Jan was the last to go, and she would have made it out safely if JARVIS hadn't alerted Tony. He stopped her in the large foyer with an indignant, "Hey! Where are you going?"
Suitcase in hand, Jan froze. She winced, managing to look guilty, annoyed, and genuinely contrite all at the same time. "Oh Tony," she said. "I'm sorry, I really am. But my friend Susie invited me to visit her, and I just couldn't say no. I haven't seen her in ages."
She was leaving. Christmas was just two days away, and she was leaving. "Is Hank going with you?" Tony asked. He was still in a state of disbelief.
"He is, can you believe it?" Jan said. "I actually managed to pry him away from his lab for a few days."
Tony folded his arms. "I thought we were all going to spend Christmas together," he said. All the Avengers gathered in the Mansion, one big happy family. He had been looking forward to it all month long. Not even the occasional supervillain attack had dampened his enthusiasm.
He was already well into the spirit of the holiday, having spared no expense to give everyone the Christmas they deserved. The exterior of the Mansion was bedecked with lights, and wreaths were attached to every window. Enormous trees stood in the foyer, the living room, the kitchen, and the upstairs landing. Even the training room was done up for Christmas: the missiles that shot at any moving target were shaped like candy canes, and the mysterious flyer who swooped down at an unsuspecting person had a red coat and a big white fluffy beard.
"We all talked about it, remember?" Tony said. He wasn't above guilt-tripping his friends. Especially on something like this. "We were going to give Cap a really great first Christmas."
"I know," Jan said, and she sounded sincerely sorry. "But I haven't seen my friend in ages, and I really think I should go."
"Well, that's just fine," Tony snapped, giving up the pretense that he wasn't annoyed. "You guys go. I guess it'll just be me and Steve then."
"Exactly!" Jan said happily. "That's the p—" She broke off, her eyes wide. Then she smiled. "You'll do fine, Tony. Have a Merry Christmas." She stood up on her toes so she could kiss his cheek. Then she picked up her suitcase, turned around, and walked out the front door.
And that was it, then. Starting a few days ago, they had all found an excuse to leave. Clint and Bruce – allowed to be human for the holiday – off in sunny Florida. T'Challa returned to Wakanda. Thor called back to Asgard. Now Hank and Jan going to who knows where.
So much for the Avengers being a family, spending Christmas together.
Tony sighed. The silence in the hallway seemed very loud. In the corner, the Christmas tree blinked at him, all white and shiny and silver.
"JARVIS," he said.
"Yes sir," came the immediate reply.
"I guess you better cancel the light show."
"Very good, sir."
It was Steve's first Christmas since being pulled from the ice. Tony had no idea what Steve expected, but he wanted to make it a holiday to remember. When he had approached the other Avengers, they had been enthusiastic about the idea. Everyone agreed that Cap was worth making the extra effort for. After all, he had nowhere to go, and none of his old friends and soldier buddies were still alive. Even Thor, who had needed the concept of Christmas explained to him, had been eager to help out his new shield-brother.
But now they were gone, and that meant the burden fell squarely on him, and him alone.
Well. There was no time like the present. He squared his shoulders and went in search of Steve.
It wasn't too hard to find him. Steve was in the kitchen, drinking one of his horrible egg yolk things, whistling a little as he fried up some bacon. In spite of the chilly temperatures outside, the Mansion was well-heated, and he was wearing only a plain white T-shirt along with his uniform pants. He had, however, put on an apron, and the sight of him standing there, so disturbingly domestic, made Tony's heart skip a beat.
"Hey, Cap," he said. It came out in an embarrassing croak, and he cleared his throat and tried again. "Steve."
Steve turned and saw him standing there. "Hi, Tony. Want some?" He gestured with the spatula to the frying pan.
"Ah, no thanks," Tony said. "I was just wondering… It looks like it's going to be just you and me for Christmas." He paused, then forged on, full speed ahead. "And I know you missed a lot all those years in the ice, so I was thinking we should hit the stores tomorrow, get to experience all that last minute Christmas Eve rush, and then there's a performance of The Nutcracker you should really see, or so I keep hearing, and it's a tradition, you know, so we should, we should go."
