There’s a twenty-foot-tall artificial Christmas tree dominating Stark Tower’s lobby and Steve thinks it’s beautiful.
It’s competition for the one in Time’s Square, even and it seems to have popped up overnight, placed there almost like an afterthought, like it was more out of necessity than anything else. But even still, it’s lovely, with a massive white star on top and red and gold (of course) lights covering the whole of it. Most of the decorations are traditional: baubles and glass snowflakes and tinsel… But he spots a little Black Widow ornament (he can’t believe they even make those) and near her, a little Hulk wearing a Santa hat and looking pretty perturbed about it. He steps closer, smiling bemusedly as he runs a thumb over ornament-Hulk’s frown and then cranes his neck, trying to see if there’s a little shield ornament, or even a little Captain America. It’d be embarrassing if there were but not necessarily in a bad way. His face is all over clothes and crockery and furniture—the world won’t rest until there’s a Cap version of every purchasable object, and it’s funny in a way.
Steve had been the last to accept Stark’s invitation to live in the tower—to make their little boy band legitimate, Stark had said—and he’s still a little at sea with—with everything. And it’s not as if this ostentatious plastic tree makes him feel at home here, but its lights are at least warm and bright and that’s certainly something. It makes him feel a little ridiculous—it’s stupid, really, the entire tree is so fucking stupid-looking, with its little Santa-hat-wearing Hulk and its little Black Widow covered in tinsel, flanked by two little lights, one red, one yellow. It’s stupid and lovely and amusing and Steve’s weirdly glad it exists.
He can't say he misses the apartment SHIELD had provided him, but he does miss his old haunts. He's trying to resettle things in his head in a way that's comforting, a way that allows the new to coexist with the familiar and the old. The buildings have been torn down and new ones have been put in their place but the shadier parts of the district still smell like piss and booze and smoke, but move a little further along and things smell like plastic and antiseptic and car exhaust. Everything’s still running on electricity and gasoline, and everyone still smells like oil and sweat and metallic perfumes.
But even the familiar things are just different enough to be distressing. There’s always something just a little off.
So instead of trying to find a place that no longer exists, he’d figured a much healthier approach was to fully immerse himself into the group of volatile, mismatched, part-time superheroes and live in Howard’s son’s flashy new skyscraper. If he can handle an alien invasion, he can handle all the other outlandish things this century can throw at him, he’s sure, and that includes a building full of supers. Or close-to-supers. Supers who have their own Christmas ornaments modeled after them.
“If you’re looking for a Cap ornament, there isn’t one.” Stark—Tony—is standing a few feet away and Steve’s a little miffed that he didn’t hear him coming. He’s dressed in a suit—probably just came back from a meeting—and he’s got his hands in his pockets, looking as casual and relaxed as he usually does.
“Oh?” Steve says, abandoning his search to instead find an Iron Man ornament. “And why’s that?”
“Because I hate you.” Steve’s past trying to figure out whether or not Tony’s being serious and decides joking is his default setting, and based on his smile, Steve’s pretty sure there’s a little Cap ornament somewhere on this tree. “I guess this is your first Christmas in the modern era, huh?” Tony continues. “Must be exciting. The commercialism hasn’t offended you yet, has it?”
Steve shrugs, finally letting go of the Hulk ornament and taking a step back from the tree. “I don’t know. Shopping was always a big thing this time of year—what am I supposed to be surprised about?” They always do this, look at him like he’s either about to go into an impassioned speech about the good old days or break down into tears. If he ever does feel the need to have a future-related breakdown, he has the sense to at least do it in the privacy of his own suite.
“Well, there was Black Friday,” Tony continues, snapping his fingers. “That had to have rattled you a little.”
Steve blanches. “That was savage,” he says, going for an expression he hopes looks haunted. Haunted by the lineups, the hours of stalled traffic, the elbows he got in the face, the fights he’d seen break out over toaster ovens. Barton’s a jackass and he’s never going anywhere with him again. But, still, the lines for the stores weren’t much compared to the lines Steve’d stood in for a free turkey dinner during particularly bad years. Steve is used to the hectic atmosphere, to the shoving and pushing. “But not too shocking. Everything's still kind of a mess this time of year.” Tony’s looking a little perplexed for some reason, so Steve waves a helpless hand and adds: “I’ve never really been fond of the holiday season. Or just winter in general.”
Tony doesn’t say anything for a long moment. His mouth pinches, his eyes narrow. And then: “But you like the tree.”
He spots a little Hawkeye ornament way up high. It’s dressed like an elf. “Yeah. I like the tree.”
Tony nods at that, and heads off to his workshop because there’s always work that needs doing. At least, for Tony Stark there is—he’s got codes and wires and circuitry to tangle himself up in. He’s got a future to build.
Steve, for his part, stands alone in the lobby for a few minutes before wandering off to his suite.
The next day, the tower’s looking decidedly more festive. There are tasteful wreaths on most of the non-sliding doors and a large artificial tree in the common room. There’re even stockings—for JARVIS and the robots, and Steve’s at a loss as to what on earth Tony could possibly put in them.
“I had my people put some things together,” Tony says from the kitchen table, like it’s nothing, and hell, for him it probably is. He’s talking through cereal and tapping away on his tablet and looking cozy and at home in a way Steve envies.
