whispers. “They’re driving.”
“Harley’s been driving since he was eleven, probably.”
“All the way from Cambridge.”
“I know.” Pepper smiles as she scoops the chopped vegetables into the pot. “I know you miss them, honey. They won’t be long.”
Yeah, Tony misses them. As Harley would say, he’s empty-nesting hard. They’re both at college – MIT, of course – even sharing a room. (He’s ninety percent sure that has something to do with Ned’s hacking skills, but it makes video calls much easier, so he let it slide). They’re not here, though; his kids have moved out, started college, grown up. He misses them.
“Go back into the living room, Tony. Entertain our guests. Keep an eye on Morgan. They’ll get here.”
“They better,” Tony grumbles. “It’s Christmas Eve.”
He moves to his armchair and resumes sulking there, bouncing Morgan on his lap as Happy occasionally stokes the fire, talking quietly to May, and Rhodey laughs at his muttered comments. Morgan squeals and claps her hands, watching the firelight dance off the tree ornaments and skitter up the walls. It’s her first Christmas, and Tony wants it to be perfect. That includes having her brothers here.
“Bedtime yet?” he asks her. “Or is Christmas Eve a special occasion?”
“Oh, definitely,” Rhodey says. “It’s Christmas, little lady. But you know you have to go to bed at some point, or Santa won’t come.”
Morgan shrieks happily.
“I think she got it, Tones.”
“Yeah.” Tony manages a smirk. “Sure she did.” His gaze strays to the window again, to the darkening sky and the steadily falling snow. There must be at least an inch on the ground now.
“Call them,” Happy says, jolting him out of his thoughts. “Stop moping and call them.”
“Don’t wanna distract them. Or rush them.” Tony gestures vaguely to the window. “Slippy roads.”
"They're sensible," May says. "They'll be fine."
“He's such a dad,” Happy says to her under his breath, and tosses another log onto the fire.
“Well, duh.” With a nod down at Morgan, Tony scoffs at his friend. “Where have you been?”
“You know what he means,” Rhodey says, “you’re just deflecting.”
Of course Tony’s deflecting. It’s instinct, an emotional shield, protection. He only lets a select few past his walls, and had only recently started thinking of Peter and Harley as his.
The Thanos scare probably had more than a little to do with that. Only moments after the Titan had snapped, after Peter had begged and sobbed and dissolved into nothing in Tony’s arms, Thor had buried an axe in his throat and pulled the gauntlet over his own hand before snapping and bringing everyone back. Tony and Nebula had been halfway to the ship when they’d heard Peter yelling his name.
As he pulled the kid close to his chest, terrified to let go, Tony decided five minutes without Peter Parker was five minutes too long.
Harley had disappeared too, for those few brief moments that seemed like an eternity. Tony could have lost both of them forever, so really, a few more hours should be nothing. Simple. Easy-peasy lemon squeasy.
He pulls out his phone and stares for a long moment before pulling up his messages to Peter.
Hey, Webs, you on your way? How’re the roads?
The reply comes only a couple of minutes later, much to his relief.
not bad so far we’ll be there soooooon!!!! :)
Good. We all miss you here.
Drive safe, you idiots.
He stays in his chair as Pepper puts Morgan to bed, then goes to bed herself. May follows, and Happy gives in after nodding off three times in front of the fire.
Finally, even Rhodey puts his glass down and sighs. “Tapping out, man. Sorry.”
Tony nods. “See you in the morning. Happy Christmas.”
“Happy Christmas, Tones.”
It’s nearly midnight, Tony realises when he checks his phone. Midnight and dark and snowing, and his kids are out on the road somewhere.
He gives the fire another moody prod and in his chair. Just a few more minutes, then he’ll override Harley’s blocker and track their phones. A few minutes, once he closes his eyes for a second. Yeah, just a second. It’s warm by the fire, and his chair is comfy…
“These are heavy! How the fuck did you manage all this?”
“I’m literally Spider-Man, dumbshit.”
“Yeah, merry fucking Christmas to you, too.”
“I hate you.”
Harley snorts. “Nicest thing you’ve ever said to me.”
“I could snap you in half with one finger.”
“Tempting. So, what are the chances we can get upstairs without being noticed?”
“Diminishing every second you keep talking. Just – help me put the presents under the tree and shut up.”
“Oh.” Peter pauses. “Okay.”
“Old man waiting up for us? How cute.”
“Well, there was an attempt.”
Peter’s footsteps move closer. “I know you’re awake, Mr Stark. I can hear your breathing. Anyway, Harley can’t stay quiet to save his life.”
Tony grins, keeping his eyes closed. “How kind of you to join us.”
“That one’s fault,” Harley grumbles. “Realised he’d left half his stuff at his girlfriend’s place the last time he was there, so we had to make a detour. Good thing you have a key, dumbass, and good thing she’s at Harvard. Imagine all your shit was at UCLA or something?”
Peter groans. “I said sorry.”