He finally had to stop to take a breath. At the stove, Steve blinked.
Tony sighed. "Or not. It was just a thought." He turned to go.
He stopped, sudden hope blossoming in his chest. He looked back at Steve.
"I'd like that," Steve said. He smiled a little. "Thank you."
Tony smiled back, feeling stupidly light-hearted then. "You got it, Cap."
He took great pains with his appearance the next day, choosing and discarding three different outfits before deciding on the dark red shirt that he knew he looked good in. Besides, red was festive for the holiday. His favorite black belt, his hair carefully styled, a splash of expensive cologne, and he was ready. He stood there for a little while, surveying the final result in the mirror, forcing himself to meet his own gaze.
"You can do this," he said. After all, there was only one man's happiness riding on it, right?
He blew out a long breath. "Okay, Stark. Let's do it."
Steve was sitting in the large living room, staring out the furthest window. On the opposite wall, a fire burned steadily in the hearth. He had put on a dark blue V-neck sweater, and there was something about the crisp angle of the sweater combined with the white patch of T-shirt revealed beneath it, all snug beneath his throat, that made Tony's mouth dry up. He looked up when Tony walked in, and he smiled. "There you are."
"Here I am," Tony said. "You ready?"
"Sure," Steve said. But he did not stand up.
Tony lingered in the doorway. "I was thinking we could hit Macy's first. Oh, and I got us a table at Per Se. They were booked for the night, of course, but this is me we're talking about, so we have reservations for 6:30 and then —"
"Come look at this," Steve said.
"Um," Tony said.
Steve said nothing, just continued to gaze out the window. He was smiling a little.
Tony left the protection of the doorway and came forward. He sat on the far end of the couch. "What am I looking at?"
Steve looked over at him. "You can't see it from there," he said.
His heart leapt in his chest. Trying hard to still look casual, Tony scooted down the couch until he was sitting less than a foot away from Steve.
"There," Steve said. He pointed at the window. "Do you see it?"
At first he saw nothing. He was aware only of Steve, of how close he was. He could smell the soap Steve used, a clean scent devoid of any artifice, like the man himself. Even that single lock of hair that stubbornly fell over his forehead was natural, not gelled or moussed in place.
Then he saw what Steve was looking at. Outside, beyond the iron fence that marked the boundary of his property, someone had built snowmen designed to look like each of the Avengers. There was a snowman with a curved branch in one stick hand that looked like a crude bow. A snowman with a snow hammer. One with antenna and one with wings and one with snow cat ears. A great big blocky one with puffy snow muscles.
The Captain America snowman had a garbage can lid for a shield. A star was painted in the center. The last snowman had a head shaped like Iron Man's helmet, and a light bulb held in one stick hand.
"See them?" Steve asked.
"Not bad," Tony said. "But are we sure Clint didn't do those himself?"
"I think if he had," Steve said, "the Hawkeye snowman would be front and center."
"Good point." Tony couldn't help grinning. "This is much better than last Christmas."
"Why?" Steve asked. "What happened last Christmas?"
"Oh," Tony said lightly, "the usual. People with signs, chants that I was a mercenary of death, throwing snowballs with rocks in them, all that. Up until last year, that was the tradition, you know?" He looked over at Steve. "Ready to go?"
Steve did not look ready to go at all. He was staring at Tony with horror. "People did that to you?"
"Yeah, well," Tony said. He could have kicked himself for mentioning it. "Until I became Iron Man, I was just Tony Stark, weapons manufacturer. No one ever built a snowman of him, believe me." He stood up. "Ready?"
"Tony," Steve said firmly. "Sit down."
"We're not talking about this," Tony said. "We're going shopping and we're going to stuff our faces on free candy canes handed out by store employees dressed up like elves and then we're going to an extremely expensive restaurant and then we're going to–"
"Sit," Steve ordered.
"I was thinking," Steve said. He gestured to the window. "Do we know who might have done that? It would be nice if we gave back to your neighbors. They put up with an awful lot from us, and they never complain. This is the time of year to thank them for that."
