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Power and Paradox

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Tony’d had a nice (if kinda awkward) conversation about Brooklyn with Henry on the way over to his daughter’s place. Henry’s grandson—Todd, eight years old—had gone saucer-eyed to see his grandfather being chauffeured in a Rolls Royce by Tony Stark and ran out still only half-way into his coat with his boots unlaced. Tony’d answered Todd’s excited questions about the Avengers (mostly Captain America) and chatted with Mr. and Mrs. Jackson (who were clearly bemused by Tony Stark’s presence, but were waiting to ask Henry about it once he was gone). Tony steadily refused their polite invitations to come inside for a minute. (They had a nice Christmas planned and didn’t need Tony Stark swanning in on it.) They parted with a firm, amiable handshake.

Back at the Tower, Tony headed for the workshop on autopilot, but changed his mind halfway there to reroute for the common room. He found the kitchen counter covered in cooking things: pans and bowls and flour and sugar and stuff.

“What’s all this, Bruce?” Tony asked.

“Christmas cookies,” he said with a little smile. “I know Steve said Chinese was fine tonight, but I thought he would appreciate having something a little more traditional.”

“Can I help?”

“Sure.”

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“Tony, I don’t understand how you could burn them!” Bruce cried in dismay. “I wasn’t even gone that long. And, wait? Are those scorch marks? Was it on fire!?!”

“Uh,” Tony began, a little shamefaced, “I maybe got an idea for that efficiency oven for Mrs. Rhodes and tried to multitask, and then spilled the—“

“Never mind,” Bruce cut him off, throwing his hands in the air. He took a deep breath and said more calmly. “Knowing will only make it worse. Just use the cookie cutters on the next set of dough, okay? Then you can decorate some when they come out. And stay on that side of the counter!”

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Half an hour later, Clint slunk stealthlessly to the Christmas tree with a set of messily wrapped packages in his arms. Tony felt a wave of relief that he’d planned ahead with presents, even though nobody had actually said that they were exchanging gifts.

“Oh, hey!” Clint said, coming over. “Christmas cookies? Can I help?”

“Definitely!” Tony said enthusiastically as Bruce put another sheet in the oven. “I need to tap out—time to make my calls. Oh, and don’t set them on fire. Bruce doesn’t like that.”

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“You’ve reached James Rhodes. You know the drill. Go!” BEEP

“Rhodey!” Tony cried into the voicemail. “Merry Christmas! I know you’re not picking up because you’re busy with your family, but merry Christmas to you and them. Hope you’re having fun! Call me later.”

Tony tossed a tennis ball for Dummy and watched the bot wheel off after it. Somebody had gotten the little guy a Santa hat. (At first, he’d suspected Steve, but on further reflection it seemed more like a Clint thing to do. That guy was unexpectedly into Christmas.) Tony made his next call; she picked up on the first ring.

“Hey, Pep! Merry Christmas.”

“Merry Christmas, Tony.” He could hear the smile in her voice.

“Did your present arrive safe and sound?”

“Yes,” she said, teasingly. “The Wonder Woman armor is ridiculous.”

“But awesome?”

“But awesome.”

“How’s your mom doing?”

“Mum? She’s great—she says ‘hi,’ by the way—but I may murder Aunt Maggie.”

“What’s she done now?”

“Nothing that unexpected.” Pepper snorted. “Did you know I’m not getting any younger? And, I’ll never find a man and have kids unless I accept that men want a sweet subby girl in public even if they’re Switches.”

“Do you need Iron Man?”

“I need a drink.”

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Tony’d let Pepper rant her way through a stiff double scotch then, when her familial duties drew her away, hung up and rejoined his team. They had assembled in the living room to drink Natasha’s poinsettia cocktails and wait for Steve. Not that they said they were waiting for Steve, but it was obvious the way they all kept glancing over at the elevator. After all, they wouldn’t start without him. And pretty much everything was ready. Tony had hauled his badly wrapped presents under the tree a few hours ago. (Well, all except Steve’s of course.)

“Why not?” Clint asked. “It’s a Classic!”

“It’s so corny,” Natasha protested.

Tony shook his head. “I can’t believe youwant to watch It’s a Wonderful Life.”

“It’s a Classic!” Clint repeated.

“Please could we not,” Bruce asked, sounding pained. “Really. Anything else.”