“Where in the hell did these even come from,” Clint says from the living room, picking through the apparently new-and-improved DVD collection. “The Santa Claus. Jingle All The Way, The Grinch. Elf, really? None of us have time for any of this.”
Tony shrugs, not looking up from whatever he’s working on on his tablet. “Yeah, well. It’s Cap’s first twenty-first century Christmas, I figured he should get in on all the modern traditions. If he wants to. You want to, don’tcha, Cap?”
Steve scrunches up his face. It’s odd to think Tony would have all this done for him, especially considering they’ve exchanged a grand total of about a hundred words since Steve moved into the tower. He doesn’t owe Steve a good time, doesn’t owe him a cultural education. They aren’t even friends, really—not yet. But he answers anyway. “Uh. Sure? I’m not sure there’s much to be gained learning all your modern holiday traditions. It’s all a little flashier now, and the people’s wish lists are more diverse than I’ve ever seen, but it’s still not so different. It’s still what it’s always been about.”
Clint makes jazz hands and says, “Capitalism,” and Tony whips a Cheerio at his head with impressive force.
“I’m pretty sure Cap was gonna say it’s about the spirit of giving and togetherness and baby Jesus or some shit. That one beautiful season everyone tries to make up for how shitty they were the rest of the year. It’s magical.”
“Something like that,” Steve says, quirking an eyebrow at him. “It is nice that people take the time out of their busy schedules to do something generous. I think—since you’re so obviously trying really hard to get into the spirit of things—you could come volunteer at the soup kitchen with me today.”
As expected, Tony gives him a look that can only be described as oh, please. “I write cheques, that’s as far as my philanthropy extends,” he sniffs, raising his chin. “I’ve got a multinational company to run—”
“Your ex-girlfriend runs your company,” Clint snorts, still rifling through the movie collection, looking strained constipated as he does so. “The hell is… This is the Muppets, Stark. You bought the Muppets Christmas special. For who, exactly? What good does this serve?”
“He has more money than he knows what to do with,” Natasha says, wandering in and snatching the cereal box away from Tony. She looks comfortable too, in sweats and a tank, with her hair a mess, and Steve wonders if he’s the only one that’s still adjusting to all this. Maybe he is, in which case, he really needs to get himself together, if not for himself then at least for the others. His breath hitches and he so badly wants to shed off his perfectly ironed shirt and slacks and crawl back into sweatpants, take a bowl of sugary, wrong-tasting cereal and curl up on the couch, surrounded by these people, and do as they do.
Tony’s giving him that strange look again. “…But if you really want someone to go to your soup kitchens with you, I’m sure Thor would be down. Or Bruce. That definitely seems like his kind of thing.”
“It’s fine,” he says, willfully calming the stirring in his chest. And it is. There isn’t a lot for him to do in his downtime—it’s not as if SHIELD assigns homework—so he’s content to put himself to use, even if he goes alone, even if he has to leave the warm, heated tower to trudge through the wet streets and cold air of the city in almost-winter. He ladles out broth for the better part of three hours and goes mostly unnoticed (and if anyone does recognize him, they’re too hungry or tired or both to care).
“I talked to Pepper about it and we both agree that it’s offensive that you don’t like Christmas,” Tony says when he returns.
Steve shrugs off his coat, hangs it up.
“I mean, I don’t like it either,” he goes on. “But that’s expected of me. We need someone on this team to fill the bah humbug quota, and weirdly enough, Natasha’s into the holiday thing. Well, not completely but she doesn’t detest it, is what I’m saying.”
Steve waits for him to continue, because he knows he will, regardless of how Steve responds (or doesn’t respond).
Tony’s tapping his foot, fidgeting. “…I will admit Pepper doesn’t find it as offensive as I do.”
Steve’s about to tell him to stop bothering poor Ms. Potts with him, but what Tony said suddenly hits and it’s—confusing. “Wait, you don’t like Christmas? Why?” Tony could afford Christmas. He never had to wait in line for the slightest of discounts, he was never waylaid in bed, he probably always had a nice tree and a roaring fire and a feast on Christmas Eve. He could’ve bought his loved ones whatever they desired, really made them happy—his Christmases could’ve been like the ones out of the fliers and advertisements, all comfy pajamas and smiling faces and wrapping paper and bows strewn artfully around the room.
Tony shrugs. “Not religious.”
“It’s really a secular holiday now more than anything,” Steve says. It’s true, he’s been told and he sees it wherever he goes. “What’s not to like?”
“I can ask the same of you.”
“Well, I just never—”
“It’s just this is the most over-the-top celebration of the year, and going completely overboard with things is the American way,” Tony interrupts. “I’d have pegged you as the kind of guy to wear hideous Christmas sweaters and bring fruitcake for carolers and… I don’t know, bake gingerbread cookies.” He looks a little lost, and so confused, and Steve can’t help but smile at him, a real genuine smile.
“Tony,” he says slowly, “I’ve never baked anything in my life.” Aside from the times he helped his mother by stirring batter—but surely that doesn’t count.
Tony scrunches up his face. “You,” is all he manages.
He straightens himself, and with great dignity, walks away.
He comes back a moment later. “You should at least watch The Grinch. I think you’d get a kick out of it.”
Steve has no intention of doing that, but promises he will.
