Tony managed not to drown himself in the shower or suffocate himself with the blankets after he stumbled to the cot in the workshop, two facts that he considered strong wins.
Not a win? Sleeping through "lunch and decorating." Pepper was going to kill him. Tony gathered up the functional lights—wait, how was there only one strand? Seriously? Had the bot destroyed all the others during testing? Well, yes, technically Tony had been feeding them one by one to the bot, but that was how science got done, right? Except Pepper was going to kill him. No, Coulson was going to kill him, and Pepper was going to dance on his grave in stylish, 4-inch stilettos.
He dithered for a few minutes, trying to decide whether it would be worse to stay in the workshop and pretend he hadn't woken up or to crawl upstairs with the lone strand of lights as his meager offering. Just as he'd almost decided to fly to Malibu for the evening, he heard someone enter the access code to the lab.
"Tony? Are you up yet?" Steve's voice was... carrying, but not angry. Why was it not angry?
"Uh, I'm up?" Tony answered. He ran a hand over his moustache and goatee, checking for lingering drool crust. Nope, no crust; he was good to go.
"Good. Dinner's almost ready, the decorations are laid out, and we've almost got the tree up," Steve informed him cheerfully. "All we need now is you."
"Oo-kaay." Tony reluctantly bundled the last, lone string of lights up in his arms and prepared to go upstairs to meet his doom. "I thought we were doing lunch?"
Steve grinned brightly. "Pepper told us you were inventing, and we decided that you'd need the sleep after."
"Wow, that's really..." The verbal centers in his brain ground to a halt. Kind? Rational? Enabling? He gratefully let the sentence die as he was overtaken by a yawn. Steve didn't seem to notice, but instead drew him into the elevator.
The elevator doors opened to let them into the common level, and the spiky scent of fresh fir washed over them. Someone had Christmas music playing in the background, and the song was familiar enough that it was comforting even as Tony tuned it out. Steve headed straight for the kitchen. As Tony crossed the threshold, Pepper pressed a warm mug into his hand and linked her elbow through his, drawing him further into the room. He automatically drank from his mug made a face at the thick sweetness.
"It's NotCoffee. I know," Pepper laughed at his offended expression, "but everyone's been drinking hot chocolate, so I made one for you, too."
"It's also NotScotch," he grumbled, but he took another sip anyway. As NotCoffee went, it was surprisingly good.
"So..." He looked around the living room. Really, everyone had done a great job. There were swags of evergreen garland, be-ribboned candles here and there, and an enormous Christmas tree near the windows, surrounded by boxes and piles of ornaments. Thor's long arm was thrust between the tree's branches, holding the trunk vertical, while Clint explained something that required a lot of arm gestures and squinting. Tony indicated the tree and its attendant Avengers. "What's happening there?"
"Oh, we're having a bit of trouble keeping it vertical," Pepper said blithely.
"Is Thor going to stay there all winter?" Tony joked.
"No, they're waiting for— Here he is." Pepper nodded at Coulson as he arrived and handed Barton several arrows.
"What is he—" Tony's jaw dropped as he watched Barton clarmber up the Asgardian until he was standing with one foot on his shoulder and another braced lightly against the tree. "Barton! You monkey! Stop climbing Thor!"
Barton genially flipped him off before taking the arrows out of his mouth and doing something complicated-looking with them right below the top tier of branches. "Better than any ladder, Stark!" he called back. He gripped an arrow and tossed it, dartlike, into a corner of ceiling and wall where it hit with what Tony considered a disproportionately loudthunk. Barton turned slightly and repeated the action twice more before he straightened and backflipped off of Thor's shoulders. Coulson nodded approvingly to the archer.
Barely-visible line now stretched from the top of the tree to three walls of the room. "Did you just anchor the Christmas tree to the ceiling?" Tony demanded.
"Yep," Barton answered with a grin. "Okay, Thor, go ahead and let go."