“Also,” Natasha began, with the air of a woman delivering an indisputable argument, “think of Steve.”

“What about Steve?” Clint asked, frowning. “I bet he’d love it!”

She quirked an eyebrow. “You want to show Steve a movie in which a guardian angel shows a man what the world would be like if he hadn’t been around to live in it, but ends with him being restored to his loved ones and living happily ever after with them.”

“Oh.” Clint said. “Oh, okay. Maybe not.” He paused and took a sip of his poinsettia, then suggested hopefully, “Die Hard?”

Die Hard,” Natasha agreed.

The elevator doors opened.

“Steve!”

“Hey, Steve!”

“Merry Christmas!”

“Welcome home,” Tony said, hopping off the couch to greet him. “How was it?”

Steve looked happy but just one notch shy of exhausted. There was a smudge of blue marker on his chin.

“Really good. Uh. Kinda tiring, though.”

“Make you a drink, soldier?” Tony offered with a quirked eyebrow.

Steve gave him a grateful smile. “Please.”

“Coming right up!”

As Tony mixed up another batch of poinsettias—cranberry, vodka, and champagne—the team eagerly encouraged Steve to add still more items to their Park Chop Suey order, extoled the virtues of Die Hard, and quizzed Steve about his trip to Magdalene House.

“Cocktails assembled!” Tony called. “Got yours right here, Cap. Everybody else, bring your glasses. Time for a toast.”

They raised their champagne flutes.

“To the Avengers! And merry Christmas!” Tony proposed.

“To the Avengers! And merry Christmas!” the team chorused.

Things were off to a good start.

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“I don’t think the math games—what’s it called? The numbers in boxes.”

“Sudoku?” Bruce asked.

“Yeah, that’s it,” Steve said, “I don’t think the sudokus I got Sarah were nearly hard enough. She was through a third of them before I left. But Jason really took to the colored pencils and was sharing them sweetly with Kevin. Sister Claire set up a drawing space for all the kids with new art supplies. Everybody kept trying to get me to play dodge-ball with them in the gym—and I did, for a little while—but honestly I was happier at the drawing station.”

“Sir? Your order from Park Chop Suey has arrived.” The team cheered. “And Mr. Yuen requests permission to bring his delivery assistant.”

(Huh?)

“Yeah, okay. Sure,” Tony said, a little bemused. “Send them on up.”

The elevator doors opened on Tony Yuen—who had wisely ditched the teenage scraggle beard since last Tony saw him—and a pretty girl with bright green eyes, sprinkled freckles, and curly red hair that screamed ‘poster child for Irish-American.’ They were both carrying a large bag of delivery food in each hand.

“Hey, Tony!” Tony Y called cheerfully, heading for the kitchen counter. “Hi, Steve! Hi, Avengers!”

“Hey, Tony!” Tony called, heading for the kitchen. The others waved and offered a chorus of hellos.

“We have your order right here,” the girl said, clearly aiming for professionalism but looking more than a little star-struck. She glanced back and forth between Tony Y. and the Avengers a few times.

“Here, let me give you a hand,” Steve said smiling at them both. “How have you been, Tony? How’s school?”

Tony Y. grinned. “This semester’s grades were so good even Grandpa couldn’t be disappointed.” Tony seemed suddenly to remember himself. “Uh, Steve? May I--? Uh. I’d like to introduce Ms. Katherine O’Conner. Katie, this is Captain Steve Rogers.”

“A pleasure to meet you, Ms. O’Conner,” Steve said shaking her hand.

“Katie, please,” she said, blushing bright Irish red.

“Steve,” he said warmly. “Are you at school with Tony?”

While Steve made amiable small talk with Katie and the other Avengers finished their debate about Bruce Willis, Tony started getting out plates and forks and chopsticks.

When Tony reached into one of the bags, rooting around for a spring roll, though, it drew a cry of protest.

“Hey!” Tony Y. said indignantly. “You didn’t give me a sentence yet!”

Tony grinned—he’d been practicing—and rattled off: “Gāngtiě xiá zuì bàng le!”*

“All right,” Tony Y. said grudgingly. “Should have known you’d nail that one.”

“You’re both looking very smart this evening,” Steve was saying to Katie.

