As with most things, the whole mess was entirely Clint's fault.
Steve and Tony were slated that day for an interview with Carolyn Montgomery; nothing major, just a little something to keep public interest in their favor. Fury kept them all on the circuit—except Bruce, who refused flat out—but Steve and Tony were the favorable combination. Tony easily had the most interview experience, Steve all but oozed good-natured charm, and their genuine friendship meant they were entertaining to watch, even when the interviewer could barely slip a word between them.
It was a fairly innocuous day, all said—early December, somewhere in that post-Thanksgiving, pre-Christmas haze—and Clint was only supposed to be gone for a few minutes, buying something for Tony's killer headache. Just go grab an Advil or something, Tony had told him. It can't be that hard to just run grab a bottle from the drug store around the corner, Tony had told him. Don't forget to be back by 3 on the dot, Tony had told him.
He should've told the idiot not to talk to the fucking reporters,but he'd naively assumed that had been implied.
"So, uh. I kind of fucked up." Clint blew out a puff of nervous air as he raced into the green room, slamming the door behind him and leaning against it.
"Define 'fucked up'." Tony frowned at him, still busy looping Steve's tie. "Tell me you got the Advil, I will kill you if you—"
"Tony, I've told you," Steve started, "I can—"
"—do your own tie, right. Except you can't." Tony rolled his eyes. "Did you get my Advil?"
"Right, yeah, got that." Clint held aloft the promised bottle.
"Fantastic, this headache is killing me." Tony tugged Steve's tie tight, setting it nice and straight before snatching the bottle of Advil from Clint.
"That's not a headache, that's a hangover," Steve told him before Clint could speak up again, "And it's what you get for going out drinking with Thor until four in the morning the night before an interview."
"It's only a hangover if I let it win," Tony corrected, popping off the lid, "More importantly, Clint fucked up."
"What did you do, Clint?" Steve sighed, not conceding the point but saving further argument for later.
"I may or may not have gotten witty with someone who may or may not have been a reporter about a relationship that may or may not exist."
"I think my head's actually getting worse every time you open your mouth." Tony shook out four pills. "You realize now that—"
"Tony." Steve shot him a hard look when he reached for his water bottle.
"Fine." Tony scowled, putting two of the pills back in the bottle before getting water and downing the two he had left. "When my head still hurts in ten minutes, I'm blaming you. And when Carolyn throws whatever you said at us with no preparation whatsoever, I'm blaming you."
"Okay, to be fair, it was a valid comment." Clint threw his hands up. "I stand by it. I should've said it to someone else, but I stand by it."
Tony rubbed a hand to his forehead. "What did you say, Clint?"
"I bumped into some guys outside the building. I thought they were crewmen, y'know? They were just so casual about it, like, hey, so what's up with Steve and Tony? Are they banging, or—"
"Clint." Tony groaned. "We've been over and over and over this. They ask you about romantic relationships, no matter how true or false or utterly ludicrous, you say no fucking comment. This shit is astoundingly simple, how are you not getting thi—"
"Let him finish." Steve laid a hand on Tony's shoulder to silence his rant, narrowing his eyes at Clint. "What did you say, Clint?"
"It just, y'know, came to me, and it was pretty funny so then I couldn't not say it, and so I, uh. Said that your relationship is like an obscenely long and incredibly stupid game of 'Are We Really Hitting On Each Other Or Are We Kidding'."
Both men stared at him incredulously. Tony recovered first, throwing his hands up in the air and beginning to pace.
"Jesus fucking Christ, you send the kid out for one fucking thing—"
"You told reporters we were hitting on each other?" Steve looked astounded.
"Fantastic." Tony gave an ugly snort. "Carolyn's got more conscience than most, but not enough to ignore that. Clint's the very definition of an inside source."
"Have I mentioned how extremely sorry I—"
"If you're not out of my face in the next two seconds, I will shove this bottle down your throat," Tony threatened.
"Right, gone." Clint scrammed.
"How do we—" Steve started.
"It'll be fine," Tony assured, still pacing, mind racing, "Just let me handle it. I might come off as rude, controlling the question, but I've come off as worse and while me being an ass is par for the course, if you stammer or blush or even hesitate on the answer, they're going to take that as confirmation." He glanced at his watch. "We're just going to have to stick to the truth and wing it as best we can, we're already running behind. Sorry about the whole, y'know, besmirching of your name thing."
"What?" Steve shot him a puzzled frown.
"Being romantically linked to me, even if it's only baseless gossip, doesn't exactly bolster one's reputation, Cap." Tony chuckled.
"That hardly seems fair." Steve's frown dipped from puzzled to disapproving.
"You know the press." Tony shrugged. Steve had been in the future near to a decade now, and he'd spent six of those years as a part of the team and living in the Tower. No one knew the press better than Tony, but Steve had always been a quick learner.
"I suppose." Steve sighed.
"It's fine. Just relax." Tony straightened Steve's already completely straight tie. "Carolyn's an easy host, anyway. She won't push."
"Stop fiddling with my tie, Tony, it's fine." Steve caught Tony's hands, stilled them. "We should talk about what we're going to tell them."
"We'll tell them the truth." Tony waved him off, moving past him and out of the green room. "Don't worry, just act the same as you always do and your masculinity will come across just fine."
"What?" Steve's frown deepened. "No, that's not what I—"
"Both of you should've been on set two minutes ago." A crewman caught sight of them and steered them toward the set while making 'hurry up' movements with his hands.
"We're going," Steve told him, then to Tony, "I don't care how my masculinity comes across, I'm asking what you plan to say."
"I told you, the truth." Tony shot him a strange look as they entered stage left. What else would he do, announce they were secret lovers or something?
"Quiet on set!"
"That's what I'm trying to ask ab—" Steve continued in a whisper, until a cameraman shot him a pointed glare and gave another call for silence.
"Relax," Tony whispered. Without thinking about it in the slightest, he took Steve's hand once, squeezed for support, then released.
Steve stared at him throughout the countdown. What was up with him? Were the implications that he wasn't straight bothering him? Steve wasn't homophobic, that much Tony knew. What, did he think Tony had a thing for him? Steve was his best friend, and so out of his league Tony would've had to have been brain damaged to try anything. Steve had to know he wouldn't put their friendship in jeopardy like that over something he couldn't even have. Right?
The cameras came on and the host jumped in before Tony could consider further possibilities. She seemed to be sticking to the script so far; questions about their latest mission, StarkIndustries recent stock jump, off-field hobbies. Steve wasn't as talkative as usual, but not enough that anyone but Tony would notice. He was probably just playing it safe. Tony was beginning to think they may have even gotten lucky, that the reporters hadn't had time to relay the quote to the host in time, when he was of course proven wrong.
"Now, you two seem to have a very close friendship, on field and off. You even finish each other's sentences! You really know how to make a girl feel forgotten." Carolyn leaned across the desk a bit, showing off her aren't-I-so-playful smile. "In fact, we have one of your teammates quoted describing your relationship as a, what was it, a game of 'Are We Really Hitting On Each Other Or Are We Kidding'. So, I must admit boys, I'm curious; any chance you could give us answer, Commander Rogers?"
Smart woman; Steve was the more likely of them to slip, and by tacking his name at the end of her question she made it hard for Tony to jump in without looking suspicious.
"Answer to…?" Steve played clueless, setting the question up for Tony to steal perfectly. Carolyn was smart, but she was no Steve Rogers.
"She's asking if we're really hitting on each other or if we're kidding," Tony filled in. He had his opening now, and the words were all right there on the tip of his tongue. "And of course—"
Of course we're only kidding around. We're good friends and things get misinterpreted sometimes, but that's life in the spotlight for you. One dinner without the rest of the team and you're having an affair, am I right? Insert laughter here.
But something in the way Steve watched him—careful, unsure—threw Tony off.
Tony had always been kidding. It wasn't that Tony was entirely straight—he leaned towards women, but he'd made exceptions for lesser men than Steve—or that Steve wouldn't make a good partner—of course he would, he was Steve goddamn Rogers—or that Tony wasn't attracted to Steve—again, Steve goddamn Rogers—but that it was just so ridiculous to think that Steve would have any kind of romantic interest for him in turn. Tony had always just sort of assumed that Steve was straight, but even if he wasn't, Steve could do so, so much better than him. He could land anyone, and he deserved someone as kind, as utterly good, as he was. Well, okay, that wasn't exactly likely, Tony was pretty sure there wasn't anyone as good as Steve in possibly all of existence, but he at least deserved someone emotionally stable. Someone well-adjusted. Someone who didn't have intimacy issues and trust issues and daddy issues and who knows what else jam-packed into one workaholic, alcoholic, asshole-ish package. Someone definitely not Tony.