Steve’s pretty sure Tony’s taken his general disinterest in things as a problem to be fixed, and apparently, if there’s one thing he’s phenomenal at, it’s fixing things.
Well, most things. He hadn’t been able to fix whatever had gone wrong with Pepper—but they seemed to have parted on good terms. They were still best friends just, “You know, without the crazy good sex,” as Tony had said. He’d been morose for weeks and Steve’s embarrassed to admit how long it took him to simply work up the courage to ask what’s wrong, like a decent human being would have done immediately upon realizing there was something not quite right with their teammate.
Tony had said, “We’ve divorced and she’s taking DUM-E.” Steve knows for a fact that they were never married. Tony then went off to introduce him to DUM-E, his… robotic arm. “Every little boy needs a robot arm,” he’d said. He’d been trying to distract himself, that part was obvious, and Steve wonders if that’s why he throws himself so hard and completely into every single one of his projects—he’s trying to distract himself, keep his brain occupied with constructive, solvable things. Maybe. He can admit he doesn’t know the man well enough to say, despite learning so much of his history from the neat little files SHIELD had provided.
So it seems Steve’s lack of holiday spirit is a problem to be solved. But Steve’s a little more concerned with Tony’s own disinterest in Christmas—“How in the hell does he think he’s going to show me how the holiday season’s done nowadays when he himself doesn’t care about it? He’s too busy, why’s he going out of his way to… Well, you know.” He taps his pencil against his page. “Am I a charity case? This is the weirdest sort of pity I’ve ever encountered, that’s for damn certain.”
“I don’t know,” Thor says. “He’s an odd man, our Tony. But I’ve taken to these festivities immensely. Perhaps I can explain their intricacies to you?”
Steve’s pencil stills over his sketchbook. The alien is going to teach him about earthly customs. But he takes the offer; he wants to see if he can beat Tony at his own game, get him to loosen up and enjoy the season. “…What would you suggest?” Steve asks. “We could—we could all do something nice together, right? As a team?”
Thor suggests The Nutcracker and Steve sends everyone an email invitation. He makes it festive. Red-and-green font colour and a picture of a puppy wearing a Santa hat he found through Google.
Tony says the font colours gave him a headache and he’s probably going to be waylaid in bed now, unable to come; Natasha says, sure, sounds fun; Clint says, no; Bruce says he’d love to. He knows they’ll all agree eventually and maybe they’re on their way to being friends; if they can stand living together, surely they could actually have fun together.
Steve’s feeling pretty good about things. He’ll see a proper ballet for the first time in his life and he’ll get a good deal of social interaction, both things guaranteed to make anyone rise up from whatever slump they’d gotten themselves into.
He puts on one of the fine suits that had sprung up in his closet (which were, unsettlingly, perfectly tailored), and a thick coat overtop, bundling himself nice and proper, making sure he wouldn’t feel cold even slightly.
He combs his hair, straightens his clothes and stretches his lips into a smile; his mirror reflects a perfectly content-looking young man ready for a night on the town, ready to join all the other happy, bustling citizens of New York. “You look fine,” he tells his reflection. “Just swell. If Bucky was here, he’d say you look like—”
“Captain, there is a tentacle monster on Long Island. SHIELD requests immediate intervention.”
“Assemble!” he hears Thor yell from somewhere and Steve’s mind is already readjusting to fight mode, he’s already out the door with his suit halfway off and his uniform halfway on and when he gets outside the cold hits him like a sledgehammer—stinging and icy and awful—and it gets worse when Iron Man swoops him up but it also gets better because—“You’re still wearing your tie, Steve. Is that the one I got you? I have excellent taste.”
“You just can’t compliment anyone without complimenting yourself in the process, can you?” Steve says, focusing on tightening his hold on the armour and goddamn does it need footholds or handholds or something that doesn’t keep him squeezed up against Iron Man’s torso like he’s getting the life squeezed out of him. But focusing on the squeeze is better than focusing on how his ears feel like they’re about to freeze right off.
“Not true,” Tony says. “You look very handsome today.”
Steve narrows his eyes, waiting. But when Tony doesn’t continue, he says—grudgingly—“Well, thanks.”
“Not as handsome as I do, of course, but it’d be silly to expect that of you. You’re trying your best and it shows, and that should be commended.” He then drops Steve twelve feet down and right next to—well, exactly what JARVIS had said it is. A tentacle monster.
So they miss The Nutcracker but Steve’s pretty sure the team has more fun untangling Tony from tentacles than anything else.
“Every time,” he hears Tony muttering to himself as he crawls out of monster slime. “Every fucking time. What is it that… What do they want from me?”
“There could be an infinite number of universes out there,” Bruce muses with a faint smile, “and I bet in every single one you’re covered in tentacle slime.”
Steve laughs—a little too long and a little too hard, maybe—but the look on Tony’s face is beautiful and his armour’s still covered in gunk and Steve’s pretty fucking sure there’s a piece of severed tentacle in his hair and that’s honestly the greatest Christmas present he could ever receive. “Stop laughing or you’re walking home,” Tony says and Steve just laughs harder, until his face is warm and the cold’s been completely driven out of his body.
Tony does good on his promise to not fly him back to the tower, and Thor looks at him apologetically, saying he’d already promised Natasha a lift. Steve takes a taxi, tipping generously to make up for the slime stains.