Katie blushed even more; Tony Y. threw his shoulders back a little and announced, putting his arm around her, “I’m having Christmas dinner with the O’Conner’s. Just wanted to make this del—er, one last delivery. Now we’re off for the night.”

Tony nearly laughed. (“Delivery assistant” my ass.)

“It was a pleasure meeting you, Katie,” Steve said, taking her hand again. “Merry Christmas.”

“Oh! And merry Christmas to you! All of you! Have a wonderful dinner.”

They all called out good byes and merry Christmas’s and the teenagers took their leave. In the elevator, before the doors closed, Tony saw Katie throw her arms around Tony Y’s neck while he stared at the wall with a big dopey grin.

“They seem so sweet together,” Steve said with a little smile as he dug out the serving spoons.

“They do, don’t they?” Tony agreed. They stood smiling at each other for a moment. Tony blinked, then turned and called, “Okay, Avengers! Come and get it!”

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“So that’s why you keep saying ‘yippe ki-yay—‘ Uh. And so on.”

“It’s yippie ki-yay, mother fuckers, Steve,” Clint said with a huge grin.

“Cap doesn’t like that kind of language,” Nat scolded Clint with a teasing glance to Steve, who looked a little embarrassed.

“I did really enjoy the movie,” Steve insisted.

“Of course you did! It’s a classic!” Tony said. He turned to Bruce. “Do you want to finish off the chow mein? I know it’s a favorite of yours.”

Bruce laid a hand on his stomach. “I don’t think I could eat another bite. Unless I’m willing to miss out on the you know.”

“Oh! Speaking of you know-- is it time?” Clint cut in.

“Everybody done with dinner?” Bruce asked. They nodded. “Then I think it’s time.”

Steve was looking between Clint and Bruce, bewildered. “You know?” he asked.

Natasha chuckled as Bruce went to get the beautifully arranged tray of cookies and presented it to Steve.

“The boys baked you cookies,” Nat said, clearly amused. “All afternoon. Careful though! Don’t eat any that Tony made!”

“Hey!” Tony squawked. “We threw out the ones that caught fire!”

“Some of them caught fire?” Steve said with a look of concern, then shook himself and said, “Well, these look wonderful! Thank you.”

“Oh, and there’s eggnog,” Bruce offered, heading to the kitchen.

“Gosh. You went to all this trouble.” Steve was beaming at them. “Thank you so much.”

Something about Bruce’s smile was . . . off. Tony hopped up and followed him. When he didn’t know anybody was looking, Bruce looked sad.

“Need a hand?” Tony asked.

“Sure, Tony.” Bruce summoned a smile.

(Shit. What do I say?)

“Hey, Bruce?” Tony said, softly.

“Yeah?”

“That letter you were working on . . . Uh, did you ever send it?”

Bruce’s expression went pinched; his hand tightened on the ladle. “No.”

Tony swallowed. “But, maybe after we go to the ranch, if everything goes well, maybe then you could? Right?”

“Maybe.” He paused. “Maybe if it went very well.”

“It’s gonna go great. And we can go sooner, so we can get started,” Tony said. “I can make a few calls and—“

“No, it’s fine. We’re going soon enough.” Bruce shook his head. “Besides, not much point flying there and back for the gala then back again for the big meeting with SHIELD.” He grimaced. “And I have a feeling they scheduled that to be before the grand experiment on purpose.”

“It’s gonna work,” Tony said. “We’re a team now. Really.” Tony bumped his shoulder into Bruce’s and added, “I mean, look at us! We baked cookies together for fuck’s sake!”

Bruce laughed. “Thanks, Tony.”

“What’s the hold up?!” Clint called from the tree where he’d gathered the others.

“You’re like a toddler!” Natasha said. “A drunken toddler.”

“And about to get drunker!” Tony called. “This is heavy on the rum.”

As the team served themselves little plates of star and tree shaped cookies, Clint nudged four rectangular packages out from under the tree with his foot.

“So, hey, maybe now’s a good time for these,” Clint said, attempting casual but failing even to Tony’s ears.

“Oh. I didn’t think we were—“ Bruce faltered. “And I don’t actually celebrate Christmas. Uh-- I made cookies?”

“That’s cool,” Clint said. “No worries. I mean, these are no big deal.”

“You got us presents?” Steve asked, looking torn between pleasure and dismay.