So why was Steve looking at him like he didn't know Tony's answer?
Had Steve not known? Did he think Tony had meant all his flirting? If he did, then had he not been kidding when he flirted back?The realization that any of the above questions could be answered with a yes, the realization that Tony even had a chance in hell at all,hit Tony surprisingly hard and filled him with a strange, very carefully guarded sense of hope.
It would be inaccurate to say that was the moment he fell for Steve. He'd loved Steve in one way or another for a long time—years at the very least, probably childhood if he wanted to get creepy about it—but there had never been one particular moment Tony could look to and go, oh, that's it, that's the moment I fell. Their relationship had been a slow, easy bleed of affection, camaraderie becoming friendship becoming close friendship becoming something…else. Something unique and reliable and necessary, something Tony had never experienced before but could no longer function without.
Rhodey was his best friend and their friendship was as rock solid as it'd always been—they'd been friends since college, saved each others lives more times than they could count—but it'd never been quite like this. It wasn't that he was closer to Steve, exactly, or that they were better friends, so much as there was a level of comfort to his friendship with Steve, an easy intimacy, that Tony had never had before in any kind of relationship. He'd never thought about it much, and though they'd gotten comments before, he'd never had any problems brushing them off. He couldn't love Steve. Steve was Steve…but then, Steve was also Steve.
That probably made more sense in his head.
It wasn't that Tony actively thought being with Steve would be a bad idea. It had always simply a non-idea, something that would be fantastic in a dream but couldn't actually happen. The idea that he could genuinely win Steve over hadn't existed in his head as a real possibility until that particular moment, at which point he didn't so much fall for Steve as he did look into Steve's questioning eyes and think, I would be so damn good to you.
So no, that was not the moment Tony fell for Steve.
It was the moment he realized he already had.
"—hasn't been feeling well, horrible headache." Steve touched his arm, and Tony remembered where he was. "Tony, are you alright?"
"Yeah." Tony shook his head. "Yes, I'm fine, thank you. It passed. Sorry, what was the question? Are we kidding, was that it? Look, Carolyn—we kid around, like everyone else. We're good friends and things get misinterpreted from time to time, there's really no need to blow anything out of proportion."
Steve's face was, for once, entirely unreadable. He was smiling, but it was his camera smile. "Clint certainly loves a good joke."
"That he does," Tony agreed, "Thinks he's some kind of stand up comedian. Apparently saving the world isn't a good enough career for him."
That got a small laugh, and he was able to further steer the conversation towards Clint, then the others, and soon enough they were back on track with the prepared questions.
Not that Tony's head was even remotely in the interview.
Tony was already scrambling for a plan, already piecing together a timeline. You didn't just ask a guy like Steve out on a date. Not only did he deserve more, he deserved to be shown that Tony was aware of what was at stake—their friendship, their teamwork—and, should Steve give him a chance, that he would take this seriously. He'd been jokingly hitting on Steve for years, that clearly wasn't the way to go. No, there had to be romancing involved here. Wooing. There had to be special moments and meaningful gestures and heartfelt confessions, all the areas of romance Tony tended to fall flat in. But this was Steve; he could and absolutely would try for Steve.
Steve went nuts over Christmas. It was only December 15th, and already he was humming Christmas carols and wearing goofy sweaters and generally filling the room with his cheery Christmas spirit. If Tony wanted to worm his way into Steve's heart, what better way than through something Steve already loved? If he spent enough time around Steve doing Christmas-y things, being cute and working his charms, he could definitely convince Steve to at least give him a shot. Probably. Maybe.
There were nine days left until Christmas. By the end of the interview, Tony had a mental list. By the time he fell asleep in the shop that night, sometime around four am, he had a battle plan.
Steve, however, seemed more surprised than enthused.
"We're…wait, we're what?"
"Going ice skating," Tony repeated, "You love Christmas, ice skating is Christmas-y, why aren't you smiling? This should definitely be earning me a smile, or maybe a hug or something, isn't Christmas supposed to make people touchy-feely?"
"I—sorry." There it was, there was the smile. "I just didn't think you were serious."
"Of course I'm serious, why wouldn't I be serious?"
"Last year you locked yourself in a virtual simulation room and pretended you were at the beach." Steve shrugged. "Christmas never really seemed like your thing."
"Well, things are going to be different this year," Tony told him decisively, "Count on it."
"Alright, Tony." Steve smiled again. "Where to?"
"Where else?" Tony grinned back.
Rockefeller Center was a disaster zone.
First mistake: taking a car. Traffic was horrible, and no amount of money could make a parking spot magically appear within walking distance of Rockefeller Center nine days before Christmas. They wound up parking an ungodly distance from the rink and walking at least twenty blocks before they so much as caught sight of it. Once they did, Tony realized his second mistake.
Crowds. Oh god, the crowds. Steve was six feet of gorgeous blonde superhero, and Tony still nearly lost sight of him. It took them almost twice as long to actually elbow their way over towards the rink—well, Tony elbowed, Steve shrunk in on himself as much as he could and apologized profusely to everyone he so much as shared air with—and once they got there, Tony realized his third and fatal mistake.
Okay, that wasn't strictly true. The guy who prohibited him from buying tickets was not, in fact, a green, hairy monster-looking thing, but a fat, hairier balding man who took way too much pleasure in telling Tony no. Apparently, they'd sold out tickets until after Christmas, and that if Steve and Tony wanted to skate they could come back then. Tony spent half an hour arguing, bribing, and threatening the overpaid mall cop to no avail. Steve eventually had to drag him away, repeating over and over that it was fine, it was totally fine, he wasn't much of an ice skater anyway, that they could go some other time.
First romantic gesture now completely shot, Tony was left in a sour mood. He felt young and stupid and hormonal all over again, stuttering and stumbling over himself like some prepubescent dumbass with a brain too fast and a mouth too big. In his place, Steve would've undoubtedly made the best of things; Tony wallowed in disappointment and frustration. This hadn't exactly been the promising start he'd hoped for. Still, as the days slipped by, Tony kept trying. Despite every screw-up, every mistake, and every fluke of fucking nature that prevented him from being romantic, he continued to try.
Oh, how he tried.
He tried everything from a day of gift shopping to an epic snowball war, but no matter what he attempted, everything just ended up falling to pieces. Gift shopping sparked endless arguments—"Tony, I am not getting you a four hundred dollar hair dryer for Christmas." "I have very special hair, it's a necessity!"—and the snowball war inadvertently caused a panic attack. Admittedly, cuddling with Steve in front of the fireplace, wrapped up in every blanket Tony owned in an attempt to warm Steve up and chase away the panic was definitely one of the better moments of Tony's life, but it didn't exactly further Tony's plan to win Steve over with grand romantic gestures.
In the days that followed Tony proceeded to, among other things, knock the tree over while decorating it, burn the shit out of the gingerbread before they could turn it into a house, and wind up under the mistletoe with Natasha in a mistaken attempt to corner Steve. Natasha had informed him blankly that she once killed a man with mistletoe; Tony had spun on his heel with an immediate and resounding nope. They were too recognizable for caroling, sledding was too likely to result in another panic attack, and the snow melted before they could make snowmen. He tried taking Steve to a neighborhood known for their fantastic Christmas lights, but despite the chances being fucking astronomical, a brewing snowstorm knocked out the lights within seconds of their arrival and Steve barely saw a glimmer of them. Then, as if to well and truly prove that the universe completely and resoundingly hated him, it turned out the snowstorm wasn't natural but the result of a villain calling himself Deep Freeze.
It managed to actually be worse than it sounded.
The whole of Manhattan wound up submerged in snow, a torrential downpour that buried cars and disrupted power lines and cut people off from their homes. The damage alone would end up costing millions, and innumerable people were injured and isolated by the storm. It was, all in all, an utter disaster, and with only two days until Christmas.
There were villains, and then there were assholes.