Tony throws a pair of ice skates at him the next day and if he wasn’t a super soldier, he’d be a little irked by how fucking dangerous that is. “You’re sad on Christmas,” Tony says. “So we’re gonna go stand on ice. Maybe even get some hot chocolate, who knows.”
Right. Because Steve is Tony’s current project. “I’m not sad.”
And just like that, Tony’s face falls, his expression closes off, and he looks like his readying himself for a fight. Steve’s suddenly glad they’re the only two at the tower; he’s trying to build this damn team, they don’t need to see him and Tony getting into stupid spats. “Everyone you know is dead,” Tony says, voice as flat as his expression.
Steve flounders and beats down that feeling of panic churning in his gut, bubbling up his throat. “I know that, of course I know that. But ice skating isn’t going to—”
”It’s your first Christmas away from home,” Tony says. Away from home, Steve repeats in his head. “And I just thought… It’s family time, right?”
Steve’s at a loss. “We’re not a family.”
“I know we’re not,” Tony snaps. But we’re the only thing you’ve got, he doesn’t say, but it flashes in his eyes. “I just thought you might appreciate spending time with me, having a nice, relaxing holiday—”
“Relaxing. Tony, we fought a tentacle monster yesterday.” They don’t take holidays because super villains don’t.
Tony’s got his arms crossed, and his index finger is tapping impatiently against his arm. He looks—unsure. “Look, if you want to keep up the hermit lifestyle, that’s fine, but—”
“Like you’re one to talk. Sometimes I don’t see you come out of your workshop for days.”
“I’m not alone!” Tony counters, vehement. “I’m always just a phone call away from Rhodey, and I’ve got DUM-E and JARVIS, so… So that sounded a lot less pathetic in my head.”
Tony’s glaring off to the side and Steve thinks of Ms. Potts who’s off in Malibu and Colonel Rhodes who’s overseas and Happy Hogan who’s busy running all of Tony’s security. He comes to the rather baffling conclusion that Tony Stark—billionaire, playboy, I-can-nod-at-someone-and-they’re-mine-Tony Stark might be lonely.
Tony’s more often surrounded by things that are made of metal and gears and batteries than things that are made of skin and sinew and blood, and he’s angry that he’s been so caught up in the dark cloud over his head that he hasn’t noticed. What else hasn’t he noticed—about the others?
He stares at the skates that had barely missed from hitting him on the head. They’re sleek and clean and expensive-looking. He thinks of the times winter hadn’t been awful to him, the times where he and Bucky and the other kids would take garbage bags and use them as sleds, sliding down snow-covered hills. He doesn’t think about how sick he got afterwards—he focuses on the snowball fights and the snow angels and his mother’s hot tea and warm words. He thinks about that one other time he’d tried going ice-skating, with skates he’d later found Bucky had stolen—borrowed, he’d said—from another kid. It’d be a shame if that initial clumsy attempt at keeping himself upright on the ice would be his only memory of ice-skating.
“Okay,” Steve says.
Tony looks up. “Okay what?”
“Okay, let’s go skating. Only if you’re the one buying the hot chocolate, though.”
Tony walks to the closet, pulls out a coat, and throws it over him.
“You have superhuman grace and reflexes. I think you can let go of the ledge.”
Steve does not trust himself not to fall on his ass if he lets go of the damn ledge.
“We’re not leaving until you let go, and I’m not missing meetings for you, so if that means I have to pull you off, I will.”
“You couldn’t if you tried.”
“You think I can’t take you?”
“Puny Stark,” Steve says through a smile—a poor attempt at Hulk’s manner of speech.
They’re at Rockefeller Centre and their faces are covered enough with scarves and toques—and in Tony’s case, also sunglasses—that only a few people recognize them here and there. It’s crowded and the air is frigid and Steve’s nose is probably as red as Tony’s but he’s enjoying himself, he is; there’s no lake underneath him, no wide, gaping ocean, so there’s no fear of hearing that awful cracking sound, no fear of anything other than falling down. And from that he’ll just get back up like always, no big deal.
But he wishes he could glide along the ice as effortlessly as Tony, who looks so free and content. Tony doesn’t know any fancy tricks like some of the skaters—no twirls or flips—but he’s still comfortable in his skates.
Steve exhales a gauzy breath and lets his gloved hands let go of the ledge.
“See, there you go!” Tony says, with a muted clap from his leather-clad hands. “Now, just use that serum’d up grace and—and you’re already on your ass.”
There’re the sounds of cameras going off and maybe more people recognize them than he’d previously thought. “It’s a lot harder than it looks.”
Tony extends a hand, a smirk tugging on his lips. He’s got snowflakes in his goatee and Steve hadn’t even realized it’d started snowing. He takes the proffered hand, careful not to pull Tony down with him, and gets back up. Tony doesn’t let go—and for that he’s thankful—and slowly pulls him to a glide. His feet feel wobbly and odd and every motion makes him think he’s about to slip up again, fall and bash his head and take Tony down too. But he’s mimicking Tony’s motions within minutes, loosening up, feeling more and more confident with each glide and—“I hope there’s something you can’t pick up like a natural. Hanging around you isn’t good for my ego.”
Steve skates past him, grinning so wide his face hurts. “Your ego could use the bruising.”