“Look, it’s fine if nobody else did,” Clint said, looking a little embarrassed. “I just had these little things and—“

“Don’t worry, Legolas!” Tony cut in. “I got you something. And it’s awesome.”

“Yeah?” Clint looked pleased. “Sweet.”

“And I’ll give you a present on January 7th,” Natasha promised. “Nobody gets Christmas presents early from me.”

Steve laughed.

(Huh?)

“The Russian church isn’t on the Gregorian calendar,” Steve explained. Natasha gave him an approving look.

They’d all taken their seats around the tree and Clint was fussing over which package to give out first.

(“Okay, open that one from Mom first, then this one. No, wait. This one! That one over there—that one’s last. Best for last. Okay, kiddo! Go!”)

Tony collected his oddly assorted packages from under the tree. As he did so, he caught sight of the little rocking horse ornament once more. He smiled and fiddled absently with the bows he’d

glued to his teammates’ presents.

(“Howard, I thought we agreed to wait until he turned six!”

“No harm starting him off just a little early. And look! These tools were designed for kids, none of them have sharp edges—I checked—and Tony’s got really steady hands, don’t you kiddo?”

Tony bounced with excitement. “Now can I come to the WORKSHOP!?!?”

“Er, not quite yet. Gotta be a little older, buddy. See that? Mom’s making her scary face.”)

“Actually,” Clint declared, “you might as well all go at the same time. They’re all pretty much the same. Anyway, merry Christmas. It’s nothing much.”

Tony ripped the wrapping paper with gusto while around him Nat, Bruce, and Steve opened their packages more gingerly.

Inside, there was a cheap plastic photo frame—the kind designed for collages and that always came with a generic sample page full of weddings, and children, and anniversaries. This frame was filled with photos taken at the Tower: Pepper and Tony lounging on the couch at Thanksgiving; Rhodey and Tony laughing and peeling potatoes; Mrs. Rhodes and Steve examining the turkey; Natasha knitting on the couch next to Bruce reading a book; Bruce and Tony looking at schematics at the kitchen counter; Steve and Tony smiling and hanging Christmas tree ornaments side by side. There was even a little picture of Dummy in his Santa’s hat.

“Clint,” Steve said, almost reverently, “They’re beautiful.”

Tony looked up; everyone had a photo collage, but with slightly different photos.

“Seriously, it’s nothing,” Clint protested, shrugging.

Natasha shook her head with a smile, then leaned over to kiss him on the cheek.

“Thank you, Clint,” Bruce said. The smile on his face managed to reach his eyes for once.

“Hey, man,” Tony said, “Open yours now!”

Tony set his frame down very carefully, even though he knew the plastic covering wasn’t breakable, and then slid a narrow box over to Clint. Clint tore at the wrapping paper with glee, tossed the lid aside, and discarded the layers of tissue paper.

“Oh, hey,” Clint said, clearly trying to mask his disappointment. “Green Arrow. ‘Cause I’m an archer, right? Cool. I get it. And I do really like comics, like we were talking about. Thanks, Tony.” Clint smiled, but it seemed a little sad. “Like I said, I used to try and collect Spider Man as a kid, whenever I could, but yeah. Anyway. Good idea to give some DC a try for once, right? Thanks, Tony.”

Tony had expected Clint to call him a jerk or laugh or somehow know it was a gag—his polite disappointment made Tony’s stomach twist. As if Clint didn’t expect Tony to remember that he’d collected Spiderman and totally despised DC.

“Dude, I’m just messing with you,” Tony said, trying to keep the tone light. “Look underneath.”

Confused, Clint set aside the Green Arrow Tony had laid on top. His eyes went wide.

“Holy shit! “The Punisher”? Tony, wow!” He turned to the others and explained with excitement, as he wiped his fingers on his shirt, “It’s a really rare one—1974 and this one’s in great condition too! Where did you--?” As Clint lifted it out of the box, he caught sight of the one beneath and fell silent, mouth slightly agape. “Amazing Fantasy: IntroducingSpider Man? You’ve gotta be kidding— How did you even—? Oh wow!”

“Is that actually the first issue of Spider Man ever?” Bruce asked.

Tony gave a bit of a nod and a shrug.

“Thank you, Tony,” Clint said, more earnest than Tony’d ever seen him. “This is really amazing.”

“Yeah,” Tony said, “I know how much you’ve been looking forward to the latest Green Arrow. Just threw in that old Marvel crap as filler.”