This was pretty much the last thing Tony had expected him to say. For a moment he floundered, still trying to grasp that Steve wasn't going to give him a lecture on how people could change and how everyone had good in their hearts even when they were making weapons that killed people all around the globe. "Um, not really?" he finally said.
Steve gave him that patented Captain America glare, and Tony hastily corrected himself. "I mean, I don't know the neighbors. Not that we shouldn't give back. Because of course we should."
"How can you not know your neighbors?" Steve asked. He sounded disapproving.
Before he could follow through with, Back in my day… Tony said, "I haven't lived here in a long time, Cap. That's how."
Steve turned slightly, the better to look him head on. The snowmen were forgotten; now his attention was fully engaged. "Where did you live before this?"
"I have a suite at Stark Tower," Tony said.
Steve made a face. "That doesn't sound very comfortable."
"Actually, it is," Tony said. "It's got pretty much everything I need, plus I'm close to the lab and workshops I need to fabricate the suits. I'll show you some time." An idea occurred to him. The Tower wasn't too far from the theater. "In fact, we can go there tonight if you want."
Steve seemed to consider this, then he smiled. "I'd like that," he said.
After a moment, Tony smiled back. He set his hands on his thighs and leaned forward, ready to stand up and start the day's adventure.
"But you grew up here, right?" Steve asked.
Tony froze. Slowly he leaned back again, putting the cushion at his back. "Yes."
"What was that like?" Steve said. He gestured to the grand room, the fire crackling, the pine wreath framing the mantelpiece, the Christmas tree in the corner decorated all in white and gold. "Was it the same for Christmas back then?"
This was not what he had had in mind when he came down here, Tony thought. He wasn't even sure he wanted to talk about Christmases past. He had hated this house when he lived here as a child, and even now only the presence of the other Avengers allowed him to tolerate it.
But this was Steve asking, with those sincere blue eyes and the collar of his T-shirt hugging his neck just so, and Tony couldn't deny him. Had never been able to deny him anything, since the day he first moved in.
And so what if they didn't go shopping? There was still dinner and the show, still plenty of time to give Steve the Christmas he deserved.
So he took a deep breath and said wryly, "Boy, are you going to be sorry you asked."
Three hours later their dinner reservations were in jeopardy – and Tony scarcely cared. He couldn't remember the last time he had spent such a pleasant afternoon just talking to someone. Steve was a great listener, and he seemed genuinely interested in what Tony had to say. He told a story well, too, and Tony found himself laughing out loud over the hijinks the Howling Commandos had gotten up to during the holidays.
By now the early winter dark had fallen. The fire was still burning, and it and the Christmas tree lights were the only light in the room. Sitting there in that oasis of fire and soft light, Tony thought he finally understood what it meant to call something cozy.
He felt relaxed and happy, a drink in his hand, Steve sitting on his right. For once he wasn't thinking about Iron Man and how to upgrade the suit, or worrying about the next supervillain they needed to catch and return to the Raft. There was just Steve and himself, and this quiet Christmas Eve day.
So it seemed a shame when the clock forced his hand. "Well, I guess we should…"
Steve blinked, a bit startled. Then he said, "I guess we probably should." He looked down at the empty glass in his hand. "I'll just take these to the kitchen, then we can go."
"Just leave it," Tony said.
Steve stood up. "No, Tony. I was raised to clean up after myself. Just because you pay people to do it for us doesn't mean I need to make their job any harder."
"But that's their job," Tony protested.
"Not today it isn't," Steve said. He gave Tony a firm glare. "You did give them time off for the holidays, didn't you?"
"Well, sure," Tony said. It had actually been Pepper who had reminded him, but still. He had done it.
"So then it's settled," Steve said, and he began to walk away.
Somewhat perturbed, Tony followed him out into the hall and from there into the kitchen. The lights were on in here, and the Christmas tree in the corner, by necessity smaller than the others, was lit up all red and green. Someone – probably Clint – had hung a sprig of mistletoe above the refrigerator.
Steve held out his hand. Tony stared at him for a moment, then drained his glass and handed it over. The alcohol was so watered down by now it hardly had any more flavor to it.