“I’ll show you bruising,” Tony says, voice hushed, but Steve hears it anyway, and a second later, he’s weaving around other skaters, trying to flee from Tony who, most likely, is about to shove him over.
“No pushing!” Steve says, turning around, hands out front. “My ass is sore enough as it is—”
“You do realize how loud you said that, right? That’s definitely gonna be going up on all these people’s Myspaces tomorrow.”
Steve’s not a hundred percent sure what Myspace is but he’s heard Clint say something about to Tony once, so he parrots back the words: “Tony, no one has a Myspace anymore. You’re so old.”
Tony stands there glaring at him for a long moment before skating toward him and pushing him over—but Steve’s taking him down with him, so he grabs onto the lapels of Tony’s coat and maybe he should’ve thought this through a little more because the ice is cold and hard against his back and Tony’s a pointy, painful weight against his front.
“Just for that, no hot chocolate for you. You can have one of my kale smoothies, and trust me when I say those things are disgusting.”
Steve shoves him off and glides away with his head held high—he’s a grown-ass man and he’ll have hot drinks if he damn well wants them. But right now all he wants to do is see how fast he can skate (the answer: very) and try skating backwards. The chill of the wind actually feels nice and, for once, the falling snow doesn’t mean him any harm—he can’t get sick, even if he tried. He could make naked snow angels on the roof of Stark Tower and he’d be perfectly fine. Cold and wet, but he wouldn’t sniffle, he wouldn’t catch a fever or cold, he’d breath deep and slow.
He glances at Tony, who’s leaning against the boards. He’s making faces at a baby while its mother’s back is turned.
Steve thinks back at himself, back nearly a century ago, when he was bundled up to the point of looking like a marshmallow, wearing stolen skates, holding Bucky’s coat hem as they both tried to find their footing.
This is almost as good.
Winter wasn’t just hard because of his sickliness, it was hard because money never came easy. No one can stay healthy without food in them, and there were days when he and Bucky shared a can of soup between them and nothing else, with Bucky always saying he's so damn full and pushing the can towards Steve. Their gift to each other was saving enough money so that they could take a night off to have some real, filling food; Steve would take his coins to the grocer, get apples and bread and dried goods that would last them ages, and maybe a tin of coffee. Bucky’d bring some dubious sort of meat from the butcher, all wrapped up in greasy newspaper. Sometimes he’d bring a bottle of whisky to warm their blood and maybe cheese, even. Maybe chocolate if it’d been a particularly good quarter.
What’d been hard was feeling like he was the ones looking in. Passing restaurant windows and craving the food and heat inside, passing shops and feeling so damn inadequate for his inability to buy the few—very few—people who loved him something they would cherish or find useful. The inability to find the words to express his love and appreciation coupled with the inability to find objects to show how he felt. He wanted to buy his mother every damned thing in the sweetshop, he wanted to buy her diamonds—she’d had no use for diamonds, really, she’d have scoffed, but she’d deserved them. She’d deserved more than a child whose medicines she had to haggle and trade for.
He’d always imagined her, loose and relaxed, with her hair down for once, no bags under her eyes. Her face wouldn’t be creased, and she’d be reclining on a couch that wasn’t dusty or lumpy. She’d have a novel in her hands and no worries in her head.
But his damned feeble body meant she worked around the clock and made it so he couldn’t make any extra change for the winter, so he couldn’t even buy her a box of chocolates.
She’d died in winter, and Steve’d always been sure the cold would take him too.
But, today, he’s curled up in a blanket with the hot chocolate Tony’d promised, and that sickly kid in him is marveling at the frost designs on the windows for once, not grimacing away from them. He’s warm and—and he has enough money to buy whomever whatever he wants. He can buy them gifts like he’d never been able to and wrap them up in bows and ribbons—for once in his life, he can treat someone.
He goes shopping.
He circumnavigates the crowds, he smiles at the children getting their pictures taken with Santa Claus (and promptly leaves when their parents start shooting him suspicious looks). He nods along to the insufferable carols constantly playing, he treats himself to an unnecessarily large lunch because he can.
He buys a thousand dollars worth of toys and donates them and feels like he could cry, not because he feels like he’s done something amazing, but because he’s done something he’d always wanted to do—he’s splurged.
(He’ll admit the toys he’s bought are mostly based off his teammates).
He buys Natasha gorgeous, handmade figurines, and a music box he’d grown attached to as soon as he’d seen it in the window. He’d picked it up with the utmost of care, holding it only with his fingertips. It’s an antique (like Steve, he hears Tony’s joke in the back of his head) and it’s made of polished wood and glass and metal. He doesn’t recognize the tune it plays, but it’s lovely anyway.
For Bruce, he gets the largest, classiest-looking set of assorted chai he could find (from a shop that sells nothing but tea). The scent of cloves and cinnamon linger with him the whole day. He eyes a koi pond and wonders if he could have something like that installed for Bruce too.
For Clint he buys a box set of terrible Christmas movies. But, because he feels bad, he also buys him all the mystery novels he can get his hands on and a fine China set (for target practice, he thinks guiltily).
For Thor he buys some of the most ridiculous, beautiful chocolate masterpieces he’s ever seen. Real artistry—almost seems like a shame to eat them. He also buys him a large tome of Norse myths; he figures Thor would find it amusing.
For Tony, he hesitates.