“Asshole,” Clint said affectionately. Tony laughed.

“I really had you there for a minute.”

Clint nodded. “Asshole,” he repeated.

Tony just grinned and turned to the others, “So—who’s up next? How about you, Bruce? Yep. Here we go!”

Tony slid a box across the floor.

“Gosh,” Steve said, as he watched Bruce pull off the bow. “I wish I’d realized we were exchanging gifts. I’m so sorry I didn’t—“

“What are you talking about?” Tony said. “You got me the Starship Enterprise.”

“That wasn’t a Christmas present! It just made me think of you.”

Tony shrugged. “That’s even better.”

“Thank you, Tony,” Bruce said, smiling at him with something akin to relief after reading the card.

“What did you get?” Clint asked, tearing his eyes away from “The Punisher.”

“Rare teas,” Bruce said, holding up one of the neat little packets. “Including ‘Iron Goddess of Mercy’ and ‘Monkey Picked Oolang.’ Really wonderful.”

Bruce didn’t tell the others what else Tony’d gotten him, and Tony was just as glad. He wouldn’t even have told Bruce, except that after the quake Bruce had been so worried about the village where he’d lived in Nepal; Tony wanted him to know they were okay—well, as okay as money could make them—and everything was being rebuilt in his villiage.

“Thank you, Tony,” Bruce said again. Tony shrugged and handed an envelope and a small box to Natasha: season tickets to the ballet and a small emerald pendant. (One of his mother’s more modest pieces.)

“It’s beautiful.” Natasha held up the pendant. “To wear to the ballet?”

“If you like,” Tony said. “Wear it wherever you want. I just thought it would suit you.”

“Thank you, kotyonok.” Natasha leaned down to kiss him on the cheek. She smelled of spruce and bergamot, something rich and spicy.

“You’re welcome. No biggie,” Tony said, trying to shrug it off. He turned with an apologetic smile.

“Sorry, Steve,” Tony said, “you have to wait a little longer for yours. Doesn’t exactly fit under the tree. Now, who wants more eggnog?”

“Me!” Clint said, offering Tony his empty mug.

Tony hopped up; Steve followed.

“Tony,” Steve said softly. “I think I already know what my present is.”

“You do?”

(Shit! Did he get a glimpse of it in the garage when he came home?)

“I thought you might be embarrassed if I said something in front of the others, but Mother Superior thanked me,” Steve said, eyes bright. “She said there was an anonymous donation of five million dollars for Magdalene House—enough to fix the roof, redo the insulation for the dormitories, and hire all the additional staff they’ve been needing. Even enough left over to start a scholarship fund for the older kids. She suspected my influence and thanked me, but it was all you, wasn’t it?”

“I don’t know what you mean,” Tony fibbed. “It’s an anonymous donation, right? Could be anyone, really.”

“It could be,” Steve agreed softly, “But it wasn’t.”

Steve was smiling. He laid a hand very gently on Tony’s arm and added, “It was the best gift you could ever give me, and you don’t even want credit, do you?”

Tony shrugged and stepped aside to refill Clint’s mug.

“That wasn’t your present; your present’s in the garage,” Tony said.

“The garage?” Steve asked, looking bemused.

“Yep! But first, let’s drink some more eggnog with the team. I’ll take you down later.”

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“We’re out of eggnog and mulled wine, but there’s the rest of my liquor cabinet at our disposal,” Tony offered.

Bruce had gone to bed a few hours ago, but the rest of the team had stayed up drinking around the Christmas tree.

“It’s late,” Natasha said, shaking her head. “Time for bed.”

“Hey, how about some Star Trek?” Tony suggested. Steve nodded.

“Ugh,” Clint said. “Okay, if you two are going to nerd out over retro sci-fi, I’m calling it a night.”

“Oh, we don’t have to,” Steve said, eager to be inclusive.

“Nah, it’s late. And I’ve got sweet new comics to reread obsessively in bed.”

“Good night! Merry Christmas!”

“Yeah, good night, guys,” Clint said, gathering his comics with great care. “And Tony? Thanks again. Really, man.”

The elevator doors closed on Clint and Natasha.

“So,” Steve said, “Star Trek? Is there a Christmas episode?”