Steve seemed alright, albeit not particularly happy about it all. Tony kept a wary, concerned eye on him anyway; Steve was damn stubborn, and would likely fight off anything resembling a panic attack so long as he was needed. For all that Steve got on Tony's case about never asking for help, Steve himself would go to his grave trying to shoulder the world alone. If he started to experience difficulties, he'd never admit it. Tony took the liberty of having JARVIS monitor Steve so Tony could make that call himself. It took four hours to find, contain, and essentially beat the ever-loving hell out of Deep Freeze, during which Steve's vitals remained mostly steady. Steve didn't talk much though, and brushed off any attempts of Tony's to try, so Tony caught up with him before they went into debrief
"Hey, just, slow down a sec." He grabbed Steve's shoulder, stopping him before he made it to the door. "Look at me, would you?"
"I told you, Tony, for God's sake." Steve stopped, but even as he did he looked anxious, upset. The corner of his mouth twitched down. "I'm fine. I don't need be babied just because things got a little cold out there."
"I'm not babying you—" Tony protested.
"You are." Steve shook his head angrily, hands clenching at his sides. "You were checking in with me every ten seconds out there! And I know you had JARVIS monitoring my vitals—not everyone, me. I don't need to be babysat, Tony, and that you'd think I'd just crack under the least bit of pressure is insulting."
"The least bit of pressure? Steve, shoving you out into a snowstorm and expecting you not to have any problems is like shoving me in a dark sandy cave and being surprised when I have a fucking panic attack. I know you weren't going to just plop down in the snow and weep, but that shit sneaks up on you and if you needed a minute to catch your breath I wanted to be able to give you that."
Steve eyed him dubiously. "I didn't need it."
"You didn't," Tony agreed simply, though he'd seen a few vital spikes that might've disagreed, "But ice puts you on edge, and that's fine. I don't do so great with caves. Green reminds Thor of his brother. Bruce doesn't like loud noises. Clint's got that thing with clowns. Natasha…well, okay, Natasha's invincible but we can't all be Natasha, now can we? We've all got our shit. You don't have to deal with this alone, Steve. What I'm trying to say is that if you need me, I'll be there, and I know it keeps coming out like we're in some god-awful after school speci—oh, uh."
Steve was hugging him, warm and firm and sudden. "Okay, Tony. Thank you."
"Anytime," Tony managed, trying his best to do anything that wasn't melt into Steve's ludicrously muscular arms.
A blast of it slammed into his chest like the stuttering slam of a plane into the ocean, the water rising too fast, too fast, too fast. He could do nothing but take one last desperate, involuntary gasp of stinging air before it all rushed painfully through his nose and clogged in his lungs. The cold was a dizzying shock that sent his head reeling as it unfurled within him, dragging and scraping through his veins like nails over a chalkboard. He coughed it up, tried to, but only ended up inhaling more, choking on water as the bleak, merciless ocean swallowed him whole, engulfed him in frozen, icy darkness and he drowned, he drowned, he drowned—
Steve startled awake with a pained, choked-off gasp, hands clenching into the sheets tight enough he could hear them tear. He released them quick, though not quick enough; he'd still need to change them come morning. He shuddered forward, burying his head between his knees and gulping in air so fast he nearly choked on that too.
The breathing exercise usually worked. It'd never failed him before, but a supervillain hadn't buried him in snow since his plane crash, either. Before earlier—earlier, yesterday, he didn't know—yesterday, certainly. It was well past midnight now. He couldn't stop gasping, stop choking on it. Again and again he tried to get the world to slow down, to just let him catch up, but he couldn't quite manage. There was no ice here, he told himself, no ice, no water, no plane. He was safe, he could breathe, he—he couldn't breathe, couldn't at all, not through the water rushing in his ears and clogging in his lungs, he was going to die all over again, alone in this dark, endless freeze—
If you need me, I'll be there.
Steve scrambled a hand over his bedside table, getting ahold of his phone and pulling it into bed with him. His fingers shook over the buttons, but he managed a 1and a call before he had to close his eyes again. He cradled the phone carefully as he could, fighting the urge to do something insane. Like scream.
"Fucking hell, JARVIS." Tony's voice was rough in his ear, soothing despite its gravelly, sleep-muddled tone. "What do you mean, a call? Who the ever-loving fuck is calling me at four in the morning and why are you patching them through?"
Shame burned through him.
"I'm sorry, Tony, I shouldn't have—"
"After earlier, I just thought—it was stupid, never mind—"
"Why the fuck did you call me? Jesus Christ." The line went dead.
The silence, Steve thought, hurt worse than the nightmares.
The water rushed back, crashing in his ears and shoving its way down his throat. For a brief moment, Steve gave; the darkness swallowed him. When he came out the other side, he unfurled his fist to find he'd gone and crushed his cellphone. Damn it. He tossed the remains of it off the edge of his bed, feeling frustrated and hurt and mostly just so Goddamn stupid for ever bothering Tony with it all. He was a fool. A blind, hopeless—
That was his door.
He sat with a start when he heard it open, raising his hands in self-defense and squinting in the dark to see who was entering his quarters. Tony? Before Steve could figure out some kind of response, or perhaps a question, Tony arrived at his bedside, threw back the covers, and scooted in with him. That got Steve's vocals working again.
"Roll over." Tony patted his arm.
"What?" Was he dreaming? He wasn't sure if this was his mind was being cruel or kind to him.
"Or don't. We can do the whole man's man, lie side by side and don't touch each other thing if you want, but I figure if your nightmares are about what I think they're about the body heat would be nice. I wouldn't grope you or anything, it was just an offer—"
"No—" Steve interrupted quickly, then shook his head, "I mean, yes. If you don't mind?"
"Duh. Go on then, roll over." The instructions this time were accompanied by a gentle shove to his shoulder. Steve complied and Tony curled around him, one arm snug around his waist. "Nightmares suck. Dealing with them alone sucks worse. You don't have to call me, Steve, just come up next time. Or tell JARVIS to send me down."
"I…" Steve tried to bring to mind any words that could possibly explain his gratitude. He couldn't find any, so he settled for infusing as much sincerity into his voice as he could. "Thank you, Tony."
Tony fell back to sleep fairly quickly; Steve stayed awake a little longer, soaking up the warmth Tony radiated with boundless gratitude.
It wasn't dying, in and of itself, that Steve had ever been afraid of. It was the way he'd nearly gone, in a vast, empty darkness, chilled to the bone and alone in every way that had ever mattered, that terrified him. People mattered, to Steve. He wanted to make connections, wanted to know and be known, and yet when he'd crashed that plane no one in all the world had known him. He'd had no living family. Bucky had already been gone. He'd had a chance, with Peggy, a chance he'd put off until it'd been too late. Captain America had survived the crash because he was known, because he mattered, because there were people who looked for him. Steve Rogers was another person entirely, one who hadn't come out quite as intact.
He'd found a home here, though, or perhaps made one, with people brought and stuck together by some combination of obligation and compulsion until they'd found that their jagged edges slotted together to form something they all needed. These people were everything to Steve, now—teammates, friends, family—and that wasn't something he tended to forget. He was grateful to them, and for the second chance he'd found in a future he'd once been entirely determined to hate on principle.
But there were people he appreciated, and there was Tony.
Tony, who was as electric as those projects he worked on, passionate and brilliant and utterly magnetic. He was dazzling; bright and shiny on the outside and deeply complex within. He understood Steve in a way few others could, knew what it was like to have the entire world think they knew him so well when all they could see was a foolish, contorted caricature. He understood what it was like to be seen as a figurehead first, a superhero second, a leader third and perhaps a person fourth, maybe, if at all.
It had come as no surprise at all to Steve that he'd fallen for him. Tony flirted like he breathed and Steve had never taken it too seriously, but there had always been some element of hope there that maybe he perhaps should've ignored but had always been too stubborn to. He wanted Tony to mean it. Wanted a chance to prove that he could be what Tony needed, what he wanted. That he could make him happy.
He'd been trying to show Tony that lately. He'd been subtle, yes, but not that subtle, so when Tony had so cavalierly dismissed Clint's comment, about Are We Hitting On Each Other Or Are We Kidding…it had admittedly stung. Tony clearly hadn't even thought about Steve that way. Tony had looked so utterly confused by it, like Steve wasn't even an option. He knew Tony could do better than some kid from Brooklyn—it was ludicrous how out of his league Tony was—but he'd thought the fact that they were already good friends might somehow make up for that. He knew if he could just have a chance, just one date, just one, perfect moment to give his all to, he could prove to Tony that they could be fantastic together.