"This is a good kitchen," Steve said. "I like it." He rinsed both glasses, then put them in the enormous dishwasher.
"It's not bad," Tony admitted. He had done his homework in here as a child, sitting at the table while Jarvis kept an eye on him.
"When I was a kid, my mom and I used to spend entire days in the kitchen, because the heat of the stove felt so good. Sometimes it was all we had to keep us warm," Steve said. He stood by the dishwasher, the door still standing open. He looked lost in memory.
That wasn't exactly the kind of memory Tony wanted him to be thinking about, though. Especially not on Christmas. So he teased, "Did you wear an apron then, too?"
For the briefest instant, he thought he had miscalculated, and that Steve's mood would take a turn for the worse. Then Steve smiled a little and looked down. "Sometimes," he admitted. "But that was mostly because I didn't have many clothes and I couldn't afford to get them stained."
Tony could have kicked himself. Instead of cheering Steve up, he had just made things worse. All he could do then was keep going, and hope that he didn't say anything too stupid this time. "But I bet you didn't look nearly as cute in it then as you do now."
In the silence that followed, Tony actually wished their Avengers cards would light up with an alert. Please let Clint call them…right now. He would happily battle evil Mickey Mouse robots at Disneyworld. Anything at all to keep from having to stand here with Steve in this incredibly awkward silence.
But Steve surprised him, first by reddening a little, and then by smiling. "Well, I don't know about that," he said. "But I did have an awful lot of fun baking Christmas cookies with my mom. Somehow I always managed to get flour on my nose, too. I'm sure that wouldn't be cute anymore."
Tony heard himself speaking, but the words made no sense. It was like someone else had taken over his body. "Well, there's one way to find out."
Steve chuckled. "Have our dessert before dinner?"
"Why not?" Tony returned. "Besides, it's not like they're going to give away my reservation to someone else. This is me we're talking about, after all."
"Yes, how could I forget," Steve said dryly – but his eyes were alight with amusement. "All right," he said. "You've got a deal."
"Why do I let you talk me into these things?" Tony groaned two hours later.
"As I recall," Steve said, "this was your idea."
"I remember no such thing," Tony said. "I think you're making that up."
"Captain America does not lie," Steve said primly.
Tony looked around at the ruin of his kitchen and sighed.
Spilled flour and sugar littered every available surface, including the floor. Red and green sprinkles, unearthed from the depths of a cupboard Tony hadn't even known existed, gritted underfoot. Chocolate chips were scattered on the floor, those few that had been missed when he had coaxed Steve into tossing some at him, seeing how many he could catch in his mouth in a row. Plates of cooling cookies lined the large kitchen table, with a few noticeable gaps here and there where they hadn't been able to help themselves from "testing" how the batch came out.
"We need more butter," Steve said. He opened the fridge and peered inside.
Tony looked beyond his arm, spotted a bottle of wine that had miraculously escaped death-by-Hulk, and exclaimed with pleasure. Since they were obviously not going to be making their reservations at Per Se, the least he could do was have some wine with his dinner of cookies and chocolate chips.
He leaned down, shoulder to shoulder with Steve. He grabbed the bottle of wine just as Steve retrieved the butter. They stood up together, and Tony, his heart pounding, gave Steve the quickest kiss in the history of the world.
Steve's eyes widened. They were so blue, amazingly so, like the color of the sky when he was flying above the clouds, nothing between him and the curve of the Earth. "Tony…"
"Mistletoe," Tony said, and flashed him a grin. "It's tradition, you know."
"I'm aware," Steve said. He seemed to have recovered his equilibrium. "I just didn't expect you to follow it."
"Why wouldn't I?" Tony said lightly. He set the bottle of wine down on the counter and hoped like hell that Steve couldn't hear the rapid pounding of his heart. "I'm a traditional kind of guy."
Steve laughed. "Sure you are."
Tony just grinned at him and dug a corkscrew out of a drawer. He set it atop the cork, and then paused.
He could still taste Steve on his lips. Chocolate and cookies and something uniquely Steve. Did he really want to lose that by drinking some wine?
"You know what," he said. "This will keep. We'll save it for tomorrow."