“Nope, not that I know of, but there are some good ones left—don’t worry. I’ll pick something upbeat,” Tony promised, then said, casually, “Oh, hey, but before we get settled with Star Trek, why don’t you come down and open your present?”

“If you like,” Steve said after a moment’s hesitation. “I feel terrible that I don’t have anything for you though.”

“Pfft,” Tony said, waving it away. “I already told you—it’s fine. And you got me the Starship Enterprise! And gave me drawings of Dummy. Really, what more could a guy ask for? Now, come on! Chop chop! Your present awaits.”

Steve followed Tony to the elevator. He rubbed the back of his neck.

“Maybe,” Steve said, “if you wanted, I could draw something else for you. Like on a commission—whatever you want.”

“I’d like that,” Tony said. (He had a feeling anything else would seem like rejection to Steve; he was big on reciprocity.)

“Good,” Steve said, seeming reassured. “Just let me know what you’d like.”

The elevator doors opened.

“But first,” Tony said, beckoning Steve to the side. “Your present!”

Tony grabbed the dust cloth and drew it back with a flourish. “Ta-da!”

“Oh wow,” Steve said, gazing at the motorcycle with what looked like surprised nostalgia, maybe edged with sorrow? “A Norton Dominator? It’s like my old bike.”

“Yep! That was the idea,” Tony said, not quite with the tone of a grand announcement he’d been aiming for. But, then, Steve wasn’t exactly showing the rapturous delight Tony’d imagined for this moment.

“I can’t believe you found one,” Steve said, shaking his head and looking at the sleek machine. “I figured a bike like this would be . . . obsolete now. Scrap.”

(Shit!) That was definitely sorrow; Steve’s whole body seemed to deflate at the word obsolete.

“Does it even run?” he asked turning to Tony.

“Does it even run!?” Tony repeated, sputtering with mock offense. “Would I give you a decorative motorcycle? Of course she runs! And, not that she wasn’t a great little bike back in the day, but a genius engineer can definitely teach an old dog new tricks. Wanna take her for a spin? State of the art tech in old fashioned style.”

“Wait,” Steve said, “The entire engine and stuff? You redesigned it yourself?”

“Of course I did! You don’t actually think I’d let somebody else—some lesser engineer!—work on your bike do you?”

And, for some reason, that drew a little smile from Steve. “No, I suppose you wouldn’t.”

“You think somebody else could have done this? Just look at her!” Tony said, waving his hands dramatically. “She’ll purr at 155 on an open road. I was gonna give her 300 horsepower, but then technically she’d be illegal on public roads and I figured you’d frown on that; so she’s only got 250.” Steve whistled, low and impressed. Tony pointed to the engine and launched into an excited (if nervous) babble about shock absorption, LHT breaking technology, her turning radius and maneuverability.

As he rambled, Steve’s smile grew warmer and wider, chasing the sad shadows from his face, until he finally laid a hand on Tony’s arm. Tony fell abruptly silent.

“You did all that for me?” Steve asked.

“Uh, yes?”

(What is this, a trick question?)

“Thank you. Thank you, Tony.” Steve glanced at the bike, then back to Tony and licked his lips. “She’s beautiful.”

“You’re, uh—“ (It’s like there are Beams of Earnestness shooting from Steve’s bright blue eyes, like Superman, only--) Tony lost his train of thought for a second. “Uh, you’re welcome?”

They stared at each other for a few moments.

(Awkward. It was getting awkward, right? Shit. Say something. Come on, say something, stupid.)

Steve swallowed and turned a little to look at the bike and run his fingers across the smooth leather seat. He turned back to Tony with a boyish grin: “You said something about taking her for a spin?”

“Yeah, go for it!”

“You coming too?” Steve asked, swinging a leg over the bike and testing the weight.

“Me?”

“Yeah,” Steve said. “Only seems fair.”

“I’m not really dressed for a motorcycle ride at night in December.”

Steve shrugged. “Me neither, but your garage is immense. Figured I’d just drive her around, slow and easy, for a few minutes to get a feel. Can get my leathers and take her out proper tomorrow if the weather’s decent.”

Steve turned the key and she purred to life.

“Oh, wow. You weren’t kidding about the purring.”

“Figured you’d need her quiet if we were taking her on a mission.”

“Good thinking.” Steve revved the engine and grinned. “So, you coming?”

Tony swallowed. The garage felt too warm.

