Things became rowdy the next day when Tony decided it was time to fix things. It had been two days since Steve and Clint had left, there was still no sign of their return, and Christmas was drawing ever closer. When Tony and Pepper returned late the night before, they found Bruce asleep on the lounge, with Thor nowhere to be found. They didn't think much of it; JARVIS told them he had made his way up to the roof, and so they left him there.
Still, that morning was quiet. Natasha came down from her room and glared at anyone who asked if she was okay as though the answer was quite obvious. Bruce went back to his quiet ways and retreated down into the labs before anyone could ask him the same. Thor remained on the roof, leaving Tony and Pepper alone to prepare for Christmas.
"Any ideas what we're going to do?" Pepper asked as she tidied the kitchen with brisk, businesslike efficiency. Tony shrugged, tossing the bowls from breakfast into the dishwasher. She scolded him for doing so, slapping the back of his head gently.
"I know, Pep, I'm being careful. Look, none of them broke." He glanced over to Natasha, who was pointedly ignoring them. "I figured we'd just do the same as we did for Thanksgiving - you know. Dinner, just the seven of us. You, me, Tash, Clint, Steve, Bruce, Thor."
Pepper followed his gaze. She leaned in close, dropping her voice to a whisper so Natasha wouldn't hear. "Tony. We don't know if Clint and Steve will be back by tomorrow."
"They'll be back," He assured her. There was a rustle behind them as the spy folded her newspaper before standing and tipping the remainder of her coffee down the sink. She didn't say a word, just continued on out of the kitchen and down to the elevators. Tony frowned and he and Pepper shared a look.
"What if we invite Thor's friends? Selvig, Jane and...what's the loud one called?"
"Darcy," she told him. "Her name is Darcy Lewis. If we send a plane for them tonight, they'll be here by tomorrow morning."
"Exactly," He responded. "Jarvis, phone Erik Selvig and Jane Foster and tell them they and Darcy are invited to Christmas with us and Thor, and we can send a plane for them tonight to be here by tomorrow morning."
"That's settled, then." Tony leaned back into the bench with a sigh. Pepper came over and rested her head against his shoulder, draping her arms around his waist. He pulled her close and kissed her forehead with a tiny smile. "You okay?"
"I was about to ask you the same," she said. He shrugged. Were any of them really okay? Clint and Steve were quite possibly dead, Natasha seemed to already be in mourning, Thor was dealing with all the baggage of his messed up brother, and Bruce - who the fuck knew with Bruce. And he, well, he was just his own bag of anxious alcoholic crazy. He kissed her forehead again, thinking not for the first time that he was the luckiest man in the world for having her. She was a saint for dealing with him, and not just him, but his friends too.
"I'm sick of this," he confessed. "I don't know what it is, but in the past couple of weeks or so we've been drifting apart. All of us, as a group. You know how Fury's always going on about how we need to be a team? We're not a team right now. Thor's been here for two weeks and barely said a word."
"I know," was all she said, but she sounded sad. It wasn't hard to notice, even though she wasn't in the tower as often as she'd like - the Avengers were all pretty miserable. As she went to suggest something, Tony stood, striding across the kitchen purposefully. "Tony," she asked, her concern rising sharply, "What are you doing?"
"Fixing this. Jarvis, I want Natasha, Bruce and Thor here now. Don't take no for an answer."
Dr Banner is working in his lab, Thor has declined, and Agent Romanoff used a Russian turn of phrase I believe means -
"Jarvis, I said don't take no for an answer."
One moment please, sir.
"Tony, what are you doing?" Pepper folded her arms. She had no idea what he was planning, but already had a feeling it was going to end with Natasha breaking his nose. It wouldn't be the first time. "Tony, look at me."
"I told you, I'm fixing this," he replied, just as Bruce walked in, escorted by the Iron Man armour. Perhaps escorted wasn't the right word; it floated behind him, repulsors pointed at his head, armed to stun. Bruce was looking stressed by it. He stalked up to Tony with his hands in fists.
"Call it off. Right now."
"Mark fifteen, stand down. Thank you, Jarvis. Are Thor and Natasha on their way?"
Agent Romanoff has disabled the mark twelve armour. Thor is currently resisting mark fourteen.
"Only mark twelve for Romanoff? Jarvis, send the newest armour down, please. Have it cuff her hands."
"Tony!" Pepper and Bruce yelled together. He ignored it as they began to lecture him, sitting up on one of the benches and plucking an apple from the fruit bowl. He bit into it and pulled a face. Without the health freaks here, he didn't often restock the fruit. It wasn't rotten, but neither was it an entirely pleasant experience.
"Stark, I am going to fucking behead you. Call off your fucking armour before I use my feet to do it."
"Natasha! Speaking to you is always a pleasure. Or you know, it would be, if we ever spoke." Tony reached over and disabled the armour, allowing it to gently release her wrists from its grip. She gave him a venomous glare, hands curling tightly. Pepper stepped between the two and pushed Tony backwards with a gentle shove, a warning for him not to stand too close to the spy when she was this annoyed.
"Stark, I demand you have this thing unhand me!"