He buys red-and-gold cufflinks and, as a joke, a Cap plushie (he knows all about Tony’s childhood hero-worship phase. It’s a little creepy and a lot hilarious).
While he’s at it, he gets Coulson, Hill, and Fury little things too, because he has no reason not to. He’s not short on time or cash. He almost thinks it’s awful for this—this consumerism to feel so much like freedom. But he’s happy and sated and he won’t question it, at least not today.
He has the gifts wrapped (like hell he’s going to try doing that himself), goes back to the tower and places them under the communal room’s tree.
A few days later, more presents start popping up under that tree.
They watch The Grinch together and Steve fucking loves it.
“Better than The Wizard of Oz?” Tony asks.
“Let’s not go overboard, Stark.”
As team leader, getting everyone to do things together is one thing, but he realizes he also needs to leave his suite and wander into the common rooms a lot more than he has been. He doesn’t need to dwell on things that’ll make him angry, he doesn’t need to destroy punching bags alone—he has people to spar, eat, and fight with. So he takes the elevator downstairs, with no intention of going to the gym and every intention of just talking to somebody.
Thor and Dr. Foster are in the kitchen.
“We are building a house for our gingerbread men,” Thor says. “Join us.”
So he does. They make a tiny little house together and Bruce and Tony come in and Tony decides it needs to be a competition, so he and Bruce build a gingerbread palace and—not to be outdone—Thor takes a bite out of it. Steve discovers Dr. Foster kind of snorts when she laughs.
He’s making note of all these things: Jane Foster has a silly laugh, Thor likes baking, Bruce sings beautifully but only in the shower, Clint likes telling people he sees better from a distance even though it’s not true, Natasha is fluent in Latin, and Tony Stark makes faces at babies. Scrunched up nose, crossed eyes—the whole shebang.
“I hate kids,” Tony had said that day at the rink. “I wanna make ‘em sad, so I make scary faces.”
“And yet, maddeningly, they end up laughing instead,” Steve had said.
“I know. It’s my curse.”
He also learns that Tony loves eating—he can’t eat as much as Steve or Thor, but he probably wishes he could. With his sweet tooth in mind, Steve actually tries baking something properly. He’s got a festive apron on, oodles of supplies and JARVIS is playing that awful, ever-constant holiday music.
Cupcakes aren’t hard to figure out at all.
“I’m taking you out for dinner. Just you because nobody else ever makes me cupcakes.” Tony still has icing on his mouth and Steve has the wild urge to—
“You have, uh. On your face.”
Tony wipes at his face distractedly, and Steve’s still a little fixated—and confused—but Tony’s saying something: “They were red and green and everything. With sprinkles. Sure, I’m only supposed to be eating vegetables and dubious-looking smoothies, but everyone cheats in winter, right? So let’s cheat some more and eat stupidly decadent foods at stupidly decadent restaurants. What do you say?”
“No,” Steve says, just because he wants Tony to persuade him.
Tony seems to be on to him, but he continues anyway. “Well. It’s Christmas Eve Eve. The night before the night before Christmas. The presents are wrapped, the tree is sparkling, and the kids are asleep, and I think it’s high time mom and dad spent a little time together.”
The kids—the other teammates—are definitely not asleep, but they’re not here either, and the thought of going out to dinner alone with Tony is equal parts thrilling and terrifying. A warm dinner at a two-person table is so intimate and he wants to tell Tony that he really appreciates it and he’s glad they’re finally friends and that he’s sorry about Pepper, and sorry that he’s been so distant, it’s just winter isn’t a good time for him—but what comes out of his mouth is: “We’re mom and dad?”
Tony looks confused at his confusion. “Obviously. We’re the leaders of this team.”
“I’m the leader of—”
“Darling, let’s not fight,” Tony interrupts, smiling like the jerk he is. “Seriously. Let’s go out, let’s sit in a cozy restaurant surrounded by happy people. Let’s get all rosy-cheeked and stuffed on food and wine.”
Steve tilts his head, like he’s deliberating, like he hadn’t already made up his mind as soon as Tony had showed up with cupcake icing on his face. “Alright,” he says slowly. “That sounds delightful, Mr. Stark. And I’d be more than happy to accompany you anywhere because you’re sad on Christmas, and I’ve been told that that’s just unacceptable.”
Tony’s face shutters and Steve wants to take back the words but he doesn’t because he’s always been a stubborn punk and he’s sure knows it’s true. Steve knows what he sees.
And then Tony’s shoulders slump—in apparent relief—and he says, “Yeah. Yeah, okay—I’m glad then.” His smile’s back. “Put on your warmest outfit, it’s snowing again.”
Steve’s feeling guilty for showing up at such an up-scale establishment wearing dark jeans and a sweater in lieu of a suit, like most of its diners. But not too guilty; this is their night off, and although Tony is perpetually comfortable in his suits, Steve would rather go without.
Tony charms the wait staff in a way that reminds him of Bucky, but Bucky’d mostly done it to get discounts, something Tony’s never needed. And hell, he and Bucky had never even seen a five-star eatery, let alone set foot in one; that’s the kind of thing he hadn’t even bothered dreaming about. It’d always just been so far removed from him that it’d felt like a different reality those people lived in, the people who were rich and powerful enough to afford such things. He’d seen women with fur coats and diamond earrings and pearl necklaces in the talkies more than anything else.