At that, Tony sits up and finally opens his eyes. Yes, there they are, his kids, their noses and ears red from the cold and their hair poking out from under beanie hats. Is he imagining things, or are they both a little taller?
“And then the roads were hell once we got off the highway – we might be completely snowed in here for a couple of days.” Harley pulls off his hat, leaving his hair a ruffled, frizzy mess.
Tony grins and pulls him into a quick hug; Harley doesn’t really do physical affection, or pretends not to, anyway. “Good to see you, Spud. Too quiet here without you around.”
“Yeah, yeah, missed you too.”
Peter, on the other hand? A leech. He grabs Tony almost as soon as Harley lets go and clings, burying his ice-cold nose in Tony’s neck.
“Jesus, you’re freezing,” Tony breathes.
“You’re warm.” Peter sighs in contentment. “Heater broke about an hour in. We didn’t want to stop in case too much snow stuck to the roads.”
“Here, Harley, put something else on the fire. It’s still warm enough to catch.” Tony pulls off Peter’s coat and rubs his arms, tugging him down to sit on the couch. “Stupid idiot – sending me smiley faces while you were freezing to death–“
“And here comes the mother hen,” Harley mutters, throwing a couple of small logs into the fireplace.
“Mm, I miss getting sympathy from people,” Peter says pointedly.
“You get sympathy when you earn it, dumbass. You carry on swinging into walls, MJ and I are gonna keep laughing at you.”
“So that’s a story for another time,” Tony interrupts, reaching for one of the blankets folded over the back of the couch and drawing it around Peter’s shoulders. “Harley? Still room down here.”
He expects Harley to refuse, make an excuse, laugh it off, but instead he shrugs and plops down on Tony’s other side, swiping the two plates from the coffee table as he does. “Cookies?”
“Sure. You can have the carrot.”
Harley looks Peter dead in the eye and bites the end of the carrot, chews obnoxiously, swallows. “Nice.”
“Tony,” Peter whines, “do you see what I have to put up with? On a daily basis?”
Tony would deal with it happily forever, for the rest of time, because it means Harley’s here and solid and alive. “You called me Tony,” he says instead. “I heard it. No take backs.”
“Habit.” This is said around a mouthful of chocolate chip cookie. “Spending too much time with this idiot.”
“Don’t eat all of it, leave some on the plate. Santa has a lot of mince pies and cookies to eat tonight; he needs to pace himself.” Tony waits until they replace the plates on the table. “There’s no such thing as too much time with someone, only without them.”
“Oh, ew,” Harley says. “Don’t start getting soppy on us, old man.”
“Why not? It’s Christmas.”
“One-twenty-seven. It actually is.” Peter waggles his phone. “Merry Christmas, guys.”
“Merry Christmas. Happy…” Harley breaks off with a huge yawn. “Holidays. Whatever.”
“Merry Christmas, you two.” Tony kisses the top of Peter’s head, then Harley’s, and grins when they grumble and squirm. It’s only a token protest; they both thrive off physical affection, although Harley is more recalcitrant about it than Peter. “Tomorrow – or today – we’ll wake up at some ungodly hour because that always seems to happen on Christmas Day, and we’ll open all the presents, and eat a stupid amount of food, and then we’ll curl up with alcohol and indigestion tablets and cry to Love Actually because that’s Pep’s favourite–“
“Pepper’s favourite,” Harley scoffs. “Sure.”
“What about A Muppet Christmas Carol?” Peter says. “We want Morgan introduced to the good ones early.”
“Elf,” Harley adds, “The Holiday, Rise of the Guardians, Nightmare Before Christmas–“
“No!” Tony laughs.
“Not a Christmas movie!” Peter exclaims. “Just ‘cause it happens at Christmas–!”
“Don’t need Little Miss getting any ideas.”
“The Polar Express?” Peter suggests.
“Creepy as fuck, man. They’re all dead behind the eyes. The elves freak me out.”
“What’s that?” Tony says.
“I watched it with MJ the other day. It’s animated. Funny. I think everyone’ll like it.”
“We’ll fit it in somewhere, then.” Tony moves his hands to the back of their necks, rubbing away the last traces of stress and excitement. “That’s tomorrow’s problem. Not right now. It’s half one in the morning.”
Harley stretches out, practically purring in contentment. Peter snorts, but his breaths are getting longer, more relaxed. It’s only a few more moments before his head lolls onto Tony’s shoulder.
“Weak,” Harley mutters. “He slept half the time we were in the car.”
“You didn’t,” Tony says pointedly.
Harley shrugs, knocking their shoulders together. “Wanted to get home.”
Warmth bubbles up in Tony’s chest.
“Oh, God, stop,” Harley mumbles, voice thick with sleep. “I can feel you getting emotional. Save it for when I have access to alcohol.”
“You’re the worst.”
“You love me.”
Tony huffs out a laugh. That’s his Harley. These are his kids. “Gonna be a good Christmas,” he says, half to himself.
Yeah, it’s gonna be a good Christmas.