Tony gave a hesitant little nod and swung his leg over the bike; he reached back for the rear brace before remembering (duh, stupid) this model didn’t have one.

“Hang on tight,” Steve said over his shoulder with a grin.

Tony scooted closer, until his chest was flush with Steve’s massive back. He wrapped his arms around Steve’s waist.

Steve kicked off.

“Here we go!”

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“Tony? Knock knock?” Steve called from the doorway to the workshop the next day.

“Come on in!”

Tony grabbed a rag and made a vague attempt to wipe his hands, leaving a dark grease stain on it. He’d been working on the training bots again, refining their interior engines.

“Hi,” Steve said, smiling.

“Hi.”

“Uh. So, the weather’s supposed to be decent today.” Steve shoved his hands into his pockets. “So I thought maybe it would be a good time to take the Dominator out for a ride. You busy?”

Tony’s eyes flicked over to the robot open on his workbench, like a patient on an operating table.

“Well, kinda busy,” Tony said, gesturing.

“Oh sure! Of course,” Steve said with a nod, “I mean, it doesn’t have to be right this minute. Maybe a little later?”

“I dunno,” Tony said. “This is probably gonna take me quite a while, Cap.”

“Oh. Okay. Some other time then?”

“Yeah. Sounds good.” Tony picked up a wrench. “But you should take her out. Give me a full report—I wanna know how she rides.”

“Right. I’ll do that. And, uh, you should let me know what you might like me to draw.”

“Right.”

“Right. Okay. Well, I’d better leave you to it.”

“Okay. Later!”

“Yeah. Later.”

Steve seemed disappointed as he left the workshop. Tony almost called out after him—he hated to disappoint Steve—but he hadn’t worked on the training bots in ages and really he was terribly busy. He’d already spent lots of time on all the Christmas stuff. He was absurdly behind with his projects. The training bots. The latest StarkTech upgrades. A new round of arrows for Clint. Lots of stuff really. He couldn’t just hop on the back of Steve’s bike and—

“AC/DC, JARVIS! And pump it. Time to finish these bots!”

>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>

When Tony finally surfaced, there were twelve training bots ready to take out to the ranch. He’d really been in the groove and—once all the details had been worked out—it hadn’t actually taken that long to put the finishing touches on all the old skeletons. It was soothing, pleasant work. He hadn’t gotten to the Stark Industries tech yet, but there was lots of time. Besides, who could say—maybe R&D would actually come up with a worthwhile upgrade on their own this quarter. (Anything’s possible. In theory.)

Steve had brought him left over Park Chop Suey once—or maybe twice? He’d kinda lost track—but now he was ravenous. Tony took the elevator up to the common floor.

“Or Christine in statistics; she’d would be thrilled to go,” Natasha was saying to Steve as Tony turned the corner into the kitchen. They were sitting together at the formal dinning table, a tea pot and teacups between them. Steve shook his head emphatically.

“Okay,” Natasha continued. “Too modern with the lip piercing? How about Jenny from accounting. She’s nice, she’s pretty, and I get the impression she’s kinda old fashioned too.”

Tony felt a sudden rush of . . . something. Something sharp and unpleasant and suspiciously like jealousy. (But it couldn’t be jealousy, because that was ridiculous. There was nothing to be jealous over!)

Tony sauntered in, saying, “I’m hurt, hurt, Steve that you’d go to Natasha for a date instead of coming to me.”

Steve looked up at him, eyes wide and expression shocked.

(Huh? Oh. Oh, Shit!)

“To set you up with a date,” Tony clarified. “I’m a way better person to set you up. I know all the best people!” The shock faded from Steve’s face, and his brow creased. He looked away.

Tony continued, “My metaphorical rolodex, oh wait—have you seen one of those yet? They held these little index cards for contact info in the eighties and, anyway-- My, you know, little black book, is ten times the size of Natasha’s. So, just set some basic parameters and I’ll do a way better job finding you a date. Is it for the gala?”

Nobody is setting me up,” Steve said firmly. “Not for the gala or anything else.” He glared at Nat before turning back to Tony. “Natasha’s been trying and won’t let it go, even when I said I’m not interested.”

“Tsk tsk, Agent Romanov. I’m very disappointed in you,” Tony said, “No means no.”