Bruce didn't really want to know how the Iron Man armour had managed to twist Thor's hands up behind his back, or worse than that, how it managed to hold him in place. He had seen Thor break kitchen counters just by slamming his fist down in joy, so if he had to guess, he would think Tony had worked out some kind of power dampening system into the armour's repulsors.
"Stand down," he told the third armour, and it did. The three Iron Men then continued on their way, presumably controlled by JARVIS. The bottom of one's foot dragged against the floor. Tony then turned to them all, an unreadable expression crossing his face. Tasha actually felt a stab of something - was it pity? Concern? - at that expression, but kept her face stony. She was entirely done with Stark's shit.
"I want everybody downstairs," he said in a commanding tone. His voice still seemed weak, rough, as though he'd been doing a lot of shouting lately. "We're going to get a Christmas tree."
The four of them, Thor, Natasha, Bruce and Pepper, stared at him as though he'd finally gone completely off the rails. Who knew, he probably had. Eventually Bruce spoke, voicing what everyone was thinking. "I'm sorry, we're what?"
"Christmas tree." Tony pointed to the door. "Downstairs, now, or I call the armour back up here and take you by force."
Nobody moved. Tony sighed. "Jarvis, could you-"
Thor was the first to make his way over to the door, with Pepper and Bruce following reluctantly. Natasha glared daggers into Tony. He gave her a smile and gestured for her to follow them. She folded her arms. An intense staring match ensued.
The name barely passed his lips before she walked out, catching up with the others easily. He smiled to himself a little sadly. These people were not just his friends, but his family, and while family could be terrible sometimes (damn, did he know that) it should never be as distant as this.
He made his way down to the parking garage, where they stood waiting for him. Pepper and Bruce were sharing uneasy looks, Thor was somewhere between curious and annoyed, and Natasha had maintained her stony glare. He opened the door to a station wagon with a grin.
"Thor, Bruce, Tasha. In the car, if you please."
Pepper had already made her way over to the passenger side and was buckling her seatbelt as Thor slid in. He buckled his and tugged at it uncomfortably, as a small child would. It was too tight.
"I'm gonna fucking kill you, Stark." Natasha hadn't budged.
"Get in the fucking car, Romanoff. You too Banner, don't think you can slink away when I'm not looking. See, Thor listens." He waved them over, grinning as Bruce crawled in, looking strained, followed by Tasha.
"If Thor's so great, why don't you marry him?" She snapped, buckling her seatbelt as he climbed into the driver's seat.
"I would if I could, but I can't, so I shan't. We all good?"
"I hate you, Tony Stark."
"Don't worry, the feeling's mutual. I hate me too." He checked the mirrors before glancing back at them. "Everybody okay?"
Everybody was decidedly not okay. They drove in silence. Thor stared out the window, a look of bewildered wonder at the snow-dusted city. Bruce stared at the back of Tony's head for a long, long time, as though trying to work out if he meant what he had said. Natasha glared out of the other window, her arms remaining folded the entire time. Pepper just didn't speak. They drove for what felt like hours, leaving the city and heading into Jersey.
When Tony pulled up at the yard and hustled everyone out of the car, they stood around in snow, shivering and giving him narrow-eyed glares. He ignored them, footsteps crunching through the snow as he looked over the rows upon rows of pine trees. With one hand, he pointed Bruce, and then to the guy running the place from his strange little tin shed, miming a saw.
Bruce got the message, approaching the man and requesting an axe and some rope. One was handed over without a word. The two women and slightly dazed Thor followed him and Tony as they trekked through snow, looking over the trees.
"Pick one," Tony said simply. They stopped and stared. Finally, Thor pointed.
"Would that one suffice?"
It was smaller than the others, with a couple of broken branches, surrounded by the sawn-off stumps of its siblings. Tony walked all the way around it, frowning. Bruce admitted to himself he could see the appeal of it, or at least why Thor had chosen it; it was a little broken, a little bent looking. Not to get into metaphors, he mused, but it was a bit like their team.
"I like it," Pepper announced. Tony nodded and shifted his weight, heaving the axe up and aiming the blade towards the lower end of the trunk. It buried itself into the wood with a smack, where it became lodged, and no matter how hard he tugged or pulled, he couldn't get it free.
"Oh, for the love of Christ. Give it here." Natasha pushed him out of the way and waited until he had moved well out of range before she gave an experimental tug at it. Planting her feet, she pulled. It came away easily. She swung it through the air and into the trunk yet again, cutting almost clean through it. With a fierce kick from one booted foot (that left a dent and scrape in the bark) she had it down.
Thor was the one who dragged it back to the car, at which point it was easily lifted onto the roof and strapped down tight. Tony handed the guy in the shed a couple of hundred dollar bills and wished him a Merry Christmas. They piled into the car, still quiet, but in much better spirits.
As Tony turned onto the freeway, he glanced back at Bruce. "You wouldn't happen to know anything about the money missing out of my wallet, would you?"
They all laughed, even Thor, who hadn't been there for the little Thanksgiving escapade. Nobody objected when Pepper reached forward and tuned the radio in to Christmas carols.
They were happy.