Given the chance, he would be so good to Tony. He wouldn't take him for granted, wouldn't use him for money or sex or blueprints or whatever else people stupidly cared about more than they did Tony. The man beneath the armor, beneath the tailored business suit, beneath the glamorous camera smile, was worth so much more than anyone knew. Yes, he was rich and charming and brilliant, but he was also so impossibly kind when he thought no one was looking, and had a quiet humor no one knew to listen for between his mile-a-minute pop culture references. He had his jagged edges and his rough exteriors, but for all the failings of Tony's physical heart, his metaphorical one was bigger than anyone Steve knew.
So, maybe Tony hadn't considered him romantically. That was fine. That wasn't a rejection, really, that was…a postponement of judgment. Steve could work with that. He'd never really learned to give up, anyway; why start now, and with something so important? No. He owed it to himself to try, and he would.
Well, he'd try tomorrow.
For the moment, he relaxed back into Tony. The arm around his waist was better than any blanket, and the soft exhale of Tony's breath against the back of his neck warmed him to his very core.
Christmas Eve marked the turning of Tony's luck.
He woke in what was definitely Steve's bed, and entertained the brief, still-half-asleep fantasy about why that might be, until he recalled the four am phone call he'd received. Steve seemed to have left, but Tony wasn't surprised; the soldier probably woke at six sharp, whereas Tony had always been more of the late to bed, late to rise mindset. There was a sticky note on the bedside table, though.
Breakfast's at 9, I'm making your favorite.
In lieu of a signature was the usual little doodle of Steve's shield; Tony had a drawer in the workshop full of these sorts of notes, the existence of which he would deny to his grave. He folded the sticky in half and tucked it into his waistband for safekeeping before rolling out of bed.
"8:47am, sir," JARVIS replied promptly.
"When did Steve leave?"
"When did he awake, or when did he leave?"
"Uh." Tony paused halfway out the door. "Would those be two different times?"
"6am and 6:43am, sir."
"It took soldier boy that long to change into his running gear?" Tony asked doubtfully.
"He didn't seem to wish to wake you by moving," JARVIS corrected.
"Oh, great." Tony sighed. "I was doing the octopus thing again, wasn't I? Pepper always complained about that—"
"I do not believe he minded, sir."
"Yeah?" Tony couldn't help a bit of a smile at that.
"I feel quite confident in saying so, yes."
"Great." He probably looked goofy as hell now, grinning to himself all alone in Steve's room. "That's—yeah. Great."
"Indeed, sir." JARVIS sounded far too amused.
"A little less smugness will do fine, J."
Tony forced his face back into something resembling a normal, not-stupidly-infatuated look, then ran a hand through his hair and headed out to the elevator. JARVIS directed him to the communal floor, and the doors opened to the sounds of Christmas music, the smell of strawberry waffles, and the sight of Clint running past him bare-chested with mistletoe taped to his belly-button while Natasha sent a kitchen knife sailing past his ear.
Tony sidestepped a deadly looking Natasha—well, more deadly looking than usual—and made his way into the kitchen. Bruce and Thor were at the table, Bruce with his morning tea, Thor with a generous mug of orange juice and a heaping plate of waffles. Steve was by the counter, balancing two enormous platters easily, one of more waffles, the other piled high with eggs. He smiled as Tony entered, and deposited the platters to wave a hand.
"Morning, Tony. Hungry?"
"Coffee," Tony made grabby hands for his beloved machine, only to find it was already full and ready. "Did you make me coffee?"
"I did." Steve nodded. "Wanted to say thank you. Have some waffles, too. There's also eggs, bacon, and sausage on the counter—"
"I can see that." Tony surveyed the room. "You've been busy."
"I had time." Steve shrugged. "I do have some plans for later though, if you were—"
"Oh, no no no," Tony insisted, "Definitely not. No plans, Cap, tell them you've got to cancel—it's Christmas Eve, and there's only one thing to do on Christmas Eve."
"Movie marathon!" Clint whooped from the other room, and Tony raised his hand, pointed a finger in Clint's general direction.
"All day?" Steve raised an amused eyebrow.
"All day," Tony confirmed, "Well, most of the day. The SHIELD Christmas party is tonight."
"You're going this year?" Steve raised both eyebrows this time.
"Didn't you skip out last year because you were allergic to…holly, wasn't it?" Bruce pointed out.
"He said mistletoe," Steve corrected with a laugh, "Odd, considering he was running around with some the other day trying to get a kiss from Natasha."
"I was absolutely not trying to kiss Natasha." Tony snorted into his coffee.
"Clint would have been wise to learn from your folly," Thor chuckled.
"Clint? Wise?" Tony rolled his eyes.
"You are coming to the party, though?" Steve checked. "You weren't kidding?"
"Yeah, I mean it." Tony shrugged, then tossed a warning look to Steve. "But you can get any image of me in one of those god awful Christmas sweaters out of your head right now, though."
"But they're so festive—" Steve began.
"They're a fucking eyesore and I'm not touching one."
"But tis the season, Anthony!" Thor protested.
"You don't get to plead the season card when you're not even from this planet," Tony dismissed.
"You really hate them that much?" Steve fidgeted.
Oh, fuck. That was Steve's kicked puppy look. The guy hadn't knitted him one, or anything, right? Shit, shit, shit. Tony mentally calculated how much of his pride he'd have to swallow to wear one of those things versus precisely how much he wanted to win Steve over and, unfortunately, found himself backtracking.
"Hate might be a little strong," Tony said neutrally, "Why? What's with the face?"
"Nothing, it was—silly, it doesn't matter, if you don't like them that much, it's fine—"
"Steve." Tony forced himself not to wince. "Did you knit me a sweater or something?"
"No, of course not. I don't even know how to knit," Steve corrected immediately.
"Might've bought you one, though."
"God damn it, Steve."
"It's a nice one!" Steve rushed to tell him, "Expensive, even, I know you like expensive things. And you like your clothes soft and well-made, and it's definitely both. They were just side by side on display, one red with hints of gold and green, the other blue with white and red, and I just thought, you know, Iron Man and Captain America, I couldn't resist. But it was just a thought, you don't have to actually wear it if you don't—"
"Just go get the fucking sweaters already," Tony grumbled into his coffee, swallowing down the last of it and pouring himself another cup.
Christmas sweaters. He was going to wear a fucking Christmas sweater, a matching fucking Christmas sweater. Wasn't he supposed to at least get laid once or twice before the domesticity set in? Tony turned back from refilling his cup only to almost drop it; Christ, Steve was disarmingly gorgeous when he smiled like that. Tony would wear the ugliest, matchy-est Christmas sweater in the world every day for the rest of his life for a smile like that.
"Great!" Steve beamed. "I'll go get them."
He was gone in a moment, and Tony snagged a waffle and a spoonful of eggs before joining a snickering Bruce and chuckling Thor at the table.
"I don't want to hear a fucking word," he told them both. They only snicker-chuckled harder.
"So all that's going well?" Bruce was the first to attempt conversation in spite of Tony's attempts at a death glare.
"All that?" Tony cocked an eyebrow.
"He means that you lean more toward 'hitting on each other' than 'kidding', these days." Natasha informed him, sliding into the seat across from him with a plate of eggs and sausage.
"It's nice," Clint agreed, taking the seat next to her without fanfare, as if they hadn't just been running around trying to kill each other a moment ago, orange juice carton in one hand, cereal bowl in the other. "Sickening, obviously, but the nice kind of sickening."
Tony quickly glanced around before hissing, "He has superhearing, think you could maybe keep your voice down?"
"So you have figured your shit out!" Clint crowed, "See, aren't you thankful I helped you along?"
"The push was ill-timed, albeit…helpful," Tony admitted before repeating, "But again, voice, down."
"Come on." Clint snorted. "He bought you matching Christmas sweaters, that's married-level shit. He's got it so bad for you it's painful to watch. Just kiss him thank you for the sweater or something and get on with your lives already, this relationship is at least three seasons overdue."
"Seasons?" Tony raised an eyebrow.
"He's convinced that someone, somewhere, is making a TV show out of his life." Bruce sighed.
"It's his new thing," Natasha agreed.
"That's…" Tony paused. "Disturbing."
"What is?" Steve re-entered the room, carrying the most god-awful error of nature Tony had ever seen in one arm. This was going to be physically painful, Tony justknew it.
"Clinton believes his life to be a television show," Thor announced between mouthfuls of waffle.
"Oh." Steve quirked his head. "Is that why you keep saying 'to be continued' instead of 'goodbye'?"