But looking around this place, he sees the diamonds glinting off everyone’s rings, watches, earrings. They eat with real silver and everything about them glitters under the candlelight. He’s just a dolled-up schmuck from the grimy part of town eating dinner with modern-day titans.
“I feel a little silly,” Steve admits.
“Hm?” Tony says, looking up from the menu. His suit fits perfectly and his hair is perfect—he really does clean up well. He was covered in grease and oil not an hour before. “Why?” he continues. “Is it because of the jeans? No one cares, Steve.”
“No, it’s…” He waves a hand at the menu. “I don’t know what most of this is.”
“I’ll order for you,” Tony says, brightening, and that’s another thing, a thing about how much Tony likes doing things for people—“Seriously, don’t sweat it, we’ll get you all caught up on the good stuff. I mean, you’ve already tried a lot of the good stuff, but this is… Trust me on this.”
Steve’s still feeling a little dubious but he nods and goes back to inspecting the menu, looking at things he definitely knows. There’s steak. No matter the era, seems people aren’t going to tire of eating big slabs of meat. He’s not sure what some of the mentioned seasonings are but he could just look them up on his phone or ask Tony… But the thing that gets to him most is the price. Sixty dollars for a steak. And he’s not a fucking idiot, he understands modern pricing, he does the conversions in his head and even then, it still seems like too much. Too much to spend on him for a meal, even if they could afford it, easy.
He’s five feet tall again without an inch to spare, nose and mouth buried in his mother’s old scarf, keeping his head down as he passes by warm, cozy restaurants like this one. His hands are clenched around the change in his pocket like he’s afraid it’ll disappear.
“…You alright?” he hears through the rushing in his ears. His heart’s beating a mile a minute and he has no idea why this is happening, why’s suddenly feeling this way, it’s just a goddamn steak.
“I’m just—I need to go out for a second—fresh air—”
“Steve,” Tony says lowly, leaning across the table and meeting his eyes. “Is this a panic attack?”
“No. No, no, it’s not that, it’s just—I don’t know, honestly.” He’s had panic attacks and this isn’t it, this is just a very sudden, very overwhelming sense of disappointment and sadness and he really only wants to get outside. He stumbles out of their booth and heads into the chill; it’s still snowing and everything looks clean and beautiful—the world sparkles under the streetlights and Steve’s eyes burn. It all looks so familiar. He never used to go outside when it snowed if he could help it and now he’s here, standing on the slushy sidewalk, seventy years away from the version of himself that would’ve caught pneumonia in an instant.
He hears Tony coming. He doesn’t say anything, just sits down on the edge of the sidewalk. Steve breathes deeply and slowly moves to sit too and they stay like that for a while, staring at the reflections of the red-green-yellow stoplights shimmering off the wet street.
“That place was expensive,” Steve finally says, and to his credit, Tony doesn’t laugh. He can't believe he can go on a shopping spree but can't handle a pricey meal.
“Yeah. I get that you’re still getting used to that. In your day, a newspaper cost a nickel or something.”
Steve exhales shakily, blinking fast. His breathing’s under control, his eyes aren’t stinging anymore. He’ll be fine. “It’s not that. I wish it were that. I’m not sure, I just felt weird, you know? Out of place and like...” He groans, frustrated with himself. “It’s not like I used to dream about being rich and famous, that would’ve been too fantastical. I was always kinda level-headed about things like that.” He rubs a hand over his face, trying to sort himself out. “But I wanted that for the others—like my ma. I feel like she should be here, and I should be treating her to a classy meal. Why do I get to do this and they don’t?”
He looks to Tony, who’s still staring across the street, expression thoughtful. “Would your mom have really cared about going to a place like this? I mean, sure it’d be a nice treat, but would she really have cared?”
My Steve, his ma’s voice says in his head, muted and soft like an old, old recording. “No. She probably wouldn’t have.” He unclenches his hands and puts them in his lap, and they’re silent for another minute.
Tony leans back. “What was she like?”
He smiles, dimly. “Electric. Made of iron, like you. She worked so hard at everything—at her job, at home. And just taking care of me took a lot out of her, and I tried to fake it, tell her I’m feeling swell, but she knew I was lying, every damn time. She probably knew how much I worried about her too, but it still wasn’t as much as she worried about me.”
He mostly sees her as strong, that’s how he remembers her. The strongest person he’s ever seen. “And I wouldn’t ask for things because I knew we didn’t have the money. And that would make her sad ‘cause she wanted to treat me— and she didn’t want me to worry about things like that. She’d ask what I wanted for Christmas and I’d just say nothing, I’m fine, I don’t need a thing. And her face would just kind of… fall. It’s okay to want things, I know it is, and now I’m want for nothing, but… God, it’s so fucking stupid. I just feel so damned guilty about it.”
Tony’s looking at him like some kind of angel’s just come down and given him divine, profound knowledge that only he’s privy to. Steve’s never noticed his eyes are so brown they’re nearly black and they reflect the glint of the red-green-yellow stoplights absolutely perfectly. “I only started getting Christmas presents when I met Rhodey. I was in my—late teens? I don’t know. What do you get the kid who has everything? And it’s not like I had many real friends before Rhodes, so… What’s the point of gift giving if you’ve got no one to give to? Howard wasn’t big on it and my mom—well, she already had it all. Like I did. Do.”