"Sounds good," Steve said. He was making a fresh batch of cookies. "What are we having, by the way?"
"Whatever you like," Tony said. The original plan, back when all the Avengers were supposed to be here too, had called for an enormous ham and all the trimmings, but that wasn't an option anymore.
Steve looked up from his mixing bowl. "You mean you don't have a menu planned already?"
"A menu?" Tony laughed. "Did you forget who you're talking to?"
"I think," Steve said, "I'm talking to the man who has green sprinkles in his beard."
"I do not!" Tony said, even as he reached for his chin.
Steve chuckled as he returned to his stirring.
At last, all the cookies baked, Tony grew impatient. There was still time to make it to the theater, if they left right now. "Come on, Cap. The Nutcracker awaits."
"You seem awfully excited for a ballet," Steve said. "Is that your favorite Christmas show?"
Tony couldn't help wrinkling his nose a little. "Ballet's not really my thing," he said. "But it's tradition, you know? Besides, it keeps getting rave reviews."
"And what is your favorite Christmas show?" Steve said. He was at the sink, taking an inordinately long time to wash his hands.
"Don't really have one," Tony said. He glanced at his watch. "You?"
"I'm not sure," Steve said. "I always liked Miracle on 34th Street. But I would like to see It's A Wonderful Life."
Tony groaned. "Of course you would."
"What's wrong with it?" Steve asked. "I read the story when it came out. I bet the movie is great, too."
"Sure it is," Tony said with another glance at his watch. "If you like overly sappy holiday sentiment." He looked up and saw Steve just looking at him. "Oh, right," he said.
"Do you have it?" Steve asked, rather hopefully.
"Er, no," Tony said. "I don't really buy movies. But JARVIS can download anything you like, and you can watch it."
Steve said, "How about we do that, then?"
Tony nearly choked. "What, now?"
"Why not?" Steve asked, so maddeningly unperturbed.
Tony thought about the expensive tickets he had paid for, and all his plans for this day, dashed into glorious cookie-filled ruin. He sighed. "Whatever you say, Cap."
"Great," Steve beamed.
Man could not live on cookies alone, or at least, not comfortably. So while Steve asked JARVIS to download his movie, Tony instructed the AI to call for some Chinese food, mostly because it was the only place still open and delivering at this hour on Christmas Eve.
It was well after 11:30 when the movie finally ended. They were surrounded by empty cartons of Chinese food and a few crumbs that were all that was left of a pecan pie Tony had found hidden in the back of the fridge. Outside, it was lightly snowing, no doubt giving an interesting makeover to the Avengers' snowmen.
The fire was still going strong, and for a while the only sound in the room was the crackling from the hearth. Then Steve said, "It really makes you think, doesn't it?"
"About what?" Tony asked. He was curled up on one end of the couch, dress shoes long since tossed aside on the floor. Steve sat on the cushion beside his, leaning forward, elbows on his thighs.
"What it would be like if you had never existed," Steve said thoughtfully.
"Oh, that one's easy," Tony said. "A ton of people's lives would be a hell of a lot better without me around."
Steve sat up straight and looked over at him, lips pressed tightly together. "I don't want to hear that."
"Why not?" Tony said. "Sure, Iron Man is great and he's saved lives, but Tony Stark? Not so much."
"Stow that talk," Steve said sharply. "I know what kind of man you are, Tony, and I'm proud of you."
Tony stared at him. All he could think was that no, Steve really didn't know him at all, if that was what Steve thought.
"I know you have a brave heart," Steve said, and oh God he was really going to put it all out there, wasn't he? "I know you make mistakes, but you accept responsibility for them, and you do everything you can to put things right again. I know you're generous with your time and your money, and I know the Avengers mean everything to you. I've watched you put yourself on the line for both innocent civilians and your own teammates. And I know that I am honored to fight beside you as Captain America, and to be your friend as Steve Rogers."
It was absolutely humiliating to sit there and listen to all that. But it was also…nice, in a way. Still, for a moment it was on the tip of his tongue to ask why Steve had gone and ruined such a fun day. Because what Steve had said earlier was true – he never lied. And that meant Steve truly believed all those things he had just said.