"Yes." Clint straightened. "More importantly, is that the atrocity you're shoving Stark into for the party tonight? I wanna see."
"Shut up and peck at your cereal some more, birdbrain." Tony kicked him under the table for insulting Steve's sweater. "I'm sure it looks great, Steve."
"I don't know about great, but it's your colors, at least." Steve shrugged modestly, handing it over. "Here."
Oh god, it was even worse up close. It was a mish-mash of everything holiday, from reindeer to snowmen, Christmas trees and snowflakes, stripes and spots and good god he was going to go blind if he examined the thing a second longer. One benefit of wearing it was that at least he wouldn't have to actually look at the eyesore, just endure the indignity of it touching his body.
"I love it," Tony insisted, channeling his many years of experience spinning tales to the press into his biggest lie yet, "Totally love it. So much. Lots of colors in this, huh? And trees, lot of trees, great trees. And those snowmen, real, uh, special looking, aren't they? Is that a—wow, the dog's nose actually lights up, doesn't it, did I mention wow—"
"I think that's Rudolph," Bruce pointed out with no small amount of glee. Bastard.
"Right, of course it is, the reindeer with the lightbulb for a nose, how could I ever forget that naturally existing creature? Well, shit, this is great, Steve, totally great. I love it, did I mention loving it, cause I do, so thank you, of course, should've said that first—okay, you're laughing, what did I do?"
Steve wasn't just laughing but bursting with it, his face red as a berry. The others were laughing to various degrees too, but none as hard as Steve, who was now doubling over to grip the kitchen table for balance as he cracked up.
"Is this some kind of punk'd thing, or…?" Tony narrowed his eyes.
"No, no!" Steve stood enough to wave a hand. "I just—you don't know—oh, Lord—"
Then he was laughing again, continuing to be completely unhelpful.
"I live with a bunch of assholes," Tony muttered, shoving the sweater back at Steve, who finally managed to pull himself out of it.
"Tony, no, wait." He stopped Tony with a hand on his arm. "I forgot you haven't been to the Christmas party before. I didn't realize you'd think I was serious."
Tony squinted at Steve, then at the sweater. "So…it's not really for me?"
"No, it is." Steve grinned. "But SHIELD has a competition for ugliest sweater every year, I thought you could enter."
"So it's supposed to be ugly?" Tony asked, warily.
"Definitely," Steve assured, another laugh bubbling up before he quickly clamped his mouth shut.
"I fucking hate you all." Tony waved a threatening finger at the still-snickering group. They ignored him completely, so he did the only rational thing he could: he shoved Clint's bowl of cereal off the table into his lap, and left to nurse his wounded dignity in private. Admittedly, Clint's shocked yelp did a little to help soothe the pain.
He stopped in his room to splash some water in his face and change clothes, but otherwise made straight for the shop for manly, blow-stuff-up reasons. Just because he would've worn the stupid sweater didn't mean he was whipped or anything. They weren't even dating! He couldn't be whipped. He just…liked to do things to make Steve happy. That was normal. Normal people did things to make the people they loved happy, even stupid things. Even outrageously, disgustingly stupid things like wear matching mauled Christmas sweaters. Tony got roughly two hours to himself before Steve came to apologize.
Tony had to admit, the sight before him was a pretty damn good apology.
Steve's sweater was, indeed, matching, with all the same eyesores just in a different color scheme. It of course looked a fair touch more patriotic than a Christmas sweater ought to, but that could hardly be helped; Steve's general patriotic aura could make a beach towel look like an American flag. He held his arms open and turned, allowing Tony to take it in.
"Take pictures if you want. I deserve it." Steve ducked his head with an abashed grin. "Sorry for laughing at you."
"I'd have laughed at me too," Tony admitted, "Still taking pictures, though. JARVIS?"
"Captured in full, sir," JARVIS replied.
"I'll be wearing it all day," Steve told him, "Call it my penance."
"Sure you're not punishing the rest of us?" Tony snorted. "Who says we want to look at that all day?"
"I thought you loved it," Steve teased. Tony made a garbled, not entirely human noise of disgust. Steve chuckled, then seemed to sober a little. His smile didn't quite fade, though. "You really would've worn it?"
"I thought you bought it because you liked it." Tony shrugged. "I wasn't going to be the one to tell you it was an eyesore if you couldn't see it."
"Why not?" Steve pressed, the smile turned to a hint of a teasing smirk. "You're usually so eager to tell me when, and precisely how and why, I'm wrong."
"Well…yeah. When it matters. Didn't think a Christmas sweater was worth wiping the smile off your face, though."
Had he just said that out loud?
"Yeah?" Steve just smiled wider.
"Uh." Right, this was it. This was the part where he came up with a smooth metaphor about Steve smiles and sunshine and how he needed them both to live or something, the part where he won Steve over with his wit and charm and romanticism. "Yeah."
"You coming back upstairs?" Steve was still smiling, at least. God, Tony was such a fucking idiot. "Clint says we have to start the marathon at no later than exactly 11:26, or we won't have time to watch them all before the party."
"What's his lineup?" Tony asked as he shut his systems down.
"I'm not certain, but he was very insistent that Die Hard was first."
"For once, and don't you dare tell him I said this, he's right." Tony nodded. "Die Hard's a classic and is absolutely first up."
The rest of the afternoon was a blur of cliché Christmas movies, far more peppermint hot chocolate than any one man ought to consume, and a steady attempt to sit at least an inch or two closer to Steve every time he returned from his latest hot chocolate refill. The first movie had them sitting next to but a respectful distance away from each other. The second, It's a Wonderful Life, had them touching thighs. The third, Elf, had Tony pissing like a racehorse because Jesus fucking Christ that was a lot of hot chocolate, but upon his return Steve had an arm up on the couch and when Tony repositioned himself they were all but cuddling, so the fuckton of sugar now wreaking havoc in his system was totally worth it. Around the fourth movie, Steve's arm dropped enough to pat Tony's shoulder.
"You're twitching," Steve murmured in amusement, keeping his voice low so the others didn't snap at them about talking during the movie, "I told you six cups of that stuff was too much sugar."
"I'm not twitching," Tony muttered back, "I'm cold, I'm shivering, don't be insensitive to my pain, Steve."
"Alright." Steve chuckled, clearly not believing him but standing up anyway.
Shit, Tony hadn't meant to make him move, but he only went far enough to retrieve one of the obnoxious Christmas quilts they had out during the holidays. He returned to Tony's side—closer than before?—then tugged Tony between his legs the way Tony had with him the other day when they'd had to warm themselves up by the fireplace after the snowball war disaster. Steve wrapped them both up in the fluffy blanket, and rested his chin on Tony's shoulder.
"Yep." Did he sound strangled? He felt strangled. There probably wasn't enough air circulating through the room, JARVIS ought to turn on the air conditioning and keep it cold in here forever and ever and ever—
"Good." Steve settled in, arms still around Tony's waist, chin still on his shoulder, and continued to watch the movie in oblivious peace while Tony tried not to melt into a puddle of sentimental goo.
He'd wear the world's ugliest Christmas sweater for five minutes of this any day.
As with all good things in Tony's life, however, it came to all too quick of an end. He only got the rest of the one movie to hoard Steve's warmth before they had to call it quits and get cleaned up for the Christmas party. Tony obligingly donned the utter atrocity Steve put on his bed—made a little better by the knowledge that it was supposed to be horrible—and joined the others in the garage. Happy pulled up with the car, and they all piled in.
"I don't see why I can't just take the Iron Man suit," Tony complained as he scooted between Steve and Bruce, "It's faster, slimmer, folds up and tucks away easily, plus, hey, Iron Man Santa, how cool would that be—"
"Because you getting drunk in the suit always works out so well," Natasha reminded him. Clint snickered.
"Once!" Tony objected, "I made that mistake once. I won't even be getting drunk, the invite said they only serve eggnog. Eggnog has less alcohol in it than wine coolers."
Everyone else looked at him blandly, unimpressed. It was Bruce who broke the silence.
"That eggnog had Thor on the floor last year."
"Aye." Thor nodded solemnly.
"Never underestimate the desire of SHIELD agents to get really fucking wasted," Clint advised.
"You get one," Steve warned Tony, "I'll be watching."
"Buzzkill," Tony muttered.
"I want you to stay sober." Steve bumped his shoulder. "I've got a surprise for later."