She rolled her eyes at him then turned back to Steve as she stood up. “If you change your mind, let me know. I’ll be in the gym.” She paused, then added with a little smile, “And, honestly, Steve—I really do think it would help.”

With that Natasha gracefully took her exit, teacup and saucer in hand.

“Help?” Tony asked, puzzled.

Steve sighed. “I told Nat how much I’ve been dreading the next gala. She thinks I’d be more comfortable at big events if I had somebody ‘modern’ at my side to help me navigate. And to discourage, um . . . admirers.”

Tony smiled at the sight of Steve’s ears turning pink with embarrassment.

“It’s not a terrible idea, you know,” Tony admitted, even as his gut churned uneasily.

Steve frowned. “I’m not gonna use some poor sub as a human shield.”

Tony snorted. “You could have a battalion of eager volunteers for the job who wouldn’t mind.”

“I’d mind.” Steve shook his head. “I’m not gonna ask someone on a date if I don’t mean it. And I couldn’t actually— I mean, I’m not --“ Steve looked away again.

There was something tense and heavy in the air. Tony tried to dispel it with his usual flippancy.

“Yeah, well,” Tony agreed, jokingly, “dating basically blows, but it’s still the necessary first step for Big Church Wedding, White Picket Fence, and Bouncing All American Babies, so you’ll have to suffer through it eventually.”

“What?” Steve’s head snapped back over to Tony, frowning and unamused. “Fence? Babies? What are you talking about?”

Tony waved his hands. “You know, apple pie and the all American dream. Kids. Suburbs.” Tony was fumbling and he hated it. His voice turned exasperated without meaning to. “Isn’t that what everybody wanted back in the day?”

“I guess lots of people did, but I never expected that.” Steve looked sad. “I mean, I hoped for some of it but . . . I wasn’t exactly . . .” He shrugged and shook his head again, then fell silent, looking down at his hands folded on the table. There was something distant and melancholy in the gesture; Tony hated it.

Tony licked his lips and took a breath. “What do you mean?” he asked.

“Nothing. Sorry.” Steve gave a half-hearted smile. “I shouldn’t.”

“No, really. Tell me.”

“Tony,” Steve said, shaking his head with a rueful smile. “You don’t want to hear about that.”

“Actually, I do,” Tony assured him, taking a seat. “I really do. Tell me?”

Tony’s heart started to pick up the pace.

Steve’s reluctance was obvious, some sort of inward battle taking place, but after a few moments he took out his wallet and handed Tony a small, very old black and white photograph that had been folded inside. It was a picture of Steve, thin face, tiny shoulders, sunken chest. Steve before the serum.

“That’s me,” Steve said, gesturing to the photo. “I keep it to remember where I came from. Who I really am, you know? Well,” he shook his head, “you can see, I wasn’t exactly the sort of Dominant people were looking for back then. Or now either, I guess.”

“But I wasn’t just small—I had health problems. Sometimes they made it hard to hold a job. I couldn’t have provided for a spouse, let alone children, so I figured it was just as well I always fancied fellas more than ladies.”

“I never wanted a wife and kids. Never expected I’d find a husband either, but—” He looked wistful, turning his gaze away, expression distant. “But when I hoped, I hoped for this special fella. Smart, strong, self-sufficient. Somebody who wouldn’t have wanted to stay home, even if I coulda supported him; somebody who liked having a career and wouldn’t see it as a burden. Somebody fierce and independent, who’da been glad I wasn’t the kind of Dom who’d insist he quit if we got married.” Steve’s voice was soft, almost reverent, “Somebody who’d let me take care of him, but wouldn’t need me to.”

Tony’s heart was pounding in his chest. He stared at Steve, who was looking away with unfocused eyes, as if at something in his distant imagination. After a few moments, Steve gave a little sigh as if coming back to himself.

“Sorry,” he said abruptly, looking back at Tony. “I didn’t mean to go on and on.” He grimaced, embarrassed and apologetic. “Or talk about that. To you.”

“No,” Tony said, mouth dry. “I asked.”

“Yeah,” Steve said, looking away again. He was having trouble meeting Tony’s eyes.

“Anyway,” Steve said, standing abruptly. “I’m so sorry. I lost track of time. I—I’d better go. There are some errands I’ve been putting off.”

With that, Steve beat a hasty retreat, leaving Tony alone in the living room, staring at the yellowing photograph.