Thor released the tree and stepped away. After the branches swished back into position, the tree remained ruler-straight. "Excellently done, my friend," he commended, clapping Barton on the shoulder.
Barton gave a negligent shrug but seemed to appreciate the praise nonetheless. "We're ready for lights, then!" he proclaimed.
Suddenly Tony's discomfort came rushing back. "So, about that..." He held out the lone strand of lights that had survived the creation of the new robot.
Coulson shook his head at Tony, and gave Barton a gentle push toward the kitchen. "Back to work, you," he said, walking with him.
"Thank you, Tony," Pepper said, taking the lights from him with a kiss. I know exactly where those should go." She disengaged her arm from his and crossed to the dining table. The center was laid with fir branches interspersed ribbon. Pepper expertly wove the lights under and through the branches and ribbon until the cord was almost entirely hidden.
"Thor, if you would?" she invited.
"It would be my pleasure, Lady Pepper," Thor intoned, stepping forward. He reached toward the table, and a sharp snap of electricity leaped from his fingertip to the lights which began to glow.
"And you think that will last?" she confirmed.
"Aye, my presence should ensure the persistence of the charge," Thor replied, smiling.
As if the lighting of the table had been a cue, the other Avengers began filing out of the kitchen with plates, utensils, and serving platters in their hands. The now-faint fragrance of his hot chocolate was overwhelmed with the aromas coming from the dishes, pungent spices blending with the resiny scent of the fir boughs and stinging his eyes. It seemed that Christmas time had actually arrived in Avengers Tower, and Tony had been too distracted in his workshop to notice.
Conversation centered mostly on how they would arrange everything to fit on the table and some light-hearted banter. The music changed from a traditional carol to something in a minor key but with a distinct drum line. As the singer claimed she had no gift to give the baby King, Tony grimaced. The trite song was not one of his favorites. Tony thought about the lights he had spent the past two days (unsuccessfully) fixing. No one had mentioned the rest of the lights, or the lack of them, but he still felt his failure sharply. This singer offered to play a drum for the baby Jesus, and Tony scoffed until he heard the choir add a soaring, almost eerie "All-Mighty, All Holy One."
Because, really? If there were an all-powerful maker of this universe and all others, what was a drum solo as an offering? Or, put the other way, what made any of the other gifts any more valuable to an almighty being than a heartfelt song from a little boy?
And if he was living with Earth's Mightiest Heroes, what was a dozen sets of Christmas lights—or even one lone remaining strand—to be giving them? Maybe... Maybe the point was mostly just to show up. And to want to be there.
His eyes might have gotten very round, because he saw Coulson nodding fractionally at him, the way a teacher might when a slow student finally grasped a concept. The song segued into a drum solo that even Tony had to admit was kickin'.
Everyone started seating themselves at the table. "Dinner smells amazing, guys," Tony said, "and you've done great things with the decorations. We'll finish after dinner?"
Pepper smiled at him. "We need to put the lights on the tree and then the rest of the ornaments, and then we're done with the common area."
"Um, about the lights," he began.
"Stark." Coulson cut him off. "When Pepper told us about your newest invention—congratulations, by the way—we took steps to," he paused delicately, "replace the inventory you were using for testing. The extra lights arrived this afternoon."
"So, we're good?" Tony confirmed.
"Yep," Clint answered. "And after dinner, we get to see if we can decorate the tree by arrow."
"I don't even want to—" Tony began.
"One word: Boomerangs."
Natasha smacked the back of Barton's head and said something no doubt cutting in Russian.
"I can too use the arrows indoors," he retorted. "Coulson even let me use the grappling arrows..."
"I knew that would come back to haunt me," Coulson griped. He mimed checking his watch. "Look, five whole minutes later. That might be a new record."
"Eat before it gets cold, everyone," Steve said. "There's more decorating to do."
Tony looked around the table and smiled at his friends. "I'm glad we're all here together," he said simply. Then, for the first time, he said, "Merry Christmas, everyone."