"You have a surprise?" Tony frowned. "I hate surprises."
"No, you don't." Steve only laughed. "But it'll only be fun if you're conscious, so steer clear of the eggnog."
"'Fun if conscious' doesn't really narrow down my guessing chances," Tony mused.
"Probably because I don't want you guessing. Thus, why it's a surprise," Steve pointed out, but he already wore the look of a man amused and resigned to the fact that Tony was going to do so all night anyway. He was, of course, right.
"Is it a gift or an activity?"
"If it's a gift, is it something you bought or something you made?"
"If it's an activity, have I ever done it before?"
"If you dragged me off into the woods to make me your sex slave, would that be considered a gift or an activity?"
"Don't say things like that."
"Aw, look at you blush." Tony grinned. "Gift or activity?"
"Neither!" Steve protested, "It's immoral, is what it is."
"Your surprise is immoral?"
"The—the sex slave thing!" Steve sputtered.
"Oh, are you still stuck on that?" Tony hummed innocently. "Dirty mind there, Cap."
"You brought it up!"
"And you brought it back up."
"And now I'm dropping it." Steve rubbed a hand to his forehead.
"So." Clint leaned across the seat with a cat-like grin. "Hitting on each other or kidding?"
"I'm not sure any conversation involving the phrase 'sex slavery' constitutes as flirtation." Steve sighed.
"What do you know about modern dating?" Tony pointed out, "What if all the kids are doing it these days?"
"Luckily for me, I don't plan on dating any kids."
"Your tastes do seem a little more…" Bruce shot Tony a telling, utterly unsubtle glance.
"Refined," Thor offered.
"Matured." Natasha snorted.
"Old." Clint smirked at Tony.
"Don't call him that." Steve smacked Clint's knee with a disapproving frown.
"Him who, Steve?" Clint asked innocently.
"I believe we were talking about your hypothetical taste, were we not?" Thor agreed.
"You know, I own this car," Tony pointed out, "Just like I own all the other cars you borrow freely. And the Tower you live at rent-free, the furniture you abuse, and the walls you knock through whenever you feel like it. These things cost money, you know, money none of you have save Mr. 70-Year Military Pension over here, who also happens to be the only one of you who doesn't break expensive things on a daily basis. You all could stand to be a little nicer to me, you know. I snap my fingers and you fuckers are homeless."
"I am a Prince in my land—" Thor began his usual speech, disgruntled as he always was when the subject of money came up.
"Yes, but here on Midgard, your currency is worthless and I pay your utterly massive and far too frequent damage bills."
"I possess riches beyond your wildest of dreams—"
"And yet you and the Hulk racked up a Taco Bell bill last week that cost me fourteen thousand dollars for food and damages. Dollars, Thor, do you possess dollars? Let me answer that: you do not."
Silence echoed in the car for a long moment.
"You're still mad about the sweater thing, aren't you?" Bruce asked at last.
"Yes I'm still mad about the sweater thing!" Tony snapped.
Natasha let out something dangerously close to a giggle before she slapped a hand over her mouth and glared them all back into submissive silence. At least, until Clint mimicked her, at which point they all burst into uncontrollable laughter at the look on his face and ridiculously high pitch of his voice. By the time they pulled into the Triskelion they'd each let out a few giggles of their own, but it was Thor's deep, booming attempt at a girlish 'tee hee hee' that had them all rolling in their seats, red-faced and gasping for air.
"Mr. Stark." Happy cleared his throat. Tony couldn't gather enough air to reply, and Happy repeated himself more forcefully. "Mr. Stark."
"Yeah?" Tony managed.
"Great!" Tony wiggled over Steve's lap to reach for the door handle. "Bring on the eggnog!"
"Try and stay at least mildly sober, Tony," Steve reminded him.
"Right, right, you're going to drag me away later to be your sex slave, got it." Tony waved him off. Steve rolled his eyes, but it was fond.
"Eggnog!" Thor boomed, clapping Tony on the shoulder for no particular reason other than he was there. Tony was thrown forward, and he stumbled out of the car. "I have come for you again, old foe! This time you shall be vanquished, so swears Thor, god of thunder!"
"Tonight's gonna be great." Tony grinned at Steve.
Three hours, six eggnog shots, and four topless agents later, Tony couldn't remember why he'd never come to one of these before. He reached for his seventh shot, only for it to disappear.
"Where'd it go?" Tony mumbled forlornly. "Eggnooog, come back to meee—"
"You've had plenty of eggnog, Tony." An arm found its way around his waist, and a face found its way into Tony's line of sight. A very pretty face, a pretty blonde face, Tony's favorite face.
"Fav'rite face!" Tony declared, patting his favorite face's cheek. "Foun' you."
"Drink," favorite face told him, holding a glass of something clear by Tony's mouth.
"Vo'ka?" Tony slurred.
"R'lly?" Tony lurched forward, grabbing for it. He downed it eagerly. "Don't taste like anything."
"No, but it has magical powers of sobriety," favorite face told him seriously.
"Oh." Tony frowned at the glass. "Do I wanna be sober?"
"Yes." Favorite face chuckled. "I have a surprise for you, remember?"
"Oh yeah." Tony perked up. "I'm gonna be your sex slave!"
"No, Tony, that's not the—you're so hung up on that, honestly—"
"Aw." Tony reached up to stroke a hand over favorite face's adorable blush. "I like it when you blush."
"Well, you're very good at making it happen." Favorite face sighed, but there was a fond little twist to his lips. "You've got three hours left to sober up, Tony, you can do it. Here, eat something."
Tony was handed something of the cracker variety, so he put it in his mouth and mumbled through the bits, "When's the sweater comp-compet-the thing with the sweaters?"
"We did that an hour ago," Favorite face reminded him, "You won second, remember?"
"Did Coulson turn into a reindeer?" Tony asked, blurry memories drifting back. He was also pretty sure someone flew and or fell off the stage, but that seemed like someone else's problem.
"It was a hood that made him look like a reindeer," Favorite face corrected, "Complete with a glowing Rudolph nose."
"Mine glows." Tony pouted, tugging at the blinky Rudolph nose on his sweater. Then, he caught sight of favorite face's. "Hey, you glow too!"
"They match, yeah." Favorite face smiled.
"You're like an angel," Tony told him, petting his face again, "All glowy and sweet and perfect."
"Thank you?" Favorite face laughed.
"No no, it's a good thing," Tony insisted, "You're a good thing. A perfect thing. Gonna do perfect by you, favorite face, just you watch!"
"Oh." Tony paused, frowned. "You have a name. Shit."
"Why are you calling me favorite face?" Favorite face laughed instead of being offended, and Tony loved him so much he wanted to burst with it.
"Because yours is my favorite face." Tony patted it again. It was the very best face. "Wanna see it forever."
"Forever, huh?" Favorite face's mouth did that funny little happy twist again.
"Yep," Tony declared, "Now, carry me."
"Carry me." Tony looped an arm around favorite face's wonderfully broad shoulders and tried to swing his legs up. He was probably failing miserably, but favorite face just compensated for him, hoisting him up carefully.
"Uh. Why am I carrying you?"
"So I can do this," Tony said, squeezing the little reindeer nose on favorite face's sweater. It lit up and burst into song, just like Tony's.
"I'm going to go put you down on the couch." Favorite face chuckled.
"Oh." Tony tried not to look disappointed.
"I'll stay with you, Tony," Favorite face added quickly, and thank god for mind reading angels, "I'm just going to get you some more water and cinnamon bread first."
"Cinnamon bread?" Tony frowned. "You mean crackers?"
"Uh." Favorite face laughed. "Sure. Crackers."
Tony slowly but surely sobered up, and by the time midnight rolled around, he was one of the few people not rolling around on the floor. Thank god for Steve. It may have started as a drunken thought, but Tony wasn't entirely certain Steve wasn't well and truly an angel. They spent most of the party together, though they drifted apart sometime after Tony was more clear-headed so Steve could check in with Natasha about something and Tony could give Fury his Christmas gift.
After getting the very lovingly engraved nameplate thrown back at his head—"Fucker In Charge of You Fucking Fucks" was absolutely Fury's real job title, Tony had no idea what the guy was complaining about—he went to go see if Thor had "defeated" the eggnog yet. He wound up cheering Natasha on in a drinking contest against an agent Tony only vaguely recognized, Mellie, or something. He was pretty sure she'd tased him at some point, but that was pretty much agent initiation by now so it didn't really narrow it down. Natasha stayed standing longer, but the other woman managed to grope Thor's biceps before going down, so the real winner was uncertain.