And Tony had no idea what to do with that.
So he did what he always did at times like this. He fell back on a joke and a smile. "You forgot to add that I'm devilishly handsome and charming." It came out hoarse and flat, though, not at all the light-hearted quip he had wanted it to be.
Steve nodded. He did not look light-hearted, either. "You're right. But I didn't forget." His gaze was steady; and it went straight to Tony's heart. "How could I ever forget?"
The Christmas tree lights seemed abnormally bright all of a sudden. From a distance, Tony heard himself say, "You know, Cap, flattery will get you everywhere, but I'm still not going to tell you what I got you for Christmas."
"You didn't have to get me anything," Steve said earnestly. "You already have."
"I did?" Tony asked, stupidly thinking of the wrapped box hidden in his closet. Had Steve found it somehow?
"You gave me a home," Steve said.
There was absolutely nothing he could say to this, so Tony did not even try.
"And I know one more thing," Steve said. "Would you like to hear it?"
His eyes were so damn blue. Unable to look away, Tony just nodded.
"I know that you wanted to give me a Christmas to remember," Steve said. "I know you were worried about me, since it's my first Christmas since waking up in this world." He smiled a little. "You should really keep your voice down when you're having a team meeting that doesn't include the guy with the super-soldier hearing, you know."
Now that his humiliation was complete, Tony felt almost angry. "Well, that's just great," he said. "How long have you known?"
"It doesn't matter," Steve said. "What matters is that you did what you wanted. You gave me the best Christmas I could have had."
Caught off guard yet again – and still Steve was looking at him with those incredible eyes – Tony could only stammer, "Technically it's…it's not Christmas yet."
"All I could have asked for," Steve said quietly, "was to spend Christmas with my loved ones. And now I have."
The penny dropped then, and Tony just sat there, frozen still. He felt only a sense of wonder, and immense gratitude. They had all known. Of course they had. His teammates – his family – they had known what he had been too blind to see. So they had granted his wish to give Steve the best Christmas possible. They had removed themselves from the Mansion, and left him and Steve alone, and it was the greatest gift any of them could have given him.
On the mantel, the clock began to chime. Midnight. Christmas Day.
"You know," Tony said. His throat had gone dry; his heart fluttered in his chest. "There's one more Christmas tradition I wanted to share with you."
"What's that?" Steve asked.
Tony leaned in and kissed him. Not just a quick peck this time, but a real kiss, his lips pressed to Steve's, tasting him, breathing him in. And as the clock continued to chime, Steve's hand rose to cup the back of his head, pulling him in closer. Steve's lips parted, and then his tongue was in Tony's mouth, and if time had stood still then, that kiss lasting forever, Tony would have been the happiest man on the planet.
Time, of course, did not stand still. The clock stopped chiming, and Steve sat back a little, and Tony said, "Merry Christmas."
"Merry Christmas to you, too," Steve said.
Unasked, Tony nestled in close to him, laying his head on Steve's shoulder. Instantly Steve's arm went around him, draped across his back, Steve's hand resting lightly on his side. It was so comfortable, so oddly familiar, that Tony sighed a contented little sigh. "So what now?"
"Now we enjoy Christmas," Steve said.
"I can do that," Tony said. It had been a long day and he knew he should feel tired, but all he felt was a slow excitement lighting within him. It was the fire of potential, of promise, of the future. He felt it often when he was working on a brand-new project, but to feel it now, focused not on a new piece of technology but an amazing person like Steve Rogers, was an incredible gift.
"Thank you," he said quietly.
"For what?" Steve asked.
"For giving me the Christmas I never even knew I wanted," Tony said.
Steve's arm hugged him tight. Tony gazed at the tree with its white lights and the star on top that looked an awful lot like one of his repulsors. The lights were reflected in the windows, miniature stars set against the blackness of the night. The windows were treated so no one standing outside could see in, but he wondered now what someone would think if they could see in. What those snowmen out there in the falling snow would think if they could see Steve and Tony now, sitting so close together in front of a warm fire on Christmas morning.
He smiled a little. Actually, he knew exactly what they would see. Two men who had just received the best Christmas present ever.