Tony was born with a silver spoon in his mouth and he almost had it all but not quite. There’re a million things trembling on Steve’s lips but they all fall away to nothing, one by one and he’s left with nothing much to say. “What was your mom like?” he decides on.
“Away.” And he suddenly sat up straighter, eyebrows rising up high like something’s suddenly dawned on him. “I’m not trying to compare my situation with poverty, god no, it’s just that you were sharing so I thought, gee, better pitch in with my bit so Steve doesn’t feel all alone, so… So stop laughing at me.”
“Was that you trying to apologize?” Steve laughs. “Oh god, Tony, that was—there’s no need for apologies, I knew you weren’t—the look on your face, though.”
When Steve’s dissolved into giggles, Tony rolls his eyes and says, “C’mon, get your ass up, we’re mopey and lame because we haven’t eaten. We’ll go someplace a little more refined.”
“Okay,” Steve says, smiling, taking Tony’s hand and hefting himself up.
They go to McDonald’s.
“This is gross,” Steve says, helping himself to another burger.
“Gross and great,” Tony says, stuffing his face full of fries. “Dip your fries in the mayo.”
“Don’t be disgusting.”
“You trust me with your life but you won’t trust me with this?”
Tony’s got mayo on his face and either he’s the messiest fella alive or he does these things on purpose, but Steve’s distracted again. He’s inside and warm and full and it’s snowing out and he’s sitting across from one of the most powerful people in the world—a person whose time is extremely valuable, but chooses to spend that time with Steve and greasy burgers.
He thinks of little Tony, waking up on Christmas morning, in a beautiful mansion. He'd have been warm in his big bed, he'd have had breakfast fixed for him, waiting in the kitchen. He thinks of that beautiful, cavernous mansion, with Tony sitting alone at the breakfast table. He thinks it would’ve been quiet.
Steve himself had usually woken to the sounds of autos and people walking by the street and the rattling of the furnace accompanying the rattling of his lungs. He awoke with a red nose and a stuffy head and his mother’s hand on his forehead or Bucky’s dumb grin right up in his face.
“Captain,” Tony says, snapping his fingers in front of his face and goddamn that’s rude. Such an asshole. Such an endearing, stupid asshole. “You zoned out there.”
“I’m fine,” he responds, smiling at Tony’s bemused expression.
“Oh, yeah?” Tony says, cocking a brow. “Where are you?”
“The future,” he replies, still smiling, wide and bright.
Tony’s looking at him with an expression so intense that Steve wants to laugh again, but Tony's leaning in and Steve's mind kind of just stutters and his breath hitches and Tony says, “You know you’re sitting under mistletoe, right?”
Steve glances up. “There’s no mis—”
He shouldn’t be shocked when Tony kisses him but he is and he’s pretty sure his heart’s beating so fast that it’s essentially just vibrating in his ribcage. Tony’s lips are warm and soft and dry and the kiss is chaste, brief, but even still, Steve hears a few people around them gasp. His face feels hot and tingly but so does just about everything else.
And when Tony pulls back to look at him with those brown-black eyes, all Steve can think to say is: “This is gonna be on all these people’s Myspaces tomorrow.”
Tony growls, grabs his hand and rushes them out of there.
“I completely understand if you wanna take it slow,” Tony gasps as Steve pushes him up against the doors to the tower’s elevators. He leaves wet, open-mouthed kisses against Tony’s jaw, delighting in the scratch of his stubble against his lips. “I get it, really, I do. If you wanna wait until the third date or, fuck—that’s—if you want to wait, I can be a very patient man if I wa—oh.”
Steve doesn’t want to wait, he wants to be held. Tony’s hands are hot on his chilled skin. “We could do that,” he says against Tony’s throat. “Or, you know. We could have sex right now. Right here in the lobby, next to the stupid tree that doesn’t have a Cap ornament.” He presses his thighs between Tony’s legs and something hot and wicked sparks down his spine when Tony thrusts against it.
“The Cap ornament’s the star—at the top—do you get it? Because of your—”
Steve kisses him silent and Tony’s tugging at his shirt and Steve’s hot all over and happy too.
The lube and condoms were upstairs, so they couldn’t have sex in the lobby. Steve feels oddly disappointed by that. Tony tells him that his disappointment is the “hottest thing ever.”
On Christmas Eve they have a home-cooked meal courtesy of Bruce (though Steve tries to pitch in as much as he can) and Tony announces their engagement. When everyone gapes at them, Steve feels pity and lets them know that no, they’re not engaged, but they are going steady—or something like that anyway.
Some of the volunteers Steve’s met at the soup kitchen come over—like Sam. Ms. Potts comes and Colonel Rhodes is set to arrive tomorrow. Dr. Foster and her friend Darcy weave bows into Thor’s hair.
The place feels full, and he knows Tony feels it too, if his ever-present crinkly grin and giddy laughter’s anything to go by.
“How’re you feeling?” Tony says, sitting himself down on the couch next to him.
“Just aces,” Steve says. He nudges Tony with his shoulder, turning to face him. “Did you know you’re sitting under mistletoe?”
Tony groans. “That’s not funny the second time.”
“It wasn’t funny the first time.”
“Just gimme a kiss, you giant fucking dork.”
So Steve does.