"Is that Agent May on the floor?" Steve asked curiously, appearing to Tony's right.
"Probably. She looks familiar, has she ever tased me?"
"She's one of Coulson's." Steve grinned. "So, probably. You about ready to go?"
"Go?" Tony perked up. "It's an activity, then?"
"Stop guessing and get out to the car." Steve only shook his head with a sigh.
After sidestepping a snoring Hulk, blowing a party popper in a drunken Clint's face and avoiding Thor's booming attempts to regale them with the tale of how he "defeated" the eggnog, they made it out to the SHIELD lot. Happy was long gone, but SHIELD agents could borrow cars at will. Steve swiped them into the lot, got a set of keys, and insisted Tony sit back, relax, and just enjoy the ride.
Tony did none of those things.
"I mean, I admit, this is by far the nicest kidnapping I've ever been a part of—"
"Tony, for the hundredth time, this is not a—wait, how many kidnappings have you been a part of?" Steve frowned.
"Enough to know that I'm still supposed to be trying to escape, or something."
"I'm not holding you hostage, Tony, honestly. If you want to get out in the middle of nowhere, you feel free—"
"Should I try a duck and roll out the door? You're only going thirty-five, crazy law-abiding citizen that you are, so I probably wouldn't even die or anything—"
"Shut up, Tony," Steve told him, but that was definitely Steve's fond voice. "Just sit back and let someone else surprise you for once, would you?"
"It's almost midnight on Christmas Eve, what exactly do you think is going to be open at this time of night? Or are you just going to hide me away in a cabin in the woods or something, chain me to a radiator and use me as your sex slave? Not that I'm not protesting, mind you, I'd just like to be informed about these things so I can emotionally prepare myself—"
"You're so obsessed with that." Even in the dark, Tony could see the wonderfully bright red of Steve's cheeks. "We're not even near any woods."
"So you would use me a sex slave?"
"I'm not answering that."
"Because you would!"
"Because if I say no, you'll pester me about why you're not good enough for me to use, and if I say yes, tomorrow you'll tell everyone I tried to make you my sex slave."
"You really know me far too well for your own good." Tony couldn't help a grin.
"Knowing you is perfectly good for me," Steve corrected, pulling into an open space along the side of the street.
"Are we going to a diner, or something?" Tony made a face. Steve had a soft spot for ugly, greasy diners circa 1950. "What else is open at midnight on Christmas Eve?"
"Aren't you the one always telling me money gets you everywhere?" Steve rolled his eyes. "I talked to the owner of the place we're heading, we worked something out. They're going to give us an hour—"
"Wait, you spent money?" Tony leaned on the car door, staring at Steve incredulously.
"You don't have to look quite so shocked." Steve's cheeks went a bit red again, though he tried to hide it as he exited and locked up the car. "It wasn't a bribe or anything. We just struck a deal."
"You never spend money," Tony insisted, "You wear the same three pairs of pants—"
"Who needs more than three pairs of pants?"
"And the same four polo shirts—"
"I don't even wear polo shirts, now you're just making things up."
"They might as well be polo shirts, they're just as ugly—"
"Do you have a point besides insulting me, Tony?"
"My point is that you won't even buy yourself a sorely needed new wardrobe because it involves spending money. What could possibly be worth buying us an hour after closing, and on Christmas? That had to have been expensive—"
"I don't mind spending money, if it's on other people," Steve admitted, leading Tony out of the parking structure, "This way."
"But you always complain when I spend money on you," Tony pointed out, "So if you can spend money on me, who canspend money on you?"
"Preferably no one."
"That's stupid." Tony snorted decisively. "You deserve good things. If you won't buy them for yourself then it's just up to me."
"You're being ridiculous again." Steve sighed, but there was a smile itching at his features.
"Possibly. Now will you tell me where we're going already? I hate surprises. Have I mentioned that I hate surprises?"
"A dozen times, yes. And you don't hate surprises, you hate not being in complete control all the time." Steve laughed. "Trust me a little here. Now close your eyes, it's around the corner."
"How am I supposed to close my eyes and walk at the same—oh, uh." One of Steve's hands closed over Tony's eyes, the other leading him along by the small of his back. Steve's hands were really warm. And soft. Did he moisturize, or something? That seemed weird, Steve didn't seem like the moisturizing type, it was probably just the serum—
"I don't moisturize my hands, Tony." Steve laughed again, and Tony realized he'd said all that out loud.
"Great. That'd be weird."
"Just a little." Steve chuckled. "Alright, open."
They were standing in front of a SkateTown.
Tony had never, in his entire life, stepped foot inside a SkateTown.
"I know it's not Rockefeller Center," Steve rushed to say, "I tried, but they were really stubborn about it. Plus, if we stayed after closing there, everyone would stare at us, and that'd be—well, you might like that, but I was thinking maybe a little more privacy might be, uh, you know, nice, so I—"
"Bribed the owner of a SkateTown."
"Came to an agreement with the owner of a SkateTown," Steve corrected, looking embarrassed now, "You just seemed so excited the other day, and when they said we couldn't skate until after Christmas you looked so put out…"
Tony could care less about ice skating. He'd only ever tried it maybe twice in his life, and he'd sucked both times. He'd been excited about making a grand romantic gesture, and disappointed about falling flat on his face; this was the kind of thing he should've done. It probably didn't count as a romantic gesture if Steve was the one who had arranged it, but Tony was adaptable. He could take this and run.
"I love it." Tony grinned, looping an arm around Steve's neck.
"Really?" Steve brightened.
"Really. So how do we get in, do I pick the lock and they turn a blind eye, or what?"
"Of course not, it's unlocked. A handful of employees are going to stay late for us." Steve shot him a suspiciously disapproving look. "Would you really have picked the lock?"
"Of course not," Tony lied, "Look, skating, let's go do that."
True to Steve's word, there was a gangly teenager ready and available to help them find skates. Once they'd laced up and wobbled their way onto the rink, it took Tony exactly nine point seven seconds to fall on his ass. Steve unhelpfully peered down at him, confused.
"I thought you were good at this."
"Not everyone has supersoldier reflexes, okay?" Tony snapped, grabbing for the wall to haul himself up. He managed to get on his feet long enough to slip and nearly crack his skull open all over again. Great, the bastard was laughing at him now. "Shut up!"
"No, I just—you were so excited to skate earlier, I thought maybe it was a tradition, or something." Steve took hold of his arm, helping him balance with an amused smile. "Have you even done this before?"
"Twice," Tony defended indignantly, "I thought it'd be like riding a bi—shit!"
Steve swooped forward to grab Tony before he faceplanted. "It is, but I think you have to learn to ride the bike before you can remember how. Did you ever actually learn to skate, take lessons or anything?"
"I'm Tony Stark," Tony sputtered, "I don't need lesso—oh, fuck—"
"You're gonna wanna ease up on those power strides there little buddy," the DJ announced over the intercom.
Some punkass headbanger teen with facial hair that could only be described as sporadic did not just call him little buddy.
"Did you just—" Tony sputtered at him, then to Steve, "Did he just—"
"Don't get overexcited, you'll—" Steve warned, right as Tony strode forward too far too fast and fell back on his ass. "—slip again."
"I'm going to sue you so hard your grandchildren will be homeless!" Tony shouted. Great, now his ass was soaked.
"He doesn't mean it, sorry!" Steve called to the DJ. He skated forward to Tony and helped him up again. "Tony, be nice, they're letting us stay past hours."
"Did you hear what he called me?" Tony replied indignantly, patting himself down. Fuck this. This had been a horrible idea. He was about to say so, when he remembered the look on Steve's face when Tony had said he liked it. Fuck. "Fine, no, it's fine, I can figure this out."
"Here." Steve, thankfully, didn't look disappointed but pleasantly amused. He skated in front of Tony before turning to face him and extending his hands. "Hold my hands."
"Have you been watching rom-coms again?" Tony raised an eyebrow at him.
"Fine." Steve shrugged and skated away backwards, the smug brat. "Have fun."
"Shit," Tony muttered. Why did he always have to open his fat mouth? He couldn't have just taken Steve's hands and had his rom-com moment, screw how cliché it was? He inched forward, more wiggling his way across the ice than making strides. Strides had proved a bad idea. "Fine, okay, get your perfectly balanced ass back over here."
"Well, when you ask so politely, how can I resist?" Steve grinned as he skated back over, taking Tony's hands and tugging him along.
"Okay, so this is, uh, fast, really fast—" Tony swallowed. He was Iron Man, he could handle this, he was fine, everything was totally—fuck Steve was going really fast. "What are you, some kind of secret speed junkie? Christ, if I fall at this speed I'm going to break something—"
"I won't let you fall, Tony."
Tony was about to continue to argue the point, but then Steve smiled, and it was far too bright for Tony to remember whatever it was he was worrying about.
"Yeah." Tony couldn't help a stupid-wide smile back. "Okay."
He should work on some kind of stun gun powered by Steve-smiles. He'd make a fortune. Well, more of a fortune. But then other people would get to see these particular Steve-smiles, and frankly, Tony wanted to hoard them all to himself. He kind of wanted to hoard everything about Steve to himself. The smiles, the blushes, the strangely expressive faces, the—why wasn't Steve smiling anymore? That was his thoughtful frown, the one that came out when he had something serious to say and was ruminating on how to say it.
"Tell me." Tony squeezed his hand. Steve flashed him the briefest of smiles.
"You know they're wrong, right?"
"They nearly always are. What about in particular?"
"When Clint slipped that comment to the press a little while ago, you told me they'd besmirch my name if I was linked to you romantically." Steve fixed him with his I-mean-serious-business look. "I know the things they say about you, Tony. I keep informed. I know the things they say now, and a fair amount of the things they used to say, but I also happen to know they're wrong."
"Sweet of you to protect my virtue." Tony chuckled.
"It's not about protecting your virtue." Steve had a strange sort of intensity to him, now. "It's about choices, about decisions, and how I don't make either based on how other people will interpret mine. I know they'd call it a fling, or you dragging me down, or whatever else, but I'm saying they'd be wrong."
"Well," Tony admitted, "Not entirely. You could do a hell of a lot better."
"What?" Steve made a face like Tony had just informed him his beloved America had gone communist. "Hardly."
"You're not exactly some ninety pound stick figure anymore, Steve." Tony just laughed. "And you're pretty much a good person for a living. You could score just about anyone."
"Maybe." Steve still seemed confused, but there was a sincerity to it that had Tony off guard. "But who could be better for me than you?"
Anyone else, Tony would assume they were joking. Steve radiated sincerity though, and Tony found himself at a loss for snappy comebacks. He resorted to the miserable truth. "Just about anyone, Steve."
Steve only shook his head softly, and was he getting closer or had Tony hit his head on the ice harder than he'd thought? "They're not you."
I don't want a lot for Christmas / there is just one thing I need…
Oh god, what the hell was that? Mariah Carey? No, no no no, Tony's dignity was wounded enough for the next century without ice skating to a Mariah Carey song on top of it all—
I don't care about the presents, underneath the Christmas tree / I just want you for my own, more than you could ever know…
Even a really, really relatable Mariah Carey song.
"No one asked for music, punk!" Tony shouted at the DJ.
"Your boyfriend did, grandpa!" the DJ hollered back.
"Up yours, you little twer—! Wait." Tony's homicidal urges dropped away momentarily, and he returned his gaze to Steve. "You requested music, or…this song?"
Steve held his head up with a smile one part hope, three parts fierce determination. "This song."
Make my wish come true / cause baby all I want for Christmas is…
Steve slowed to a stop on the rink. He was still holding Tony's hands, still watching him with hopeful eyes and that effortlessly bright smile, and god, Tony loved him so much it hurt.
"Merry Christmas, Steve," Tony murmured.
He leaned first, maybe, but Steve leaned more, eager in a way that made Tony's chest feel funny and his fingers go all tingly where they laced together with Steve's. Their lips brushed briefly, but before Tony could really savor it, his skates slipped out from under him and he was pitching backwards. Both of Steve's arms went immediately to his waist, but Tony had too much momentum and they both went tumbling. It wasn't cute, it wasn't romantic, and no one ended up getting accidentally straddled; they landed in a heap of painful limbs on ice that quickly soaked right through their clothes.
Then, because that was Tony's life, an enormous pile of snow dropped on top of them.
"F-f-fuck!" Tony yelped, scrambling to sit up. "Steve?"
"H-here," Steve chattered, grabbing Tony's arm. "Lord Almighty that's c-cold."
"Are you okay?" Tony helped yank him out of the snow pile, and they scooted away from it without actually standing up again. They were already soaked anyway, and Tony, at least, would just fall back down. "Where did that even come from? Do you feel alright, should we get off the ice? We can go sit in the lobby or something if you—"
"I'm f-f-fine, Tony," Steve insisted with a laugh.
I just want you here tonight, holding on to me so tight / what more can I do, baby all I want for Christmas is you…
"Then c'mere," Tony demanded, because fuck the falling on his ass, fuck the random as shit snow he was going to confront the DJ about later, fuck the god-awfully cheesy song, fuck everything that wasn't his lips on Steve's again right the hell now.
Steve complied easily, taking Tony's face in his hands and kissing back without a moment's hesitation. Tony held it as long as he could, though he had to remove Steve's hands from his face because the guy's fingers were icicles. He tugged Steve closer without actually releasing him, rubbing Steve's freezing cold hands between his own to warm him up.
"'m okay, Tony," Steve insisted.
"You're not okay, you're freezing," Tony disagreed, glaring up accusingly at the distinctly hole-less ceiling, "Where did snow come from, anyway?"
"That part didn't work out quite like I planned it." A blush rose under Steve's already cold-rosy cheeks.
"You planned that?"
"They said they could make it snow indoors, I thought it'd be cute if they did it when I kissed you. But then, I also thought there'd be more sprinkling and less…dumping."
"So this was all part of some master plan to seduce me, huh?" Tony grinned, rubbing his thumbs over Steve's chilly fingers. "I knew you wanted to make me your sex slave."
"'Slave' seems a little limited." Steve rolled his eyes. "I was thinking more along the lines of 'willing partner'."
"Willing sex partners?" Tony grinned and leaned in for another kiss, just because he could.
"Maybe just shorten it to partners," Steve suggested, and Tony could feel his teasing smile when he kissed him, "For convenience's sake, and all."
"For convenience, of course." Tony nodded sagely. "So how long have you been planning all this, hm?"
"Long enough to want to do this again." Steve kissed him. "And again." Another. "And again…"
"Okay, so, totally on board with this and everything it entails, but I'd also like to try it somewhere else, preferably with clothes that aren't soaking wet. Or on at all, really, that works too. However, I'm pretty sure if I try to stand up again I'm going to break my face on the next fall and I like to think you enjoy my face the way it is—"
"I'm rather fond of it, yes." Steve smiled, amused.
"So how badly would it ruin the mood if I ask you to carry me off this god-awful ice?"
"Wouldn't ruin anything at all." Steve maneuvered onto his knees, lifted Tony up easily, then gracefully stood on his skates; if Tony was developing a new kink, that was no one's business but his own. And Steve's. He'd tell Steve.
"Sir, you can't just—you can't carry people on the ice, that's like, super against the rules—" the DJ started in over the mike.
"He broke his hip," Steve joked. Tony smacked him hard. "Kidding. Don't worry, if I couldn't keep him safe I wouldn't have picked him up."
"Seriously dude, that's super dangerous and I could get fired—"
"Son, I use cars as projectiles as alien invaders, I think I can carry my boyfriend and skate at the same time." Steve dismissed the teenager in his Just Don't voice. Which was very impressive, up until he frowned and dropped his gaze to Tony in concern. "Boyfriend?"
Tony couldn't help a snort of laughter. "Was that an address or a question?"
"A question," Steve said, but he must've seen in Tony's expression what a ridiculous question it was, because he ducked his head enough to kiss Tony on the nose instead of waiting on an answer.
"I prefer partner, personally," Tony suggested, "Or significant other. Boyfriend sounds a touch juvenile, mostly because I can already hear Clint singing the 'is he yourboooyfrieeend' song in my head, but it's all very potayto potahto I suppose. Also, I'm liable to just start calling you 'mine' and hissing like a cat when people touch you, but that's completely unavoidable and something you should've known when you conspired to kiss me at a Skatetown to the cheesiest Christmas song I've ever heard."
"Mine," Steve mused, a pleased little smile ticking at his lips, "That could work."
I just want you for my own, more than you could ever know / make my wish come true, baby all I want for Christmas is you.